20 Years of Nurturing Young Environmental Leaders

Two decades on, the Brower Youth Awards continues to lift up youth environmental leadership and honor David Brower's legacy.

MAY BOEVE IS ORGANIZING a global climate strike for this fall. Billy Parish and Dan Rosen are running the United States’ largest residential solar energy loan company. Chloe Maxmin is serving as the youngest woman in the Maine legislature following years of fossil fuel divestment activism. Junior Walk is flying drones with cameras and ducking security guards to monitor illegal runoff from mountaintop mining in West Virginia.

The 2016 Brower Youth Award winners. From left to right: Erica Davis, Heidi Kritz, Will Amos, Karina Gonzalez, Susette Onate, and Xerxes Libsch. Photo by Amir Clark.
The 2016 Brower Youth Award winners. From left to right: Erica Davis, Heidi Kritz, Will Amos, Karina Gonzalez, Susette Onate, and Xerxes Libsch. Photo by Amir Clark.

All these dynamic young people are past recipients of the Brower Youth Awards, which was established 20 years ago to nurture a new generation of environmental leaders and honor the legacy of David Ross Brower, one of the twentieth century’s most renowned and ardent conservationists and founder of Earth Island Institute. Brower was a “paradoxical guy,” as Earth Island’s Executive Director Emeritus John Knox puts it. In his youth, he was shy and rarely spoke up. But as he aged, Brower became increasingly articulate and brought his passion and zeal for saving wilderness to campuses across America, where many young people responded by joining the edgier activist wing of last century’s environmental movement.

Today’s movement, including the youth leadership reflected in the annual awards Earth Island confers in Brower’s name, doesn’t look or sound like yesteryear’s. Certainly, not at first glance. Today, more women are at the helm in environmental groups, and more people of color have found a place in the field. The movement is marked by a growing number of collectives, and sees deeply layered connections between the issues hurting the planet and those hurting communities, compared to green groups’ earlier, more exclusive focus on preserving wild places.

“What’s beautiful with what they’ve done with the awards is they are recognizing the next generation of people who were not being seen or listened to during the heyday of Brower’s time. They are grappling with this question [of legacy] in ways that are very powerful,” says Boeve, who is now executive director of 350.org, a global climate justice collaboration.

In October, the New Leaders Initiative of Earth Island Institute will fill the ornate Herbst Theatre in San Francisco for the 20th Brower Youth Awards. The event is a milestone, and the latest winners, according to Mona Shomali, who directs the program, are all young women. “And yes, many of them are of color,” she says. “This is reflective of a new wave of environmentalism that embraces social justice and human rights. This wave is more inclusive of urban environmental issues and issues that affect low-income people of color — the leadership of the environmental movement is no longer limited to conservationists.”

One thing these latest winners share with those of previous years is a quality that Brower counseled above all: perseverance. As he put it in an interview before he died in 2000, “Persevere… That’s where it’s at.”

Consider 2018 winner Tina Oh, who grew up near the Canadian tar sands in Alberta. She saw many in her community, including her father, lose their jobs after oil prices collapsed in 2014. At college, she was drawn to student government and the campus’s oil and gas divestment campaign, and was compelled to act after discovering that not one post-secondary educational institution in Canada had divested from oil and gas. Oh paid a price for her escalating activism. She was “impeached” by peers in student government after getting arrested with 98 others at a march. But she kept going, with protests, sit-ins, and a clear demand for the school: divest.

“It has always been about challenging the social licenses that these corporations have in everyday life, taking away their social credibility,” Oh says. “Young people are the largest electoral demographic and we are rising up to challenge the unjust power structures that do not represent us.”

Such strong words and convictions are not unusual among BYA winners. Common, too, is a conviction that they bear real responsibility for the fate of their communities and for the future.

Take another 2018 winner, Valeree Catangay, who is from Long Beach, California. Catangay grew up in the shadow of the West Coast’s two largest shipyards and nearby refineries. When she got to the University of California, Los Angeles, an ivory tower in a far less polluted corner of the LA basin, she found many campus environmental and sustainability groups, but none seemed to speak to her experiences or to those of her friends with similar roots.

“The one thing I saw that was lacking was [any discussion about] how people of color, communities of color, were being affected by climate change and pollution from fossil fuel industries,” Catangay says. She and her friends created an Environmentalists of Color Collective at UCLA, which grew into a Climate Justice Forum and brought people with “so many different skills and perspectives to the table — connecting so many different people who wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Learn more about this Earth Island program at: broweryouthawards.org

Brower would have recognized and encouraged this type of youthful grit, says Dave Phillips, Earth Island’s executive director. About 30 years ago, Phillips was among the students who heard Brower speak on his college campus and took up his challenge to “take a year off and get involved in the campaign for the planet.” “Dave had such an abiding belief in what one person could accomplish,” Phillips says. “He wanted to catch them [youth] before they learned what was impossible to accomplish.”

To recipients — who range from age 13 to 22 — winning can be very personal. And very impactful.

“The Brower Youth Award is such an incredible door that opens for you at a time in your life when you really can make some choices,” says Boeve, who won the award back in 2006 for her effort to get Detroit to make cleaner cars. “And those resources — the financial resources, the relationships, the recognition that you receive — can really make a difference for someone, particularly if you come from any marginalized group … I think the organization has really done a wonderful job of lifting up leadership from communities that are typically left out of the environmental movement and who are targeted and face enormously different obstacles than I faced trying to get their activist work off the ground.”

Walk echoes this sentiment.

“It meant a whole lot for me early in my career as an enemy of the coal industry to be recognized for my work,” says Walk, a 2011 winner. “In addition, I come from abject poverty, so the material aspect of the award really went a long way,” he adds, referring to the $3,000 cash prize that accompanies the award.

Obviously, this century’s challenges — led by climate and other converging environmental crises — are not the same as in Brower’s heyday. But the power of committed young activists has remained constant.

“Movements, as they always have been, are led by youth,” says Eric Kessler, who helped to create the awards and now runs Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic consulting firm. “The solutions to the most critical challenges facing our world — its people and its environment — are being led by youth. And that hasn’t changed.”

The tradition of honoring the spirit of Brower’s advocacy, the deep belief in the possibility of progress and embrace of youthful vigor to get there, has remained a constant of the awards as well.

“It’s not, in my view, about promoting the careers of six young people a year,” Knox says. “It is about the storytelling and about the hundreds of young people who might, in one way or another, tie into these stories and say, Oh my God, I could do that. That would be really interesting to explore further. It’s about telling the story about the evolution of our movement.”

Introducing the 2019 Brower Youth Award Winners

photo of 2016 brower youth award winners.
Clockwise from top left: Mackenzie Feldman, Isra Hirsi, Shannon Lisa, Tammy Ramos, Lia Harel, and Isha Clarke.

Mackenzie Feldman

A 23-year-old from Honolulu, Hawai’i, Feldman founded Herbicide-Free Campus, a campaign to ban herbicides at schools. Her campaign originated at UC Berkeley, was expanded to all UC campuses, and then broadened to schools across the US.

Isra Hirsi

A 16-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hirsi is the co-founder and co-executive director of the US Youth Climate Strike which focuses on fighting the climate crisis through strikes and policy advocacy.

Shannon Lisa

A 21-year-old from Avenel, New Jersey, Lisa is the program director of the nonprofit organization Edison Wetlands Association, which investigates the effects of chemical contaminant dumping in communities in Indiana and beyond.

Tammy “Ale” Ramos

A 17-year-old from Los Angeles, California, Ramos is a youth organizer with Communities for a Better Environment’s (CBE) youth group Youth for Environmental Justice. CBE recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles over the approval of oil drilling operations in violation of state law.

Lia Harel

An 18-year-old from Minnetonka, Minnesota, Harel is one of the founders and main organizers behind Minnesota Can’t Wait, a youth-led movement pushing for bold climate action in the state of Minnesota.

Isha Clarke

A 16-year-old from Oakland, California, Clarke is one of the original members of Youth Vs Apocalypse, a diverse group of youth activists who came together to protest a coal terminal planned in an underserved community of color in Oakland.

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