Empowering Climate Action Leaders: Sara’s Insights from Mentoring the California Youth Climate Policy (CYCP) Leadership Program

By Sara Typrin|January 31, 2024

Name: Sara Typrin
Age: 19
Current College/University: Carleton College
Current Major: Physics
Location of K-12 Experience (note if you moved): San Mateo County, CA
District that you graduated high school from: Sequoia Union High School District

How does someone become a climate action leader? What does it take to transform a desire for change into tangible accomplishments? Until a few months ago, I relied on first-hand experience to answer this question. But recently, I have had the privilege of witnessing the growth of others, offering me new insights into this question today.

These past few months, I served as a mentor for the California Youth Climate Policy (CYCP) Leadership Program, a program designed by the Sierra Club, Ten Strands, and UndauntedK12 to empower high school students to advocate for a climate policy within their school districts. Although December’s graduation marked the first cohort of students to work through the curriculum, I engaged in a similar pathway during my high school career.

Growing up observing climate change’s profound impact on all facets of society motivated me to be involved in a solution from an early age, and San Mateo County’s Youth Climate Ambassador (YCA) program provided an opportunity for me to do so. In this 2020 pilot program, my cohort listened to experts talk about various environmental problems and received training to implement a “community impact project” that focused on one of these issues. I had no previous experience with stakeholder engagement or event organizing, so starting this project was overwhelming and frustrating at times. However, the support I received from YCA staff gave me the confidence to move forward in the right direction.

After YCA, I joined a group of students to advocate for my school board to pass a climate emergency declaration. I applied what I learned from my YCA project and continued to receive help from YCA staff to build a coalition of supporters. This coalition enabled the resolution to pass and the development of a district sustainability committee that followed (learn more about these collaborations in these SMCOE Changemaker Interviews: 2021 Interview and 2022 Interview).

Two years before leading a district sustainability committee, I had no experience with climate action, just a burning desire to make a difference. It was the support from others that helped turn this desire into reality. My experience showed me that a young person determined to take action can make a profound difference if they receive support from others.

When offered to be a mentor for the California Youth Climate Policy (CYCP) Program, whose design was partly based on YCA and my team’s climate emergency declaration advocacy, I saw it as an opportunity to pass on what I learned. It was gratifying for me to be the source of invaluable support when I first started climate advocacy.

As a mentor for this program, I was impressed by the cohort’s resolve to make change. Talking to adults in positions of authority was outside the comfort zone for many students, but by the end, most had built relationships with teachers, principals, and board members that they could use for further climate action. I also noticed this persistence when the project did not go as planned. Everyone I listened to shared how they received some pushback, whether that be unreplied emails or disagreement over climate policy content. Each student kept pushing forward and planned to continue after the program. This resilience is invaluable to successful climate advocacy, so seeing high school students persevere through obstacles was inspiring.

I saw students gain confidence as leaders. By the end of the program, every student had some experience with skills like public speaking, stakeholder engagement, and organizing. At the capstone event, I heard many students sharing their excitement for using these skills to further develop the projects they started at their schools.

This confidence was partly rooted in being connected to a climate action community. I kept hearing at CYCP workshops that students derived strength from talking to other youth leaders going through similar challenges. For example, students in the same school district or county could collaborate on projects or share experiences, building relationships in the process. Observing these interactions made me realize that a community with shared values and purpose is instrumental for collective environmental action. The pervasive dialogue between diverse and intergenerational mentors, peers, and staff showed that CYCP inherently cultivated this climate action community.

I hope the CYCP program was a launch point for these students to be climate action leaders. Developing skills, staff support, and peer-to-peer connections provided a solid foundation for them to lead efforts well into the future. I also hope that the projects they sparked a movement. Since small efforts like speaking with school community leaders can cause a shift in consciousness, I see each student’s effort as a seed that, when viewed collectively, can grow into statewide action.

A climate action leader has learned how to make connections with others to work on innovative solutions. A climate action leader can employ their strengths and others, such as artistic ability or a particular power position, to accomplish their goals. Institutions like schools can be resistant to change, but a climate action leader can use their sense of urgency to fuel them through this resistance.

Being a youth climate action leader comes with unique challenges and responsibilities. For one, holding those in power accountable for climate action is a form of self-advocacy because young will adopt an adult life affected by the decisions of adults today. Youth voices can also be a wake-up call. Although most youth do not have positions of authority, this makes their voices uniquely powerful. Adults often listen more to youth who speak at a town hall or district board because it reminds them of their responsibility towards future generations. To any aspiring youth climate action leader, the best advice I can give you is to be persistent in the face of obstacles and find other passionate individuals willing to help.

With an issue as all-encompassing and pressing as climate change, it might feel like significant change must happen simultaneously. You might think you failed if you did not accomplish your goal, like passing a school board policy. This assumption is not true. Foremost, you must look after your happiness and take breaks; climate leaders are people first. It is beneficial to set lofty goals, but equally important to realize that every step you take to accomplish them is a win. It can be as small as sending emails to stakeholders or posting an informational announcement. Playing a part in the climate movement is about taking these small actions for the larger goal to come to fruition.

Sara Typrin
This article was written by Sara Typrin

Sara Typrin, a physics student at Carleton College, is passionate about climate action leadership. Raised in San Mateo County and a graduate of Sequoia Union High School District, Sara's journey started with the Youth Climate Ambassador (YCA) program. She later mentored for the California Youth Climate Policy (CYCP) Leadership program, inspiring the youth to become climate action leader in their communities.