Every year Earth Island Institute’s New Leaders Initiative recognizes six young environmental activists from North America, ages 13 to 22, for their outstanding efforts to promote ecological sustainability and social justice. We are excited to announce the 2016 recipients of the Brower Youth Awards. The 2016 winners are:
Xerxes Libsch spent his childhood summers at a camp on upstate New York’s Muscoot Farm, which breeds rare animals. The camp offered Libsch an opportunity to combine his love for the outdoors and animals, and left a lasting impression on him. To show his gratitude, he decided to spearhead a restoration project on the farm that the staff didn’t have capacity for.
Through partnerships with farm staff, the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and local businesses, Libsch and his team of 100 volunteers installed 22 birdhouses for declining native bird species, cleared an 800-square-foot area of deeply rooted invasive species, and created a half-mile nature trail. Libsch was also able to prevent two tons of animal waste from contaminating a nearby drinking water reservoir. In addition, his team erected an environmental learning center that provides information about the farm to the 600 summer campers and 135,000 guests who visit each year, and has helped transform Muscoot farm into an inspiring and educational space.
Susette Onate was upset when developers for a shopping center bought a unique plot of rare pine rocklands habitat – a refuge for several endangered butterfly species – near her home in Hialeah, FL. To make up for the habitat loss, she turned her attention to a neglected butterfly garden at her Miami-Dade County high school in Florida.
The garden, which had been planted with non-native plants, had been left untended for years and failed to attract either butterflies or students. Onate teamed up with her National Honor Society peers and began renovating the garden, working with a landscaper and local business to acquire native plants that would attract butterflies and other insects. The school administration showed little interest in the project, but Onate worked on, undeterred. Soon, the revitalized garden became popular among students as well as teachers, who began to utilize it for lessons. Onate is now teaming up with the mayor of Hialeah to open community gardens around the city that can serve as urban sanctuaries for endangered butterfly species.
Karina Gonsalez is one of three student leaders for Fossil Free Northern Arizona University, a student-run campaign pushing the university to divest from the top 200 coal, oil, and natural gas corporations by 2017. Gonsalez coordinates all key negotiations with the university president, leads on-campus recruitment efforts, and provides canvassing training. She also manages campaign media relations, and has leveraged campaign successes for national media coverage, including a segment on Democracy Now!
The FFNAU campaign is currently the only divestment campaign in Arizona, and is unique for its commitment to building meaningful partnerships with non-campus communities. Gonsalez has helped foster this commitment through her work with the Black Mesa Water Coalition, an indigenous peoples’ environmental organization in Flagstaff. Gonsalez is currently working with the coalition to push her university to invest in sustainability projects on the Navajo Nation. In addition to her role on campus, Gonsalez coordinates a United Nations youth delegate leadership program.
For nearly half her life, Heidi Kritz has been working to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine project. The proposed copper and gold mining project threatens the bay, which is the largest salmon fishery in the world and is critical to the local economy, ecological stability, and native peoples’ way of life.
Kritz and her community have fought tirelessly against the project both within Alaska and the Lower 48 states. She has helped organize rallies, worked on a massive letter writing campaign against the mine project that ultimately gathered more than 6,000 voices, and has helped mobilize a new generation of regional activists by working with high school students in tribal schools. Kritz’s leadership has added momentum to a decade-long fight to protect the Bristol Bay watershed, and she plans keep up the fight to defend the land and her home.
As a Tennessee native, Erica Davis is keenly aware of the role that oil and gas extraction plays in her home state, as well as the fact that rural Tennesseans often benefit little from resource-extraction operations within their communities. Working in collaboration with grassroots organizers in Campbell County, TN, Davis has researched, written, and obtained sponsorship for a bill to reform oil and natural gas severance taxes that corporations pay.
In Tennessee, severance taxes are the only legislative means to ensure that part of the wealth associated with oil and gas production remains in-state. Davis’s bill seeks to raise these taxes and change the way the tax revenue is distributed so that all of the revenue returns to the communities where extraction occurred. (Impacted communities currently receive only one-third of the revenue.) Davis, who’s now pursuing an environmental law degree, lobbied hard to help raise bipartisan support for the bill. Unfortunately, the bill was dropped from the 2015-2016 docket. Davis intends to revive the bill in the next legislative session.
For the past two years, Will Amos has led a student and faculty team at the University of California, Irvine in building an innovative recycling system that turns plastic waste into stock material for 3D printing projects. The system includes four components: a grinder that breaks plastic waste into small pieces, an extruder that melts the broken plastic into filament, a spooler that prepares the filament for use in the printer, and of course the printer. The only byproduct of the cradle-to-cradle system, which tackles the issues of overconsumption and plastic pollution, is water vapor.
An environmental engineer by training, Amos is passionate about the role technology can play in solving environmental problems. But he believes that innovative research must be paired with education in order to achieve long-term change. That’s why his team has showcased the easily transportable recycling system on college and school campuses around Irvine, and at local TEDx events. At its core, his interactive and accessible project is one that seeks to educate.
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