Alaska Youth Engagement

Happy Earth Day 2015!

Last month, a group of about 15 high school students from all over Alaska traveled to Juneau for a week of meetings with the Governor and state legislators about a range of environmental issues.  This Civics and Community Summit has become an annual spring rite of passage for student delegates engaged with Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA)

AYEA is sponsored by its parent organization, the Alaska Center for the Environment (ACE).  Together, they provide training and support to a diverse group of Alaskan youth so they can take a leadership role in environmental projects and campaigns in their rural and urban communities throughout the state.

A week before the AYEA delegates converged on the capital, I sat down in Anchorage with Megan McBride, an adult leader who is ACE’s Director of Youth Engagement.  She was a tad harried, but mainly filled with energy and excitement, as she prepared to accompany the AYEA delegates to Juneau.

Megan’s personal story reflects that of many AYEA participants.   She started volunteering with AYEA when she was in high school in Anchorage, and joined ACE full time after graduating from college with a degree in Environmental Studies and Economics.   

Megan wears her passion on her sleeve, right next to her enthusiasm.  She describes her early experiences with AYEA as “life-changing.”  When pressed for detail, she emphasizes the breadth of worldview that she gained from working with youth representatives from all over Alaska, many of whom lived in dramatically different circumstances than her life in Anchorage. 

It was eye-opening, she says, to realize that issues of solid waste management might deal with toxins from a dumpsite leaching into drinking water sources, and not just picking up soda bottles for recycling.

Today, Megan is responsible for building a “kid to career” leadership ladder, working directly with AYEA’s diverse teen demographic across the state.  She stays in the background, letting the student activists do the leading. 

For example, the students select the topics on which they will focus each year.  This time around, their emphasis was on climate change, arctic policy and energy efficiency.  See, for example, this excellent letter from a high school Junior, published in the Alaska Dispatch News, urging the creation of citizens' councils to focus on climate change impacts in Alaskan communities.

Megan told me several AYEA success stories, such as one about an Alaska Native from a rural community who went on to work with the World Wildlife Fund, had an environmental internship in the White House and is now in graduate school.  Obviously, there was likely more at work in that young man’s story than his AYEA experience alone, but I have no doubt that it played an important role.

While AYEA engages with youth leaders at the high school level, ACE also runs a program for younger students.  Its Trailside Discovery Camp reaches children as young as preschool, providing opportunities for experience-based outdoor education through after-school projects, summer day camps, and occasional overnight trips.  The goal is to develop an early affinity for the outdoors by having fun, no public advocacy included.    

Programs like AYEA and Trailside Discovery, as well as the Student Conservation Association, Outdoor Afro, City Kids DC, Muddy Sneakers, Summer Search and a host of others around the country, are essential to building awareness of environmental issues and challenges across a broad spectrum of American society, which is increasingly urban in nature.  These programs are critical not just to the future of conservation but also to our society’s challenges with generational, racial and environmental justice issues.

Congratulations to this year’s Civics and Community Summit participants and to the roughly 5,000 other students who have previously participated in AYEA programs.

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ACE will hold its annual Spring Auction at the Anchorage Downtown Marriott on Friday, May 8, 2015.  All proceeds from the auction support ACE's efforts to build future leaders, protect salmon and promote clean energy.  Click here for tickets and more information.  

See you there!