ACROSS THE GLOBE, young people are becoming more anxious, angry, and passionate about the state of the planet every single day. In the Bay Area, wildfires burn increasing acreages of land, intense heat worsens drought, and air pollution is a major concern for public health.
It’s clear that the youth believe climate change to be one of the most pressing issues of the century — though they also believe it is becoming increasingly difficult to address. Teens have also reported the environment having an impact on their physical and mental health, especially since their generation must deal with its magnifying consequences.
California’s status as a worldwide climate leader has left many young leaders feeling that the older ones are too slow to take action. Tired of seeing state officials from older generations fail to make laws that will meet international climate goals and protect their futures, the youth are ready to take matters into their own hands and turning to activism.
Groups such as Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action, Bay Area Youth Climate Summit, and Youth vs. Apocalypse are organizations where students ranging from the sixth grade to graduating seniors come together and work toward their climate goals. Their work takes the form of protest organizing, educational training, and lobbying officials on local and state levels.
Meet Diya Kandhra: an 18-year-old from Morgan Hill. She’s been a member of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action for two years, since the summer leading up to her junior year of high school. The focus of her activism is to mitigate the climate crisis through policy.
Meet Bruno Ong: a 17-year-old from San Francisco. Since joining Bay Area Youth Climate Summit a little over a year ago, he’s had a key role planning community events that promote environmental stewardship among his peers.
Meet Marlay’ja Hackett and Christopher Soriano: both 15-year-olds from Oakland. Their journeys with Youth vs. Apocalypse began when a cause for environmental justice transpired in their own community and have become advocates against fossil fuels in the process.
For these young change-makers, climate change is inescapable; its proximity and looming presence permeates their daily lives, prompting them to take immediate action in their own neighborhoods.
The following stories of these young climate activists from the Bay Area demonstrate their efforts to prove that they have the knowledge, skills, and passion it takes to mold the world they want to live in; that there is validity in their role as stakeholders in deciding their future.
Diya Kandhra, 18, has always felt drawn to the environment — she grew up reading stories about endangered species in National Geographic and hearing about climate-related degradation on television.
During the summer leading up to her junior year of high school, she attended a Climate Speaker Series hosted by Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action.
As state legislative officials and energy CEOs spoke about emerging solutions to cutting carbon emissions, Diya realized that policy was the missing piece between hearing about emerging technologies and actually seeing them implemented in her community. This sentiment stuck with her as she decided to join Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action.
Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action (SVYCA) is a nonprofit that advocates for the fight against climate change through its network of nine action teams throughout the Bay Area, recruiting passionate individuals in Sunnyvale, Fremont, San Jose, and more. Their advocacy takes the form of leadership workshops, climate strikes, and an advocacy team that meets with state legislators.
Diya quickly took on a leadership role as the co-founder of an action team in her hometown of Morgan Hill. Taking on this role thrust her into the realities of policy and litigation — an experience she thought she anticipated much later in life within a professional career. She and her team co-founder Jared Lebovitz began to educate and train her peers on how to persuasively present ideas to their City Council and make public comments.
“This is what it means to electrify a building, this is what an ordinance is, this is what the state Legislature does. We had to explain how government works regarding climate policy,” she said.
With her newfound knowledge of government and climate policy, Diya joined SVYCA’s State Advocacy team and began working with her local government to develop a Climate Action Plan. Part of her experience in its development has involved attending legislative sessions and conducting research for climate priority bills to be heard in the State Legislature.
“Looking at the actual bills texts in our state Legislature is very much something I thought was limited to adult participation,” Diya pointed out. “A lot of the times, youth are just expected to like, clean up an area or make a presentation about climate change. But going the next step forward and actually talking to policymakers is really, really powerful.”
“A lot of the times, youth are just expected to like, clean up an area or make a presentation about climate change. But going the next step forward and actually talking to policymakers is really, really powerful.”Diya Kandhra
Many of the bills are devised by other nonprofit environmental organizations such as Greenbelt Alliance and the Sierra Club. Some of the bills Diya has helped pass address localized effects of climate change on her community, like Assembly Bill 73, which requires agricultural workers to be provided with N-95 masks during wildfire season.
Diya’s success in advocating for climate-related bills and working with elected officials proves that members of the younger generation are effective communicators and capable of honest contributions to the legislative process.
“If the adults in our lives could realize that youth really have the potential to be active in climate activism, we have the skills necessary to be valuable players on the table, then I think we could make a lot more progress towards climate change than we currently are doing,” she said.
“We have the most stake in it, and we can do the most about it. Even though it’s a very big burden on everyone’s shoulders, we have a stake in trying to ensure our own livable future.”
Now a recent high school graduate, Diya will be attending University of California, Berkeley in the fall, pursuing a degree in environmental economics and policy. This summer, she helped to plan SVYCA’s Youth Leadership Summit 2022 in August. She still plans to stay involved with SVYCA through their State Advocacy Team.
Bridging the generational gap
While a consensus among the youth is that adults in power pose barriers to their advocacy, Diya’s experience working with her local city council is one example of the growing number of adults in government who value their passion and think it critical to educate and engage young people on the legislative processes that affect their futures.
Yvonne Martínez Beltrán, a Morgan Hill council member who acted as a mentor to the SVYCA Morgan Hill team, admitted that working with the young group of activists was one of the best experiences she’s had on council.
“They’re just incredibly resilient. They are very resourceful. The youth have the advantage of having better access to technology and I think that they aren’t afraid to use it. It was really powerful,” she said.
During the process of creating a climate action plan for their city, Beltrán recalled that the SVYCA came to every meeting prepared with research and completed every task they were given. Among all the other environmental organizations involved, it was Diya and her colleagues that stood out for their passion.
“When you hear from the youth, they have a different voice that’s often not heard. We have a responsibility to hear that voice. They’re the next generation of thought-leaders that we are going to need to solve this particular problem.”
Bruno Ong, 17, was motivated to take part in climate activism through a love for buildings, especially inspired by his bike rides around San Francisco.
“I’ve always been very interested in buildings and always playing with Legos. A love for design and biking around the city led me to an interest in sustainable city design and urban planning,” he said.
When a close friend encouraged him to apply to Bay Area Youth Climate Summit, Bruno viewed the opportunity as a chance to converge his sustainability interests with a broader community of his peers that were passionate about climate change.
Based in San Francisco, the Bay Area Youth Climate Summit (BAYCS) defines itself as a youth-led activism network that strives to mobilize Bay Area students by bringing climate action to their high schools.
The organization began in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, as a way to build momentum around climate change through virtual activism. The heart of BAYCS centers around their namesake of climate summits: an annual event held every fall, filled with workshops, networking, and the creation of climate action plans for their high schools.
For participating members, being able to engage with climate activism is a silver lining of both the pandemic and growing anxiety about climate change.
“There is the part that everyone says, where we’re the future and we’re inheriting this Earth, but I also think it’s more than just that. I think we’ve grown up with the direct impacts.”Bruno Ong
“We started during COVID, so I feel like there’s definitely a kind of despair. I think we were trying to paint our group in a more climate solutions-based light, so a more positive outlook,” said Bruno.
A current co-chair of the organization, Bruno brings his passion for sustainability to BAYCS through his work on the workshops team, organizing year-round events that pertain to climate solutions to counteract the negative connotation climate change generally brings.
With sharpened communication skills, Bruno has coordinated a diverse array of workshops that address different climate concerns. His efforts include a “Restoration Day” with Sutro Stewards, a nonprofit that focuses on the ecological restoration of Mount Sutro, and a Sustainable Architecture Workshop that featured East Bay architect Devi Dutta-Choudhury, who shared with the students in attendance how she incorporates sustainable elements into her designs.
The work of students like Bruno promotes environmental stewardship among their peers by exposing them to the different facets of climate change, whether it’s learning to care for a forest or reimagining city structures to be more sustainable.
By putting together these immersive events, Bruno and BAYCS aim to give their young community a sense of hope for the future of the planet. Bruno sees the urgency to resolve some of the “eco-anxiety” that comes with the changing climate, especially for his generation.
“There is the part that everyone says, where we’re the future and we’re inheriting this Earth, but I also think it’s more than just that. I think we’ve grown up with the direct impacts,” he explained, “I’m a runner, so the wildfires in California have been pretty devastating. Seeing those really impacts you from such a young age.”
Working with BAYCS, Bruno has seen the unique values of an entirely youth-led organization.
“I think, for one, maybe it’s more approachable to have an event led by your peers,” he said. “Keeping a closer community within the Bay Area, I think there’s value to that as well.”
Entering his senior year at Lick-Wilmerding High School, Bruno will be a co-chair of the school’s first Environmental Chair position. He plans to shape the role with a focus on volunteering, similar to the workshops. The role also entails implementing the climate action plans devised at the summits to address his school’s levels of energy intake and carbon footprint.
Bruno continues his activism with a positive outlook on climate change, “It’s showing me how climate is intertwined with so many walks of life and so many aspects of life.”
Strength in numbers
Community-based collaborations like the workshops Bruno coordinates can expand vast networks of environmental organizations across the state while amplifying youth involvement at local levels.
For the Greenbelt Alliance, a shared mission of climate solutions and advocacy made a partnership with the Bay Area Youth Climate Summit “a great fit,” according to executive director Amanda Brown-Stevens.
“It is a tough time to be a teen today — there is a lot of worry about the future, and this can lead to anxiety and other challenges,” Brown-Stevens said.
When the two organizations collaborated for a youth art contest, a common goal to help community members understand climate-related risks was reached as students created art that portrayed nature-based solutions to climate change. The contest was just one example of how events planned by youth organizations align with the goals of those run by adults.
“Sharing opportunities for action and impact can help teens see how they can make a difference in building a better future,” Brown-Stevens said.
Marlay’ja Hackett and Christopher Soriano
For some teens in the Bay Area, their activism is not only rooted in a passion for the environment, but rather a matter of environmental justice for their community.
Marlay’ja Hackett, 15, has been organizing with Youth vs. Apocalypse (YVA) for more than two years. She was first introduced to climate activism when an adult advisor from the organization came to the middle school she was attending at the time and informed students of a coal terminal being built in West Oakland, which would pollute the surrounding air with fossil fuel emissions.
In West Oakland, a history of redlining and discriminatory housing policies have pushed Black, Latino, and other BIPOC communities into neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by air pollution. This leads to health issues such as high rates of asthma and risk of other respiratory-related diseases.
Even as a sixth grader, Marlay’ja was no stranger to this issue in her community.
“The school I went to at the time, a lot of the students already had asthma. So it’s as if they’re adding onto an already bad issue, onto an already big problem,” she said. “It was directly inside of my community, so I felt obligated to do something about it.”
In her early days with YVA, Marlay’ja recalls making posters and lobbying city officials to stop the proposed coal terminal from becoming a reality.
The organization has since expanded their movement to focus on the broader issue of climate justice in the Bay Area, addressing the issue by hosting press conferences and writing op-eds. In September of 2019, they organized a protest that amassed a crowd of over 30,000 passionate Bay Area residents.
Today, Marlay’ja’s activism with YVA has taken her all the way to the California state Capitol. She stood with fellow members of YVA and other environmental organizations across the state in support of California’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, or Senate Bill 1173: a bill that would require two government retirement agencies to divest from accepting funds from the fossil fuel industry.
The bill was set to be heard by the Assembly Committee on Public Employment and Retirement in June of this year, but was struck down when Assemblymember Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, who sits as the committee’s chair, removed it from the agenda; a harsh reminder of the state-level legislative barriers that prevent these goals from becoming a reality.
Stories like Diya’s are exemplary tales of the youth working with their local government to make real climate progress. But members of YVA face injustices in their community that lead them to grapple with climate change at the state-level, where leaders are less willing to listen.
In February 2019, YVA gained significant online prominence after an encounter with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of California’s two senators, went viral.
“I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein’s words rang, but Marlay’ja holds a different sentiment.
“We hear that argument a lot. But in the time that [they’ve] been alive, there hasn’t been much change,” she said of older elected leaders.
“We’ve been pushing for issues that it seems some statesmen and women don’t even pit,” she continued. “It’s as if we’re fighting the real battle while they’re sitting inside their offices.”
Alongside Marlay’ja in Sacramento was Christopher Soriano, 15, who has also been organizing with YVA since middle school.
He attributes much of his beginning with environmental activism to familial connections — Christopher first became involved with climate activism through his cousins Angelika and Angeline, who have been with YVA since its beginning campaigns against the coal terminal and founded an environmental justice club called Warriors for Justice at their middle school.
Just like Marlay’ja, Christopher’s activism is deeply tied to his community and upbringing, growing up in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.
“I’ve been living in Oakland for my whole life, and I can tell that Oakland is very much a predominantly people of color, low income, working community,” he stated.
Even at his young age, Christopher knows that the social and economic injustices of air pollution he’s witnessed will only be exacerbated by the warming climate.
“It sucks that there are people in power that, you know, are living the life they want to live, but then there are so many people that don’t get [that] luxury.”
Education as empowerment
While adults in government positions may not be the most responsive, educators are rising to support youth tackling the climate crisis in their communities.
Educating the youth about the localized effects of climate change in their communities, such as air pollution and air quality in West Oakland, can better inform their activism and prepare them for the potential health risks that they face.
Climate-centered curriculum, such as the models devised at Mycelium Youth Network, are being implemented in schools to benefit young students like Marlay’ja and Christopher.
Based in West Oakland, Mycelium Youth Network is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing climate resilient educational programming to low-income youth in the Bay Area.
“Clean Air is a Right” and “Eco-Mapping our Hoods” are two examples of their school curriculum that equips students with tools and skills to protect themselves against environmental threats, with lessons about how to read air quality monitoring systems or how to build clean air filters for their homes.
“They should feel that they know exactly how to navigate a situation so that they don’t feel so afraid and that they don’t feel so alone,” said Lil Milagro Henriquez, founder of Mycelium Youth Network.
“Every young person deserves to have the resources and the tools to feel empowered and excited about their future.”
Eyes on the future
In the face of climate change, the idea of the future weighs heavily on these young activists. Christopher’s frustration at the greed of past generations and the physical health issues present in his community motivate him to see real change.
“I just want to see a world that I can peacefully live in,” he said. “I don’t want future generations to have to worry about my generation ruining their life.”
In terms of their own futures, Marlay’ja and Christopher are prepared to continue the fight against fossil fuels. Multiple years of experience with public speaking and advocating for environmental justice continue to grow their careers as young activists, with new ways to take action always on the horizon.
Christopher expressed his gratitude for the opportunities he’s received to showcase his activism, like traveling to a state representative’s office or speaking at conferences.
“I’ve had the privilege and the honor of going to many events that many youth haven’t gotten the chance to do in my lifetime so far,” he said.
“As a person I’ve grown very responsibly, very maturely,” Marlay’ja said.
She noted that she’s become very open-minded, especially to new ideas that work toward her climate goals. Moving forward, Marlay’ja will continue the fight against the fossil fuel industry and the impact it has on her community by advocating for 100 percent renewable energy.
“I also know how much power I wield even though I’m at such a young age,” she said. “The knowledge and power I hold.”