Published Together: The inspiring power of youth voices

The strength of youth

As a young professional, I often worried that others might try to take advantage of my inexperience. But then, I would steel myself and mentally challenge them — “Go ahead, underestimate me.”

One of the big advantages of being young is that you haven’t learned to be overly cautious in how you approach solving problems. You’re willing to take bigger risks in order to get bigger rewards. We need this if we’re going to save the planet from our collective selves.

The more, the better

Over the years, West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), where I am the deputy director along with our small office of eight, shows up to tackle the tough issues facing our more than eight county service region like climate change, water access and protection, environmental justice and environmental education.  

As an “action council,” we seek to create knowledgeable materials and provide data that enable elected officials, decision-makers, students, homeowners, business owners and members of the community access to the information, tools and actions that they can then apply to their work within the environment spaces they encounter in their worlds. 

And while we leverage our knowledge-base to feed our programming from education classes, research projects, demonstration sites, advisory boards and community events, it is through the opening of the door to youth voices that we have witnessed some remarkable insights from a place that some organizations ignore, to their own peril. 

Over the years, in my career from my youth to now as an adult, I have come to rely on intergenerational dialogue to create a more welcoming space for others to join us in advancing dialogue as we center on the value and the insights provided by youth voices. 

By extending access to youth within our programming —  which includes the growing of our local expertise in areas such as community engagement, fund development, environmental science and policy, education and journalism — as well as centering on youth voices, it provides many benefits, not just to WMEAC, but for our collective future. 

Translating the message

One of the most visible places we have seen the value of elevating youth voices is within our eco-journalism and blogging internship. Three times a year, we hire a journalism or creative writing student to use voice to approach the many aspects of our programming, events and topics for publication within our blog, newsletter and regional media outlets. These interns take a broad range of environmentally-based topics —some more complicated or less appealing than others — and translate them into stories to appeal to a broader audience.

Instead of discounting youth voice, we have discovered that extending agency to them quite often results in an unique rooted-in-community-centered approach to our pillars of focus, ranging from what is happening to what others are doing locally to help protect the environment.

Another added bonus is that with the passing of the "speaking stick" from one generation to another, we get to listen and learn from our interns who often source from within their peers, who may be operating off the radar of most adults or delivering new styles of messaging, like creating artwork or poetry, all the while lifting up the mission of our nonprofit.

Unlike my example at the start, we are finding much-needed inspiration in an oversaturated world of constant noise to make room for more voices. These voices come from a group where some have chosen on their own to determine a lane by which their ideas can emerge into the culture. And it’s these that voices have the ability to cut through the clutter.

Sometimes “the environment” seems too big for each of us to fix on our own, so we freeze and do nothing. Reading stories about actions others are taking, whether they’re big or small, can help us thaw and inspire us to join in. If our youth are doing it, then so can we.

Their voices (selections)

To help illustrate what we have discovered, here are a few examples from some of our former young professionals —

Skyla Jewell-Hammie is a reporter intern for MLive Media Group in Kalamazoo and a freelance copywriter and editor for Upwork. Her internship at WMEAC came shortly after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Western Michigan University in 2020. Her piece, Rockford, MI 11-Year-Old Donates to WMEAC Against Water Pollution, describes how one young boy decided to do something to help fight PFAS contamination in his community.

Kat Lykins was our intern in the fall of 2021. She is an Environmental Studies major at the University of Washington in Seattle. She came to us with journalism and editorial experience from her high school newspaper. We Are Water is a piece that highlights one of the young poets who participated in an environmentally-focused writing workshop last summer. Caebre Baty shared his words with WMEAC and participants in last year’s Mayors’ Grand River Cleanup kickoff event.

Andrew Blok came to WMEAC during the final year of his Masters in Journalism program at Michigan State University in 2019. He currently works at CNET, covering home energy and utilities news stories. He works to help people make informed, confident decisions about saving energy and money, especially by going solar. He has two pieces that highlight youth activism for the environment — Youth Show Up Strong at Rise Up and Drawdown and Elementary Students hold Fundraiser for WMEAC.

Sarah Barney is finishing up her degree in Environmental Studies, with a focus on narrative Journalism and Geosciences at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She did her internship at WMEAC virtually during the summer of 2020. Her piece, Successes in Climate Activism in West Michigan, describes three different success stories from West Michigan, two of which highlight young professionals — all of whom got their start in environmental activism at WMEAC.

The road ahead is bright

The bumps of COVID-19 have been real and it could be easy for all of us to just hunker down and do the absolute minimum of work. However, at WMEAC where we look to our past as well as our future, the role that youth voices as we have witnessed is inspiring not just within our organization, but within our world.

Message from the author: We are always seeking applicants for WMEAC's Eco-Journalism & Blogging Internship. If you know of any youth voices who would love to participate in our program, please direct them to our website to apply.