Saving the planet: Young leaders in Northeast Ohio’s climate movement

The climate movement is gaining strength, largely due to the efforts of youth activists. Colleges and universities are adding sustainability courses to the curriculum. Elementary, middle, and high schools are following suit.

“Young adults are our future leaders,” says Philena Seldon, lead for the Youth Sustainability Leadership Program in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Cleveland. “It’s important for people to understand the role they play [in sustainability], and the earlier you get people involved, the better.”

At the annual Sustainable Cleveland Summit, sixth through 12th graders offer recommendations for future events and initiatives. This is youth environmental stewardship in action, and a Teen Sustainability Summit may be next.

Students have developed projects, too: Chagrin Falls never had a community clean-up before one was organized as a result of students participating in Cleveland's 2019-2020 Youth Sustainability Leadership Program; and St. Ignatius students have found a way to save their school $7,000 by using electronic boards and projectors instead of paper.

In addition to the Youth Sustainability Leadership Program, the city of Cleveland has an internship program for college students, and the Department of Public Utilities has a Summer Youth Employment Program for youth ages 14 to 22. Students in the 2018 program also created this song, "Keeping It Green," to inspire people to be more sustainable.

The city is always looking for volunteers who “want to get involved and do more to help other people and themselves be better stewards of the environment,” says Seldon, the outreach and education liaison.

Conscious campuses

Local colleges are taking notice and enacting programs of their own, not only at the administrative level but at the student level as well. Alethea Watson, president of the Student Environmental Movement at Cleveland State University, has big plans for the organization.

Watson knew she wanted to be involved in CSU’s efforts to create a more environmentally conscious campus: “I came in straight as a freshman going, ‘Where’s the environmental group on campus? How can I be a part of this important movement happening all across the world?’”

CSU’s Student Environmental Movement pushes for green initiatives on campus, hosts discussions, goes on hikes, and cleans up beaches. But behind the scenes, they do advocacy work as well, contributing student perspectives to climate change conversations such as the plastic ban or the West Side’s EPA fines. “We definitely join the conversation that’s happening, both on our campus and in the Greater Cleveland area,” she says.

CSU’s Sustainability Office, led by Jenn McMillin since 2016, supports the students’ efforts. The environmental activists make themselves visible on campus through campaigns like “Take the Stairs,” which urges students to walk instead of using elevators. They educate the campus body about CSU’s robust recycling program, which includes composting.

The office’s website has links to helpful suggestions, including "Ten Ways to Reduce Waste On Campus." They include: Refill your water bottle at 45 stations across campus; bring your own coffee mug for a discount at all campus cafes; and print double sided.

<span class="content-image-text">Emily Brown volunteers around the community, here seen planting a tree.</span>Emily Brown volunteers around the community, here seen planting a tree.They even have a green event planning guide, which offers advice to event planners on how to reduce waste. Emily Brown, a graduate student in the Urban Studies program, was an intern in the Sustainability Office as an undergrad and was a major force behind the planning guide.

For her graduate program, Brown developed a project about transportation, working to measure—and eventually reduce—greenhouse gas emissions on and off campus. “Class projects are helpful because they can get more data to understand next steps,” she says. Creating a clear picture on emissions, especially for a commuter campus like CSU, will help them reduce their carbon footprint.

Time for a change

What can students do to live a more sustainable life? Brown encourages people to educate themselves first. “For some people, it’s a diet change. For some people, it’s walking across campus,” says Brown.

Brown’s work doesn’t end when she steps off campus; she volunteers with local environmental organizations in addition to her coursework. She recently completed an independent project with the Cleveland Metroparks. Working with the Soil and Water Conservation District, she gathered data on the Euclid Creek Reservation and Euclid Creek Watershed. “A lot of the stuff we picked up were microplastics, micro-styrofoam, and packaging—one of the biggest pollutants out there,” she says.

While Watson and Brown work toward a more sustainable campus at CSU, Elena Stachew, a doctoral candidate in integrated biosciences at the University of Akron, is planning for a 2020 Northeast Ohio Youth Climate Action Summit late next year, hosted by Global Shapers Cleveland, a network of young leaders.

After representing Northeast Ohio at the first-ever United Nations Youth Climate Summit in September, Stachew saw an opportunity for reaching more young students who have an interest in climate change and sustainability. “When I got back from the UN summit, I was inspired to start forming a regional community of youth activated around climate change,” Stachew says. The summit will focus primarily on high school students but is open to anyone under 30, with young professionals who are not in college serving as mentors and panel facilitators.

“We’re trying to target two groups: people who are already engaged and those that want to be engaged but don’t have the resources,” Stachew says. Her strategy is to get students involved from the get-go so they can have a part in planning the summit, rather than organizers guessing which panels students want or topics they would like to be covered.

<span class="content-image-text">Elena Stachew was one of 500 youth leaders chosen to attend the UN Youth Climate Summit.</span>Elena Stachew was one of 500 youth leaders chosen to attend the UN Youth Climate Summit.Everything’s connected

Stachew, a Case Western Reserve University graduate, wants to focus on identifying the strengths of local environmental efforts and building off that momentum to create a greener region. Many of the problems she has encountered in the city are interconnected, so while Global Shapers works on the summit, they also have other projects that are inextricably connected to the environment.

The group is working on initiatives such as fair housing, which will identify an “alternative tenant screening model that landlords can opt into to work with different ways to screen tenants that are nondiscriminatory,” Stachew says. When people only have access to subpar housing, it limits their ability to reduce their carbon footprint, among other issues. So Global Shapers is advocating for alternative criteria for building owners to evaluate potential tenants.

Ultimately, Stachew and Global Shapers want to work on local social impact projects with a global lens. “I don’t want to make a separate platform. I’m just trying to connect everybody together,” Stachew says.

Part of that is voting and signing petitions, including for a plastic bag ban, something that CSU students were vocal about. “It’s as simple as signing a petition or going to a public meeting or just voting,” Stachew says. “All of that is important.”

From young students to young professionals, the passion to build a better future is evident. “The time that we’re living in is the time to act,” Watson says.

This story is part of our dedicated series titled "People, Planet, Progress: A Decade of Sustainable Cleveland" in partnership with Sustainable Cleveland. See the other stories in our series here.

Rebecca Ferlotti
Rebecca Ferlotti

About the Author: Rebecca Ferlotti

Rebecca Ferlotti is a freelance writer and was the project editor for FreshWater's On the Ground - Fairfax series.