YES Conference Inspires Youth to Take Action on Climate Change

Young environmentalists said “NO” to climate change at the inaugural “YES” conference Saturday, Nov. 2 at MTC headquarters. The day-long Youth for Environment and Sustainability Conference (YES) brought together Bay Area middle- and high-school students who are passionate about alternative transportation and are spearheading efforts in their communities to reduce pollution and congestion. MTC and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) created the YES Conference as part of their Spare the Air Youth Program, recognizing that the under-18 crowd could dramatically impact climate change by adopting cleaner transportation habits.

Students participating in ice-breaker game at YES Conference

Kicking off the summit, MTC Chair and Orinda Mayor Amy Worth told the participants that the sustainability conversation often starts with the youth. Worth grew up in Los Angeles, where the streets were congested and the air was yellow – until young people demanded action, she said. “Today I see the future leaders of the Bay Area,” Worth said.

The conference’s two keynote speakers discussed strategies for advocating environmental action. Youth speaker Jasmine Jolly encouraged her peers to bike to school, and empathized with the challenges of effecting change.

“The first lesson I learned is that it won’t always be easy,” said Jolly, a freshman who makes a 25-mile round trip commute to Windsor High School by bicycle. “Some people want to believe that the next generation will take care of things. We are all part of the problem, but we all have something to contribute.” Jolly is one of the youngest people to have completed the Climate Ride, a challenging four-day charity bike trip.

Adult keynote speaker Simon Dunne asked the conference participants to recall how they felt the first time they rode a bike. Making a difference depends on engaging people on an emotional level, said Dunne, a global advocacy manager for world-class bicycle maker Specialized Bicycle. “People gotta feel it, when it comes down to it,” he said. “It’s all about that feeling – how you felt falling off the bike, how you felt getting ice cream after you rode. You have to tap into that emotion.”

In a series of “break-out sessions” throughout the summit, the participants had the opportunity to share initiatives they have started to encourage alternative transportation at their schools and in their hometowns, to attend a leadership training session and a panel on green careers, and to get their hands greasy at a bike repair workshop.

For many students, the conference was a unique chance to collaborate and brainstorm with other young people working on similar projects.  “I wanted to meet new kids from other high schools to see what they’re doing and incorporate it back into our school – and maybe do a program with them,” said Meredith Esposto, a student at Terra Linda High School’s School of Environmental Leadership.

In a presentation on the importance of advocacy, Amador Valley High School’s Sophia Holbrook encouraged her peers to demand that their elected officials address climate change. Reiterating the conference’s theme, she reminded them that young people have to take action when the rest of the world is ignoring a catastrophic issue.

“It sounds super cheesy to say, ‘I’m gonna save the world,” Holbrook admitted. “But if we don’t, who will?”