The Secret Behind the Success of These Climate Activists

August 24, 2021

Disclosure: The author, a senior at University High School, is a member of as well as a communications director for the Confront the Climate Crisis Campaign. She also co-leads Earth Charter Indiana’s Youth Environmental Press Team.

In April of 2020, I met Jim Poyser, executive director of Earth Charter Indiana (ECI). I told him I was looking for an internship that summer and that I loved to write. He responded within a number of hours, and he suggested that I write a story about a summer camp his organization would be running. It’s called Climate Camp, a partnership between ECI, HEART (Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers) and the Peace Learning Center.

Kids as young as 5 or up to 17 are invited to spend a week or two or three learning about climate change and coming up with their own solutions to problems they have identified in their communities. And the truly wonderful thing is — it works. Students coming out of the camp have convinced their schools to stop using polystyrene lunch trays, held Fridays for Future climate strikes every week for months on end, met with their mayors, city councilors, state representatives and senators, and every year, the ideas keep coming. Getting to profile Climate Camp inspired me to take action myself.

A year later, it is an honor to get to write about them again. This time, I want to get to the question, “How are these young leaders so successful?” They are seeing change where adults have stagnated for years. What’s their secret, and how can the rest of us replicate it?

Kids First

In the week I spent at Climate Camp, held as usual at Eagle Creek Park’s Peace Learning Center, I couldn’t help but notice how every decision, from activity programming to the way adults spoke to campers, revolved around helping the kids get as much out of the camp as possible. “Our job as adults is to help you kids reach whatever goal you have,” they often said. The power campers hold as young people was also emphasized. By showing campers examples of young people who have been able to make a difference against climate change, such as activists like Greta Thunberg and the local Confront the Climate Crisis kids, campers were inspired and emboldened to take steps of their own to address the climate injustice they see in their communities. “The governor or your mayor will listen to you young people. They won’t listen to me,” Poyser told them.

Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, Director of Earth Sciences at IUPUI, speaks to campers about climate science and answers their burning questions on the subject.

The groundbreaking youth campaign, Confront the Climate Crisis, visited Climate Camp July 13. Confront the Climate Crisis is a statewide, youth-led, grassroots campaign which seeks to engage the state of Indiana in climate action. For many campers, hearing from members of the campaign was the highlight of their week. After explaining to us the progress they’ve made so far (building an impressive movement of 122 high schoolers from across Indiana in around a year) and discussing their strategy going forward to bring climate change front and center in Indiana, Jim Poyser asked a discerning question, “What adults are telling you what to do?”

They chuckled lightly before answering, “No one’s telling us what to do. We run the show.”

This moment, where campers were able to recognize themselves in these high schoolers, dared to believe they could make a difference just as these young leaders have begun to, stands out because it reveals the power of young people coming together to encourage one another. Over and over again, this power of young people has been emphasized, not only because it’s true — Confront the Climate Crisis kids got an unprecedented meeting with Governor Holcomb in June — but also because the only way to combat the disheartening facts that come along with educating oneself about climate change is with hope.

CtCC speaks to campers one-one-one. Left to right: Jim Poyser, Daniel Jenkins, Bhavya, Jayden, Rahul Durai, Shafa, and Beatrice Barth.

Always Hopeful

After their presentation, the Confront the Climate Crisis activists spent time speaking to campers one-on-one, even giving advice for how to communicate to their elected officials. I also had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with the young leaders, Rahul Durai, Ethan Bledsoe, Katharine Schertz, and Daniel Jenkins. They reiterated this belief that coming together and being hopeful is the key to bringing about change.

What’s the overall message that you want to leave people with?

Rahul - I think, we live in a state with a government that has a horrible record on environmental and climate policy, but I really think people should have hope because if we’re able to build collective power, victory really isn’t as far as it seems. And I know that it sounds really obvious, but that really is the message of our campaign. We’re trying to do the impossible, but we’re doing it by uniting a coalition, by uniting the power of hundreds and thousands of people, and that makes the impossible seem a bit more possible.

Why did you guys decide to come to Climate Camp today?

Rahul - The majority of our [CtCC] people are going to be seniors this year, which means that in a year’s time, they’re going to be off to college, so we need to make sure — if we want to have a sustained campaign that is fighting for climate action for years, which is our hope — then we need to continually find ways to recruit younger people. And, I mean, what better a way than Climate Camp? Earth Charter is already doing that work of getting younger kids, and these kids are so passionate, and what we want to make sure happens is make sure that passion these kids have is going into real, bold change at the state level.

Ethan - Also just for, like, fun...for me, I just wanted to see kids who were really interested in climate change because I helped start an organization within WL Climate — it’s called Climate Kids — so I’m really interested in engaging kids in the conversation of just about climate, so I was just really interested to see everyone [today] and [to] get to know everyone.

High School activists from Confront the Climate Crisis share their strategy for reaching legislators about climate change with campers.

Part of what makes Confront the Climate Crisis successful is this understanding of what is necessary in the long term in order to reach their goals, but just as invaluable is the obvious passion they have for what they’re doing, whether it be talking to kids or drafting legislation. This was echoed in their responses when I asked them, “What do you think makes Confront the Climate Crisis unique?”

Passion and People

Katherine - The way that I view it, there are so many people who are so
passionate about it that we can get so much done. It’s not like you’re being
forced to do anything. You’re going into it with people who want to make a
difference, and for me personally, I can find a way to help with that internal
relations and help organize stuff, so there’s a place for anyone who wants to
make a difference.

Daniel - I think it’s been so successful because we have so many really
dedicated people. Like, we have a team of people who are just ready to write a
bill and resolution in like two hours like Rahul will. Like, I couldn’t do that.

Rahul - The thing that makes us special is we’re uniting a bunch of different
youth climate groups from many cities from Indiana. That’s what makes our
campaign special, and that’s how we’re building collective power that hopefully
will pay off.

Goals That Matter

Beyond their ideology of hope and the power of people coming together, there are some more strategic decisions CtCC has made in order to organize themselves and work towards change, which would be helpful for any group of young people looking to make a difference just like they have.

How do you set goals and expectations that are reasonable but still reaching?

Ethan - I think one of the main ways that we do this is just like — there was [a camper] who asked a question that was just, “Do you guys ever argue?” and we do all the time, and it’s just because we argue about what we think’s feasible, what we think the next steps of the campaign are... . So typically, what we’ll do is just argue or just discuss what we envision the future of the campaign being, and sometimes it goes on for a very long time, but we’ll come to a general agreement by the end that is feasible and not out of reach... . I think it was frustrating in the moment, but I think we came out of it with a better understanding and just a more practical goal.

Rahul - One thing that was really helpful that I want to mention is… When we first started the campaign, like any organization, there’s just a bunch of different things you have to do. There’s recruitment, there’s social media, there’s research, there’s our legislative stuff, and there’s internal relations. Something we decided to do a few months ago was to… restructure the campaign to assign people some more specific tasks within our separate teams, and that has helped us a lot. Each team has certain goals that they’re working with, and just internally, that has allowed people to not burn out as much because everyone is doing a more specific task rather than some people doing everything.

Bringing it Home

Growing up in Indiana, it had always been easy for me to be pessimistic about climate action in the state and lose hope that the adults in our community would make a change. As far as I knew, no one was making progress on this issue. As far as I knew, there was no hope.

That all changed in April of 2020 when, fueled by the pandemic and fed up with caring deeply about the environment but doing nothing to change anything, I wrote a story about Climate Camp. I strongly believe that the power of connecting people is unbeatable because that’s my story. Through that article, I was connected to Climate Camp and to Confront the Climate Crisis, and it made all the difference. Learning about their successes gave me hope, emboldened me to reach out and become part of these influential groups myself. I have been able to work toward making a difference. It is my sincere hope that others may be similarly inspired to take action. Climate change is real, dire, and it is humanity’s greatest challenge. But we are not alone in this fight.

The Secret Behind the Success of These Climate Activists