As soon as I walked in the door for the 2017 Winter Mingler, the first YEA! MN event I attended as an alumna, I felt the rush and comfort of familiar faces. My relief could have been related to escaping from the bitter cold outside, but there was something heartening about seeing current YEA! MN students and their families, Climate Generation staff, alumni from years past, and allies from different local campaigns who all took the time to show up and plug into program happenings. I also felt the pride and hope of meeting the new youth who were leading the YEA! MN family, and a few who were on the cusp of joining.
Even though I graduated high school 7 months ago, I still felt closely connected to YEA! MN. The mingler followed a familiar yet engaging schedule of get-to-know-you-activities, personal narrative readings, and time to reflect on why we each have a stake in climate justice through drawing and conversation. In true YEA! MN style, we even ended with a song. Because I was accustomed to the flow of the event, I could sometimes imagine I was still a student with the program. However, I also felt an element of disconnect and challenge because of my time away.
I am currently on a gap year between attending South High School and Macalester College, and recently got back from working on an organic ranch in central Mexico called Vía Orgánica for 4 months. During my time abroad, I advocated for climate justice in a different way than I had in high school. Instead of working on political campaigns or organizing community workshops, I spent most of my time outside learning how to cultivate food without the use of pesticides or depending on factory farms. I also gave tours and helped out with pre-planned workshops for local students, community members, and tourists. Since I was a newcomer to the community, I emphasized my role as a listener. I did have many two-way conversations about politics and climate, but it was interesting picking up on the values that people expressed around the environment, especially against GMOs and around the importance of protecting traditional seed diversity and community-based farming.
While spending time in Mexico helped me shift my perspective on climate justice to a more global scale, coming back to YEA! MN’s Winter Mingler reminded me that my identity and experience in the climate movement is continually changing and I must continue to reflect on it. In all honesty, I hadn’t sat down and processed my personal climate narrative in months. I was grateful for the space at the mingler to re-explore my stake and role in the movement. Coming back also made me excited to organize in my home and in the communities I know best, supported by the lessons and connections I had formed abroad.
On a different note, the Winter Mingler also brought the news that YEA! MN coordinator Nicole Ektnitphong was bidding farewell after a year and a half with the program. Nicole has been undoubtedly integral in my identity as a young activist. From our first meeting together in September 2015, she has taught me the importance of bringing my full self, both my challenges and joys, both my grounding and my ambitions, into my work for justice. Nicole was the first mentor to get real with me about the workload and emotional complexities of organizing, while simultaneously providing me with unwavering encouragement. Whether it was through the intentional and creative activities she prepared for steering committee meetings, or the space she provided for one-on-ones, Nicole’s support for me and the other YEA! MN students was unfaltering and had its effect on all of us. Saying goodbye was bittersweet; the YEA! MN community is grateful to Nicole’s work and will miss her, but we wish her well in her next chapter of life.
My time with YEA! MN in high school was fundamental in my development as a climate activist. Although my time as a student is over, the Winter Mingler made me thankful to still have ways to connect with the program. I know I will continue to learn lessons like the importance of self-reflection from current YEA! MN leaders.