Everyone Has a Story
Everyone’s got a story
Have you heard the story about the Brower Youth Award winner who went toe-to-toe with Arnold Schwarzenegger? Arnie beat Illai Kenney – and 247 other challengers – in the 2003 California gubernatorial election, but Kenney remains unbowed. “I did run for governor, but the Terminator beat me because I was living in Georgia at the time and I couldn’t run a steady campaign from all the way out East,” Kenney explains. “Right now I am looking to finish high school first. That would be nice.”
In 2003, when EII awarded the then-13-year-old Kenney a Brower Youth Award, she had recently co-founded Georgia Kids Against Pollution (KAP) in response to the growing number of local children with asthma, and had become a spokesperson on behalf of clean air, clean water, and energy efficiency measures to curb global warming.
Kenney’s environmental and social justice work has taken her around the globe. After becoming the youngest delegate at the 2002 United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kenney toured much of the continent and experienced the culture first-hand.
“Being in Africa, I got to see the extremes of both sides of life there – both the extreme poverty and at the same time the beauty of the countryside itself,” says Kenney. “Seeing that much poverty, people living without running water or medication, made me want to work harder in the field of activism and environmentalism.”
Back in the US, Kenney’s continued success with KAP led to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin including Kenney in an exhibit honoring “African American Pioneers in Water and Environmental Sciences,” in recognition of Black History Month at Atlanta’s city hall. In the past year Kenney has worked with Corporate Accountability International to expose Coca-Cola’s unethical water usage practices in India. At Coca-Cola’s annual shareholders’ meeting, Kenney warned shareholders of the possible consequences if the company’s reputation continues to be tarnished among young people.
“Corporations market their goods to youth because we buy things. If we used our buying power in a positive way, we could have a lot of influence,” comments Kenney.
This summer Kenney looks forward to serving on the Board of Advisors of Earth Island’s New Leaders Initiative. She and other young people will collaborate with Program Director Jason Salfi to create, among other things, an online meeting place for young activists to network and gain the necessary resources to run their very own campaigns.
“Illai is solid,” says Salfi. “Her approach is guided by a balance of youthful ideals and an uncanny wisdom. It’s great getting to know her as a person – she keeps it real.”
Kenney is effusive about her feelings for Earth Island. “My relationship with Earth Island has been really good. I like how EII is really supportive of other organizations and different projects,” says Kenney enthusiastically. “It seems like anything that you are working on, you can come to talk to people at EII and they will tell you who is working on a similar project and who you should get connected with. Working with EII has been a great education for me.”
“When Illai starts talking, my jaw drops because I am just astonished by her insights and thoughtfulness,” says John Knox, executive director of EII. “This is extraordinary for somebody going into her junior year of high school. It would be extraordinary in someone twice her age.”
When asked how her family has reacted to her activism, Kenney beams. “My mom is the most supportive person of me. She supports me in anything I do, whether it’s just playing sports like basketball or doing the whole environmental thing. She is my rock!”
Kenney makes sure she has time to relax, be a “normal teenager,” and get her mind off the problems that are facing the world today.
“I try to focus on my school work and my grades, and keep them separate from what I do outside of the classroom,” says Kenney. “If I need to chill out, I like to spend time with my family, watch TV, or play sports. Sometimes I will go for a walk in the park, but in general I try to stay relaxed and just have a good time!”