Weighed down by too many bags for a short weekend away, I shuffled onto a school bus early in the morning on Friday, December 2nd. The yawning faces of eight fellow Oyster River High School (ORHS) Sustainability Club members smiled back at me. Joined by students from Spaulding High School and the student-run nonprofit that I am a part of, Seacoast Students for Sustainability (SS4S), we began the two-hour journey to the Youth Climate Leaders Academy (YCLA) in Fairlee, Vermont.
Friday kicked off the overnight retreat hosted by the Vermont & New Hampshire Energy Education Project (VEEP, NHEEP) at the Hulbert Outdoor Center. Around 70 high school students from across New Hampshire and Vermont, assisted by youth fellows and VEEP advisors, were given the resources to develop and plan actionable projects addressing climate-based issues within their communities. Students had the opportunity to attend workshops intended to teach leadership skills from professionals working in the field and to develop a community of passionate environmentalists.
Mariah Keagy, VEEP’s Energy Action Programs Manager and the main organizer of YCLA, brought the retreat to life and has overseen the annual program since 2016. Keagy’s story of how she got interested in environmental activism parallels my own. She faced serious climate anxiety at a young age, brought on by the discovery of the climate crisis through her own curiosity and research. Keagy’s concern for the future of our planet has shaped many of the decisions she’s made throughout her life and is also a big factor in what led her to work with youth.
“There are enough people who just don’t get it…their heart is in the right place, but they don’t know what it’s like to feel pretty bummed about the future of your environment and to feel like not enough is happening…I feel like I have a lot of empathy for that position that makes me want to do this work.”
Evy Ashburner (’22) can also relate. A recent ORHS graduate and a member of Sustainability Club, Ashburner attended YCLA during her freshman and sophomore years and participated as a fellow in this year’s program. She describes the experiences as empowering, as the retreat environment differs from that of the typical high school. “There are so many people [who] are so like-minded, all in one space, so it creates some really amazing positive energy when we’re dealing with such a dark and daunting subject like climate change,” Ashburner stated.
Photo Credits: Jon Bromley
The projects started by Ashburner’s team at YCLA led to the ORHS waste audit in 2020, which bears responsibility for all of the work Sustainability Club has done surrounding food waste in the past three years.
This year marked Sustainability Club’s official second time attending YCLA. Nori Sandin (’23), co-leader of the group, says that she attended the retreat “since our club had hit kind of a lull in conversation and progress. I thought this would be a good way to get us revived, ready to work, and excited about our projects.”
After facing many challenges and setbacks in our work, Sustainability Club has faced much discouragement—members like Sandin and myself feel as though we are working against the dominant culture of the school. Despite those challenges, Sandin says “I think coming here, being around so many like-minded people, has…really re-inspired that creativity and that drive to make change.”
Jon Bromley, a science teacher at ORHS and the advisor to Sustainability Club, traveled with my fellow classmates and me to YCLA. While his role was less involved than when he first attended in 2019 due to being the only chaperone for the group this year, Bromley observed and assisted our three separate project groups. The nine of us who went to the retreat were encouraged by Bromley to choose the project that spoke to us the most, following a holistic approach modeled by a Venn Diagram on the intersection between what we find joy in, what we’re each good at, and what needs to be done.
Our subgroups developed ambitious yet focused goals that will help us drive forward progress within our community. Bromley believes that process “forc[ed] us to think more precisely about what it is we’re wanting to do and when those goals are measurable and attainable.” The projects address reducing carbon emissions from student and faculty transportation; food waste; and education, outreach, and engagement of the Oyster River community.
Another benefit of the retreat was the workshops led by consultants working in the climate field throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. Evy Douglass (’24), a student at Portsmouth High School and soon to be Co-Executive Director at SS4S, developed a plan with her team to plant 400 trees in celebration of the city of Portsmouth’s 400th anniversary. She found that the workshop, “How to Lead a Great Meeting,” taught by Sonia Silbert of 350VT, was very impactful, as it taught her valuable leadership skills that will “help [her] a lot in the future.”
Alongside Douglass, Sandin and I also participated in this workshop. The highlight of the 90-minute session was participating in a role-play where volunteers demonstrated everything not to do in a meeting. While the workshop was full of laughter and goofiness at times, I found it quite helpful in evaluating my leadership skills. On one hand, I have developed more confidence in the skills I’ve already been implementing, but I have also taken note of how I can begin to implement new techniques throughout my leadership positions.
Just as important as the project planning and workshops was the aspect of community building. Sandin comments, “[it was] really great to connect with the people we’re always working with, but never really getting to know,” regarding her fellow Sustainability Club members. Alongside strengthening the bond with her peers at school, Sandin believes that YCLA “fostered a healthy environment for change.”
Bromley expands on that notion, saying that “what we’re up against at Oyster River seemingly is the same thing that other students are working on. And that could be demoralizing… but I see it as a sense of solidarity—that we’re all in this together.”
To me, it seems that Oyster River students and the dozens of others from Vermont and New Hampshire walked away from the retreat this past weekend not only with a set of clear goals to further their environmental work, but an encouraging community of young climate activists who are there to support and uplift those in the same position.
And “while sometimes it can feel like you’re in the fight alone, you really aren’t, and I think that coming here and seeing all the people fighting for the same goal is something that really makes you feel empowered,” Douglass said.
– Grace Webb