Overcoming Godzilla

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, June 2015

Despite federal neglect of environmental issues like climate change, local youth are taking meaningful action.

Perhaps the biggest revelation in the recent federal budget was what it once again didn’t offer for the environment and for young people. No surprise about the environment—that porch light went off when the current group and their lobbyists moved into the big house several years ago. 

As for our youth, well, they were alluded to only once on Budget Day, not in the document but in a careless comment made afterwards by the finance minister in response to concerns that increased tax-free savings opportunities (for those who can afford them) would dent the public coffers for years to come. 

Let’s leave some problems for Prime Minister Harper’s future granddaughter to solve, the minister suggested without giving any hint that he saw at least some absurdity in what he was saying. The Kafkaesque notion that we can shut out our youth now but call on them later to fix the mess of our exorbitance is enough to make fair-minded people everywhere gnash good teeth right down to the gum. No wonder young people don’t bother to vote, which only gives governments further licence to roll the grub wagons ever more inward around their own self interests. It’s a perverse cause-and-effect scenario and the worst of it is that democracy’s the victim, slowly bleeding to death from the micro-cuts of myriad ballots simply left unused. 

Thankfully that won’t happen if our local youth have anything to say about it, and through YesBC—Youth for Environmental Stewardship BC—they’ve been saying a lot in recent years. YesBC is a dynamic grassroots initiative founded in 2006 by Judy Fainstein who figured there had to be a better way to inspire and engage youth than the nicely packaged “top-down” projects her teenage sons kept bringing home from school. After polling students about their own concerns and priorities—ostensibly the environment—she developed a proposal, procured seed money and slowly began making her way into the schools.

Tenacity and a strong sense of mission kept her going but so did teachers who were inspired to help and students who jumped at the opportunity to take meaningful action on their own issues. In less than a decade YesBC has accomplished much, having reached more than 10,000 students and helped spawn several offshoot initiatives including tree planting and urban camping ventures as well as the establishment of Claremont High School’s Institute for Global Solutions. 

“This is a unique, youth-driven program that empowers young people to lead the way to a sustainable future,” Fainstein explains. “We provide leadership opportunities but the students determine the direction. They engage in democracy and current issues long before they’re old enough to vote. Every year they take more ownership and it’s inspiring to see them develop as leaders.”

Two months ago a few hundred young leaders from 15 local schools gathered at Oak Bay High for the 5th annual YesBC Youth Climate Action Summit and Off the Grid Music Festival. (That’s right—off the grid music. A couple of solar panels and a row of bikes plugged into an energy recovery system can indeed power a mighty big sound and light show.)

The students largely ran the event: They coordinated the logistics and led the workshops. They provided some of the entertainment and recruited young community leaders for the panel discussion. 

Her Honour, Judith Guichon, Lieutenant Governor of BC, and local MLA Andrew Weaver both accepted invitations to speak. Her Honour used the keynote address to outline her own new program for youth, Stewards of the Future, which is now also partnered with YesBC.

Community partnerships and collaborations are crucial but so is funding, says Fainstein, who’s grateful for the consistent support of sponsors including BC Hydro Powersmart and the CRD Climate Action Program. “This means programs and events can be offered free of charge.”

One thing’s clear: The YesBC crowd will shape the future, not be haplessly swept along. Take alumnus Ravi Parmar, for example (one of many). He’s the 2012 Belmont graduate who in grade eleven spearheaded a successful campaign to have his aging school finally replaced. And last fall, on his 20th birthday, he was elected as trustee for School District 62. 

“One brain isn’t going to solve the world; it’s going to be a group of people,” he observed at the end of the 2012 Summit. Indeed. I hope he runs for prime minister one day. 

I’m feeling better about democracy too. YesBC is tending its wounds.

Writer, master gardener, and mother Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic has both concern and admiration for today’s young people.