Every year Earth Island Institute’s New Leaders Initiative recognizes six young environmental activists from North America for their outstanding efforts to promote ecological sustainability and environmental justice. We are excited to announce the recipients of the 2021 Brower Youth Awards.

Clockwise from left: Alexandria Gordon, Alexia Leclercq, Peter Pham, Artemisio Romero y Carver, David Baldwin, Sonja Michaluk. Photo courtesy of New Leaders Initiative.

Alexandria Gordon, 21

St. Petersburg, Florida
Inspiring Campuses to Go Plastic-Free

During her second week at Eckerd College, Alexandria Gordon began working with the student-run nonprofit Florida PIRG to register young people to vote. Her efforts helped increase voter turnout by 350 percent at her local precinct during the 2018 elections.

Encouraged by this success, Gordon decided to use her new organizing skills to address Eckerd’s plastic pollution problem. She launched a campaign through Florida PIRG Students to get the college to sign the “Break Free From Plastic Pledge” and eliminate all nonessential single-use plastics. After months of campaigning, Eckerd College became the first campus in the nation to implement the pledge.

Gordon now works with campuses from coast to coast to help them adopt their own version of the pledge and is working to build support for a federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.

Alexia Leclercq, 21

Austin, Texas, and New York City
Bridging the Gap Between Climate Education and Action

Growing up, Alexia Leclercq saw that climate change was framed as a future crisis instead of a present issue disproportionately impacting communities of color. So in 2019, they co-founded Start:Empowerment (S:E), an environmental justice nonprofit focused on bridging the gap between education and action. S:E collaborates with activists, educators, and community members to create spaces for environmental justice education and action. The group staunchly supports the principles of abolition, transformative justice, and mutual aid.

S:E has grown to reach over 500 students across five schools, and members have worked with teachers to implement lessons and to support student-led environmental and food justice clubs. Additionally S:E created a micro-grants program to support youth pursuing community-based projects addressing various justice issues.

Peter Pham, 22

San Jose, California
Advocating for Transit Justice

Peter Pham organizes for environmental and transit justice with Turnout4Transit, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, labor unions, and social justice organizations.

When Pham first started taking courses at community college, he commuted by bus two hours each way. Since then, he has been fighting for better public transit throughout the San Jose metropolitan region with the goals of slashing regional emissions, decreasing traffic congestion, and local residents ‘ increasing access to opportunities.

During the past year, Pham and his colleagues helped pass a three-county ballot measure to generate $100 million for rail services in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. Despite major decreases in revenue during the pandemic, they also successfully pushed for the Santa Clara transit agency to limit the number of cuts made to bus services so that underserved community members had adequate access to public transit.

Earth Island is celebrating these inspiring young leaders in a two-part virtual event open to the public — the Brower Youth Awards ceremony on October 14, and a Q&A with the winners on October 19. Learn more at broweryouthawards.org

Artemisio Romero y Carver, 18

Santa Fe, New Mexico
Pushing for Smart Climate Policy

In the summer of 2019, artist, poet, and organizer Artemisio Romero y Carver helped to found Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (yucca), a youth-led nonprofit working to hold this country’s elected officials accountable for the health of the planet, future generations, and bipoc communities. The group leads protests, lobbies for federal and state legislation, endorses candidates, and educates voters.

Romero y Carver serves as a steering committee member and spokesperson for yucca. She also served as yucca’s policy director during New Mexico’s 2021 legislative session, during which three of the organization’s priority bills — all of which seek to combat climate change through market regulation and energy diversification — were passed.

Romero y Carver was Santa Fe’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate. Her art pursues the goal of empowering the disempowered.

David Baldwin, 18

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Seeking Solutions to Invasive Weeds

Growing up with the Everglades National Park as his backyard, David Baldwin grew fond of Florida ecology. At 14, he joined the Everglades Restoration Ambassadors, a nonprofit that removes nonnative plants. As an ambassador, he educates elementary school students about nonnative species using educational modules he developed.

The educational programs are based on Baldwin’s own research, which dates back to 2017 when he began conducting neuroscience research alongside members of the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience. In his junior year of high school, he interned in a biogeochemistry lab at Florida Atlantic University, where he began studying the nonnative plant Caesar’s weed, including its ideal germination conditions and its spread across Florida. Based on his findings, he theorized land-management practices like hands-on removal and prescribed burns to help keep the weed in control.

Sonja Michaluk, 18

Princeton, New Jersey
Encouraging Rigorous Citizen Science

Since joining her first freshwater bio-assessment team as an eager six-year-old, Sonja Michaluk has helped secure several big wins for aquatic environments, including the modification of a national natural gas pipeline project to minimize wetland disturbance and protecting over 50 acres of ecologically critical land in Central New Jersey.

These victories resulted from her work with the Conservation Communities Initiative, a project she founded in 2017 that encourages people to monitor and protect their local aquatic habitats and advocate for data-driven environmental decision making. The initiative runs a microbiology and genetics lab that facilitates use of a genetics-based bioassessment method that Michaluk developed, which can identify the presence of threatened, endangered, and nonnative species from trace water samples.