This blog post was originally published by Chris Dolgos on May 18, 2017 on Green Schools National Network.

How do you convince 90 tweens, teens, and their teachers to willingly give up a sunny, spring Sunday to chart a course for more sustainable and climate-friendly schools? You create an event they can’t say no to! On April 9, 2017, the Rochester Youth Climate Leaders sponsored a Youth Climate Summit to raise awareness about climate change and gathered dozens of students from 16 different schools to forge a path to a sustainable future. Inspired by earlier summits held at a local university and The Wild Center’s Youth Climate Summit Toolkit, we decided to take the plunge and have a go at sponsoring our own event.

Rochester Youth Climate Leaders (RYCL) is a youth movement voicing concern for our climate and advocating for a sustainable future. Its members range from middle school students to students attending college as well as teachers and parents. RYCL was created following a 2015 summit hosted by The Harley School where youth leaders saw an opportunity to become advocates for change. RYCL members meet monthly to discuss ways they can have an impact on their schools and community.

The Youth Climate Summit was the group’s most ambitious project. We wanted to provide area youth with a forum to discuss ways to address climate change personally and institutionally at our schools, as well as make it interactive and show through workshops that change can happen through small, deliberate steps. Of course, planning such an event takes time and money – the latter of which we had very little. However, through the generosity of a few donors, local businesses, and the Rochester Museum & Science Center, we secured a venue and provided lunch and programming to our participants.

Planning a summit requires lots of brainstorming, something the RYCL members were eager to take on. From our grand ideas, we identified a few key areas that required follow through. By leveraging our professional education networks, we invited and included schools and participants that reflected our community’s rich diversity. We needed to identify a keynote speaker who was knowledgeable of climate change globally, as well as locally. We also invited local experts to serve on speaker panels and asked local organizations to provide hands-on workshops for participants. Finally, we wanted a planning session that would provide attendees (in their school teams) with a “greenprint” of sorts to take back to their local schools and begin the work of creating sustainable change.

Our workshop offerings were engaging and inspired many students to begin thinking about how to implement sustainability efforts at their own schools. Headwater Food Hub shared the value of local farms and organic food in mitigating climate change through a reduced carbon footprint. Participants prepared a variety of side salads using locally sourced produce for our lunch. Dream Bikes held a bike maintenance clinic and shared ways to establish and sustain a bicycling culture at schools. Community Composting conducted a waste audit with our school’s garbage and spoke about the value of diverting food waste from the landfill stream (all food waste from the summit was composted). The Irondequoit Conservation Board held a rain barrel workshop, which complimented the rain garden projects on the Rochester Museum & Science Center campus.

The buzz of the workshops fed into the participants’ excitement for creating sustainable SMART goals (SMART being an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant, and Time-bound) for their schools. By identifying the bridges and barriers and the allies and assets of their schools, students identified a single focus to begin their efforts. By creating SMART goals, groups could leverage what was already working at their schools and plan to improve systems that would promote sustainable efforts and help mitigate climate change. These goals ranged from banning Styrofoam lunch trays to starting a school garden project to increasing bicycling to school. We are eager to hear how these efforts evolve over time and hope that through the summit, more schools and students will become invested in the RYCL organization.

Although it was a heavy lift to plan and execute the Youth Climate Summit, it is a worthwhile event that local groups across the nation can replicate. Science and nature centers make perfect venues and every city has environmental and climate scientists who would be willing to support workshops and panels. We were fortunate to receive in-kind support from local schools and supermarkets, and letters from passionate students can often help loosen purse strings. The resources available from The Wild Center are helpful if you want to create your own local Youth Climate Summit. Additionally, we found that providing a website with an agenda and resources helped with planning (and it eliminated paper copies!).

Changing mindsets to embrace sustainability and address climate change is no small feat, but as we have found, the power of youth is unbridled and often underestimated. Liam Smith, one of RYCL’s youth leaders, said of the event: “The Climate Summit inspired and motivated my fellow students and me to act for sustainable change. We all left feeling empowered to make our schools more environmentally friendly and eager to implement our green action plans. It was a great experience to work with other students who are concerned for our environment and motivated to implement solutions for climate change.”

Chris Dolgos is an adult advisor to Rochester Youth Climate Leaders and a founding teacher of Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, New York, where he teaches sixth grade. He has been teaching for 20 years and was the recipient of the 2016 EL Education Klingenstein Teacher Award. Chris has taught learning expeditions around climate change and sustainability for several years, and outside of school enjoys exploring the natural world of the Finger Lakes with his family.

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