How Philanthropy can Support Youth-grown Environmental Solutions

    August 19, 2019
    by Charles Orgbon III

    With melting permafrost, intensifying storm seasons, and rising sea levels, our youngest generations are acutely aware of how climate change makes the future uncertain.

    15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s name rang across news outlets globally when she spoke out about climate change and staged massive protests. However, Greta’s not the only young person taking a stand. Young people everywhere – yes, in your communities, too – are recognizing the real and immediate challenges of climate change.

    The wave of energy felt from youth climate organizing circles has many well-intentioned adults asking, “What can I do to support?”

    The answer seems simple: give.

    I invite adults to identify environmental solutions that are ideated, engineered, and executed by youth leadership and give generously to these projects.

    Some environmental education and leadership programs do things “to” young people. Some programs do things “with” young people. Some programs do things “by” young people. What excites me the most are programs ideated by young people, engineered by young people, and executed by young people, where the youth own all of or equally share the decision-making power with adults. Not enough research has been done to investigate who’s doing this higher-level youth engagement work around environmental issues, however, my experience is that most philanthropy dollars go to programs that do things “to” young people, whereby adults manage and make decisions for young people.

    For a framework to evaluate the quality of a youth engagement program, consider using Roger Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation:

    Where would your organization fall on Roger Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation?

    If philanthropy gave to truly youth-grown environmental solutions, I believe we would have a more resilient and vibrant movement. Youth often bring a dynamic skill set and mindset to tackling environmental issues. They’re often quick to learn, able to identify intersectionality among issues easily, are curious, and lead with unflinching optimism. Imagine what would be possible if philanthropy redirected grantmaking to prioritize funding organizations led by the people who will mitigate and solve environmental challenges (i.e., younger generations).

    Great youth-grown environmental solutions are already at play across the country and the world. Look to organizations such as Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, and Greening Forward. One could also look at any of the past winners of the Brower Youth Awards, Action for Nature Eco Hero Award, and the North American Association for Environmental Education’s 30 Under 30 for clues on who’s organizing around the country. 

    Great youth environmental organizing is already happening, however, these efforts will not have the capacity to continue without committed partnership from philanthropy. 

    How can philanthropy partner with young people to support youth-grown solutions?

    1. Mentorship: Adults can share their time and talent to mentor young people. Youth may lack the technical skills and relationships that come with time and experience. Adults can make introductions, provide feedback, and serve as a cheerleader. (For more on the roles of mentorship, see Huffington Post). 

    2. Funding: We must intentionally give to youth-grown environmental solutions because the systems at play tell us that we shouldn’t. Traditional philanthropy suggests that funding new ideas, new leadership, new organizations is risky. The narrative that exists says that if we go against the grain the people on the other end of the check will misuse the funds or not create the impact that they promised. 

    3. Sharing power: Many funders have expressed to me that they desire a more diverse, young set of grantees. They have expressed interest in creating youth board positions and advisory positions. These same adults, however, are often unwilling to let go of how things were done in the past. Consider that if things are going to change, sometimes those making the decisions have to change, too. 

    Perhaps the most significant advice I have for philanthropists who wish to support youth-grown environmental solutions is not only to give financially to these projects, but also to give-up traditional practices that limit room for new ideas and leadership. 

    Charles founded Greening Forward when he was 12 years old and has served numerous roles since, including as an environmental organizer and youth-adult partnerships strategist. He serves on the Board of Directors for The Captain Planet Foundation, a member of the Blue Sky Funders Forum. Engage with Charles on Twitter @corgbon.

    Well said, Charles! The

    Well said, Charles! The points you make are equally as compelling in the world of K-12 education and provide a rationale for funding programs or classrooms where teachers serve as facilitators and students gain "environmental know-how" by planning and carrying out real-world projects.


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