It’s an alarming time for people invested in environmental justice. Our new president has called climate change a hoax and has appointed a head of the EPA who is historically a climate change denier. What can we do as social workers? Other than staying hopeful and carrying out our own commitments to environmental justice, I argue that getting young people invested in environmental justice is one of the smartest ways to make the biggest impact. Here’s why:
Formation of the Activist Identity. Let’s take advantage of that identity formation stage of development! Empower teens to believe in themselves as activists, environmentalists, and local experts from their communities with valuable experiences and voices. Youth are shaping their understanding of who they are, where they’re from, and what that means in the larger social context2. Capitalize on the identities young people already have, like being a member of a community or a person of color. Inserting issues of environmental justice into these burgeoning identities can make an impact on what adolescents go on to care about. Show youth the power of community organizing. Teach them that collective action is more likely to create adaptive communities, and that adaptive communities are better able to address environmental issues4.
Involvement Breeds Involvement. Participation and engagement in local-level decision making helps encourage young peoples’ capacities for citizenship2. Get children and adolescents involved in current environmental issues, whether its attending community meetings about recycling programs or going to a benefit for the bees; there’s something to be said for starting them off young. Engaging in decision making and community involvement in adolescence makes young people more likely to become active citizens as adults;2 active citizens who vote, march, and run for office!
Naturally Invested. Green spaces, like parks, have been known since the 1970’s to be especially important for youth; parks can be safe spaces to gather with peers and fend off boredom3. A person’s identity is created within the context of space and place, and having places to gather are important for young people’s identity formation2. Locality is central to identity development2, meaning that individual and community identities are created around parks3. Identifying with a community makes one more invested in it and more likely to fight for its needs.
Only time will tell when we, as global citizens, will step up and make the changes necessary to combat climate change, and how long it will take to reverse the existing damage. If we can get youth scared, passionate, and ultimately, involved in environmental justice causes now, they can carry that action into their adulthood. Social work was founded on community organizing and we are ethically obligated to meet our clients where they’re at and empower them. We can have a pivotal role in cultivating new leaders who care about their environment and want to do something to protect it. As someone much smarter and more eloquent than myself noted, “young people…are positioned at the leading edge of many aspects of contemporary social change, and experience acutely the risks and opportunities that new social conditions entail”3.
Bahá’í International Community. (2013). [During the conference the youth considered how they could invite others to work together to transform their communities ]. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://news.bahai.org/community-news/youth-conferences/toronto.html#video
Hall, T., Coffey, A., & Williamson, H. (1999). Self, space and place: Youth identities and citizenship. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(4), 501-513. Retrieved from http://du.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.du.idm.oclc.org/docview/206173061?accountid=14608
Hordijk, M. (2013). Being young and urban: Changing patterns of youth involvement in local environmental action in Lima, Peru. Local Environment, 18(3), 396-412.
Ireland, P., & Thomalla, F. (2011). The role of collective action in enhancing communities’ adaptive capacity to environmental risk: An exploration of two case studies from Asia. PLoS Currents, 3, RRN1279. http://doi.org/10.1371/currents.RRN1279