Training the Next Generation of Climate Activists

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The Green Schools Campaign teaches middle school and high school students to organize and convince their school boards to transition to renewable energy, one school district at a time.

It took an arduous 24 months for Long Beach Unified School District students to convince their school board to begin the transition to 100 percent renewable energy. During that time, each new idea they would bring to the table was shot down. 

Still, they persisted – attending school board meetings every other week – and they were eventually successful in championing the Green School Operations – Energy and Sustainability Policy, which will see LBUSD slowly transition to clean energy by 2040. The policy also includes reducing water consumption and vehicle emissions and making sure new and soon-to-be renovated facilities take sustainability and student health into account. 

“We struggled to work with the district to find a solution,” says Long Beach Polytechnic High School junior Ruthie Heis. “Honestly, I was very surprised by how radical and how urgent some of our guidelines [and] some of our programs that we're planning to roll out are.”

Long Beach students wrote the policy, with guidance from their advisor, Long Beach Polytechnic High School history teacher Patrick Gillogly, and climate leader Sybil Azur. They also leaned on their supporters from the Green Schools Campaign, a young non-profit that turns middle and high schoolers into community leaders and environmental activists by helping students form clubs that advocate for change in their schools and school districts, while also organizing events like community composting and tree planting.

The Green Schools Campaign was founded by the Youth Action Committee within the Los Angeles chapter of the Al Gore-founded Climate Reality Project. Their mission is to empower a diverse group of budding young activists across the country and teach them how to organize in their own communities.

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 “There [aren’t] a ton of spaces for people under 20 to get involved at a national level, and so we wanted to create that space.”

-Lily Morse, Green Schools Campaign

The non-profit was born after the Climate Reality Project convinced the Los Angeles Unified School District to transition to completely renewable energy by 2035 in December 2019. LAUSD school board members unanimously supported the policy change. If they could persuade the second-largest school district in the country to commit to the transition, the non-profit leaders thought, imagine who else they could convince – and how the world would look if more districts followed their lead.

Green Schools Campaign’s executive director Lily Morse, a first-year student at USC, has been with the organization since the summer of 2020. Morse works with Heis on the executive team, as well as other young people who organize the national team and run the program. 

“There [aren’t] a ton of spaces for people under 20 to get involved at a national level, and so we wanted to create that space,” Morse says.

Currently, Green Schools is revamping its strategy and strengthening its executive team. The organization’s sights are set on working with more schools in the very near future.

“We’re taking all that we learned from Long Beach, and from our past victories with the Los Angeles Unified School District and a few others, and channeling that to our future,” Morse says.

Focusing on schools allows passionate young people to make an impact on a place where they spend a lot of time, and the effort allows them to develop skills they might not learn in a classroom, like leadership, communication, and community organization. The experience can inspire confidence and self-discovery. Heis, for instance, now hopes to become a population ecologist and plans to pursue environmental policy in college. 

The educational sector also offers a chance to make a noticeable impact in energy emissions. According to Energy Star, K-12 school districts across the country spend over $6 billion per year on energy, and nearly a third of it is used inefficiently or needlessly. Since the Long Beach policy was approved a little over a year ago, Heis has noticed solar panels being installed on different campuses. 

Both Morse and Heis would like to continue viewing their work with the Green Schools Campaign from an intersectional perspective, taking into account how the climate crisis affects BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. In fact, Heis’ mother hails from a town near Flint, Michigan, where clean water still isn’t available, symbolizing the larger issue of environmental racism. Coastal and port cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach are also likely to have oil refineries, which increase the risk that those who live nearby will develop asthma, cancers, and other health problems.

“I just want to ensure an equitable transition off fossil fuels where no one’s going to be left behind,” says Morse, who envisions a much greener future, complete with open access spaces to nature. “We’re making sure we help everyone in [an] equitable way.”

Green Schools Campaign students emphasize one more, unexpected, benefit of the program: the friendships made with like-minded young people in their cities and across the country. The executive team has been able to attend events and conferences, like this year’s Power Shift convergence in New Orleans, where they met fellow students with similar goals. Their drive bonds them, they say, and they continuously inspire each other. 

“It was a space where I found a lot of people who are exactly like me, and doing new things exactly like I am,” Heis says. “So the community I’ve gotten from this, the friends I’ve gotten from this, will last a lifetime.”

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Chelsea Quezada
Chelsea Quezada
Chelsea Quezada is a Mexican-American freelance journalist from Long Beach. She writes about Latinx culture and music for mitú and Remezcla. In her free time, she enjoys embroidery, reality competition TV, and tweeting about her favorite pop stars.
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