Photo: Environmental Service Learning Institute
The Brower Youth Awards (BYAs) are one of my favorite environmental events that I attend every fall. This past Tuesday was no exception, when six inspiring young activists were recognized for their environmental activism and environmental justice advocacy. From the moment the lights were dimmed in the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, the crowd went wild cheering for the young awardees. These young people definitely give older environmentalists something to be hopeful about. While the six awardees were all from varied backgrounds and regions, they had a common theme of not accepting no for an answer. The awardees were also all self aware, yet humble, a sign of true leaders. Before each of the awardees was announced, a film introduced them to the crowd in their own words with images of their hometowns in the backdropEach of the awardees was deserving of recognition but three stood out to me, because they came from places where I had spent a good deal of time. Freya Chay, from Alaska, was one of the youngest awardees. Freya barely looked her fifteen years of age with her big eyes and braces but this disarming look betrayed a persistent and mature personality underneath. Freya loved her hometown of Kenai, Alaska and grew up salmon fishing with her family. In recent years, she had noticed a decline in the salmon numbers. This gave her an appreciation for the link between global warming and fewer salmon. The icebergs created sediment that was brought down to Alaska by currents and provided the salmon with habitat. With global warming increasing, the salmon are missing an important aspect of their habitat. This motivated Freya to become more involved in preventing climate change.
In September 2009, Freya learned that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly had passed a resolution supporting an exemption for renewable energy systems from property taxes. But in order for homeowners to take advantage of the exemption a change to the Alaska state tax code was needed. Freya noticed the problem, and found a solution. She created and helped to pass legislation, an amendment to Senate Bill 220 which reformed Alaska's energy policy. The amendment to SB 220 helped create new incentives for homeowners to install clean energy systems. Freya again showed the BYA common traits, by remarking that what she accomplished was a modest step, yet she was aware that her youth gave her power, as she acknowledged that "it is hard (for adults) to say no to a young person".
Misra Walker, born and raised in the South Bronx, could initially seem worlds apart from Freya. The South Bronx is notorious for its heavy truck traffic and resulting asthma in children in the neighborhood. What many don't know is that the South Bronx hugs the East River and as a result the waterfront along the southern edge has some of the best views of the New York skyline. I was fortunate enough to spend time along this waterfront after Barretto Point Park opened in 2006. The park is a gem, a green emerald, but it is separated from the public by a moat of highways and cars. In recent years, park planners added the floating lady pool to the park, but still many South Bronx residents did not know the park existed or had no way of getting there.
Misra noted that there was no transportation to and from the park, and that pedestrians had the smoggy moat was preventing her community from accessing this lovely feature. So she with local environmental action group she started, ACTION, lobbied the New York transit authority (MTA) for a bus route to be extended to include stops at the park. Misra's campaign was successful, and a seasonal city shuttle bus served the park this past summer, taking 4,000 Bronx residents to the great outdoors that was right outside of their homes. One the things that struck me when Misra accepted her award was that she had she had always thought of environmentalists as people with tie-dye wearing, white people who didn't care about urban problems like hers. Through her efforts lobbying the MTA, Misra realized that she too was an environmentalist.
Finally, De'Anthony Jones the last awardee bounded up on the stage with seemingly limitless energy. Through his experience with Coro leaders and the Environmental Service Learning Initiative (ESLI), an organization that works in seven public high schools in San Francisco, De'Anthony Jones worked to connect social justice and global climate change. De'Anthony engaged his local Mission high school to become environmentalists to recycle in their lunchroom, power their prom with bike pedals and so much more.
Each of these Brower Youth Awardees stuck out to me, not for their young age, but for how much they have accomplished in a short time, without being boastful and with energy to keep on going.