Youth Deliver a Powerful Message at the Minnesota Environmental Congress

Environmental CongressOver 200 Minnesotans attended the Minnesota Environmental Congress on March 15th in Bloomington, MN, including high school and college youth from across the state. The one day conference provided an opportunity for representatives from environmental organizations, chambers of commerce, scientists, representatives from all levels of government, tribal leaders, as well as leaders from the business, student, and faith communities to create recommendations for the MN Environmental Quality Board (EQB) related to air, water, climate, energy, and land – and to shape a vision for the future that addresses Minnesota’s environment and energy challenges and opportunities.

Youth leaders shared this video as part of their presentation during the MN Environmental Congress:

The Will Steger Foundation (WSF) was proud to support youth engagement in the event with our YEA! MN (Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota) program, as well as the Minnesota Youth Environmental Network (MNYEN – fiscally sponsored by WSF) and the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG). Youth leaders were given a full half hour to present in front of the packed room, following Will Steger and Governor Dayton, and delivered a stirring and powerful presentation focused on youth-led solutions and a call to action.

Minnesota law directs the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to host an Environmental Congress every year. The EQB develops policy, creates long-range plans, and reviews proposed projects that would significantly influence Minnesota’s environment. The 1990s saw robust activity from the Congress, which dropped off considerably due to lack of funding and support from the Pawlenty administration. Governor Mark Dayton revitalized the process in November 2011, through an Executive Order and hired long-time environmental champion Senator Ellen Anderson to do the job.

Over the past six months Environmental Quality Board held a series public forums across the state. While many Minnesota citizens attended there was consistently low youth turn out. For the young leaders in MPIRG, MNYEN and YEA! MN, this ignited a strong desire to actively engage their peers and tell the true story: that Minnesota youth care deeply about the environment and the impacts of climate change already visible across the state. MNYEN took the lead in organizing the youth presentation, drawing on the MPIRG network to engage students as far away as Duluth and Morris.

In late March the MNYEN, MPIRG and YEA! MN combined forces to host the Next Generation Environmental Congress, drawing 150 students statewide. The event was an opportunity for young people to learn about and prepare for the MN Environmental Congress, join the MN Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign, and engage in the growing Minnesota youth climate movement. Moderated by YEA! MN high school youth, the event featured a key note panel including youth activist and co-founder of Grand Aspiration, Timothy Denherder-Thomas, Representative Kate Knuth, Senator Ellen Anderson, and WSF Youth ProgramS Director, Abby Fenton. It was also dovetailed with a youth lobby day at the capitol, held the following day, advocating for a MN solar energy standard and expansion of the current renewable energy standard.

Out of the Next Generation Environmental Congress three recommendations for the EQB were identified, highlighting the most pressing issues for youth concerned about climate change in Minnesota:

  • Change Minnesota Agriculture by applying sustainable practices to remediate soil and water health, which will bolster public health and food security.
  • Change Modern Transportation by changing infrastructural development of streets, transit, and city grids, which will strike hard at energy consumption.
  • Create a New Foundation for Our Energy Economy by changing policies to incentivize renewables and building codes, accelerate the development of solar energy and the Renewable Energy Standard, and create a tax policy that favors local goods and merchants and discourages waste and pollution.

During their 30 minutes on stage at the Environmental Congress, youth leaders spoke to the crowd of commissioners, citizens, and leaders about the important issues outlined above by sharing personal stories. They acknowledged these were only a fraction of the voices across the state, but hoped the stories would give a glimpse into the youth perspective, experience and concerns.

SMERUD SONJAStudent Sonja Smerud talked about the Minnesota she remembers growing up in the north:

“I grew up in Finland, Minnesota along the North Shore of Lake Superior. As a child, I saw a mother moose and her calf walk right through my yard. Driving Highway 1 to see moose was no big deal – we saw them at nearly every sunset. Going home now, I rarely see moose, and I know I’m not the only one. My generation is experiencing a Minnesota that is changing at an unprecedented rate. If something so iconic to this state is experiencing a population decline that baffles researchers, I am concerned at what else we may be unknowingly affecting. I’m concerned about Minnesota’s future.”

Youth from more than 9 Minnesota schools collectively agreed on ideas about the concerns of where their food comes from.

“Many of us have been working to transition our campus food service to rely on locally sourced, equitably employed, and sustainably managed food systems. We have also been working to make our campus as much of a self-reliant food system as we can through urban agriculture, rain water collection, meals from the community gardens, and campus compost.”

Timothy Denherder-ThomasTimothy DenHerder-Thomas, recent graduate of Macalester College and co-founder of the youth climate organization Grand Aspirations received a standing ovation for his closing remarks:

“But we also know that we can’t do this alone. Our visions for the future will only be possible if we take decisive action now. We’re here today to work with people across all generations and from all walks of life to help build the foundations for our life’s work.”

The next push will be a Lobby Day and rally at the MN State Capitol on Earth Day, where youth leaders working closely with veteran staff from environmental organizations across the state will ask their legislators to vote in clean energy legislation for Minnesota as part of the MN Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign. YEA! MN high school students are planning the ‘Youth March for Climate Action Now’ from the St Paul Cathedral to the rally at the Capitol.

The message is clear: young people across the great state of Minnesota care about a healthy environment and are calling on us to act now to protect their future.


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