Lessons from Organizing Youth and Adults in Climate Spaces—Amplifying Diverse Voices and Ensuring High Representation Among People of Color

If you are interested in reposting this on your website, please contact Pam for prior (easy-to-obtain) permission and note on your website, “Republished from ClimateChangeRecovery.org with permission.”

By Pam Vergun, Ph.D., M.P.A.

November 9, 2022

First West Los Angeles College Training—Our Rocking 2022 Crew

I direct the nonprofit, Climate Change Recovery, and its peer-led, climate justice training program Youth and Adults Acting for our Earth—YAE! for short. We have been training climate leaders ages 8 through older adults to speak out and advocate for a safer future since 2014. We have trained over 500 YAE leaders and, unlike many environmental and climate organizations, we have excelled at ensuring that the leaders we trained come from groups traditionally at the front lines of the climate emergency. Why are the communities most at risk due to the climate emergency often least heard on the issues and what can we do to change that?

Currently over 75% of those who have joined our trainings—and who come from across the activist spectrum—are people of color, with higher representation among our most active leaders. And this from a nonprofit based in a state that is almost 75% European-American. How have we done this, and what lessons can other nonprofits take from our work?

Focus on reaching out to and serving people of color. My background is in sociology and public policy, and I have spent many years doing supportive evaluations of programs designed to help people, many of whom were experiencing the legacy of discrimination. I am European-American and acutely aware of environmental nonprofits’ slowness to be fully inclusive of people of color, and of the way both people and the quality of nonprofits’ work suffered as a result. This is a pattern I also saw with respect to children: Most events centered on trying to affect policy were and often still are not equipped to support and make use of the unique potential contributions of children, teens, and parents. Had I somehow failed to notice this, the fact that starting in 2013 (not counting a benefit for Hurricane Katrina back in 2005), my husband and I started to turn up at climate events with our children made this very clear. Not only did it seem that children were not expected, my children were often the only or close to being the only people of color. My son, Isaac, is African-American, and my daughter, Miko, is Asian-Pacific-Islander-American. We chose to make supporting leaders of color a focus from the beginning.

Empower people of color as leaders, supporting their development as leaders and as trainers of others. Our first training was led by Isaac and Miko. Though I helped (and continue to help) to make sure everything will run smoothly, the first group of participants were taught by these two young people, when they were 13 and 14 years old, respectively. Climate Change Recovery, like many organizations, now has a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion statement—but by encouraging people of color to lead our trainings, we demonstrate our values in a way that goes beyond just a statement. This centering of leaders of color helps others to understand, whether at a conscious or unconscious level, their value as leaders.

Pay atttention to all types of diversity. We started with the ages most underserved, 4th grade through 12th, and put them in leadership positions. In many communities, this will not only help the diversity by age in climate spaces but also by ethnicity. (I typically use “ethnicity” rather than “race” to remind us all that race is a social construct—and thus our attitude toward it can change—even if this social construct is very real in its impacts.) As we continued, it became increasingly clear that our training was needed by 70 year olds as well as 17 year olds. Some of our best moments have been watching younger leaders teaching older students. We have also reaped the advantages of creating a training and support program that would appeal to everyone from those who are feeling worried and have little knowledge of climate science to those who are already active, like my kids and their fellow federal youth climate plaintiffs (the 21 plaintiffs of Juliana et al. v. U.S., aka Youth v Gov).

Miko Vergun (aged 12) and Isaac Vergun (aged 11)
speaking at an anti-coal rally to about 400 attendees

Collect data to measure impact on metrics of importance, starting with ethnic data. We collect data on ethnicity, age, and more. Collect whatever data you can that might be helpful. If you aren’t collecting the data, you can’t be sure of your impact and your reach—and know where to go to improve. And, how you ask the question matters. Contact me if you want to learn more. (Contact info at the bottom of this article.)

Create partnerships with organizations founded by and/or serving people of color. From our first training and ever since, we have partnered with nonprofits, faith communities, and others who were created by and/or serving people of color. Our first training took place as one day of a week-long camp called “Abraham’s Tent” that was created by a synagogue, a church, and a mosque. Our sponsors and hosts have included: the Numi Foundation, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Bilal Mosque, Cool Islam, a community college in West L.A. that is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (and which has about 10% of its students being European-American), a multicultural Waldorf public school in Oakland (98% students of color), a public elementary school in Sacramento, California serving 68% students of color), a Title 1 public school in Beaverton, Oregon serving students who are 66% students of color and 71% low income that has a thriving two-way Spanish immersion program…. And so on.

Diversify outreach methods. If you want to reach a diverse population, you need to use diverse outreach methods. For example, using both Facebook and Instagram allows us to attract the attention of both older and younger folks. We post on our pages, try to post on the pages of other organizations who we think might be interested and who themselves are reaching an audience of folks traditionally discriminated against, ask the managers of such pages where we cannot directly post to post for us, reaching out through messaging and/or contacts we already have. We also reach out through community organizations and schools, often with an eye to their connections to communities of color. We find that some people often need to hear about our program a couple of times, from a couple of directions, before they commit to spend the day with us. Thus, we also list the event in local event calendars, ask for placement in newsletters, reach out to media focused on people of color (e.g., black-owned newspapers), invite media organizations to cover an upcoming training as an opportunity for the community and also to attend and create a second piece post-training to highlight the community’s participation and let others know how to find out about the next training. We also work events, whether virtual or in person, sometimes combined with a small fundraising effort. For example, we will hand out paper flyers and/or offer a scannable flyer at rallies, events, marches, and more; although we are very inclusive, this is yet another way we can help make sure we are reaching people of color––we can’t approach everyone at an event with thousands of people, so we can choose who we approach based on who we are most hoping to reach. Another key approach has been to encourage community leaders (principals, imams, etc.) to directly invite particular people to participate since we know from the data we collect that often someone does a training because a specific person encouraged them to. Similarly, we have had district teacher mentors contacting science teachers asking them to share the information about a training directly with their students. You could say, “Friends don’t let friends ignore the climate crisis!”

Invite VIP speakers of color to highlight their work and amplify their voices. We reach out to a diverse group of leaders to come as VIP speakers—mayors, U.S. senators—most often leaders of color like Jacqueline Mayorga Rivera, from the Coalition Against Environmental Racism and Beyond Toxics, who could speak first-hand about her work helping migrant farmworkers to minimize the transfer of the poisons with which the work to their families, and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Marshallese poet and climate activist who represented us all at the UN Climate Summit with her poem written to and for her daughter. Part of leadership development is letting new leaders see themselves in more established leaders—representation matters.

Encourage organic growth and diversity through social connections. We are delighted to see our leaders of color increasingly getting their friends to take the training and/or lead a training. Our program’s best advocates are those who have already done the training, so the foundations we laid early on are now creating ripple effects that further reinforce our commitments to diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice.

Reach out to promising leaders even when substantial time has passed. People of color and people from frontline communities, as with everyone else, may have a lot going on in their lives that keeps them from stepping up. We have had great success reaching out to leaders who did their training 4 years before—in spite of the lack of connection during that time, they eagerly stepped up, now ready to get involved.

YAE Leader Nagwa Emam presenting before the community at the end of her training

Don’t be shy. If it is out of your comfort zone to reach out to a particular organization serving people who are different in some way than you, do it anyway. Do your best to make your request in a respectful way, speaking from your heart.

Seize opportunities to partner with individuals and organizations serving people of color when they present themselves even when the timing may be challenging. Working in support of others means you let go of some of your desire to be in control. If you are open to working in a way that works better with the other group’s needs, your partnership will be strengthened, and you will not lose some special opportunities that may only present themselves once. Things may not always go smoothly if you are leading with your heart, but if our experience is any indication, you will be richly rewarded with all the benefits that working for justice and equity, drawing upon diversity and ensuring inclusion can bring.

As you can see, the remarkable success we have achieved in supporting the development of climate leaders and amplifying diverse voices in climate spaces was not accidental, but the combined impact of years of deliberate planning and thoughtful execution. We hope the lessons we have learned can assist your organization’s process toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Please reach out if you would like to partner with us. I can be reached at vergun@alumni.stanford.edu or through LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pamvergun.


By Pam Vergun

Busy with ClimateChangeRecovery.org—now a 501(c)3!—and being a mom.

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