A High School Student Activist Reflects on Minnesota’s Clean Energy & Jobs Campaign

katiemercertaylor biopicThis Earth Day, I joined over seven hundred people in the Minnesota state capitol building rotunda to voice support for renewable energy legislation. The rally was part of a Day of Action organized by the Clean Energy and Jobs Coalition, a group of over thirty organizations ranging from labor, energy, religious, youth and environmental groups. The rally and Day of Action helped to pass a new solar energy standard as well as plans for increasing the state’s use of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

As a young environmentalist, I was very excited to see so much support for the legislation at the Earth Day rally. Even more rewarding to me was seeing the incredible turnout of young people in the crowd who were making their voices heard, many of whom were still too young to vote. As Co-chair of Youth Environmental Activists of Minnesota (YEA! MN), a statewide network of high school students supported by the Will Steger Foundation, I helped to organize the strong turnout of one hundred high school students at the rally. I also had the incredible experience of voicing the youth perspective at the rally by delivering a speech.

The planning process for bringing so many high school students to the Earth Day rally began months beforehand at a YEA! MN Steering Committee meeting. We decided that the best way to bring young people to the rally would be to have a youth march to the capitol, where young people participating in the march would join the larger Earth Day rally upon arrival. Our march, called the ‘Young People’s March for Climate Action Now!’, would start with a short program at the Cathedral of St. Paul and end at the Capitol building just in time for the Earth Day Rally.

Over the next several months, the other Steering Committee members and I worked on organizing the logistical aspects of the march. We applied for a parade permit, decided on a route for the march, and planned the timing of the march to work with the Earth Day Rally. To recruit participants, we reached out to schools across the state using social media and our database of contacts, talking about the march with students, teachers, and environmental club advisors. We also had guidance and help in our outreach efforts from college student groups the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network, as well as the Sierra Club.

yeamn rotundaMeanwhile, I had a lot of help from other young environmentalists as I was preparing my speech for the rally. I developed the main points of my rally speech by having conversations with my peers about the issues that matter most to us. Many said they care about protecting the lakes, forests, and other natural resources that we’ve taken for granted growing up in Minnesota but that will be more scarce in the future. We also want to make sure our economy and future jobs don’t depend on carbon emissions and dwindling fossil fuel supplies. One important overarching idea was the need to switch to renewables for the sake of our children and future generations as well as for ourselves. We understand that this priority might not be shared by older generations who won’t be around to experience the environment we will inherit 20 years from now.

As I was putting the finishing touches on my speech, I got editing help from Christy, a young Will Steger Foundation staffer who has been a great mentor to YEA! MN students. My English teachers and the coach of my school’s Speech Team were also happy to help out.

After months of preparing for the Clean Energy & Jobs Day of Action, Earth Day put our commitment to the renewable energy cause to the test. It was very cold and windy, and began sleeting just before the scheduled march time. Other YEA! MN Steering Committee members and I worried that the bad weather would impact our turnout, that is, until we saw over one hundred brave high school and college students arrive in raincoats and winter jackets. Our march kicked off with a rousing speech from my fellow YEA! MN Co-Chair, Cole Norgarrden, in which he proclaimed to an attentive crowd of young change-makers:

“Today we have the opportunity to do one of the most crucial things we can do—raise our voices and send a message to the people who represent us. They have the power to coordinate progress on a large, institutional scale, and to provide the tools necessary to start tackling the laundry list of environmental issues that plague us. Pressuring them is one of the most effective things we can do as individuals, especially as young people who may not yet be able to vote. So hold your banners high and don’t be afraid to make a statement: we are youth fighting for our future, and our time is now.”

When we reached the Capitol, holding signs and shouting chants together, supporters standing out on the steps cheered us on and whipped out cell phone cameras. We brought up the volume in the capitol rotunda as the hundreds of others gathered there joined in our chants.

Even though I had been nervous about delivering a speech to such a big crowd, marching with so many other youth reminded me how crucial it is that young people be heard at the capitol right alongside those of political and business leaders. All the noise and support from the crowd made delivering my speech an empowering and uplifting experience. My favorite moment was a call and response we had planned beforehand at the Young People’s March. I finished my speech with “We are youth,” and the young people in the crowd filled the rotunda with noise when they shouted back, “Protect our future!”

The successes at the end of this legislative session, as well as plenty of positive feedback from the Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign, show that young people have a vital and very effective voice at the Capitol building. However, we know that there is still a lot of work to be done to create the future Minnesota that we want for ourselves and for generations to come. With a strong team of experienced youth organizers and rising new leaders, YEA! MN plans to be back at the Capitol in 2014.

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