Creating a Youth Climate Summit in Garrison, NY

Fridays have become a day of action for many students across the world. Instead of attending classes, students have been walking out to take part in demonstrations to demand action to prevent further global warming and climate change. Greta Thunberg and others have been continuing their strikes even through the summer.

One way that students are taking action is through educational climate summits that encourage students, parents, and the community to take action on climate change. Here’s the story of how we organized a climate summit in May at the Garrison School in New York, inviting students to show up and spend a day learning about climate change and climate solutions.

By 8:30 am the first wave of students disembarked off the school buses, and within a matter of ten minutes, the middle schoolers had cleared out the scones and muffins eschewing the yogurt and granola. I had completely underestimated how much young growing kids eat. I quickly called my husband and asked him to pick up several dozen muffins at the store. After months of planning the Garrison Youth Climate Summit, confirming speakers and workshops, making t-shirts, stickers and postcards, and all the details that go into making an event happen, I was happy that the biggest complaint might be ‘not enough blueberry muffins.’ Fortunately, this crowd of 120 students didn’t seem to care all that much about muffins and seemed eager to learn.  

Krystal Ford with Jen Krester, from the Wild Center.

Our small middle school of sixty students, was the first school in the Hudson Valley to host a Youth Climate Summit. We sent out the invite to schools surrounding us and in the end had six schools attend: Byram Hills, Haldane, Highland Falls, Manitou School, Putnam Valley, and Tarrytown, in addition to Garrison students. Everything was free to schools, including breakfast and lunch, thanks to the generous support of the Garrison Children’s Education Fund and The Wild Center.

Youth Climate Summits—started in 2009 at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, NY—work to convene, engage, connect and empower young people around the world for action on climate change. Fittingly, the first summit was the idea of a Lake Placid High School student, Zachary Berger. The Summit combines informative plenary sessions and workshops in an engaging atmosphere. It is a catalyst in changing the lives, schools, and communities of young people striving to change the world. To date, there have been 70 Youth Climate Summits in 30 locations. From all over New York, to North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, Finland, Sri Lanka, Germany, Liberia, Seattle, Vermont, and Colorado.

Each school sends a team including students, educators, administrators, and facilities staff to develop their own actionable carbon reduction plan designed to decrease their energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Students who have participated across the globe have returned to their schools implementing change – creating school gardens to provide food for their cafeterias, expanding recycling and composting programs, replacing power strips with energy smart strips, examining energy saving opportunities by conducting carbon audits for their schools, and presenting to school boards about their activities and financial savings, and countless community outreach events.

Director of Climate Initiatives at The Wild Center, Jen Kretser says, “The Wild Center’s Youth Climate Program is unlocking the potential of the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, change agents, and leaders. We are expanding the idea of what is possible.”

Last year, a friend introduced me to The Wild Center and I was immediately intrigued by the summits. I knew that if you could educate the youth, you could change school culture which ripples out to parents and the wider community. I found an eager partner at the Garrison School who shared my enthusiasm for climate education, the middle school science teacher Kevin Keegan. We brought students to two youth climate summits—one at Columbia University and the other a two-day summit in the Catskills—and then got to work on organizing our own.  

Matt Libby from Helpsy, facilitating the “Clothes Aren’t Trash” workshop.

We kicked off the day with our Keynote speaker: a former Garrison School alumna, Lindy Labriola. Lindy recently returned from a Fulbright fellowship in Arctic Norway, where she examined the social impacts of climate change on local industry and Indigenous communities.  Her keynote gave an overview of climate change, her work up in the Arctic, and her renewable energy charity, InOurHands, which provides affordable power, jobs, and sustained income to marginalized and low-income areas across the country.

After the keynote address the schools broke up into their workshops. We offered two workshop sessions with 6-7 choices each session. Topics included everything from “Mushroom Inoculation and Fungal Climate Solutions,” “Composting,” “Building a Youth Climate Movement,” “Renewable Energy,” “Biomimicry,” “Becoming a CO2 Eating Superhero,” “Making Your Own Bee’s Wrap,” and “Clothes Aren’t Trash.”

Tobias Hess and Bronwyn Simons from Hudson Valley Sunrise.

I wandered the halls poking my head into classrooms to make sure everything was running smoothly, and I smiled to myself when I saw the Sunrise Movement presenters Tobias Hess and Bronwyn Simons having students role play being in a meeting with their senator talking about climate change. The students kept trying to convince their “senator” that climate change is real, stating the facts. The senator, played by another student, joyfully and stubbornly refused to listen to facts about science. When the presenters, Tobias and Bronwyn, gently interjected, “You can’t debate them. You need to tell them all about the benefits of investing in renewables, how it will boost the economy. The Green New Deal will save money and create jobs.”

Through the whole climate summit planning process Kevin Keegan and I made sure that the students were involved—dubbed the Youth Climate Action team. They gave input on workshops, helped secure food donations, designed the postcard, and then on the day of the summit they manned the registration table, introduced the keynote, introduced our workshop presenters, two students even designed and ran a workshop on reducing your plastic waste. Our students were stepping into roles of leadership, an incredibly powerful skill to learn.

One eighth grade student at Garrison, Maya Gelber, had this to say about her experience, “It was all honestly a pretty empowering experience, to help and watch our summit morph from an idea in Mr Keegan’s classroom to an organized event with other schools. It was so fun to collaborate with my friends on the summit, especially because we’re all so enthusiastic about climate change, and as a result we work really well together. Speaking in front of all the students, as stressful as it might’ve been for me, was pretty awesome. It not only showed how many young people cared about their future, but (as cheesy as it is) I also felt like I had a voice that people would listen to. Everyone listened so attentively and passionately to all of the speakers, it really gave me a lot of hope in terms of what our future will look like.” 

Our afternoon consisted of presentations from Greenlight Award winners, a contest run by Bedford 2020 in Westchester County that challenges students to come up with big green ideas to address a local environmental problem.

Then four Garrison Students gave an overview of Climate Action Planning, and then the schools broke up into their teams to work on their own climate action plan to bring back to their school. I walked around again, ready to lend a hand if anyone needed it, and saw the students deep in discussion.  

We closed the summit by having each school share their Climate Action Plan, the most common theme was eliminating plastic.

Presenter, Jason Angell, had this to say about the summit, “There was just really positive energy throughout the whole building, excellent presentations, and so cool to see young people from different schools come together to plant the seeds for a movement.”

At the end of the day, the students drained out of the building, taking with them that same buzzing energy they brought in the morning. All that was left was silence. I was reminded of why I love working with youth. They look at difficult problems like climate change and plastic pollution and think of solutions. As adults we get stuck in a rut, most of us see those problems as mountains that can’t be summited, that everything is too hard, or too impossible, or too entrenched, when our students see that same mountain and ask, why not go around it? Or why take this path in the first place?

The very worst thing we can do to our children is to pass on the belief that things are hopeless and that they are helpless. Their optimism, energy and innovation will be humanity’s greatest asset.

Want to organize a youth climate summit at your school?

About Krystal Ford

Krystal Ford is a writer, mother and an activist. She is a trained Climate Reality Leader, the President of GUFS PTA, and volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby.