Posts by Sean

The Challenge: Back My Generation. Now.

How our mentor, Kat challenged her students to think about the impact in their action projects. And her final challenge to us.

The next step is impact analysis.

Students are expected to weigh the costs and benefits of their project ideas quantitatively to determine which action project to implement. “Quantitatively” is the keyword here. From my experience, I’ve found that students have a tendency to only apply a surface level impact analysis. They make many assumptions about which project idea is worth implementing. A decision based on this kind of thinking is often quite subjective, and relies too heavily on qualitative data: how it makes them and others “feel” as compared to what it actually does.

After brainstorming and building a consensus in the community, the students decided to focus on protecting their local watershed. They came up with several ideas such as hosting a bake sale to raise money for ocean conservation, initiating a school-wide watershed maintenance program, and purchasing a component of land for the school to protect and use for student experiential learning. Without conducting impact analysis, the students wanted to move forward with the bake sale because they assumed that they would be able to make a lot of money from it.

As our conversations progressed, I started challenging students about the costs. I asked them how many hours they would invest in the bake sale, and the profits based on the number of baked goods sold and the amount they would charge. The students estimated that they would spend around 3 hours each to bake and another 3 hours each to host the bake sale for a total of 18 hours invested in the project. However, when calculating the profits, the students expected to raise only $97.50 for their eco-fund, without even subtracting the cost of ingredients. This comes to $5.49/hour per student — substantially lower than the province’s minimum wage.

This was a wake-up call for the students. They recognized that “feeling a project’s success” is not the same as actually achieving success and impact. Shortly after, another student came up with an idea for a bake sale. But she came with an impact analysis to justify her project.

Her parents own a small bakery, and pay her a wage of $15/hour, and of her salary, she puts 50% of it into her eco-fund. She also proposed selling baked goods every weekend at a high traffic area, making around $250 in sales every month; this would go completely into her eco-fund. This means that every week, working 16 hours per week for both the baking and the selling, she would raise approximately $370, or earn $23.12/hour overall for her conservation efforts. In comparison with the first school, this was a much more viable operation than having each student earn less than $6/hour for their efforts.

Clearly, the second project plan yields a higher payback, for even less hours of work and for only one person rather than three. This is evidence that the success of a project is contingent on the context wherein it operates, and that the only way to determine impact is to quantitatively measure it. Why? You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

While this concludes my short segment as a writer on this forum, I want to leave you with a message. The high school youth we’re reaching across Canada are our next generation. This is not a grandiose opinion; it’s a fact. And I’ve met many of them. They’re sharp. They’re curious. They’re willing. And they deserve more from our last generation. We can’t expect them to lead and solve big, systematic problems, as if we ourselves didn’t have supporters and mentors leading and teaching us. And we can’t wait for them to get into top-tier postsecondary institutions – because many of them won’t.

We need to meet them where they are now. We need to empower and equip them with sustainability problem-solving mindsets and skillsets now. If we don’t want another generation obsessed with endless growth and profit and greed, we can’t limit teaching such skills to only profit-driven sectors.

It’s why I joined 3% Project – and it’s why I encourage you to join us – to empower and equip the younger students of my great generation to be leaders in sustainability and climate action to create the future we want.

You and What Army?

“Do you have a community that stands behind what you stand for? And if you do, you’ll have more power. And if you don’t, you won’t.” – Barack Obama

The second step of mentorship is community building. (If you haven’t been following my articles, catch up by reading this and this!)

During this step, we ask students to send out a data-driven survey to the public, and speak to key community members about their project ideas. This is meant to gauge community support and build a consensus around implementing the project. This step is critical because action projects are exponentially more difficult to complete without community backing.

One school didn’t see the value in this step. They were so convinced that they had the right project idea that they refused to complete this step, deeming it a waste of time and resources. It was an uphill battle trying to teach these students the importance of community building. But because I communicate with students remotely, the students decided not to take my advice.

After a few updates here and there, I was finally able to schedule a call with the students. Turns out, despite implementing a new recycling program, hosting a school-wide assembly about environmental education, and organizing a used clothing swap, none of their projects turned out to be a success.

Moving forward, the students recognized that there was some sort of disconnect between their action projects and the community. They finally conceded and sent out a community survey positioned around what the community wanted to see implemented. The results provided them valuable insight into how the janitorial staff wanted students to take on a greater role in organizing recycling and waste, how the students wanted more interesting speakers and “hands-on” events to learn about sustainability solutions instead of a presentation, and how students were less interested in clothing swaps and more interested in bee-keeping.

By overlooking this step, students missed out on critical information that would have corrected their assumptions about community participation and support. There are many moving parts within systematic problems, and these moving parts involve real people, real needs, real opinions.

We’re in the business of empowering students to empower their communities towards real change. This means students learn to do the long and hard work of building a community to back this change. In this way, the process matters as much as the result.

For truly, truly, without community behind you: you and what army?

What is Meaningful Youth Engagement?

How our mentor, Kat taught the adults in the room the importance of taking a step back and allowing our young people to lead.

Before we get into the second step of mentorship, let me share another experience I’ve had with a school.

During the mentorship calls, there is often a teacher supervisor in attendance. They usually listen in, add comments, and connect students to the school’s network and administration. But this school was different. Before any of the students had a chance to introduce themselves, the teacher began a monologue on everything that she was doing for the community.

When I asked students on what they thought about their teacher’s project ideas and results, the teacher interrupted and said, “I think the students think…” This was frustrating because the purpose of mentorship is to empower youth directly and give them an opportunity to develop and practice their systemic problem-solving skills.

By speaking on behalf of the students and taking control of their action projects, she was taking away a valuable learning opportunity from them, defeating the purpose of meaningful youth engagement.

Yes, every parent and teacher wants their youth to grow. But they want this growth to be done their way. This is a mistake. If adults continue to do everything for youth, youth start to believe that they are not competent enough to be trusted; that they can’t do anything meaningful independent from an adult supervisor; and that it is okay to ‘sit back and let the adults deal with it’.

We’re trying to combat this mentality.

During the call, I had to pause our meeting and suggest that the teacher allow others to speak. She got defensive because she said the reason she was speaking was because the students were shy. But after she stepped back, we both found out that this simply wasn’t the case.

The students had many ideas and opinions about the project ideas, from innovative ways to revamp the school’s recycling program to really wanting to perform an energy audit of the school to discover ways to reduce energy usage.

Looking at the supervisor, she seemed shocked that the students were able to contribute so much. But we should not be shocked by the realization that youth have good ideas, but shocked at ourselves for not listening to them sooner.

Meaningful youth engagement means more than just getting students out of their desks and off their phones. It means teaching them valuable skills. Skills that they can use as tools when they begin to build even bigger and better things. This starts with taking youth, and their opinions and ideas, seriously. This starts with giving students the opportunity to speak for themselves. This starts with the adults in the room trusting our youth and giving them the room to experience and learn through projects.

This starts with young people not only acting as beneficiaries, but active agents in creating the future we want.

All You Need Is Love (and a Plan)

How our mentor, Kat taught students the importance of rooting work in something you love to really make a lasting impact.

The first step of mentorship is research. Students begin searching for a project idea and present their best ideas to me. (If I’m unfamiliar to you, read my first post here.)

Let me tell you a story about one school.

There were six teams working on projects at the same time. Each team presented their ideas to me. From phasing out single-use materials in the cafeteria, to partnering with the township to protect the environment using a social media awareness campaign, to purchasing a billboard to communicate climate change solutions, and to developing a hydroponics system: each idea became more and more impressive, call after call. I called the last team. They didn’t have an idea to contribute. And they were upset because they couldn’t ‘win’ for having the best solution among their peers.

I think it’s easy for students, and really anyone, to get caught up in this mindset. If your idea is not the best, it’s not worth doing. People become obsessed with being the best, and in the process, they lose sight of doing their best. There is no “best” or “worst” when it comes to systematic problem-solving. Changing the system means changing many components and parts of the system, contributed by many who are channeling what they do best towards a common goal. Instead of focusing on ‘being the best’, I try to teach students to re-centre their work on what they are most passionate about.

In this case, I did the same. “Let’s put the ideas aside for a moment. What do you love? What are you passionate about?”

This was easy for the students. The list overflowed. They loved many things from sports to the outdoors to even their dogs.

“If you are passionate about sports, hold a sports event to fundraise for climate change. If you are passionate about the outdoors, work with the school board to encourage outdoor education, or contact your local township to organize park preservation. If you’re passionate about your pets, advocate for safer ingredients for pet food and more sustainable materials in the industry.”

Immediately, their voices changed, and they got excited. They began talking about developing biodegradable pet toys, organizing bulk pet food in their community to reduce plastic waste, hosting advocacy events for compostable doggie bags in parks, and many, many more solutions. Since then, these students have been working hard at amplifying their project, no longer motivated by competition, but an intrinsic and genuine desire to fix a real problem.

This is an example of how passion can transform into action. A full and comprehensive understanding of a problem is the foundation to developing effective solutions, but it is passion that gets these solutions off the ground.

From Idea to Impact

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Hi readers, my name is Kat and I’m a mentor for the 3% Project!

After the assembly, Steve leads a workshop with a group of student leaders to develop action projects that solve their community’s greatest sustainability challenge. After the workshop, the students are connected with me. In turn, as my name suggests, I mentor and guide students through the design, implementation, and follow-up of their project.

Let’s start with design. I recently had a call with students, fresh after Steve’s assembly and workshop. 20 minutes into the call, there were more than 30 project ideas. From hosting a farmer’s market, to holding climate roundtables with community leaders, to designing a mobile app to track waste: this group had an overwhelming amount of projects that they wanted to complete in the next year.

“Hold on. Let’s go back to the basics. If you want to do 30 projects over the course of a school year, you have 8 months. What’s the timeline for each project? What’s the budget? What’s the plan?”

There was silence on the other line. None of my questions could be answered.

This is a mentality that students often unknowingly adopt: the mentality that thinking of an idea is equated to making an impact. Students start off with incredible momentum because they think of so many great ideas, but hit a roadblock when they realize moving from conceptualization to implementation is not a one-step process.

Moving forward, I recommended that the students create a comprehensive list of all their project ideas accompanied with the actual problem that they are trying to address through their solutions. This allows students to better orient themselves with their community’s problems and understand how each project should be prioritized to meaningfully address its respective problem.

I further suggested that students take the time to critically think about the costs and benefits of each project, determine the amount of time needed to invest into each project, and re-evaluate the community’s support for each project.

Taking the time to create an implementation plan reduces the chance of students becoming overwhelmed. Less overwhelmed (and happier) students, greater chance of their project being completed!

I’m grateful that I get to work with youth to teach them how to transform their ideas into action: ensuring that ideas not only remain as ideas, but real projects and real impact. Yes, youth can do anything, but my job is to tweak that “we can do anything” mentality to a mentality of “we can do anything, now here’s the plan.”

I’ll be updating you throughout the summer, so stay tuned for more of my mentorship updates!

The Last Generation

Ever wonder what I do as a UN policy advocate? Read my speech from last year’s UN High-level Political Forum.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. My name is Steve Lee from Foundation for Environmental Stewardship, speaking on behalf of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth.

While there is some rapid improvement in renewable technologies, the rate of implementation of SDG7 targets is not in alignment with the systematically interlinked 2030 Agenda.

The displacement of States, neoliberalism, the obsession with growth, the militarization of economies and the rise in the power of transnational corporations have further exhausted the planet’s regenerative biocapacity. Dark money from fossil fuel companies is also perversely undermining civic and democratic processes. These trends are jeopardizing the future of young people and the planet as a whole.

We call upon the member states on seven priorities:

1. Increase the leadership of young women and girls in decision-making processes, including policymaking and scientific research, and enable young women and girls to participate in commerce, entrepreneurship, and capital investments for renewable energy away from fossil fuels.

2. Ensure decent job opportunities and skills training as we rapidly move away from fossil fuels for a just transition.

3. End fossil fuel subsidies, redirecting them towards energy efficiency and renewables.

4. Remove investment assets in fossil fuels companies from your sovereign wealth funds and pension funds and instead invest in renewable energy infrastructure.

5. Internalize externalities by using carbon pricing instruments; polluters should pay.

6. Fulfill your commitments to resource the Green Climate Fund to achieve the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

7. Prioritize vision-casting of a clean future. Member states must empower educators, civil society, and industry associations to educate the public for a collective imagination of an inclusive, equitable, prosperous, and sustainable future that is fully decarbonized and electrified from clean, sustainable sources of energy. You said you would through the Article 12 of the Paris Agreement.

Today’s children and youth are the last generation who can solve climate change whose solutions are energy efficiency and renewable energy to achieve a complete and rapid decarbonized future.

The Lion that is Hope

“Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” – Greta Thunberg, 15 year old activist.

Lion’s Head is halfway between Owen Sound and Tobermory. It’s a tourism town for canoeing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, among other outdoorsy activities. The population quadruples during the summer to 2,000 because of tourism and even many elementary school students work over the summer at stores.

This is one of the most environmentally friendly schools I have been on this tour. It has a Platinum Ontario EcoSchool Certification. The majority of the school posters and boards are about climate change and the environment. In fact, a University of Saskatchewan Ph.D. student is conducting research on climate education at the school. The students even had a class discussion about 3% Project before the assembly and drew posters about renewable energy based on our scribbles branding!

The assembly went as usual. When I opened up the floor for questions, a grade seven student asked, “I’m scared of climate change. Are you scared?” I asked the adults in the room if they were scared when they were young; all three of them said no. I asked the students if they were scared; the majority of them said yes.

Am I scared? Not anymore. But I was.

I remember crying and shaking in anger at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. I remember crying out loud at the airport in Brazil returning from Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. I remember sobbing in the library as I read the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.  The human response to fear is fight, flight, or freeze. Same goes for climate change. If you don’t know how to meaningfully fight climate change, you will flee or freeze.

That’s why the more I learned about climate solutions, my fear turned into determination: a determination to solve the climate crisis. With that determination came hope, peace, and joy. There are so many ways to solve climate change from energy efficiency to renewable energy, agricultural practices to transportation.

And that’s exactly why 3% Project exists. We want to empower young people with the knowledge and skills to solve climate change. Students identify, analyze, and develop solutions to their community’s biggest sustainability challenge, exercising the muscle for sustainability problem-solving skills to make it a core competency of our generation. In a word, we want to give them hope. Hope to create real change.

Back to the assembly, the students had insightful questions on climate change, renewable energy, and civic action. I know 3% Project is meant to go into communities that don’t take climate action, but it was such a treat and encouragement to come here and work with a group of keen environmental leaders.

As Tour 3 wraps up, I’m reminded of two things: the work that lies ahead, and the sheer potential of our generation to get it done. I am hopeful in my generation – and youth from all across Canada – and that’s why we do the tour. So, let’s get to work!

Fishing for Young Leaders on Campobello Island

How a group of youth on Campobello Island are leading the way on climate solutions, and why we need a focus on solutions.

Campobello Island is southwest of New Brunswick. There are only two ways to get there: Either drive through Maine and take an American ferry to Campobello Island, or drive to L’Etete, take a ferry to Deer Island, drive to a wharf on Deer Island, and find a private boat ride to Campobello Island. With my passport stolen after a car robbery, I had to take the latter route.

I arrived at Lord’s Cove on Deer Island to meet Chris Pendleton, a retired fisherman and a licensed captain with a private yacht. He offered to take me to Campobello Island and back. Chris was born and raised on Campobello Island. His father was a fisherman and Chris became one too. He worked in offshore fishing for a long time, worked in Maine as a captain for several years, returned, and continued to fish: “Offshore fishing is a whole different game. You got out for a week, catch a boat full of fish, sell them in Nova Scotia, go out for another week, and sell them in New Brunswick, and come home for a weekend, then it happens all over again.”

As we sailed to the Island, he pointed out many of the small islands and their stories. Along the route, there were many lobster traps, salmon farms, and herring nets in the ocean. I saw a grey seal, great blue heron, and an eagle pass by. It was a sight to behold. It took my breath away.

When I got to the harbour at Wilson’s Beach, the tide was deep below the ground, so I had to climb a ladder up to the ground and rope my luggage to pull them up to the ground. Next to the harbour was a collapsed fish factory that processed cod, haddock, pollock, and other large white fish back in the 70s. Chris said that the fish stock had decreased substantially in the Bay of Fundy because of overfishing, ocean pollution, and ocean warming.

“Overfishing was certainly a reason. People caught every fish possible and were there a lot of fish. I was blessed to have seen the waters with so much fish. Now there’s not that much more left. Ocean pollution was a big reason. Companies were caught throwing toxic chemicals in oil drums into the Atlantic ocean west of Germany back in the 70s and the oil drum caused rust and eventually, the toxins came out, and killed all the fish. Ocean warming is now an even bigger reason. Just by half-degree or one-degree celsius increase, you see the fish stock moving somewhere else. If the fish move outside of where you’re allowed to fish or if the fish move to another country’s waters, then you can’t fish that.”

The concern over climate change isn’t just felt by the adults. When I visited the students in Campobello, everyone saw climate change as a serious problem. But, on Campobello Island, the youth are leading the way. Students have led initiatives on cleaning ocean plastics and growing hydroponics food towers powered by solar panels. For example, there was an article last year on the enormous amounts of garbage on Campobello Island. In response, it was the students at Campobello and an Ontario high school that came together to clean up the entire island for two months over the summer! Students also expressed interest in doing an energy audit to conserve energy with energy efficiency measures and possibly install solar panels. Being on the island and having only one gas station, they think wind and solar can power the entire island. I agree!

Our project isn’t so much on the problem of climate change. We all know climate change is a big problem. It’s on solutions. When students measure their climate actions, they turn climate change into a real, tangible issue that they can face. Starting climate action projects young is a great way to keep climate change and empowerment at the forefront of a learning, growing mind.

As the youth of Campobello Island prove: The leaders of tomorrow are already in our schools. Let’s engage them to create the future we want. Together.

Our Troubled Indigenous Past and Its Legacy

“We want our dignity back,” says an Indigenous educator in Whitedog, Manitoba.

I visited the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations (“Whitedog”) in Northern Ontario in early May. Once I arrived at the school, the parking lot was empty. When I tried opening the doors to the school, the doors were locked. I called the school, but no one picked up.

Surprised, I started driving around the town, asking anyone I could find to tell me what had happened to the school. Some said the school would open later, others said the school was closed, but everyone told me that the town was empty because that day was “payday” and that everyone had already left. “Payday” is welfare cheque arrival day, so they meant everyone left to do groceries in nearby Kenora or Winnipeg.

I found a group of ladies who contacted the principal’s sister. The principal came to get me. Julia, the principal, greeted me and apologized for the school closure. When it’s payday and one place closes, everyone follows suit and closes, including the school. What can you do if the bus drivers are gone, all the kids are gone with their parents out of town, and teachers are gone?

Five decades ago, nine tonnes of mercury were illegally dumped into the Wabigoon-English River by the Dryden Chemical Company and the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company, both subsidiaries of the British multinational, Reed International. The residents suffered acute mercury poisoning and its effects are still seen among the young people today.

The two companies involved, the Ontario government, and the Canadian federal government collectively paid a one-time settlement of $16.67 million in 1986. However, the community have seen little of this money as the federal government’s governance system as dictated by the Indian Act has made it difficult for band councils and chiefs to negotiate for their people.

Julia invited me to her house and we had coffee. Naturally, I started asking all kinds of questions.

Instead of paraphrasing her comments, I’ll let her speak for her community here:

“This town used to be a commercial fishing town. Since the river got poisoned, there’s no source of income. We have an 85% unemployment rate. I mean, how are we supposed to pick ourselves up when everything’s poisoned from our water to the land to the people?

The government just throws money at the problem by tying all three communities together. There’s a reason why these three First Nations communities were three separate communities. They just group us together and tells us to figure out the money by ourselves. That’s been bad for us here.

The elders are especially skeptical of sending kids to schools. I survived the residential school system as well. Then there was the Sixties Scoop where Indigenous children were taken away and put in foster homes or adoption in primarily white middle-class families.  

When my generation hears that my children and my grandchildren will go to a school, all the trauma comes with that. That’s why the attendance rates are low and the parents don’t particularly care so much if their children are in school or not.

In some ways, they’re relieved to see their children safely in their house, not away at a school when who-knows-what might be happening there. Even when that school is run by Indigenous people, that intergenerational trauma just doesn’t go away.”

I asked her: “What kind of future do you envision for the Indigenous peoples here?”

Julia responded: “Reconciliation needs to happen at a legal and governmental level, yes, but true reconciliation will start with education with individual citizens understanding what happened to the Indigenous people, how they are still oppressed, and working together to restore our dignity. We want our dignity back.”

I left Whitedog with a heavy heart.

How is it that every Indigenous community I visit has such a tragic history? How are we, as Canadians, as fellow human beings, okay with this? How can we live with ourselves? Is this the kind of future we want? Why else would we perpetuate this reality?

A Reflection on the Whys and Hows

“There’s no such thing as a morality project, or an ethics project; everything is supposed to be moral and ethical.

Same thing with sustainability; everything is supposed to be sustainable.”

I want to highlight a workshop example chosen by students in Dryden, a rural town in Ontario best known for its Domtar paper and pulp mill.

The girl’s bathrooms and changeroom have mirrors that are warped, and it “makes them look ugly.” The students have always wanted to change them, and have even looked into how much it would cost: $250 per mirror. With a dozen mirrors replaced, it would be $250 x 12 = $3,000.

If they assume they can fundraise at 33% efficiency, they need to raise $9,000 at having a $6,000 cost of fundraiser activities, leaving $3,000 for the mirrors. From their perspective, $9,000 for mirrors to do their makeup seems to be too expensive. In my head, I agreed. But I kept following the community-organizing model. “What would need to happen for this project to be a wild success?” “12 mirror installed, maintain the mirrors well, upcycle the old mirrors, and get positive feedback from happy people,” they concluded.

“Why? Why do you want the mirrors installed?” I always ask them to ask themselves why they’re doing this project, and to keep asking ‘why’, until they get to a philosophical answer that is no longer a means to an end, but rather an end in and of itself. The final ‘why’ should be “because that’s what we want. That’s the future we want.”

“It’s to improve the morale of the girls. When you do your makeup and look in the warped mirror, it ruins your entire day.” “It’s about self-confidence and self-image.”

The vice principal chipped in: “Some get pride from academic success, some from body image, and some from athletic success. If your self-confidence and self-image improves, the chances of recreational drug use goes down and learning outcomes improve.”  I was shocked. I had no idea that a warped mirror would have that much impact.

“Is $3,000 worth improving self-confidence and self-image of more than 200 girls every school day for at least the next 10 years?” The answer was a resounding and excited “yes!”

This is why it’s important to ask ourselves ‘why’ and how we measure success. The mirror installation project is not about building maintenance; it’s about empowerment of girls. What they measure should be different. For a building maintenance project, you measure the number of mirrors installed, and how well they are installed. For an empowerment of girls project, you measure improved self-confidence and self-image of the girls. Same activity, different objective, different measurement, different outcome.

There’s no such thing as a morality project, or an ethics project; everything is supposed to be moral and ethical. Same thing with sustainability; everything is supposed to be sustainable. We need sustainability integrated into the decision-making framework of every young person used both at work and at home. By identifying, analyzing, and developing sustainability-integrated solutions to their community’s challenge, students are exercising the muscle for sustainability problem-solving skills to make it a core competency of our generation.

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