On a relatively unremarkable, dreary lockdown Tuesday in mid-January, over 100 people in Cheltenham joined virtual workshops organised by Cheltenham Borough Council and local charity “Vision 21” to talk about climate change, emissions reduction and solutions. The resulting formation of the CheltenhamZero partnership aims to provide a collaborative group to support the council’s aims of a “Net Zero” Borough by 2030.
As part of the workshops, a short video was shared that was made by young people who had given their thoughts on the day’s topic and the need for action from organisations based in the town. The video had a big impact, with people immediately commenting in the chat and on social media about how much the video had resonated and how powerful it was to hear from the future citizens of Cheltenham. The profound statements emphasised the urgent need for action, the climate events already being suffered by those who have contributed the least to the problem, and the desire to see adults acting as if climate was the greatest challenge we face.
The young people who made the video, and those who contributed their statements were all members of a newly created group in Cheltenham called the “Youth Ambassadors”. The group is co-ordinated by Vision 21 and Severn Wye Energy Agency, but very much directed by the young people themselves. It was set up during lockdown to provide a safe-space for young people to discuss climate issues and contribute ideas for local action. So far Vision 21 has asked for their input on several projects it intends to deliver over the next year, including on the climate workshops. With an age range of 11-24, the group comprises individuals from all over the town, connected by their concern for the planet and people. All the members are keen to get involved with local projects once lockdown ends and expand the group by getting friends signed up too.
Having a youth group focused on climate makes sense for multiple reasons, not least the sense of camaraderie of a shared problem and shared solutions. Young people are very likely to suffer from eco-anxiety, a psychologically recognised condition where anxiety about climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and other environmental ills, manifests as serious mental health problems. It is tempting to present the ‘cure’ as simply acting upon the issues, but deeper than this is the need to talk about them collectively and sit with the feelings these complex issues cause. There is also space for fun and laughter, and, once the group can meet in person, the hope is that we can find moments of joy and create some life-affirming shared experiences too.
If the charities can raise further funding, the plan is to hire a trained youth worker part-time to help guide the group and be conscious and receptive towards their needs, providing additional support where required. Running the group at the moment are Melissa Spiers from Severn Wye who said:
‘It’s inspiring to hear the passion and ideas of the group, facilitating this is a great privilege and we aim to bring these voices into every aspect of our work at Severn Wye. The group provides numerous benefits to participants forming empowering social action, integrating with the community and supporting mental health.’
My experience, as a freelance sustainability consultant, is that the group is just fantastic, so engaged on the issues and much more aware of the solutions than most adults, but frustrated at the slow pace of change and having their voices ignored.
There is also an enormous benefit to the charities themselves who are able to hear the young people’s ideas and inputs on their projects. In Japan, a project called ‘Future Design’ invites local residents into decision making projects but asks them to imagine themselves as residents of the town in 2060, rather than as current residents, who also get a say! The ideas and plans they approve are far more radical and transformative than when they only see the short-term impacts of their decisions. This type of ‘long-term’ thinking has been lost in most decision making, with the resulting lack of planning and forethought to tackle some of the biggest issues facing us today and in the future. By involving the actual future of the town the hope is that Cheltenham will have a far more inclusive attitude to climate action than if decisions are solely commented on by those who will not be around to see the consequences.
The group has so far been funded entirely by the charities themselves, despite the considerable pressures of Covid over the past year. Both charities are now looking for sponsors and supporters to get in touch who might like to hear more about the project, fundraise, or even set up their own youth group in their town copying the model.
Ed: Raechel is founder of The Liminality, a sustainability consultancy.
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