Student Advocacy

Student Advocacy

As a teacher, you understand that educating the next generation about climate change is integral to fighting the climate crisis. You may already feel confident about your ability to deliver factual climate science information to students, but how can you take it a step further and help promote student advocacy? SubjectToClimate was lucky enough to connect with Emily Howley and Marie Lessard-Brandt, two student climate activists who generously shared their story about how they got involved in environmental advocacy work while they were still students in high school. Read on to find out what ignited their interest in the climate movement, how they were inspired to host a climate panel at their high school, and what they believe teachers can do to support student advocacy in their own schools.


About the Student Authors

Image of Author Marie Lessard-Brandt

Marie Lessard-Brandt

Marie is an upcoming sophomore at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  She is planning on completing a French major and pursuing foreign language/ESL teaching after college.  

Image of Author Emily Howley

Emily Howley

Emily is a prospective Biology major at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She hopes to go on to study environmental science and work in the field of conservation or forestry.

Getting Involved in the Climate Movement

In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, we received an email from our friend. She had heard about a program to train young people to begin climate organizing through the Sunrise Movement. Sunrise organizes hubs around the country with a core of three people, and our friend needed two more to join. We didn’t know much about Sunrise, but we were craving regular human interaction, even if over Zoom, and we agreed to give it a try. Over the next few weeks, we attended Zoom sessions teaching us about leadership, mass movements, and the basics of climate policy and climate action; we learned movement songs, shared personal stories, and practiced creating meeting agendas. When the time came to apply our knowledge and start our Sunrise hub in Somerville, Massachusetts, we reached out to everyone we knew (and everyone we sort of knew, and everyone we frequently saw in the halls of our high school, and everyone following us on social media) over text, direct message, or email. It was awkward at first, but eventually, we got used to cold-calling and approaching people, learning that directly asking others to get involved was the best way to grow our group.

For the first year, we primarily met online over Zoom. We organized an in-person group rally as our first project, recruiting about sixty high school and middle school students. We worked alongside other advocacy groups to spread awareness about and accrue support for issues important to us. Among these issues was the lack of state house transparency in Massachusetts, which limits activists’ ability to hold politicians accountable for their failure to pass climate legislation. Teaming up with established climate groups in our area allowed us to connect with activists who were more knowledgeable about the local policy scene than us. We were lucky to meet many kind, passionate people who were generous enough to share their time and wisdom with us. When we first started organizing, we were only really accustomed to communicating with other people our age, but our newfound relationships with outside groups changed that; they allowed us to begin building the parallel skill of communicating with people in high-up positions, like elected officials, and people who were significantly older than us. Some adults were more willing to collaborate with us than others: we were frequently told that we were an “inspiration,” and then brushed aside.

Photo: A member of Sunrise Somerville works on art for a demonstration at a public park.

The next year, we began meeting in person. We cleaned out Marie’s garage, clearing out spiderwebs and old lumber to make way for string lights, tables, posters, and camp chairs. We worked on our biggest project yet over that summer, endorsing candidates for our municipal elections. We met with all of the candidates for municipal elections, formulated questionnaires, conducted interviews, held a vote among our members, and finally publicly endorsed candidates that we felt most aligned with our platform. Then, we organized opportunities for hub members to participate in candidates’ campaign events, like knocking on doors and creating social media posts in support of our chosen candidates. One group that was extremely helpful during this process was our local teachers’ union, the Somerville Educators Union. Their members encouraged us, provided questionnaire examples, and shared information about candidates, without trying to sway our opinions and votes. 

Organizing a Climate Panel

Later on, the connections we made with Somerville educators came in very handy when we decided to hold a climate education panel at our high school. Our Sunrise hub wasn’t officially affiliated with the high school, so we were glad to know several teachers in the context of activism, in addition to the traditional student-teacher relationship. We worked with our teachers Naima Sait and Carlos Contreras to put on a panel during X-block,  a weekly free period at our school. We pooled our local connections and leveraged our group’s people power to invite speakers, write bios, prepare questions, and plan the agenda. At the same time, our teachers worked with the school to secure extra credit for students attending and a space to hold the event in.

Photo: Climate education panel at our high school.

On the day of the event, we greeted our six guests: a young city councilor-at-large, a representative from the Somerville Office of Sustainability, a member of the Mystic River Watershed Association, a high school student in the Massachusetts Climate Education Organization, and two members of the Climate Coalition of Somerville. As students filtered in, we chatted with the speakers and the teachers who helped us organize the event. We served as emcees along with another group leader. We used the following format for the climate panel:

  • Introduction: speakers introduced themselves to the student audience
  • Audience Engagement Activity: emcees led students in a Kahoot to introduce talking points and inform students about climate issues
  • Panel Discussion: emcees asked the speakers questions about their activism experiences
  • Q&A: students in the audience had the chance to ask the speakers follow-up questions

Afterward, we gave students the opportunity to sign up for emails about any of the groups discussed and told them about when and where our weekly meetings were held.

What We Learned From Hosting a Climate Event

After the event, we received positive feedback from students and teachers who attended the panel. Students enjoyed hearing the speakers’ personal stories and expressed enthusiasm for joining groups, and teachers appreciated the enriching X-block activity and felt that it was a good use of class time. Upon reflection, we feel that it was a good idea to bring local leaders to meet students. Forming personal connections is the surest way to create and maintain cohesive activist groups, and creating those connections across age and social groups builds strong and diverse mixes of people. It’s a win-win to make schools ground zero for fostering these connections: climate activists can meet, educate, and connect with students, while students learn about their world, develop ties to their community, and gain opportunities for self-actualization and self-expression. 

One element of the event we would have changed was the format. Having a panel of speakers created a dynamic of speakers vs. listeners when it could have been more of a conversation to encourage student participation. Our school held a day of social engagement/education, in which several individuals from inside and outside the school (teachers, authors, activists, historians) hosted small-group workshops that students could choose between. This event gave students a choice about which workshop to attend and allowed them to be more active in their learning. If we were to hold another event, it would likely be more in that style. We would bring in the same mix of educators but have them host smaller groups, projects, and conversations between students and activists. It would be more intimate, allow for more student expression and choice, and be more effective in creating lasting connections between guests and students.

How Teachers Can Support Student Advocacy

Most of our work has been among young people and adults who do activism work on the side. We’ve also collaborated with educators who are closing the gap between climate education and climate action, and we think that introducing both topics to students and drawing a direct line between them can be valuable. For educators looking to promote student engagement with environmental activism, we would encourage actively seeking out student organizations, clubs, and environmentally-focused classes (science, social studies, etc.) to find students who are interested or already involved in climate activism. 

It’s often the case that students who are involved in groups unaffiliated with the school would still be willing to work alongside educators to hold events like the one we put on, with the students as a bridge between the two parties. Teachers can also reach out to other local climate groups, who are frequently very enthusiastic about outreach opportunities including educating young people. Teachers’ unions are often in contact with advocates outside of their organization, so reaching out to people already in the activism scene can often lead to you finding someone who knows the perfect person to work with you on your project.

Image of students with activism posters

Photo: Students hold signs while tabling for a push to change the state's house rules to increase transparency.

Another way to bring climate issues into schools is by going through the process of instituting a mandatory climate curriculum. We aren’t experts on this process, but we would encourage teachers to reach out to the teachers’ unions and youth groups who have collaborated to create and institute these curriculums, like the Massachusetts Climate Education Organization. An age-appropriate, science-based climate curriculum can fire students up and prepare them to solve the current climate issues our world is facing and inspire them to work for a better future.

We learned a lot about leadership and mobilizing others through our experience in climate activism, and we think it would be similarly valuable for other students. If educators instill an interest in activism in their students through their lessons and social relationships, and engaged students draw other students into the movement, the school sphere can be the perfect place to develop the next generation of environmental activists.

Additional Resources

Walk and Roll to School
Save Tomorrow
School Board Resolution Toolkit
What Can I Do About Climate Change
Young Voices for the Planet
A Roadmap for Young Changemakers
Oregon Youth Demand Action on Climate Change
Youth Climate Summit Toolkit
Mailing List
Lesson Plans
Resource Database
Student News

All resources can be used for your educational purposes with proper attribution to the content provider.