What if every young person in America believed that they were capable of changing the course of history? What if every high school student arrived at graduation day with an awareness of their own passion and a keen sense of their own potential to make the world a healthier and more just place? What if an entire generation of young adults reaching voting age, entering the work force, and starting families said ‘Enough!’ and, refusing to contribute to the demise of environmental and public health, invested in viable climate change solutions?
Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota (YEA! MN) is a joint program of the Will Steger Foundation and Alliance for Sustainability. Every year we engage a new group of bright young leaders from high schools across the Twin Cities Metro area in our growing network of youth champions on the issue of climate change and sustainability. YEA! MN supports student leadership on climate change solutions at home, at school, and in the wider community through mentorship, leadership training, action resources, and access.
Every year YEA! MN focuses on climate policy and youth impact, as one of four themes framing student-facilitated meetings open to Twin Cities’ youth and the general public. This year we were pleased to feature keynote speaker MN State Representative Kate Knuth and a fantastic presentation by Patience Caso, Campaign Director for Minnesota Environmental Partnership, for our Winter Gathering held at Avalon High School in St Paul. The meeting was followed by a lobby day several days later at the MN State Capitol (another YEA! MN annual tradition), hosted by the Bike Alliance of Minnesota.
Representative Knuth (DFL, District 50B) is a particularly inspiring state legislator for our youth leaders. Her leadership on Minnesota climate legislation over the past several years is commendable, especially as she continues her commitment in the face of a changing political landscape with considerably less-to-no support from the Republican majority. Rep. Knuth sits on the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committee, and has led on major environmental initiatives to protect the health of Minnesota’s environment and spur innovation in Minnesota’s economy. She has authored legislation to address climate change in MN and authored the “Toxic Free Kids Act” in 2009, which was an important step to protecting Minnesotans, especially children, from chemicals in common consumer products. She is an ardent defender of the Next Generation Energy Act passed in 2007 that limited new electricity from coal until the state adopts a comprehensive plan to offset emissions that contribute to climate change.
But beyond this impressive commitment to climate leadership is Rep. Knuth’s commitment to youth. A graduate of Irondale High School (a YEA! MN member school), and elected to office at age 25, Rep. Knuth is a vibrant example of a person who believed she could affect the course of history, has stayed true to her passion and ideals, and at a young age was aware of her own potential. Watching her present to a room full of teenagers, I could see this reflected in their eyes and on their faces. ‘Legislators are regular people’, she told the crowd, ‘Any of you can do this work if you really want to.’
It is this kind of access and exposure, opening doors for young people onto new horizons of possibility, that we strive to provide for our youth through YEA! MN and the Will Steger Foundation’s Emerging Leaders Program. Talking with young leaders who are clearly and effectively changing the course of history as we know it, right under our feet, is engaging and inspiring to any person of any age.
Of course action is the real proof in the pudding! The following Monday, eight students attended the lobby day at the MN State Capitol with the Bike Alliance of Minnesota and, after a surprise recognition from Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, went to lobby their legislators. Asking for support for bike-safe routes to school, the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) State Bikeway, and reauthorization of Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program which includes funding for community biking and walking audits and promotion, YEA! MN youth were standing up for their values and realizing their potential as agents of change for a clean and just future for all.