This story is part of Fix’s Mentorship Issue exploring the unique ways climate leaders found their calling, and how new approaches to mentorship are upending old power structures. Check out the full issue here.
A little over 10,000 people live in Pella, Iowa, a city in the heart of the nation’s second-largest state producer of all things agricultural. One-tenth of the population attends Central College, a school known for its affiliation with a reformed Protestant church.
Leighia VanDam is a 21-year-old senior there. Born and raised in Indianola, another of Iowa’s smaller cities, VanDam grew up amid a culture rooted in religion and agriculture.
After two mission trips to El Salvador when she was younger, she began to understand how increasing droughts, storms, and other compounding consequences of human-induced climate change devastate rural subsistence farmers, or those who grow enough crops just to feed themselves and their families. “These farmers are usually contributing the least to climate change and experiencing the harshest consequences,” she says. “Seeing that made me want to be directly involved in mobilizing change.”
Back in Iowa, one in every five residents work in the agriculture industry. And as climate change gets worse, so will the economic and social consequences for the 34 percent of the state’s population making less than a liveable wage. “Farming is very important here. Drive anywhere, and you’re driving through a field,” VanDam says. She is worried about the ways increasing flooding, droughts, and water contamination are disproportionately impacting the frontline communities around her. “Climate change will affect Iowa farmers in the same way that it’s affecting farmers abroad.”
VanDam is president of Central College’s sustainability organization and one of only two Defend Our Future campus ambassadors in Iowa. The nonprofit mobilizes young people interested in environmental justice, clean energy, and climate solutions. At least once a year she meets with representatives from six of Iowa’s legislative offices. The policies she advocates for change, but the mission always stays the same: get the people in power to start caring about the climate crisis.
Most recently, VanDam paid a visit to U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and Representative Cindy Axne to gauge their support for the infrastructure bill, which has since become law. If they were surprised to find themselves being lobbied by a student, they shouldn’t have been. “I definitely think that the power and inspiration that comes from our generation — our passion — can encourage older folks to take part in [environmental] action,” VanDam says.
Hers is one of countless young voices pivotal to helping chart the course of the climate movement. Some lobby policymakers to endorse climate-friendly legislation, others engage their communities through organizing, and many take to social media to drum up awareness and spur people to action. These youthful activists and emerging leaders are demanding that their peers join them and, in a role reversal, showing their elders how to get things done. No matter where they live, they are connected by a shared crusade: cultivating climate activists of all ages.
Throughout the country, the young adults of Gen Z — most commonly designated as those born after 1996 — are overwhelmingly concerned about climate change. A 2021 Pew Research survey found that 76 percent consider it among their biggest societal priorities, and more than one-third call it their leading concern. About one in three have contacted an elected official, participated in a rally, or donated or volunteered for a climate change organization during the last year. Millennials share similar views, but those figures eclipse those of Gen X and boomers; only 23 percent of Gen X and 21 percent of boomers reported participating in at least one activity to help address climate change, while 27 percent and 29 percent, respectively, consider climate change a top concern.
“You can see across the generations that climate change is a priority, but how we address it differs. And how we personalize it differs. It’s so personal to Gen Z,” says Christina Limpert, a social scientist at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. As a qualitative researcher, Limpert has spent two decades analyzing the role of culture and society in shaping environmental attitudes and practices.
While researching her book, Words of Change: Climate, Limpert dug into the intersection of intergenerational climate activism and social media. She found one key thing that makes many young adults such effective teachers: their unprecedented willingness to address policymakers and politicians directly — and forcefully.
“Gen Zers are not afraid to speak truth to power, and they combine facts about climate change with their fear and anger to communicate this particular generational urgency,” Limpert says.
That urgency gets results. According to Pew, about four in 10 Americans say seeing young adults demanding climate action increases their own interest in addressing the issue.
The players setting the policy agenda
After more than a decade in education, University of Hartford professor and environmental researcher Katharine Owens draws inspiration from passionate activists like VanDam — young leaders who are getting their peers and elders to pay attention to the vexing issues their generation will inherit.
“Instead of throwing in the towel, or giving up, they are rolling up their sleeves and trying to fix the problems — and they’re not waiting for someone who is older or who has more degrees to tell them to do this or that,” Owens says. “They’re just getting right to work.”
Sahara Williams is one of the younger leaders Owens is taking notes from. The 21-year-old heads up the UHart student government’s efforts to promote diversity and sustainability on campus. She’s also one of a handful of students on a sustainability council, where she and Owens have been advocating side-by-side to get the university to hire a full-time sustainability manager.
“She’s got more experience in a lot of ways than I do,” says Owens, citing Williams’s interest in finding solutions for local and global issues, such as launching a campus food pantry to fight food waste and spreading awareness on the ways unchecked carbon emissions are causing famines in developing countries. “If I had to summarize it, she’s really living the classic ‘think globally, act locally’ idea,” Owens says.
While climate is a growing priority among younger generations, Williams has still found it a challenge convincing her peers and older adults, both on and off campus, to take action on causes she fights for. She’s troubled by climate apathy — particularly among older Americans detached from on-the-ground environmental issues.
“For my generation, climate change is a personal issue. But it’s not so much seen as a societal problem,” says Williams. “But we all need to work on it, you know? It’s something that all of us need to participate in.”
After learning more about the threats the warming world poses to agriculture in emerging nations, Williams decided to travel to Madagascar after she graduates next spring. She plans to work toward solving food insecurity in a nation where intensifying droughts have left more than a million people facing starvation.
In the meantime, the senior has been encouraging her peers to help her effect positive change, promoting everything from mitigating local food waste to reducing campus water usage. Her elders, like Owens, find themselves reinvigorated by Williams’s optimism and the work of other young activists who stay committed in the face of slow progress.
“You don’t just show up one day and give a presentation, and then everybody changes the policy. It can be discouraging,” Owens says. “Students have a very different kind of power … they bring a sort of disruption that I think makes a huge impression on politicians.”
TikTok creators also tap into that novel influence. Alex Silva is a 19-year-old climate activist in Portland, Oregon, and the founder of EcoTok, a collective of 20 influencers who promote environmental action to their 115,000 followers, largely made up of Gen Zers. He’s another influence for Owens.
“Many of us will never ever have that many people read or engage with something that we say or write,” says Owens, who uses TikTok to engage younger audiences with plastic-pollution awareness. She looks at Silva as a great example of how young adults are mobilizing other young adults to get involved and have political impact. “His message is, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ and, ‘This is who you need to talk to.’”
‘We’re quite literally fighting to survive’
Platforms like TikTok and Twitter are so effective that a 2017 study found that policymakers often use them for climate change research. That’s what Silva is counting on with EcoTok, which has surpassed 2 million likes on the platform and has been dubbed “The Hype House of the Environment.”
“Our goal includes being catalysts for change,” Silva says. The point is to rally the people watching so that they implement climate solutions within their communities. “I think it sends a great message to older generations saying, ‘We’re doing the work,’” he says.
Silva joins a budding list of young voices who are rewriting the climate agenda, one that includes the likes of Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, and Scottish youth activist Lauren MacDonald, who made headlines in October when she publicly called out Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden for his role in millions of climate-related deaths. When governments, policymakers, and corporations contribute to the bigger problem, young activists of all backgrounds and experiences are there to remind everyone what’s at stake. “We’re just making it clear that this is the kind of future we want, these are the leaders we want,” Silva says. “We’re quite literally fighting to survive,” he says.
Eban Goodstein understands. He’s been working in climate education for 22 years, most recently as director of several environmental programs at Bard College in New York — including the WorldWide Teach-In for Climate and Justice, a virtual event in March 2022 that aims to bring together 1,000 universities, schools, and faith-based communities across the world. Now more than ever, he’s counting on climate-concerned youth to mobilize awareness and support for solutions-oriented movements.
“Student activists are folks who are working really hard to save the planet,” Goodstein says. “This is an extraordinary moment in which we’re living, where people all across the world have tremendous agency to influence the course of the planet, the future of humanity, and millions of species on the earth.”
Young activists are redefining the climate agenda by expertly communicating the urgency for global, federal, and local climate-friendly legislation. Plus, they are able to largely ignore the politicization of climate change — something that creates sharp partisan divides among older Americans. “We all have the background sort of despair about the slow pace of progress and the challenges ahead,” says Goodstein.
He’s encouraged by younger generations pointedly innovating ways to make a difference. “I work with young people who have decided that this is the life they want to lead. And there’s no place I’d rather be,” he says.
There’s no place Richard Gallon would rather be, either. The 31-year-old lives in Phoenix and has also shaped a career around working with youth activists. His role as a Defend Our Future training manager means he’s teaching the nonprofit’s young members everything from effectively lobbying legislators to understanding how climate change intersects with social and environmental injustice.
Gallon believes the divide between younger generations and their elders stems from the simple fact that Gen Z faces a lifetime altered by climate change; they will have to deal firsthand with the implications of the decisions being made now. “The average age of someone in Congress is between 65 and 70. They’re most likely not going to live to see the true devastation that this [climate crisis] is going to create,” he says.
More than 2,500 miles away, VanDam is hyperaware of that disconnect. And like others of her generation, she’s taking matters into her own hands; as a Defend Our Future ambassador, VanDam is hard at work urging legislators to listen to her and her peers as they advocate for things like renewable energy, cleaner water, and disaster-recovery programs for frontline communities in the rural Midwest.
“Iowa is a relatively red state, and that’s reflected in our senators and representatives,” she says. “So I try to find things that people are interested in, and show them how climate change relates to that. I show them what they can do to defend that specific thing.”
That’s not all she’s doing, either. From organizing secondhand fashion shows that educate people about the polluting fast-fashion industry to wellness events promoting reusable menstrual products to hosting environmental editorial workshops, the college senior is rallying attention for scores of interconnected climate issues on a local, national, and global level.
For youth activists like VanDam, it’s not enough to just spread the word about the problems, but to lead the way for her peers and elders by implementing the solutions at hand. As far as she’s concerned, young voices aren’t just lighting a fuse for change in the climate movement — they’re stoking the blaze.
Explore more from Fix’s Mentorship Issue:
- On mentorship: Climate leaders in conversation
- Revitalizing Indigenous knowledge means reimagining mentorship
- 6 environmental leaders of color imagine how mentorship can be more inclusive