A signature element of Earth Island Institute’s year-round New Leaders Initiative, Brower Youth Award winners demonstrate passion and leadership, as well as a commitment to the communities their work serves.
Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion may be grabbing all the headlines, but the Earth Island Institute’s Brower Youth Awards celebrate the work being done by a host of other, seriously exceptional young environmental leaders across the US.
This year’s winners are:
Isha Clarke, a 16-year-old from Oakland, California, is one of the original members of Youth vs. Apocalypse — a diverse group of youth activists who came together to protest a coal terminal which was (and still is) to be built in an underserved community of color in Oakland.
In 2017, Clarke found herself at a youth-led action targeting a developer that was suing the city of Oakland, to allow him to build a controversial coal terminal through West Oakland, a low-income community of color. When Clarke learned that the community was already struggling with environmental illnesses such as asthma that would be exacerbated by the coal terminal, she discovered how central environmental racism is in the fight for environmental justice.
Clarke has since broadened her activism and is now one of the leaders of Youth vs Apocalypse, which recently confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein, along with Bay Area Earth Guardians Crew and Sunrise Movement, about her stance on the Green New Deal in a now-viral video. This event sparked a vital national conversation about both the Green New Deal, and the role of young people in climate activism. Since gaining this platform, Clarke and Youth Vs Apocalypse activists have continued fighting for radical climate action that is centered around frontline communities. They organized the hugely successful March 15th Bay Area Youth Climate Strike and planned a community block party — both aligning with the Fridays For Future campaign, started by Greta Thunberg — and, with Sunrise Movement, organized a powerful series of actions at the California Democratic Convention.
Clarke says she strives to create a movement that reflects the world that young people want to see. She works to make sure the voices of young people, people of color, and disenfranchised frontline communities are the loudest.
Mackenzie Feldman is a 23-year-old from Honolulu, Hawaii, and is the founder of Herbicide-Free Campus — a campaign to ban herbicides at schools — which originated at UC Berkeley, was expanded to all University of California campuses and then broadened to schools across the US.
With her home state of Hawaii ground zero for industrial agriculture, as well as for GMO seed testing, Feldman has witnessed her people poisoned and land destroyed by big, chemical corporations. When her UC Berkeley volleyball coach one day told the team that an herbicide had just been sprayed around the courts, Feldman and one of her teammates worked to get herbicides banned from the courts — and then expanded the efforts to the rest of campus, launching Herbicide-Free Cal with the support of organizers from Food and Water Watch.
Feldman achieved a major success when the use of glyphosate was temporarily banned from all UC campuses. She has since broadened her efforts to a national level to reach as many universities as possible. She has worked with a coalition to get herbicides banned from every public school in Hawaii, and also launched a chapter at the University of Hawaii campuses, as well as in the Sacramento Unified School District. Feldman now mentors students on how to organize and cultivate relationships with groundskeepers; and has provided resources in the form of data, student support and financial support, as well as training and instruction for groundskeepers in alternative maintenance methods. She also teaches students how to launch a campaign and trains them on campaign strategy, university-wide policy, student recruitment and digital organizing tools.
Feldman hopes to lead us to a toxic-free world, where farm workers, families, children, animals and ecosystems will no longer be exposed to harmful pesticides.
Lia Harel is an 18-year-old from Minnetonka, Minnesota, one of the founders and main organizers behind Minnesota Can’t Wait — a youth-led movement pushing for bold climate action in the state.
Harel became an organizer in the climate movement three years ago, when she began to understand how the climate crisis impacts the economy, public health, food security, safety and quality of life. Fueled by this frustration, she joined with other passionate youth activists in the summer of 2018 to demand her state play a leading role in the adoption of just climate policies. Together, they formed the movement now known as Minnesota Can’t Wait, named for the impatience the youth feel regarding the need for solutions that meet the scope and scale of the crisis.
Over the next few months, the youth brought other young people, organizers, faith leaders, Indigenous communities, business people and politicians to stand together on three main points:
- no more fossil fuel infrastructure development in the state,
- regulate statewide greenhouse gases, and
- support the Minnesota Green New Deal Bill.
They have organized rallies at the state capitol, led a march, testified in Committee hearings, published op-eds, and helped write the framework for the Minnesota Green New Deal Bill.
Harel hopes to shift the conversation in Minnesotan communities, and set a stronger expectation for the state to pass climate legislation for a just and sustainable economy.
Isra Hirsi is a 16-year-old sophomore from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is the co-founder and co-Executive Director of the US Youth Climate Strike, which focuses on fighting the crisis through climate strikes and climate policy.
Hirsi developed a knowledge of environmental issues through witnessing pipelines being built in her state, weathering extreme snow conditions, and hearing about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. She founded the US Youth Climate Strike, with the first strike in March of 2019 — with the help of 100+ organizers and 15+ partners, the organization has since pulled off multiple strikes and a massive petition calling for a climate debate. Hirsi says she wants to take action in a way that is both accessible and visible; she wanted to create a group/movement that wasn’t centered around privilege, but the complexities of climate change and its impact on black and brown communities. The youth climate strikers are working towards representing everyone and highlighting people and communities on the frontlines.
Hirsi is also inspired by her little sister, who is supposed to graduate high school in 2030, when the planet is expected to hit a tipping point.
Shannon Lisa is a 21-year-old from Avenel, New Jersey, and the Program Director of the non-profit Edison Wetlands Association, which investigates the effects of chemical contaminant dumping in communities in Indiana and beyond.
Through “environmental detective work,” Lisa is committed to protecting human health and the environment through the investigation of hazardous waste sites. She became involved in the issue of harmful chemicals after growing up in the state with the greatest number of contaminated sites and seeing firsthand the devastating effects it has on communities.
Lisa has led the charge for over two years to crack open a decades-old toxic cold case. In mid-2017, she learned about dozens of children getting sick with rare cancers in and around Franklin, Indiana. Local families long-believed their health was being affected by unhealthy levels of chemicals in the environment, and felt they could not get answers from the government agencies. Lisa and her organization filed extensive requests to the federal EPA to secure as much information as possible on the history of environmental impacts in the community. After pouring through over 40,000 pages of previously hidden documents, she uncovered a bombshell: A nearby industrial site assured by the EPA to be cleaned up had been severely mismanaged and poorly investigated. A cocktail of poison gases, including the known carcinogen TCE, may have been invading people’s homes for years. She coordinated with the community group If It Was Your Child and environmental technical team Mundell & Associates to conduct the first-ever scientific testing of residential indoor air. This research, and the discovery that some homes had detections of industrial toxins as much as 18x over the state threshold, led to the EPA reopening a wide-scale investigation.
Lisa continues to work with the Franklin community as they get closer to achieving a new, permanent cleanup; and advocates for change on a national scale so that no family has to feel unsafe in their homes because of industry’s toxic assaults.
Tammy “Ale” Ramos is a 17-year-old from Los Angeles, California, who is a youth organizer with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE)’s youth group, Youth for Environmental Justice, which sued the city of LA over the approval of oil drilling operations in violation of state law.
Ramos lives in Wilmington, a harbor city in Los Angeles, home to the 3rd-largest oil field in the US. She became a youth organizer with CBE to address the volume of drilling/refinery operations, threats to her community, and impacts to her local environment. She and other youth organizers became plaintiffs that sued the city of Los Angeles in 2015, for approving drilling operations without proper environmental review. Amid settlement of the case, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) sued the youth plaintiffs from CBE; an appellate court decided that CIPA’s claims were baseless and this case was later dismissed. CIPA then appealed to the Supreme Court of California, which denied CIPA’s request for review, officially ending the case.
Since the lawsuits, the city of LA has begun implementing stronger environmental review of drilling projects. Ramos and the other youth organizers have worked alongside CBE in teaching the issues in their Wilmington community. Ramos hopes that this case serves as motivation for fellow youth leaders around the country to create change in their community. Moving forward, she will keep fighting to live in a just world, using her voice as an organizer to end environmental racism.
The Brower Youth Awards ceremony will take place at the War Memorial Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on October 15. Each winner will deliver a speech and a short documentary profiling each winner will be viewed.