We are empowering not just the leaders of tomorrow, but the current climate leaders of today. Take Siiri Bigalke, who was involved in our high school environmental leadership program (YEA! MN). As co-chair of YEA! MN, Siiri jump-started her high school environmental club and has been a tireless voice for bold policies that address climate change. During the week of November 26-December 1, we will be supporting Siiri as she participates in the United Nations climate conference, COP18 (Siiri’s COP18 blog), as our representative and youth leader. Her role is to bring the youth voice to the conference. Follow her journey online at www.willstegerfoundation.org/cop18.
Before Siiri began her journey, I had the chance to chat with her about her experience with the Will Steger Foundation and what she hopes to get out of the conference.
What was your experience like through YEA! MN?
I joined YEA! MN as a freshman at Stillwater High School. I was encouraged by the number of youth at this meeting as well as their passion for addressing climate change. The community helped me see this issue as less daunting, especially when my own high school environmental club was waning. As a junior and senior I was elected as the YEA! MN Co-Chair.
Through YEA! MN, I learned how to organize and how to be a leader. I had never really been in a leadership position before. I had taken speech as a freshman but that was it. YEA! MN offered me so many opportunities to take on leadership roles; from addressing a group of my peers at our YEA! MN steering committee, to speaking to a large general audience at the 350.org gathering on 10/10/10. I love to share how youth can get involved in the climate movement and how action can be taken in our own respective communities.
While involved in YEA! MN, I had the opportunity to get involved in public policy. I attended two Powershift conferences in Washington D.C. and three lobby days. These were highlights because they exposed me to policy work. This is the aspect of climate change I’m most interested in. Youth can have a big impact with policy work even if they cannot vote. The youth voice is powerful. I realize that our elected officials appreciate that youth are taking the time to be interested/passionate about these subjects. For me, Powershift was like YEA! MN at a bigger scale – to see all these youth that care about this issue was motivating and inspiring. Powershift 2009 in particular had a great turn out for lobby day and I was honored to hear the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi speak. During Powershift 2011, I spoke with my Congresswoman, Michele Bachman. At least she knows there are people in her district that hold her accountable!
Did you lead any action projects while in high school or now as a student at Smith College?
The Stillwater High School Green Team had fizzled out my sophomore year. There was no legacy of leadership so I had to resurrect my high school environmental group. We focused a lot on recruiting. By my senior year, we had a strong club considering that it was a suburban community. We led a campaign called Operation Hydration Station. We sold water bottles to buy a hydration station (to eliminate selling of plastic water bottles). I learned a lot about how to run a campaign, how to approach people, to describe your campaign, how to work with administrators and faculty and raise awareness with the student body. This project turned out to be a great pre-cursor to what I’m doing at Smith.
When I arrived at Smith as a freshman, I learned they have a sustainability office with paid internships. There was a real lack of students with leadership within the environmental sphere. My experiences in high school through the Will Steger Foundation and YEA! MN enabled me to get a job here at Smith as an environmental student: leading our student sustainability group. I was hired to run the Green Team at college! I would have done this job if it wasn’t paid since it is what I’m really interested in, but the money helps!
Right now the Green Team at Smith is focused on raising awareness of fossil fuel subsidies and specifically looking at our own divestment campaign as part of the responsible endowments coalition with 30 other colleges and universities.
What was the Governor Dayton meeting like in May 2011? Tell me about it.
In the winter of 2011, I had the opportunity to testify in two committees regarding our climate and clean energy laws (there was an attempt to lift the ban on coal-fired power plants). I was then invited to join Will Steger and 11 other outstanding young leaders from across Minnesota for a meeting with Governor Dayton, asking him for a commitment to veto the attempt to lift the ban on new coal plants. We emphasized that youth are interested and passionate about entering a future that isn’t entrenched in the coal industry. We had a clear ask and he committed right then and there. He was clear about his commitment to youth and I quickly saw that youth have leverage when we follow our passion. I was the only high school student at that meeting and was even offered an internship in his office that summer!
What was your internship like? What did you do?
I interned during the state government shut-down and was responsible for answering the constituent phone line, responding to questions about the shut-down.
Why do you want to go to COP18?
I am very excited about COP18, especially as a youth climate leader. I did a lot of work at the United Nations headquarters leading up to Rio and once there, I was expecting solid commitments. The Rio +20 Summit was large disappointing for civil society. I’m excited about COP18 because it is more specific – curbing emissions vs. broad sustainability and sustainable development. At COP18, it’s possible for youth to be more involved. Youth have a more active organizational role. I would like to see a binding agreement that curbs emissions. The coordinated international youth climate movement (YOUNGO) will make a stake for their future and at the very least lay the foundation for more action in the future.
What gives you hope/why is working to address climate change important?
I am hopeful because of the youth that are organizing. Youth are motivated and passionate despite frustrating or disappointing policy outcomes. I feel like the reality of climate change demands that we move forward even with every set back. We can expect obstacles, but it is part of the process. If we continue to do this work, increasingly we will bring more people to the fight – and eventually address climate change.
What message would you give other youth who are thinking about/starting to get involved?
There’s such solidarity in working as a community and as a group. Increasingly junior high, high school, and colleges are working with inspired youth who are looking for an outlet to express their ideas, opinions, and emotions about climate change. I would encourage anyone wanting to get involved to find a community and to begin to work collaboratively. Find others to join you.
Follow Siiri’s experiences November 22-30 online at: www.willstegerfoundation.org/cop18.
For more information about COP18, visit UNFCCC website.