Climate change. Pollution. Overtaxed landfills. The depletion of natural resources … The list of environmental challenges facing the world is getting longer by the day.
Charles Orgbon thinks there is a secret weapon in this battle: young people.
“Young people are curious about the world, and fearless about the world, because they don’t know what to be afraid of,” Charles said. “Instead of asking ‘why,’ we have a whole generation of young people asking ‘why not?’”
He would know. Charles got an early start in the environmental movement himself, when a fifth grade service project focused on campus litter evolved into a life-changing passion for empowering other young people to become environmental leaders.
In 2008, when Charles was 12, he founded Greening Forward, “a youth-driven, youth-led and youth-imagined environmental organization” that has grown into one of the largest groups of its kind. Now a senior at the University of Georgia, Charles and Greening Forward remain dedicated to growing other young environmentalists through support, training, funding and community.
The organization has funded the efforts of more than 2,000 students and 50 student environmental groups across the country, and convened four international conferences for young leaders. Charles is also one of the dynamic change makers in the Youth Environmental Hub, a partnership between The Pollination Project and Levi Strauss & Co. that seeds grants to youth environmentalists around the world.
One of Greening Forward’s goals is to help the “adult-run” environmental organizations understand the power of youth in creating change at a local and global level.
This includes youth like Hannah Testa, who recognized that plastic pollution was a big deal when she was 9 years old. Now 14, she is working with a Georgia state legislator to declare a statewide Plastic Pollution Awareness Day on Feb. 15, educating people about the bottles, straws and bags that clog our waterways.
She’s also convinced an entire restaurant chain to agree not to automatically hand out straws to people – a small but important step, given that in America alone, we use enough straws every day to wrap around the entire world.
Another focus for Greening Forward is what Charles calls the “diversity deficit” in the broader environmental movement. The face of the movement has traditionally been older, wealthier – and white. According to a study by Green 2.0 there is only one person of color who is a CEO of an environmental organization with a budget over one million dollars, he said. “That tells us a lot.”
If the movement hopes to stay relevant, he said, “We have to find ways to be more inclusive.”
One solution? Simply engage more with young people.
“We know that young people are more diverse than ever before in history, more multi-cultural,” Charles said. “That’s a really cool opportunity, not only to engage this idealism and curiosity that can be really helpful in trying to solve problems like climate change. It’s also really important to engage this cohort of people because they are more diverse.”
Catch Charles and Greening Forward at their upcoming youth summit that convenes with the Green Schools Conference & Expo in Atlanta, Georgia March 21-22.