“Inspired, excited, grateful, curious, thrilled, hopeful, and energized.”
These were the feelings described by me and other youth participants entering the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact’s Youth Climate Collaborative’s (YCC) first regional event earlier this month. It was phase three of our goal to engage in intentional conversations with young people between the ages of 15-24 and prominent organizations in the climate justice space.
The Institute partnered with NationSwell earlier this year to bring together youth advocates, government officials, and business leaders and to facilitate conversations focused on climate justice and community resilience. Over the past six months, we listened and learned from many conversations and had the findings inform the design of 3 regional events.
Our goal was to focus on 5 topic areas derived from our past conversations: civic engagement, creative firepower, founders and entrepreneurship, purposeful leadership, and trust-based philanthropy. We designed these events to give youth advocates, like myself as a GenZ business student at the University of Michigan, a platform to influence the Institute’s actionable climate and community resilience work going forward.
“Youth like me don’t just want a seat at the table, but rather, we want to be consistently looked to as a valued partner in the decision-making process. Personally, this has been one of the simplest yet most crucial asks I have had during my years of fighting for climate justice. Hearing it echoed by the many youths at our event provided me a sense of relief and community that was only possible due to our intentionality in creating it.”
–Isabel LoDuca, AmFam Institute Youth Climate Collaborative Intern
On June 16th, all the detailed and intentional planning came together in the form of a 3-hour interactive virtual event. This first event focused on the Great Lakes Region and consisted of youth participants ranging from high school to college students with knowledge and experience working with climate justice organizations, an indigenous leader from Michigan who started us off with a land acknowledgement, along with several Institute and NationSwell team members. The session consisted of guided meditation, thought-provoking icebreakers, brainstorming and design sprints guided by the 5 topic areas. Most importantly, the session provided the opportunity for listening and learning from the participants.
One participant and member of Our Climate, a Washington, DC based organization that empowers young people to advocate for equitable and science-based climate policy shared her experience. Rae Blackbird, a high school senior who joined us from Portland, Oregon, expressed through a post-event survey, “The visionary and future projection in our group was a great kicking off point of connection, following up with the guided meditation- I left the workshop wishing it could have gone longer and feeling inspired.”
Words cannot convey the true power and purpose that was felt when participating in the event. I entered the event unsure of what to expect – what type of energy that would be present and what knowledge that would be shared – but I left the event with new connections, ideas, and hope for the future. Youth of all ages and backgrounds coming together for a common goal inspired deep conversations on topics ranging from decentralizing wealth and the current movement to shift power through new ways of allocating capital and philanthropic giving, to the value of art and creativity in engaging around complex issues in modern society.
During one of the break-out sessions, the conversation went in the direction of storytelling through art. One YCC core team member and AmFam sustainability expert Halie Tenor, spoke about her appreciation for her group’s conversation surrounding storytelling through art. She expressed her personal passion about the topic, so was energized to hear how strongly storytelling through art resonated with participants through the conversation and experiences shared.
Regardless of specific topic, the underlying importance of valuing lived experiences, intergenerational conversations, and long-term relationships between community stakeholders and companies was strongly emphasized throughout the event.
As participant Sierra Taliaferro, a park naturalist and recipient of the Wisconsin Sierra Club 2021 Rising Star Environmental Pioneer award, summarized it, “Representation and community is important in order to construct a just and sustainable future.”
For myself, this rings true in my everyday work. Youth like me don’t just want a seat at the table, but rather, we want to be consistently looked to as a valued partner in the decision-making process. Personally, this has been one of the simplest yet most crucial asks I have had during my years of fighting for climate justice. Hearing it echoed by the many youths at our event provided me a sense of relief and community that was only possible due to our intentionality in creating it.
However, in addition to sharing these all-encompassing ideas and values, youth also spoke about some of the many challenges faced due to societal norms. Lacking both the credibility in the eyes of adults and the various resources to pursue interests, youth like myself are often struggling to fulfill our fullest potential. Barriers to equitable access to educational materials also continues to create deep disparities in communities across the region. Growing up in Indiana, I can attest to the impact of such disparities in educational curriculum. For example, in high school, to learn more about pressing issues like climate change, I had to overcome resistance from climate deniers and take the initiative to find resources to educate myself.
I know that we as youth leaders cannot overcome these challenges alone, but by engaging in purposeful and in-depth conversations, like these, the collaborative path to a more equitable future can be revealed. Taking such conversations to heart, the NationSwell and American Family YCC core team are taking direct feedback from the first event’s participants to make improvements for the next regional events.
As a youth working in the climate justice and advocacy space for over six years, events like these continually remind me why I can be inspired, excited, grateful, curious, thrilled, hopeful, and energized for the future. As the next event features young people who live in the Pacific Northwest area of the country, I’m sure we’ll learn about new regional challenges and different ways for corporate advocacy and engagement. With each new challenge and idea, the Institute remains committed to bringing younger people together to learn from and to explore and build potential synergies that we can act upon. I cannot wait to experience the remaining events and to continue to be a part of this journey.