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  November/December 1997 Features:
Child's Plague
Class Acts
Into the Outdoors
A Planet Unfree
 
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Sierra Magazine
Class Acts

by B. J. Bergman and Tracy Baxter

Childhood used to imply powerlessness. "Wait till I grow up . . ." groused kids everywhere, believing—with their parents and teachers and U.S. senators—that influence was the province of the old, or at least the respectably middle-aged. The wrinkled were running the store, and the young need not apply.

But today's kids can't wait. They can't wait for adults to fix things, and they can't wait for adulthood to do it themselves. From grammar schools to college campuses, kids are taking their futures into their own hands. It's not a children's crusade, exactly. It's more like thousands and thousands of our best and brightest looking around and deciding—whether in groups or all on their own—to act.

These pages offer only a glimpse at what some young people are doing to change their world. As for the many others equally deserving of recognition, we trust they'll understand. As they know better than anyone, you have to start somewhere. —B. J. Bergman


Defenders of the Rainforest

A year ago, Defenders of the Rainforest's Web site told of a noisy protest at a Mitsubishi car dealership in Worcester, Massachusetts. "The demonstration," it proudly reported, "was organized by me: 14-year-old Jonathan Luman!"

If Luman believes in direct talk, he believes more strongly in direct action. Defenders, which he founded in 1996, aims to save the world's rainforests through nonviolent rallies, letter-writing, and a boycott campaign waged against Mitsubishi, the auto and electronics giant that is one of the world's largest corporate loggers of tropical woods. Luman wants "every person to know what's happening to the rainforest," a goal he pursues both online and on the picket line.

"I used to say, 'I'll do something later, after college,' " explains Luman, who's just entered his sophomore year in high school. "But I read that in 50 years there wouldn't be anything to save, and I thought, 'I've got to get started now.' " Eschewing the school-club route, he and his friends joined Rainforest Action Network to gain access to information and resources. From the beginning, he's struggled to be taken seriously. "A lot of adults won't listen to teens because they're younger, but I tell my group the harder you work, the more they listen," Luman says. But peers aren't always more receptive: "A lot of other teenagers react like, 'They're not stopping, you're not making a difference.' "

None of which deters Luman, who draws his inspiration from the likes of Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr. "When I say I want to save the rainforest, I don't mean just me," he explains. "I want to organize people." —B.J.B.

Defenders of the Rainforest
9 Perkins Terrace, Worcester, MA 01605-3706; (508) 756-1819
e-mail treefriend@hotmail.com


Leadership Initiative for Earth (LIFE)

As a teenager, Jeff Gibbs' life was changed by a boat trip to a northern Canadian rainforest that was threatened by logging. A decade later, Gibbs founded Leadership Initiative for Earth as a way to instill "a sense of hope" and long-term responsibility for the environment in today's youth.

"Movements lose steam very quickly if they're not rooted in people's knowledge," asserts Gibbs, who started LIFE three years ago. "The experiment we're doing here is, let's drop the dogma of environmentalism and just look at the natural world and learn about it."

Toward that end, his Vancouver-based nonprofit runs two major programs: the LIFEboat flotilla, in which 200 youth from throughout British Columbia take off in a fleet of boats to explore the Gulf Islands; and LIFEtrain, which brings 75 youngsters to communities throughout the province whose economies are based on resource-depleting industries like fishing and logging. Participants are expected to volunteer for environmentally related projects before they depart, and to record their trip experiences in words or photographs.

For Gibbs, the aim is less to rally today's young activists around specific issues than to inculcate tomorrow's adults with the concept of sustainability. "We want them to go into different fields-not just activism-in order to promote a broader social change," he says. "It's easier to do a rally call and get young people galvanized into a protest, but often there's not enough knowledge and critical thinking going on. To do very long-term change, the answer is education. The answer is how we raise our young people." —B.J.B.

LIFE, Box 371, 1917 West Fourth Ave.,
Vancouver, British Columbia V6J 1M7, Canada; (604) 687-5558


Kids For A Clean Environment (Kids FACE)

Melissa Poe was nine when fate intervened in the form of an episode of Michael Landon's Highway to Heaven. "It showed what the world would look like if people didn't pay attention to air pollution, " she recalls. "People were wearing gas masks."

The TV program scared her. But it also motivated her. She wrote to then— President Bush, pleading with him to "do something" or "we will all die of pollution." In reply, the White House sent her a form letter advising her to stay in school and off drugs.

Unheard but undaunted, Melissa tried another approach. With the aid of her mom and a local advertising company, she posted a mock-up of her letter on a billboard in her hometown of Nashville. She followed up with another in the nation's capital, and then hundreds more throughout the country.

If the president never quite got the message, others did. And still do, thanks to the club she founded in 1989, Kids For A Clean Environment, or Kids FACE. Intended to help her peers do "simple things" like planting trees, recycling, and writing letters, the once-tiny club has mushroomed into a force for nature with a membership exceeding 300,000 in thousands of chapters worldwide. The club offers young readers tips on getting involved through its bimonthly newsletter, Kids FACE Illustrated.

Now a high school senior, the 18-year-old Poe spends "pretty much any spare time I have" on the nonprofit club—for which she still serves as "Child Executive Officer"—and on telling kids "not to just sit on their butts, but to get out and do something."

"Don't limit yourself because you think you lack something," she advises the next generation of environmentalists. "Just start with doing something small. Small things add up." —B.J.B.

Kids FACE, P.O. Box 158254,
Nashville, TN 37210; (800) 952-3223;
e-mail kidsface@mindspring.com


Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!)

The teens who formed the nucleus of YES! in 1990 were less concerned about their qualifications for saving the planet than about the need to try. "The essence of YES! is passion," says Joshua Sage, one of its earliest members. And from necessity is born invention: "Whatever we have to learn, we just learn it."

Part performance troupe, part rolling revival meeting, part summer camp, YES! was conceived as a way to bring a message of empowerment to kids who might otherwise take "no" for an answer. Its original medium was a series of rollicking school-assembly presentations on the environmental crisis; by 1994, the 14-member tour had ripped through North America, Costa Rica, Australia, and New Zealand, reaching an estimated 150,000 students a year. YES! is currently focused on its nationwide activist training camps, at which youthful participants learn leadership skills and glean insights from veterans like 85-year-old archdruid David Brower. At last count, the group had operated 33 weeklong activist-training camps in seven countries.

Reared in the mountains of British Columbia, Sage found himself increasingly disturbed by "the devastation of entire valleys" by voracious timber companies. "One day I looked down at this huge clearcut and I just woke up," he recalls. Before long he'd moved to Santa Cruz, California, to work and tour with YES! His latest project is the Connect campaign, an effort to unite young environmentalists by providing them with inspiration and resources online.

An elder at 25, Sage insists "there's no age limit" for those trying to have a positive impact on the world around them. "What it comes down to," he says, "is we're responsible for our situation. It's a choice. You can be a victim, or you can take action." —B.J.B.

YES!, 420 Bronco Rd., Soquel, CA 95073; (888) 937-6946
e-mail yes@yesworld.org; or check out their Web site www.yesworld.org


Tree Musketeers

"We just wanted to plant a tree, that's all," says Tara Church. "It just sort of grew." The tree, a sycamore, was Church's way of sprucing up what she describes as "a wasteland," hemmed in by Los Angeles International Airport, an oil refinery, and a sewage treatment plant, near her home in El Segundo, California. A decade later the barren strip of land is a small oasis of green. And a modest effort at civic improvement by a handful of 8-year-old Brownies is now Tree Musketeers, fearlessly spreading encouragement to kids ages 10 through 18 to help clean up their own communities.

"Society in general does not provide a framework for kids to get involved beyond soccer and cheerleading," observes Church, now a 19-year-old student at the University of Southern California. "People always want to do something for them, but don't give them an opportunity to give back."

That's where Tree Musketeers comes in, answering letters "from kids who want to do something" and maintaining a telephone hotline for those who can't wait for the mail. The organization—run "by and for kids" (with help from adults, including Church's mother, Gail, its executive director)—has no members, but conducts national and regional youth summits as part of its efforts to inspire new leaders.

"Every single action of every single person is extremely valuable," Church says, when asked what she's learned in 11 years as an activist. "We all have the capacity to change the world. And we have a duty to take care of everything we've been blessed with."

Last spring, Church attended the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, where she and Kids FACE founder Melissa Poe hatched the One in a Million campaign. Church plans to present a list of every one of the million kids who plants a tree under the program to President Clinton, and she plans to plant the millionth tree on the White House lawn.—B.J.B.

Tree Musketeers, 136 Main St., El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 322-0263; toll-free hotline; (800) 473-0263
e-mail treemsktrs@aol.com


Jason Spanel

Jason Spanel didn't set out to change the world, just a three-acre portion of it. But thanks to his efforts, people in and around southern Illinois will be learning about the value of sensitive wetlands for decades to come.

In 1992, Spanel was a member of Boy Scout Troop 33 in Eldorado, a town of 5,200 not far from the Kentucky border. "I was 12 and looking for an Eagle Scout project," he recalls. What he found was a littered mess in front of a shopping center in nearby Harrisburg, "a big muddy basin" that served as a temporary holding pond for runoff from an adjoining lot. "My dad suggested, 'Hey, maybe we can do something about this.' He came up with the idea of a wetland. I didn't know what it was."

Today, the 18-year-old Northern Illinois University freshman easily ticks off the benefits of wetlands: providing habitat for wildlife, preventing flooding, recharging the water supply. That's what comes of building a wetland from scratch.

Spanel's neighbors are also getting an education. Scattered among 300 trees and 100 varieties of moist-soil plants (donated by the state Department of Conservation and private nurseries in Tennessee and Wisconsin) are signs explaining the significance of these fast-vanishing ecosystems. There are plans to build a hiking trail, the better for visitors to see the deer, frogs, and red-winged blackbirds that thrive in the swampy lot.

"Some people laugh at you. They think, 'This guy's a big dork,' " says Spanel, recalling the reaction from some peers. "But more and more wetlands are being turned into farmland. Twenty-five years from now, people will know what a wetland is. This one will still exist." —B.J.B.


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Student Environmental Action Coalition

According to its mission statement, the Student Environmental Action Coalition, or SEAC, aims "to uproot environmental injustices through action and education" and by "challenging the power structure" that perpetuates those injustices.

But Chris Ford, the group's national council coordinator, puts its raison d'être—organizing students around a variety of environmental causes—in less formal terms. "We want to get them while they're still full of piss and vinegar," he says, "and turn them into lifelong activists."

Student-run, the Tucson-based SEAC conducts a summer activist-training institute and regional conferences, and maintains a militant edge reminiscent of earlier student movements. "We try to get at the root of the problem," which to many SEACers means multinational corporations, explains Ford. (A recent issue of Threshold, their quarterly newsletter, focuses on the struggle by Arizona's Navajo to resist forced relocation from Black Mesa, where Peabody Coal hopes to expand an already sprawling strip mine.) But the organization has saved its most serious firepower for Tucson's own University of Arizona, rallying members coast-to-coast in an effort to block construction of a massive telescope smack in the last remaining habitat of the endangered Mt. Graham red squirrel. In addition to 600 autonomous chapters nationwide, SEAC boasts a People of Color Caucus, a Women's Caucus, and a Queer Caucus.

What unites its 10,000 members, says Ford, is a desire "to make a difference instead of just being angry." A theater arts major currently on hiatus from the University of

Arizona, Ford became an activist after seeing a film about the telescope project three years ago. "I'd wanted to get involved," he says, "but I hadn't really found what I wanted to do yet till SEAC came along."

And that, says Ford, is the group's real mission: to provide youthful seekers with the resources, information, and skills to weed out environmental injustice for years to come. -B.J.B.

SEAC, P.O. Box 248, Tucson AZ 85702; (520) 903-0128
e-mail seac@seac.org


Sierra Student Coalition

Colin Wellencamp, an affable junior at St. Louis University and a three-year veteran of the Sierra Student Coalition, emphatically rejects the notion that the natural world is somehow removed from us. "The environment isn't something out there. It isn't just the pristine places. It's where we are, too."

In the five years since the group's creation, 30,000 youth have hopped on board in 23 states to champion planetary health. With her SSC section, Audra Randsburg of Indiana took on a local gas station that was dumping antifreeze in a creek. Peter Kirn and Kamala Sankaram participated in a student action to keep developers' pollution out of water supplies intended for New York City's poorest neighborhoods. By constructing "trees" from bicycle wheels, hub caps, dolls, and bottles they collected from local streams and school grounds, Rita Turner and Meg Arenberg of Maryland urged their community to think twice about generating garbage.

Born in the wake of the first Earth Day, SSC volunteers have grown up during the mainstreaming of environmentalism, witnessing both progress and peril. For many, those events inspired a sense of personal responsibility. Now, says Sarah Yearout of Oregon, "it makes no sense throwing useful things away or not doing little things like taking public transportation."

However, not everyone in the "Generation E" age group is conscientiously fighting environmental degradation-or is, for that matter, even aware of the battles.

"There's a lot of apathy out there," admits Jeff Kane of New Hampshire. Patrick Dillard of Rhode Island agrees. "A lot of young people have lost faith in their future. Corporate influences add to the problem by damaging the way we think about our communities, fragmenting our concerns." Coalition members also find themselves grappling with young people's fear of not fitting in, which Dillard attributes to the market's stranglehold on youth values.

That's why restoring young people's faith in their own strength and tapping into their energy requires an organizing approach that isn't preachy or rigid, says Sage Rockermann, SSC director for the current school year. "We don't demand that you be a vegetarian or that you never drive a car. Just do what you can." That flexibility has paid impressive dividends. This year, for example, a "dorm storm" at Sarah Lawrence College generated 150 phone calls from the campus in favor of strengthening the Clean Air Act, one percent of the calls made to the EPA on the issue.

Dave Karpf, a self-described "diehard," thrives in the freedom to choose his goals: this year he testified before Maryland's state legislature to save an old-growth forest, petitioned tirelessly for clean air, protested Nigeria's environmental and human-rights violations by demonstrating at a local Shell station, and rallied other student activists against a billion-dollar highway. "I love having the feeling there's a movement around me," he says. "And anytime I start feeling down or tired, I can always call an SSC member for inspiration."

With the SSC's public-land, clean-air, and corporate-responsibility campaigns in high gear, plus hundreds of local issues to tackle, the overarching strategy for action remains simple. "You can link every problem from poverty on down to an environmental complication," says Wellencamp. "Make the connection, and bring it all home to people's backyards." —Tracy Baxter

Sierra Student Coalition,
145 Waterman St., Providence, RI 02906; (401) 861-6012
e-mail ssc-info@ssc.org

Sierra interns Karen Hébert, Kendra Smith, and Tom Lombardo provided research for "Class Acts."


Other Youth Groups Working for a Greener Planet

Earth Force
1908 Mount Vernon Ave., 2nd floor, Alexandria, VA 22301;
(703) 299-9400.

Environmental Youth Alliance
P.O. Box 34097, Station D, Vancouver, British Columbia V6J 4M1, Canada;
(604) 873-0617; e-mail ddragan@istar.ca.

Foundation for the Future of Youth
11426 Rockville Pike, Suite 100, Rockville, MD 20852;
(301) 468-9431; e-mail dpines@health.org.

Free the Planet!
218 D St. S.E., Washington, DC 20003;
(202) 547-3656; e-mail freetheplanet@essential.org.

Global Response
P.O. Box 7490, Boulder, CO 80306-7490;
(303) 444-0306; e-mail globresponse@igc.apc.org.

Global Rivers Environmental Education Network
206 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 150, Ann Arbor, MI 48104;
(313) 761-8142; e-mail green@green.org.

Kids Against Pollution
P.O. Box 22, Newport, NY 13416;
(315) 845-8597; e-mail kap@borg.com.

Kids for Saving Earth Worldwide
P.O. Box 421118, Plymouth, MN 55442;
(612) 559-1234; e-mail kseww@aol.com.

Kids! Renew America
1400 16th St. N.W., Suite 710, Washington, DC 20036;
(202) 922-RENEW; e-mail renewamerica@igc.apc.org.

National 4-H Council
7100 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, MD 20815;
(301) 961-2908; e-mail choksi@fourhcouncil.edu.

The Natural Guard
142 Howard Ave., New Haven, CT 06519;
(203) 787-0229; e-mail tng@snet.net.

Student Conservation Association
P.O. Box 550, Charlestown, NH 03603;
(603) 543-1700.


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