By Ellie Cowan, Summer Intern, Global Co Lab Network

At a time when our country is facing multiple crises, the youngest generation of activists, called “Gen Z”, have a lot of reasons to be frustrated. Whether it be from climate change, racial injustice, or the healthcare system, our generation is fed up with inaction and ignorance.

Kayla Peale (a Plastics Hub Ambassador) and I (a member of the Plastics Hub) decided it was time to translate our frustration into action. With help from our mentor Miriam Gennari, we organized an event that would unite youth from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia to discuss the pressing issues of plastic pollution, climate change, and hunger. Not only did we want to have conversations about these problems, but we also wanted to give participants the resources and opportunities to take action.

With tremendous support from EcoAction Arlington, the SustainableScoop, and the Eco Teen Action Network, Kayla and I were able to turn our vision of engaging youth through a virtual event into reality. After weeks of planning, we were ready for June 22nd.  Here is our presentation.

The ninety-minute digital event included three recorded interviews featuring the following speakers: Lara Ilao of Plastic Tree, Karen Campblin & Jonathan Sokolow of Green New Deal Virginia, and Brenda Platt of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. These presentations set the stage for the three breakout rooms (plastic pollution, climate change, and hunger) that followed. Each room was led by Eco Teen Action Network teen ambassadors, who facilitated the conversations and presented areas of opportunity for action. The conversations were structured so that participants brainstormed action items at the personal/local, regional, and national levels.

At the conclusion of the event, all participants regrouped and shared the action items they discussed. Finally, Alistair Watson of the SustainableScoop talked about the importance of youth interviewing leaders and announced its new initiative – a website where you can access interviews, learn, and be connected to others interested in sustainability.  See the Hunger Hub’s Sustainable Scoop they just published here!  

In addition to the recorded interviews and breakout rooms, Kayla and I had the unique opportunity to share our story – how we transitioned from being concerned citizens to activists. As concerned citizens, we realized how large of a problem plastic pollution was from just simple observations in our daily lives. It only took those small observations to fuel our fire. We started small by creating a club fighting plastics at our school. As it grew in size, we expanded our initiatives outside of our school and county, and are now working to make the change at the regional and national levels. Now, we are activists. Why? We had not only identified a concerning problem, but we were actively finding ways to solve it.

One thing I learned (and hopefully others learned too!) through the conversations during the breakout rooms is that activism must be intersectional. For instance, zero hunger cannot be achieved without addressing issues like homelessness and income inequality. Zero waste cannot be accomplished without recognizing how underprivileged groups are financially limited in their ability to afford sustainable alternatives. These problems are multi-faceted and will never be solved without looking at the big picture. In the current national climate, we cannot ignore the issues that are staring right at our faces.

It is my hope that the passionate teens who attended this special event now feel empowered to take action in their own communities. For me, issues like plastic pollution and climate change always seemed super daunting, and they can be. But you will soon realize that many other young people are just as passionate and willing to get involved as you are. The Eco Teen Action Network is a perfect example of a network of teens and mentors I was connected with who are fighting for the same issues I care about.  You can get engaged in these three hubs on climate, hunger and plastics and 5 other hubs here with the Global Co Lab Network.

I always tell other teen activists that all you need are the two “P’s”, persistence and passion, to find success. Do not get me wrong, success is never easy when you are talking about these issues. Kayla and I have received many “no’s” from businesses along the way. However, this does not mean the fight is over. It is inevitable that you will face denial and other obstacles along the way, but that is all part of the process in making change.