Youths Work to Ensure Their Future
2008 Environmental Award Winners
On October 21, six of the nation’s most far-seeing environmental and social justice activists will gather in San Francisco to accept an award, and our country’s gratitude, for their leadership roles and community projects. Yet, none of them are over 22.
Nothing would have pleased David Brower—firebrand environmentalist, community activist, and the inspiration behind the Brower Youth Awards—more. Brower [1912-2000], a pioneer in the U.S. environmental movement, founded the Sierra Club Foundation, Friends of the Earth and, in 1982, Earth Island Institute, a hub for grassroots campaigns dedicated to conserving, preserving and restoring shared ecosystems.
Key to Brower’s vision of action on behalf of the future was his mentorship of young emerging leaders; the awards program, created in 2000, honors his legacy. The awards not only promote the winners’ accomplishments, they invest in their continued leadership success by providing access to resources, mentors and opportunities to further develop their skills through Earth Island’s New Leaders Initiative program.
This year’s recipients of the Brower Youth Awards are:
Marisol Becerra, 18
Environmental Justice Mapzine
In 2003, Becerra volunteered with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) to inventory toxins in her predominantly Mexican-American community in Chicago. She learned that the Harvard School of Public Health had directly linked health problems affecting area residents to two coal-burning power plants within blocks of her home.
Becerra launched a youth branch of LVEJO and devised an interactive online map (ElCilantro.org/?page_id=6) that uses facts and videos to educate residents about the pollutants in Little Village that were linked to both premature deaths and hundreds of emergency room visits. “In 2006,” she advises, “we got Governor Rob Blagojevich to introduce the nation’s strictest mercury rule: a 90 percent reduction at every power plant by 2012.”
Jessie-Ruth Corkins, 17
The Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI)
Corkins serves as the core leader of VSHI, a group of students from 26 high schools. She first rose to a teacher’s challenge to create an energy conservation plan for her school, later working to convince the school board to convert the school’s gas heater to a woodchip boiler, fueled by local products. Corkins and VSHI went on to devise a persuasive statewide plan to develop Vermont’s 100,000 acres of underutilized land to grow prairie grass for a revolutionary grass pelletization fuel system (see SustainableHeatingVT.org).
Kari Fulton, 22
Loving Our City, Loving Ourselves (LOCLOS)
Fulton serves as a pivotal player in two environmental justice projects. Locally, she co-founded LOCLOS, which works to build stronger campus and community solidarity on issues of concern in Washington, D.C. Nationally, Fulton works as the Energy Action Coalition Coordinator for the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative (EJCC.org), where she has become a pioneer organizer, building the youth climate movement among people of color.
Timothy Den Herder-Thomas, 21
Social Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Community Development
Herder-Thomas is the leader behind creation of Macalester College’s Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF), a student-designed financial pool that funds energy-efficiency projects on campus. Beyond campus, through his Cooperative Energy Futures program, he has convened a collaborative of labor groups, nonprofits, local businesses and students to engage with the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, in designing sustainable, mixed-use development on the site of a closed Ford plant.
Phebe Meyers, 18
Change the World Kids - Bosque Para Siempre
Through her growing-up years, Meyers noticed fewer and fewer songbirds arriving at her Vermont feeders and was inspired to find the reason for their absence. She found that a core problem lay in the deforested pastures that were once Costa Rican rainforest. She shared her concern about the migratory bird crisis with Change the World Kids (ChangeTheWorldKids.org/index.html), a teen-run nonprofit organization she founded in 1998. The group has since raised $165,000 to purchase, conserve and reforest areas critical to birds.
Ivan Stiefel, 22
Mountain Justice Spring Break (MJSB)
Stiefel spearheaded the creation of MJSB as an alternative spring break option for university students willing to work as social activists in communities adversely affected by the Appalachian coal industry. In 2007, West Virginia MJSB’s big project was securing a safe school for the children attending Marshfork Elementary, which lies next to a coal-processing plant, leaking coal slurry into an impoundment. The initiative culminated in university students occupying the governor’s office until he agreed to build a safe, new school for the Marshfork children.
In his own 60-plus years of activism, nothing gave pioneer David Brower greater joy than to see the success of the many young leaders he mentored. “My secret,” he said, “is to surround myself with bright young people, stand back, then wallow in their accomplishments.”