Editor’s Note: Taking climate lessons from the classroom to the community, Maryland students are becoming increasingly vocal, marching in protests, organizing rallies and challenging school and government authorities to act on their concerns.
Many have been inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who, at 15 in 2018, staged daily protests outside the Swedish Parliament with demands that leaders listen to her pleas for the planet.
This month we profile three Maryland teenagers, each a leader among their peers seeking to address solutions to a global crisis.
They are part of a growing youth movement, impatient and frustrated, yet empowered by the sum of their collective effort to create a more equitable and sustainable future.
By Rosanne Skirble: – On a Friday last winter, Javier Fuentes, then a sophomore at Laurel High School in Prince George’s County, was in his bedroom attending virtual school.
After classes he had a commitment.
Javier was the only student invited to join a global sustainability panel among educators from Scotland, Australia, Kenya, Mexico, Germany and the United States.
The online event was sponsored by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, the non-profit that certifies green schools across Maryland.
“I was nervous, intimidated,” he admitted, but Javier gathered his nerves and forged ahead.
“I was never really involved or passionate about the environment until I was a freshman and decided to join the Green Club,” he said in his remarks to the more than 100 people registered for the event, all environmental educators or professionals in the field.
As a member of the club’s executive team that year, Javier facilitated two messy compost audits with expert help from the Smithsonian.
“Ninety percent of the [so-called] waste was actually compostable,” he said.
“It was fun, educational, and a gross experience,” he said, recalling the hands-on sorting.
Those efforts jump-started Laurel’s composting program, the first in any Prince Georges County school. In 2020, the program was recognized with a Waste Diversion Award for Innovation from the Prince George’s Department of the Environment.
By sophomore year, Javier was Green Club president with an executive team, three faculty advisors, and 50 to 60 students who showed up regularly to meetings.
During the pandemic, under Javier’s leadership, the Green Club didn’t slack off and instead accelerated, creating a recycled art competition and getting dozens of students to take a pledge for America Recycles Day.
“There is nothing flashy about him, and he never grandstands. Although he has a quiet personality, he is liked and respected by other students,” said English teacher Beth Gallagher, faculty co-sponsor of the club. “He guided the Club through a strange year of online meetings and at home projects.”
Javier also spearheaded Laurel’s Green School recertification process, Gallagher said.
Nadisha Clayton, another faculty co-sponsor, was impressed by Javier’s critical thinking and encouraged him to join the Envirothon, the largest high school education competition in North America.
Students study training materials, attend hands-on sessions with local experts, and then compete at the local, state and national levels. After placing second countywide contest in March 2020, the Laurel team advanced to the state competition.
“They performed well enough to be able to secure a $1,500 scholarship for each member of their [five-person] team,” Clayton said.
Javier’s visibility in Prince George’s County earned him an invite from the County Board of Education to comment on the county’s Climate Action Plan.
“Overall, I like doing all of these things,” Javier said, reflecting on a summer job with the National Energy Education Development Project, a national non-profit. He studied insulation, working in small groups online with packaged materials sent to his home in boxes.
“I had no idea about insulation, and the impact windowpanes and drafts have on home energy efficiency,” he said. “There are practical solutions that students like me can take, around their own homes, their own lives, so they can become more sustainable.”
Looking back at last February’s Global Sustainability Panel, Javier also broadened his worldview. He learned from research scientist M. Carolina Ceballos Bernal, with the Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo, a Mexican research food and development institute, that she had created an environmental education curriculum, but there was no public policy in place to enforce it.
Javier said he was inspired that she kept fighting to bring the program to life.
“She was able to make connections with other environmental groups to conduct interviews of communities on how they believed environmental education should take place, train educators, and lobby for education on sustainable development and sustainable schools,” he said. “Those kinds of stories inspire me to continue pushing forward with environmental work in my community, that we have to keep pushing for sustainable development themes in our curriculum.”
While acknowledging that young people get impatient with government inertia, Javier said it is the duty of his generation to slow the wider impact of climate change, which is why each action is important.
“You really have to fight for what you want to get it to happen, building connections, with others with the same passion, that we can all work together to make a better, greener future,” he said.
Even small steps can make a difference, Javier tells others.
“Seeing the little successes is what gives me hope, like using reusable water bottles or turning trash into art, or on a bigger scale like closing the ozone hole, seeing that the world can come together to slow effects of climate change,” he said.
But, when he thinks about it, it’s his personal story that gives him the courage to lead. His parents immigrated from El Salvador before he was born, escaping violence and poverty. His parents taught him not to waste food and to conserve energy because back home they couldn’t afford a lot.
“They told me about the drastic differences in lifestyle, and that’s part of my environmental experience, why I reflect on my own habits in my day-to-day-life,” he said.
Javier plans to study engineering or architecture after high school graduation in 2023.
Gallagher sees a promising future whatever he decides.
“Look for Javier where remarkable things are happening. At the center of the project, you will find him – kind, intelligent, hardworking, never seeming to do anything and yet, somehow, holding everything together,” she said.