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Local youth working hard to tackle climate change (3 photos)

Sustainable Orillia Youth Council working to organize summit on climate change; 'Any local action has to be youth-driven because it’s (their) world,' says official

After two years of hard work-fueled success, the Sustainable Orillia Youth Council is planning their most ambitious project yet - a day-long youth conference to motivate, educate and encourage leadership on environmental issues facing residents of Simcoe County.

The youth council expects 200 young people to attend their ‘Sustainable Simcoe Youth Summit’ at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus on May 10, 2022.

Workshops and speeches by motivational keynote speakers will fill the day.

“Everyone on the team is super excited to attend,” said youth council president Blythe Wieclawek. “I feel that’s a way you can tell you’re happy with what you’re working on.”

A division of the larger Sustainable Orillia group, the youth council connects young environmentalists from across the city’s schools in an effort to increase the “speed, scale and influence” of youth sustainability projects. About 27 members currently make up the council.

John Knapp, a retired teacher and then-Sustainable Orillia board member, recruited youth from all three Orillia high schools in 2019 to form the youth council.

He’s since left the board formally, though still acts as the group’s advisor and Sustainable Orillia board liaison. Knapp says he sees young people as the future of the climate movement.

“When all this hits the fan, I’ll be dead. Youth won't. Any local action has to be youth-driven because it’s (their) world,” said Knapp.

Zac Waite got involved as an inaugural member and led the group as president until July 2021 as he started studying software engineering at the University of Waterloo.

While membership grew slowly in the beginning, Waite said the youth council eventually picked up steam and put together some projects he was really proud to be part of.

One of those projects was the council’s webinar, which aired to hundreds of students in grades 5 through 7 last fall. The 40-minute presentation featured topics like tree identification and sustainable crafts.

Developing ‘eco-blueprints,’ kits of educational projects and activities on climate action which teachers could use in class, is another project the group has underway.

Most recently, council members took part in the Fridays For Future global climate strike on Sept. 24 to demand climate justice.

Wieclawek, who grew up in an environmentally-conscious household, joined the council two years ago after attending one of the group’s early meetings. She has advocated for a youth conference since early 2021, which the whole council met with great enthusiasm.

Since then, the group has brainstormed topics to cover at the conference and how to implement them.

Though the youth council has formal titles for some of its members, participation and leadership from all members is encouraged.

“We think that open, sort of informal, no-pressure space allows for more ideas to come forward and for more people to make their voice and opinion heard within the group,” said Wieclawek. 

Though the workload varies week to week, Wieclawek says she and other council members spend a “fair share” of their free time organizing the conference.

The council hopes to have something for everyone - high-energy, interactive events and less participatory talks all on a variety of eco-topics.

Action-based initiatives, like how to start a youth eco group and get involved in local government, are a focus according to Wieclawek. An open time slot at the end of the day to start organizing events with others will hopefully encourage action while attendees are freshly inspired, she added.

Communications and tech leader Weiqi Xu hopes to design a QR code-based system for navigation and swapping contact information.

Scanning QR codes at key points around campus will allow attendees to easily get from one location to the next.

Though still in the rough planning phase as Xu is busy coding the registration page, he envisions personal QR codes for each member programmed with the personal information - like their social media and name for example - they’re comfortable sharing. When worn around lanyards, youth could easily swap contact information and network with other attendees.

“I really think this conference is about connecting yourself with other like-minded people,” said Xu. “When you have a group of people you can do so much more than just one person.”

All ideas were generated by youth on the council, as Knapp supplies only connections and past experience.

“My philosophy as an educator is ‘let the students learn by doing.’ So I try and stay out of it as much as I can,” said Knapp.

Knapp is glad to see youth on the council develop transferable organizational, leadership and motivation skills.

Those are skills which Waite is thankful for and has had peers in group projects recognized already in university.

“You’re able to learn the soft skills that will help you in life no matter what,” said Waite of the youth council’s opportunities. “You’re able to see that you are making a difference and that gives you energy and inspiration to come up with new ideas and work harder on initiatives.”

Knapp commends the hard work of the group’s “exceptional” members.

“They are so smart, so energetic and so active. That’s the big thing I get out of it - I get to share a bit of their energy,” said Knapp.

Registration for the conference will open in the new year.

The group is always accepting members. For more information visit the Sustainable Orillia Youth Council webpage.