Inspiring youth to engage in activating democracy and emerge as game changers

Young Game-Changers in Action:
Meet Ella S., Portland Youth Climate Council

“If you really want to make a change, there’s nothing you can’t do!” says high school student Ella S.

And she speaks from experience. As a sophomore in high school, Ella and her friends are helping Portland, Oregon, transition to renewable energy by 2050.

Ella’s interest in transitioning off fossil fuels started in middle school. Sunnyside Elementary School requires all 8th grade students to join an “issue cohort” to gain experience working with local government to effect community change.

When Ella entered 8th grade at Sunnyside, she joined the Climate Cohort. She knew a little about climate change from her parents and the news, and she had heard about the Climate Cohort’s activities when she was a 7th grader. She thought that the cohort sounded interesting.

Climate change turned out to be a topic that piqued her enthusiasm. “I went from knowing very little about the subject, to becoming very passionate about it, in a very short time.”

The Climate Cohort learned several liquid natural gas (LNG) pipelines were proposed in their area. The proposed pipelines would cut through old growth forests and cross several waterways. The gas would be piped to proposed LNG terminals in Jordan Cove and Coos Bay on the Oregon coast and then exported by tankers to other countries as “clean energy.”

Ella explained, “Our Climate Cohort researched the issues, and we realized that LNG is not clean energy and that LNG terminals in Jordan Cove and Coos Bay don’t make any sense with Oregon’s goals of renewable, clean energy. The proposed LNG facility in Coos Bay would be the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Oregon.”

The 8th grade Climate Cohort testified against these proposed projects at the State legislature. The Climate Cohort decided to team up with filmmakers who they met at the hearing. The youth wanted to create a fun, informational video to educate people about the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), liquified natural gas, and the proposed LNG pipeline projects.

The Climate Cohort released their film, “LNG: Just Another Dirty Fossil,” (watch the video in the right sidebar) at Sunnyside’s week-long Energy Teach-In for middle school students in January 2016. “We were happy with it,” said Ella. “We think it helped make a difference. Both Jordan Cove and Coos Bay proposals were shut down.” (Two years later, President Trump reopened the Coos Bay proposal.)

LNG - Just Another Dirty Fossil Fuel

At the Energy Teach-In, Ella and her classmates learned about the youth-driven Atmospheric Trust Litigation from Ultimate Civics instructor Riki Ott. The students asked Riki for a follow-up class after the teach-in to learn about the youth and their case against the federal government over failure to protect the climate for their generation.

At the student’s request, Sunnyside sponsored a field trip to the federal District Court in Eugene to attend the first hearing of the youth-driven Atmospheric Trust Litigation. Ella saw people her own age taking significant, game-changing action. She said, “Seeing kids suing the government, doing something on such a grand scale – that was very inspiring!”

Her freshman year at a new high school, Ella joined the high school environmental leadership team, HELP. The City of Portland sponsors HELP to encourage young leaders to meet and connect twice a month on issues that the students care about. Ella and her new friends learned that the City of Portland was sponsoring a resolution towards 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Ella and other HELP members showed up at a council meeting to testify in favor. When the City read the resolution, Ella and her friends noticed it mentioned creating a group of stakeholders who would have influence on new policies.

“Youth weren’t mentioned anywhere,” said Ella. “Obviously youth are affected by the climate crisis, so we created an amendment and proposed to the city that they include us,” she said. The city council passed the amendment unanimously. “Now we are working with the City on creating the Portland Youth Climate Council.”

These experiences have been very empowering for Ella. “I learned a lot about the power of community,” she says. “At first a lot of my friends said we can’t do anything because we’re just kids. But I figured out we can do stuff. People who are influencers are actually more likely to listen to us. We are there because we care, not because we have to be there, or are getting paid to be there.”

Ella has advice for other youth who feel like they want to make a difference. “The best way to get something done is to find support from people in your community who feel passionate about the same issue. People who want to work together.”

If you would like to learn ways you can participate in civics to make a difference in your community, check out the free Activating My Democracy lessons on the Ultimate Civics website.

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