Earth Force is putting environmental education into action by empowering young people to make real-world changes. A virtual organization, Earth Force is expanding its reach across the country, including in California where they work with organizations like YES Nature to Neighborhoods in Richmond, CA.
In this week’s article, we interviewed Earth Force President and CEO Vince Meldrum, a longtime educator, to discuss Earth Force’s plan to inspire youth advocacy to change the world.
Tell us a bit about Earth Force and its mission.
VM: Our mission is to get young people involved in civic action to solve local environmental problems. We want them across the table from local policy-makers to express their desire for change.
That manifests itself in different ways. We have kids working on everything from indoor air quality, to flooding in their community, to issues like fire hazards. We primarily engage middle school educators, training them in our model. Students are able to select a problem and research it. And then they try to change the policy.
Why is youth engagement in environmental policy so important?
VM: When young people are engaged in the things they care about it’s the best way they learn. We ultimately want to inspire citizens that advocate for change their entire lives. Research shows, that If you want young people to advocate for change it’s essential they choose what to work on. We work in a lot of marginalized communities, and In those communities, the issues are something visceral and the people of the community are the best people to identify those issues. Youth voice is the best way to get at some of these issues that are endemic in a way that we could never understand on our own.
How do you go about engaging youth?
VM: Our model is to train educators. We work with about 100 every year. It doesn’t happen in a day, or even two, it’s a continual process. We’re getting teachers to teach in a different way and to guide young people as they are investigating issues. We’re asking science teachers to take on civic issues.
The second way is we train other organizations to do what we do. We’ve been training nonprofits all over the country. We take what we’ve learned from our six-step process: investigate the problem, identify the problem, identify the root cause, identify the way you can change, develop a plan, and advocate for that change – and share it.
Are there any youth engagement success stories that stand out?
VM: The City of San Jose wanted us to help with an energy program in their schools. A particular group of kids looked at a pool that was attached to their school and investigated the energy use of keeping it warm and clean. They figured out that if they closed the pool on a certain set of days, kept it open on a different set, and extended specific hours, they can serve the same population but decrease energy by 18 percent. They presented it to the city and got the changes enacted.
Another example happened in Wentzville, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis. A group of kids identified trash in local streams and rivers as an issue. They were largely recyclable materials. The city had curbside recycling for single-family homes, but the kids started looking at it and realized that the city’s population of multi-family homes was increasing. They worked with an alderman and convinced him the city needed to change the ordinance to include multi-family homes. In the first year of the change, they diverted 646 tons from the stream into recycling. That’s a huge impact.
What is the relationship between youth action and environmental literacy?
VM: There are thousands of organizations that are increasing the knowledge young people have about the environment. Because of those efforts, the knowledge of young people is outpacing older age groups. There is important research out there that shows us that people don’t necessarily act on that knowledge unless some conditions are met. People need to have these civic experiences to act. We’re trying to fill that gap. What are the experiences that young people need to have so that they become stewards for life? When they are impacted by an environmental problem they can solve it by engaging in policy.
What role does equity play in your environmental work?
VM: So many times in the environmental field it’s been white adults that come into communities to tell people that they need to care about nature. That doesn’t address the equity issues that are environmental problems. Our goal is to come into communities and learn about lived experiences of those who live there. The fundamental thing we need to learn is to ask marginalized communities what they care about. People who live in communities know better than we do about what the environmental issues are.
What does the future hold for Earth Force?
VM: We’re trying to start a movement of what we call environmental action civics – a way of working with young people that incorporates investigation and action. We have a plan we call “TenFold”, a goal to expand our reach from roughly 15,000 young people annually to 150,000 young people annually. And to grow our relationships with great organizations like Ten Strands. We’ll continue to utilize contests and relationships to grow our impact.