Building a future where we all can thrive

When I was in middle school (in 2009), the topic of climate change was just beginning to gain widespread attention in the news. Within my 8th-grade class, a group of us became alarmed at what we were hearing in the media about global warming; however, the urgency of the issue wasn’t reflected in the programming or curricula we received as students, nor was it something that was addressed at all in many of our home communities.

My first experience with Youth Environmental Activists of Minnesota (YEA! MN) was during this time, about one year after the group came to fruition from a partnership between local high school students and the Will Steger Foundation (now Climate Generation).

My classmates and I decided to bridge the climate information gap by starting an environmental club with the help of some dedicated teachers, one of whom invited us to the first YEA! MN organizing retreat in the spring of 2009.

For me, this moment represented a personal turning point; it opened a window into a world of passionate people who had an exciting, hopeful vision for the future. Since then, YEA! MN has proven to be a wellspring of knowledge, empowerment, and affirmation for me—one that I continue to draw from even as an alumnus of the program.

I recognize great value in the way that YEA! MN brings together young people from different communities across the Twin Cities to listen and learn from each other. Even though the topics we tackled during my time in the organization were often serious and many times personal, I feel that being present in that space built solidarity and gave us confidence through not being alone.

As an active YEA! MN participant throughout high school, I shifted my inner narrative about climate change: instead of acting out of concern for myself, because I knew this issue affected me, it became about creating change because I know you; I care about you; and I understand how our battles may be different—but now I want to build a future where both of us can thrive. Learning how to organize relationally, based on empathy and trust, is something really special that I began to grasp implicitly from being involved with YEA! MN.

Cole Norgaarden and Siiri Bigalke

One experience that particularly stands out to me was the opportunity I had with Siiri Bigalke, another YEA! MN member. We spoke before Minnesota State House and Senate committees on coal-fired energy policy in 2010 and 2011. At that time, legislators were considering a repeal of the state’s moratorium on new coal plant construction. Despite having very little public speaking experience or expertise on the subject, we were encouraged by the YEA! MN community to share our stories because they really mattered.

As the youngest people in the room it was certainly daunting, but it also brought forward a perspective that otherwise may not have been represented. Speaking before policymakers compelled me to articulate what was important to me and why.

Reflecting on the path I’ve taken since high school graduation, I can clearly see the imprint that YEA! MN has had on me. There was a program coordinator who pushed us to think critically about environmental justice and how it relates to the way our city is built. Instead of taking the city for granted as something fixed and unchanging, I began to see it more dynamically—as the outcome of many forces constantly negotiating space, place, and power. I had always been interested in cities, but this learning process gave me a purpose in pursuing that interest as a career. In 2013, I applied to college with the intention of majoring in urban studies. Last May, I graduated from Cornell University with a degree in city planning, a field I am excited to keep exploring as I enter a new chapter.

It’s difficult to convey everything I have gained from my journey with YEA! MN, a journey which I’m still continuing today as an alumnus and supporter of the program. For me, being an active participant was totally formative in helping me find my voice and place my stake in the fight for an equitable, sustainable, and just future.

I feel very grateful for the teacher who first brought us together, the coordinators who facilitated each meeting, my peers who came from far and wide to make those meetings, and the multitude of other friends and supporters who supported us along the way. Thanks to all these people, high school students like myself have been given the tools and experiences needed to realize our own leadership potential and shape the future of our communities.

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