Earth Island Institute’s New Leaders Initiative recognizes six young changemakers from North America every year for their outstanding efforts to promote ecological sustainability and environmental justice. We are excited to announce the recipients of the 2023 Brower Youth Awards.
Growing up in Washington State, Maanit Goel heard about the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas who are suffering a staggering decline in their food source, Chinook salmon, in the Snake River-Columbia River system.
In 2021, Goel established the Washington Youth Ocean & River Conservation Alliance (WYORCA) to mobilize young people around the decades-long movement to remove four dams on the lower Snake River, which experts say are impeding Chinook salmon migration. WYORCA now has nearly 30 youth volunteers who together have educated more than 6,000 students about the effects of the dams on Northwest ecosystems, spoken at over 20 congressional meetings, and coordinated workshops across state lines. The group’s work has been honored by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Katherine Martínez Medina grew up in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, watching sunsets on the most beautiful of beaches — beaches that have been used by the US Navy to test bombs for more than 60 years. Growing up in this toxic environment contaminated by heavy metals from the bombs, on an island that imports more than 90 percent of its food, spurred Medina to environmental activism at a young age.
In 2020, she got involved in La Colmena Cimarrona, a women-led, agriculture initiative. Formed in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s destruction of the island in 2017, the initiative seeks to achieve food sovereignty in Vieques, develop a local solidarity economy, and fight displacement and land speculation on the island. Medina — who is in charge of identifying community needs and liasing with grassroots organizations at the national and international level — has helped shape many of La Colmena Cimarrona’s efforts and build an oasis of hope.
As a middle school student, Angelina Xu recognized a paradox in her school system: hundreds of pounds of food were being thrown away each month while many students were dealing with food insecurity. So, in 2018, Xu started her county’s first food recovery and composting program for school cafeterias that collected and shipped unopened food to food banks and sent cafeteria food waste to local composting facilities. In 2021, she founded a nonprofit, Compostology, which has grown into a coalition of 35,000 students and school officials who manage 24 composting and food recovery programs at K-12 schools across Maryland.
In 2023 Compostology led a student campaign that helped pass SB 124, a state bill allocating $1.25 million in grant funding for K-12 schools to start their own composting and food recovery programs.
Earth Island will be honoring these inspiring young leaders at the 24th annual Brower Youth Awards ceremony on October 17 in Berkeley, California. Learn more and get tickets at broweryouthawards.org.
After experiencing the impacts of climate change first hand when Hurricane Irma flooded Miami in 2017, Will Charouhis founded We Are Forces of Nature, a youth-led climate group that provides climate adaptation and mitigation strategies for coastal areas. During the pandemic lockdown, We Are Forces of Nature volunteers cleaned up six miles of mangrove roots along the Miami shoreline to regenerate growth. That effort led to A Million Mangroves initiative, which helps conserve mangroves through cleanups, tree plantings, and research aimed at improving planting success rates.
Charouhis is also researching mangrove species that can withstand ocean acidification and has shared findings at several United Nations forums. His organization has educated 2,500 youth in 16 countries on the benefits of protecting mangroves, and is involved in a collaborative effort to restore mangroves in Central Africa.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Riya Chandra began to appreciate the benefits of hiking on her physical and emotional wellness. But she quickly noticed that she was often the only girl of color in the hiking groups she joined. She soon learned that outdoor spaces in the US have historically not been inclusive, and that families of color continue to face systemic barriers to accessing nature.
To address the lack of representation of girls of color in nature, in 2021, Chandra started Hiking Youth Program for Equity: Girls (HYPE: GIRLS) and began to arrange hikes, nature walks, and guest lectures for teenage girls of color in New York’s Westchester and Yonkers areas. HYPE: GIRLS focuses on building a safe, inclusive, and caring peer community that appreciates, benefits from, and gives back to nature. It also focuses on increasing interaction with nature as a way of coping and self-discovery, and hopes to create a passionate groundswell of young people who will fight to protect our outdoor spaces.
After graduating from a high school in Utah’s Davis County, a district that has some of the worst air pollution in the state, Muskan Walia made a commitment to work toward climate justice. In 2020, Walia helped launch the Davis School District’s first student-led Clean Energy Schools Campaign to get the school district to commit to a 100 percent clean electricity transition by 2030, and a transition in all energy sectors by 2040. Walia and her team wrote and helped pass a revised policy for energy efficiency for the district that received national recognition. The campaign has helped pass clean energy resolutions in several other Utah school districts as well.
Walia also helps lead the Utah Youth Environmental Solutions — a network of organizers and activists working to mobilize Utah youth for climate justice.
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