Power to the (young) people: Celebrating an inspired pathway for young activists in Alaska

Teens flexing their people power in D.C. Courtesy of AYEA.

We are a nation divided—by party, by geography, by culture. And yet, an unlikely group of optimistic people is finding a way to bridge those divides. They are young and smart, hopeful and persistent, and more than anything—they are inspiring.

Twenty years ago, a group of young Alaskans imagined a program that would engage, train, and inspire young people to stand up for the environment. This year, that program—Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA)—celebrates all the people who have shaped it, supported it, and made it so successful.

In a time when engaging millennials and young voters is the tactic du jour, AYEA is a millennial-engagement hipster; this group was doing "empower young people" long before it was cool.

As we at the Brainerd Foundation look back on more than two decades of grantmaking in the Northwest, we're proud of our grantees for building a broad base of support for conservation. In Alaska, AYEA has been a critical cornerstone of that work.

Since 1998, more than 5,000 high-schoolers have participated in the program; hundreds of AYEA graduates continue to advocate for environmental protections and lead on conservation issues in their home state. What's more, they've developed lasting relationships with elected officials—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—to move the needle on environmental issues.

At home in Alaska

Alaska is unlike any other state in our country. Its vast geography (4 times the size of California) and its limited road system (you can't drive to more than 80% of communities in the state) only magnify the urban-rural divide that polarizes the rest of this country. And while Alaska has a large footprint, it has a small population.

The Alaskan electorate, composed of just 570,000 registered voters in 2018 (roughly equivalent to the population of Albuquerque, New Mexico), brings new meaning to the truism that "every vote counts." Add to that the fact that Alaska has the only state capitol you can't drive to, and it's not surprising that legislators are so impressed when a bunch of young people travel hundreds of miles to meet with them.

Fighting to protect the environment in such a vast state isn't easy. Though some of its cities and local jurisdictions collect sales tax revenue, Alaska is the only state that does not collect state sales tax or levy an individual income tax. To finance state operations, Alaska depends primarily on petroleum revenues. In addition, everyone in the state receives a substantial check from oil revenues. So, it's easy to see why efforts to protect the environment are often painted as obstacles to economic prosperity—and yet progress is being made.

Enter Alaska Youth for Environmental Action

AYEA overcomes these many hurdles by empowering teens to use their collective voices for change. It offers a safe place for young people from across Alaska to forge friendships, learn skills, and speak their truths about how environmental threats affect them.

A few years ago, Esau Sinnok stood up in front of his peers and told them that his remote island home was being destroyed by coastal erosion caused by climate change. Across the room, Carly Dennis observed that warmer winters were cutting short her much-loved urban ski season. And just two weeks ago, Cassidy Austin, an AYEA youth organizer, asked her peers at a climate rally,

"What are we going to do about this issue that is so often ignored, yet such a huge deal? We are at ground zero with climate change."

Despite their differences, teens band together to share their strengths, raise their voices, and fight for the environment with one voice. Vast divides are bridged. Urban and rural teens form lasting friendships—and then they take action.

Each fall, AYEA teens come together to learn how to tell their story, share their passions, and organize around issues they care about. In the spring, AYEA covers the costs for them to fly from the far corners of Alaska to the capitol in Juneau to meet with legislators and the governor to advocate for issues they are passionate about. Over the years, they've fought to protect salmon, combat climate change, reduce toxics, and more. And they've made a difference.

Getting results

How many young people can say that they've convinced an elected official to do something about climate change? AYEA teens have made bipartisan progress—something that is urgently needed in this time of political polarization.

In 2005, AYEA teen Verner Wilson III, penned a "Letter to our Leaders" demanding Congress take action on climate change.

"I started this petition to ask our leaders to help protect this place that Alaska youth have inherited, and to protect our lifestyles and cultures. Communities like Shishmaref are sinking underwater, and invasive species are negatively impacting our environment. I want our leaders to know that if they do not take action today, there will be huge consequences tomorrow."Verner Wilson, Yu'pik Eskimo from Dillingham, Alaska

In just three months, AYEA teens had presented the letter to students in 300 classrooms and collected more than 5,000 signatures from teens across Alaska. Then a delegation of six AYEA teens delivered the petition to Republican U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski in Washington, D.C., where she in turn invited them to meet with climate scientists.

The following year, AYEA teens started a petition asking Alaskans to pledge to reduce their household global warming emissions. More than 3,500 individuals signed on, and in the spring of 2007, Sen. Lisa Murkowski hosted AYEA member Megan Waggoner on the Alaska Report TV show, commending AYEA teens for the campaign and taking the pledge herself. Later, Republican U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and then-Governor Sarah Palin (R) signed the pledge too.

"I applaud Megan and all the members of the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action for helping spread the word that we all can take simple steps to reduce carbon emissions on the planet."U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK

Also in 2006, AYEA teens worked with Anchorage mayor Mark Begich (D) to get him to sign on to the U.S. Mayor's Climate Change Agreement, which he did, making him the first Alaskan mayor to do so. What's more, Begich attributed his decision in part to the advocacy of AYEA.

For years, AYEA teens pressured Governor Bill Walker (Independent) to create a climate action task force and plan, and their persistence paid off. In 2017, Gov. Walker finally signed an Administrative Order to do just that. The Climate Action for Alaska Leadership team worked with state agencies to develop climate change recommendations for adaptation, mitigation, research, and response to natural disasters. And while this is slow progress, it is progress.

Photo of four young Alaskans
4 AYEA grads. From left to right: Verner Wilson III, Meghan Cavanaugh, Maka Monture, & Esau Sinnok.

Beyond AYEA

While AYEA's ability to advance state policy is remarkable, we are most impressed by the community of committed, credible conservation and social justice advocates AYEA has cultivated over the last twenty years. The following individuals are but a few of the many inspiring environmental leaders who got their start in AYEA and who continue to fight for conservation today.

Verner Wilson III

As an AYEA teen in 2005, Verner Wilson III was launched into the national spotlight when he wrote his "Letter to Our Leaders." Prior to joining AYEA, he didn't understand why people cared about voting. It all clicked for him in Juneau when he met legislators and other teens from across Alaska, and they inspired each other to make a difference. In fact, he credits AYEA with changing his life.

Now in his thirties, Verner's career in environmental advocacy has included stints as an intern for former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens in D.C., a Program Officer at the World Wildlife Fund, and director of natural resources at Bristol Bay Native Association. Today he is the Senior Oceans Campaigner for Friends of the Earth and an Alaska Salmon Fellow with the Alaska Humanities Forum. In 2006, he was awarded the President's Youth Environmental Award; in 2004, he received the Alaska Conservation Foundation's Denny Wilcher Young Activist Award.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do, but [then] I went on [that first AYEA] trip to Juneau and realized my passion was for environmental issues. My career is a testament to AYEA." — Verner Wilson III, Yu'pik Eskimo, Dillingham, Alaska

Meghan Cavanaugh

Meghan Cavanaugh describes her younger self as a "type-A teen" who joined AYEA at age 15 to build her resume for college. She was active in the AYEA chapter in her Anchorage high school, where she met then-Mayor Mark Begich when he attended a "week without plastics" event she helped organize.

After high school, Meghan successfully managed a campaign to elect a state house representative and then went on to work in the Alaska legislature. In her early twenties, she worked for U.S. Senator Begich's re-election campaign before returning to the Alaska Center as its field and political director.

"The beauty of AYEA is that it's teen-driven, which is empowering."Meghan Cavanaugh, Anchorage, Alaska
Photo of four kids designing a logo
AYEA teens planning a statewide campaign to ban single use plastic bags in Alaska. Sign their petition!

Maka Monture

When Maka Monture was invited to join AYEA at the age of 14, she was looking for an opportunity to connect with other teens who cared about the environment. Growing up in Yakutat in rural southeast Alaska, Maka's elders taught her to feel responsible for the land and to think about its protection in terms of the next seven generations.

AYEA gave Maka a community, one that she's still active in as an informal mentor. It also informed her approach to advocacy at the local and state levels, prompting her to find ways to help other young voters truly understand the laws and the people they are voting for when they cast their ballots.

"AYEA helped me to not be afraid to be on the front lines of a protest."Maka Monture, Tlingit and Mohawk leader, Yakutat, Alaska

Not surprisingly, Maka has been recognized for her leadership on environmental issues, receiving a Gates Millennium Scholarship, the Danny Wilcher Award for Young Environmental Activists, EPA's Carroll Jorgenson Award, and a place on the National Parks Conservation Association's 10 under 40 (2018) list. Currently, she is director of Alaska Geographic's Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program (which she helped launch as an intern with AYEA) where she helps young people advocate for Arctic protection globally.

Esau Sinnok

Esau Sinnok, an Inupiaq native from a remote island north of Nome, is a more recent AYEA graduate. He credits the program with giving him a voice and an optimistic vision for a different future.

"AYEA really helped me learn to share my voice and my opinions on climate change. It showed me I could make decisions for my state."Esau Sinnok, Inupiaq native, Shishmaref

Before AYEA, Esau assumed he'd stay at home in Shishmaref and continue his family's subsistence lifestyle. Now Esau is an activist fighting for resources to help his hometown relocate in the face of climate change.

In 2016, at age 18, he was selected by the White House as a Champion for Change for Climate Equity, making him the youngest person to be honored. And in 2018, he was recognized as part of the Grist 50 for his advocacy on climate change, including his role as a plaintiff in the Our Children's Trust suit against the State of Alaska. Esau is currently a student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, studying tribal management and rural development; he plans to run for governor of Alaska in 2030.

Photo of a large group of young Alaskans holding a banner
AYEA's 2018 Youth Organizers

Looking forward

These are extremely polarized times. Mistrust in government is high, bipartisanship is rare, and we face increasingly dire environmental challenges. AYEA is a bright spot, showing us how the next generation of committed environmental advocates can help elected leaders and policy-makers chart a new and better course for our country.

As a long-time funder of AYEA—both in its early days as a program of the National Wildlife Federation, and now as a core part of the Alaska Center—we are delighted to announce that the Brainerd Foundation will match up to $10,000 in new donations to AYEA. Please join us in celebrating AYEA's first twenty years and help us invest in its next twenty!