Learning from the Genius of Youth: Reflections on 11 Years at Climate Generation

I first met Will Steger in 2006 over a cup of coffee in South Minneapolis. I had just finished up a five year stint working as a winter instructor at Voyageur Outward Bound in Ely, Minnesota, where we learned all about the historic expeditions that Will led to the North and South Poles, along with a host of other intrepid explorers (Ann Bancroft, Paul Shurke to name a few). Will was seeking individuals to join a new expedition, specifically people who could mush a dogsled and design an adventure learning program to engage teachers as students along the way. Shocked as I was, I found myself qualified for the job. By the time my coffee cup was empty, I was on board for the experience of a lifetime, joining Will and an incredible team on a three-month expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic–an expedition that would launch the Will Steger Foundation, now known as Climate Generation, and change the course of my life’s work.

For three months in 2007, we traveled by dogsled across a moon-like landscape, through boulder strewn river valleys, below swirling peaks, across frozen ocean, and through some of the most remote villages in the world. In temperatures that remained below -40 degrees for the first month, we watched, listened, tasted, and absorbed all we could of this rapidly changing landscape. The Inuit people we met were no strangers to climate change. They shared countless stories of their own eyewitness experiences and the deep impact climate change made on the cultural fabric of their lives.

When we started planning for the expedition, no one was talking about climate change in the mainstream media. The “Millennial Generation” had only recently been coined the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. We felt certain that if we could only get those Millennial kids to care, we could wake up America to the crisis at hand. When we returned to Minnesota in May of 2007, we wasted no time and got right to work.

Tasked with creating the organization’s youth program, I was confronted immediately by my own assumptions. Contrary to the pervasive stereotype of youth apathy, I found there was a generational groundswell underfoot. Across the globe, young people were organizing in historic numbers to stop climate change and create a new and just vision for a fossil-free future. This was the beginning of what would be a hugely transformative experience for me, as I worked alongside an extraordinary cadre of young people in the Midwest and across the U.S.

What I’ve learned would take innumerable pages to capture, but some of the brightest nuggets are as follows. Maintaining a commitment to authentic youth vision and leadership in 2017 does not come without challenge. Young people organizing across a wide variety of social movements are demanding that we examine our own bias and investigate the ways in which race, class, and privilege play out in our decision-making and the institutional structures we support. It has been challenging for us, at Climate Generation, to walk the fine line between risk and safety in order to engage as a valued partner in the young and growing edge of the global climate movement. While this work has at times generated conflict and tension, it has also brought us tremendous growth. I believe with my whole heart that some of the most innovative solutions of our time lie in the creative genius of youth. The reality of climate change demands that we be bold and courageous. We must support the young folks who are inheriting the mess they did not create as they dedicate their lives to a fossil-free future built on the principles of mutuality and justice.

Abby Fenton (far left), our Youth Programs Director, has galvanized thousands of youth during her 11-year legacy at Climate Generation.

After eleven years, my time at Climate Generation has come to a close. I have made the hard decision to leave this organization I love in order to see what other adventures might still be out there for me. I have learned and grown a tremendous amount since 2006. The work has taken me to extraordinary places that I would never have otherwise had the chance to experience and introduced me to an incredible cast of people. Most of all, Climate Generation has offered me the opportunity to utilize my creativity and vision to elevate a new generation of climate leadership in Minnesota and across the Midwest. It is these relationships that have been the most powerful teachers for me, and for which I will always be grateful.

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