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Leadership Lessons from Youth Climate Activists

Want to make BIG change? Take a page from the youth leadership playbook.

“A couple of years ago, I was walking with my baby cousin and saw a bunch of smoke and clouds coming out of a building…then I noticed all this trash, then cars spewing stuff. I thought about my little cousin and how the world should be better for her. I started picking up trash, then started talking to neighbors about cleaning up and advocating against the pollution we live in. It’s not OK that life expectancy varies by where you live!”

This story comes from Ra’Mauri, 12 years old and a leader at Youth vs Apocalypse. His insight to start local and make change personal, is echoed by youth climate leaders around the world. Any leader who is driven by the vision of a better world, whether inside an organization or in communities, has much to learn from the playbook these young leaders are creating.  In interviews with several leaders ranging from 12 to 16, these key lessons emerged.

Get fueled by the future: As Hannah, age 15 put it, “It feels like no one is fighting for our future, so we have to fight for it ourselves. We need to wake people up from denial.” As the old adage has it, nothing motivates like a deadline, and the pivotal “deadline” of 11 years to decisively cut emissions, is motivating huge numbers of youth to get involved across the globe. By vividly painting the picture of both the possibilities and dangers of the future, these young leaders are connecting emotionally and motivating commitment. Their clarity about how high the stakes are if nothing changes is seeing them through a lot of challenge and adversity.

Tap into your own superpower: Samara, age 12, is a self-described introvert. Rather than treating that as a barrier to being on the front lines of this movement, she says: “I tapped into the power of the community and its unity to feel comfortable putting my voice out there.” And she uses her strength of building deep, personal relationships to get more people involved.

Youth leaders described  a whole host of partnerships and alliances across like-minded individuals and organizations. Samara and Ra’Mauri talked about being “co-Presidentes” for the climate strike food detail and leaning on each other’s complementary skills. The result? Being able to navigate group conflict on BBQ vs. sandwiches and serving BBQ sandwiches for the win!

The lesson? Assess your own assets and match them up to the challenges at hand. Then honestly catalog and communicate your weaker areas as a change leader…but don’t spend a ton of time trying to improve those. Be humble enough to accept help and support.

Apply systems-thinking. Ariella (16) described actions during the climate strike. “We stopped at ICE and some of my friends didn’t get why. But the immigrant crisis around the world is only going to get worse through climate change.” Understanding interconnections, especially subtle ones, is an advanced leadership skill and means you can create holistic, sophisticated plans and solutions that will work in the real world.  Another powerful practice is mapping your own ecosystem for like-minded teams, organizations and/or individuals. Who is out there and how can you leverage the system, not just the parts?

It may have to be you. Youth leaders expressed sadness and anger at having their childhoods “taken from us.” As one leader put it, “Honestly, making this important and sometimes skipping school is hard. I want to do well at school, and I want to have fun with friends, really I just want to be a kid. But this issue is too important and too many people are in denial. I can’t just pretend things are OK.” Look around you. Are you waiting for someone else to step in and make positive change towards something you care about? Maybe who you are waiting for is actually…you.

Keep hope alive. Young people are supposed to be hopeful and future-oriented. After all, they have their whole lives in front of them, right? But many Gen Z’ers find themselves leaning on each other to generate the hope they need to keep going in the face of our climate crisis. Sharing personal stories of struggle and success, playing music together, potlucks, costume/art parties, and bringing different organizations together to feel camaraderie and shared purpose are all ways youth are staying inspired and energized for the long fight.

Let’s give Ra’Mauri the last word: “Work with other organizations and make common cause. Share information and wisdom to learn from each other. Make friends because that’s what will keep you going.”