In 1999, the first official International Youth Day was marked and celebrated by the UN, serving as an annual reminder that young women and men are key drivers of change. The theme of International Youth Day 2019 is, “Transforming Education,” highlighting ways to create equal access to education and lifelong learning. Access to quality education is crucial for sustainable development. When youth are given the opportunity to learn, we accelerate progress towards climate action, and help reduce poverty and gender inequality.
Today, youth-led organizations and movements, such as the School Strikes 4 Climate, are transforming the conversation around environmental justice and addressing complicated problems. One of the most well-known voices, Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old from Sweden, first learned of climate change at age 8 and at age 15, started skipping school every Friday until the Swedish government aligned their policies with the Paris Agreement, agreeing to keep warming below 2C. Her determination began a global movement known as #FridaysForFuture, where young climate activists around the world join Greta in protesting for change by skipping school every Friday. For her commitment to climate action, Greta has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and invited to speak at several UN climate summits, including her now-viral speech from the COP24 conference.
Like Greta, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez is an important voice, speaking for the environment at UN summits, such as RIO+20. At age 6, he gave his first speech, stating, “When I was 5-years-old, I wanted to go to all the factories and shut them down with my little brother. But once I turned six, I realized that it was us that were buying from the factories.” In 2015, he was among 20 youth to take the US government to court for climate change and today, serves as the director of Earth Guardians, an organization that trains youth to be effective leaders in climate and social justice.
Within Canada, Stella Bowles has an impressive achievement of securing $15 million dollars from all three levels of Canadian government to clean-up the heavily contaminated LaHave River in Nova Scotia. After growing curiosity from being told by her mother she couldn’t swim in the nearby river due to sewage contamination, Stella decided to test water samples herself to determine the depth of the contamination. The results of her test revealed a level of contamination above Canadian standards for swimming or boating, and after posting her findings on social media, the response was strong enough for multiple governments to pledge to replace around 600 pipes discharging straight into the river. Today, Stella uses grant money she receives to inspire children in Nova Scotia to get involved and test their local waterways through workshops she leads.
As we can see from these young activists, youth have the potential to lead change within their communities when given the right tools and encouragement. When we support youth, we provide them with the understanding that they can positively impact the future.