Young people are taking leadership roles in the quest for sustainability, writes Sean Mooney.
An initiative that requires participants to significantly reduce their ecological footprint is planned for later this month [February 2012]. One Planet Week is the latest in a string of innovative programs run by the not-for-profit sustainability organisation OzGreen, many of which are devised, planned and run by young people.
Perhaps the most ambitious of these projects is the annual YOUth LEADing the World (YLTW) congress, the most recent of which was held late last year  over three days in 13 towns and cities around Australia. It was also conducted simultaneously in 12 other countries, including Bangladesh, Colombia, El Salvador, India and Nepal. Sydney hosted congress sites in Frenchs Forest and Quakers Hill, where mainly high-school students met to address environmental challenges.
Sue Lennox, co-founder (with husband Col) and CEO of OzGreen, says YLTW is all about fostering a new generation of leaders "fuelled by a passion for fairness and grounded in their own values". She says the main aim of each congress is to guide young people to identify and act on key environmental issues that concern them, such as sustainability challenges and food security. "We aim to inform young people about climate change and other major environmental issues, help them deal with their concerns, and inspire them to get active," she says.
Lennox describes the first two days of each congress as a time when young people are "looking at what's going on in the world, developing their own vision and planning what they would like to do in their own homes to reduce their ecological footprint". "And the only adults there are people who have been trained by us to honour and encourage a youth space," says Lennox.
A community forum is held on the third and final day, allowing young people to interact with government representatives, local business people, school principals and other key community members and encourage them to support action plans devised by young individuals, school groups and youth advisory organisations.
At the forum held at YOYO's Youth Centre, Frenchs Forest, students from Pittwater and North Sydney Girls' high schools put forward ideas such as increasing the number of recycling bins at beaches, conducting 'green' markets, and establishing a network of refund depots for recyclable packaging. Interest and support came from representatives of the Shore Regional Organisation of Councils, including Warringah Mayor Michael Regan, who suggested participants hand a petition with 1000 signatures to the council calling for it to install more recycling bins.
Oxford Falls Grammar School student Jaden Harris is a member of OzGreen's youth advisory group and was facilitator of the Frenchs Forest congress. Harris took part in the first YLTW congress in 2009, after which he and five other Year 8 and 9 students founded the Sydney Youth Climate Action Network (SYCAN). "Now we have three different groups – in the Northern Beaches, North Shore and Inner West – and overall we have about 650 members across Sydney," he says.
The 16 year old, who plans to study economics at university then work in "politics and public policy", said the community forum provided a good opportunity for young people to meet members of their local community who could help them with their ideas. Harris says some of the issues addressed at the latest congress included water sustainability, poverty, and the relationship between the use of palm oil and the habitat of orangutans. "Of course, climate change links all of them," he says.
The Quakers Hill YLTW congress facilitator was 21-year-old Suthagar Karunanithi. The Seven Hills resident said 2011 was the first year a YLTW congress had been held in western Sydney, with students attending from Cerdon College, Arthur Phillip, Hurlstone Agriculture and Kingswood high schools. "This region has pretty much the whole world in one place," he says, "so having all the different cultures working together on particular topics was amazing."
Karunanithi says there were lead-up projects held before the congress, including the 'Water in the Landscape' initiative run in conjunction with the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils. Students from Granville Boys High School, St Patrick's College, Merrylands High School and Cerdon College ran tests on Prospect Creek that showed high levels of phosphate and faecal coliform, suggesting contamination of the water by sewage or another nutrient source. They then formulated action plans, which were outlined at the YLTW congress, including a petition to the council to improve the waterway's health and a creek clean-up day.
Jaden Harris says it is important not to look at young people simply as 'leaders of tomorrow'. "Creating change in young people is one of the most effective things, because young people are also the leaders of today," he says. "It's great to give young people the skills and knowledge to approach their local communities and explain the vision of the future they want to develop."
Sue Lennox says this was very much OzGreen's aim with the YLTW congress. "We guide them to identify their key issues, connect them to like-minded people and give them the tools to start their own project or group," she says.
This article was first published in the February 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.