Meet The Eco Teens Who Are Learning How To Save The Planet

The Global Co Lab Network and Smithsonian Conservation Commons partnered to create the Eco Teen Action Network to empower teens locally and globally to address the United Nations Sustainable Development goals and Earth Optimism.

The Global Co Lab Network and Smithsonian Conservation Commons partnered to create the Eco Teen Action Network to empower teens locally and globally to address the United Nations Sustainable Development goals and Earth Optimism.
The Global Co Lab Network and Smithsonian Conservation Commons partnered to create the Eco Teen Action Network to empower teens locally and globally to address the United Nations Sustainable Development goals and Earth Optimism.

Kayla Peale and Sydney Rico are high school seniors who are involved in the Eco Teen Action Network, a youth-driven collaboration between the Global Co Lab and the Smithsonian Conservation Commons. Together with teens from all over the world, Kayla and Sydney work to come up with innovative strategies and solutions to take on today’s environmental problems. The "Eco Teens" talked with the Conservation Commons' science communication mentee from the Smithsonian-Mason School of Consveration, Olivia Garcia, about youth advocacy, getting involved and what makes them hopeful for the future.

What inspired your interested in the environment and conservation?

Kayla Peale: I got really interested in the environment the summer after my freshman year. I was actually on a summer research eco trip in the Mediterranean and it was obviously a very eye-opening whole experience, but there was one thing that sticks out to me. We were doing a necropsy- which is like an autopsy on a sea turtle and when we opened it up we saw tremendous amounts of plastic, a fishing hook, and all this stuff in the esophagus and the intestines which is kinda graphic, but it really was and I came back really motivated, like how could we do this to an innocent creature? And I really wanted to start with some change in my local communities, so I started at my high school by starting an environmental club there and then next I was connected to Linda at Global Co Lab and then met Brian and kind of got into all of these hubs. So I’ve always been really interested in marine biology specifically but this started off my interest in plastic pollution and climate change and all these other topics and how they intersect each other.

Sydney Rico: I got interested in marine biology when I was pretty young, I kind of just always loved turtles. And the big spark moment was in 5th grade when I went to something called the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit. It was like a big conference, I went to different workshops and I had tons of youth and adults alike telling me that these are the things you can do like “here are some actionable steps, here’s how you can create change if you don’t like seeing plastic in places.” So then I just started doing things and it’s been that way ever since.

What are key conservation issues for you?

Peale: We’re both in the Plastics Hub and sometimes we focus on different aspects of plastic, like single-use plastics mainly. And then I’m also a part of the Climate Hub, which we do a lot of stuff on coral reefs. That's kind of an idea I brought to the table because I was super interested and that’s why I got interested in climate change. And then independently, I’ve been studying microplastics. I guess those are kind of my three areas of interest.

Rico: I started my interests out with sea turtles and then a little bit of corals as well. Just mainly sea turtles but in practice, this has kind of grown into how systems relate to sustainability just on the whole, which has gotten me into different things like a broader focus on climate change and how all of the different contributors to that work and how those can be addressed.

What brought you to Eco Teens and how did you get involved?

Rico: I had a teacher who was on an email list with the Global Co Lab and said you should try this out and that was my sophomore year of high school and I got involved with the Plastics Hub then. And then a month later I got involved with the Hunger Hub as well. Then I got to experience what the climate hub does the summer when I interned as the Eco Teen Action Network intern.

Peale: As I kind of mentioned before, I’m based in Arlington, VA and that’s where the founder of the Global Co Lab is located, so I actually was connected through one of our plastic hub mentors, Mariam. I was featured in an article about my work for my high school environmental club so she kind of just connected the dots and I joined and met Sydney and a bunch of other teens and it was a great experience. And then this past year I’ve gotten more involved with the Climate Hub as well.

Kayla Peale (left) presents her reusable to-go box project with a fellow Eco Teen.

Can you describe the structure of Eco Teens and what programs and events you’ve participated in?

Rico: I can give like a rundown of what the Global Co Lab is and that can help you understand the EcoTeen action network in general. So what we’re talking about with these hubs is that they’re SDG hubs, which means they focus on Sustainable Development Goals. So for example, the plastic hub focuses on responsible sustainable production and the climate hub focuses on global climate action. So the hunger, plastics, and climate hubs are the three that make up the Eco Teen Action Network and that branding is too- because they all focus on the environment on the whole and there’s lots of intersection and it works really well to have that kind of package like that. But the organization as a whole, the Global Co Lab Network, has seven other of these SDG hubs and they focus on issues from education to have a space for Spanish speakers to take action to gender equality to racial justice- tons of different interests there. Maybe Kayla, do you want to go into more of how our network hubs are structured?

Peale: Yeah, sure. So we try to do as much cross hub collaboration as we can. If we ever have an idea then we always try to pitch it to other hubs to see if we can help support each other’s efforts. And we meet weekly in each of the hubs separately, but obviously, a lot of our members are in multiple hubs like Sydney and me. We’re always sharing ideas about the different hubs and how we can promote our projects and that’s kind of how we’re structured. We focus on different topics that we’re super interested in, so one thing we’ve been working on with plastics this past year and a half I guess is a reusable food take-out container program, since Amazon’s moving their second headquarters to Arlington and our area. So we’re really interested in doing something with them and then we ultimately want to branch out to a bunch of different areas for different projects. But it was kind of something everyone was super interested in and we all took different roles each week, spoke out on progress, and that’s kind of how hubs are all structured, we just all focus on different projects and kind of just meet once a week if not more with sub meetings and stuff like that. And a great thing that happened was that even in the midst of COVID, we didn’t really stop progress because we meet virtually every week anyway. While we did have some in-person events, we were always meeting, and also the teens are not only in Virginia and not only in Arlington, but really around the world so we all call in on a weekday or weekend and it really worked out great.

How do you think your experience with the Eco Teens and Earth Optimism (EO) programs have shaped how you’ve thought about conservation?

Peale: I think Sydney and I have both been really involved with Earth Optimism, I know we’ve had opportunities at the 2020 Summit. But I think it’s really been an interesting way to approach sustainability because I feel like through the mission that EO is it’s trying to bring all this optimism to typically a pretty dark subject. And then like I said with my initial story, it’s kind of a really sad thing but I think we’ve made so much progress and it’s amazing that teens have that platform right now to speak out on things they’re really passionate about. So I think looking at it from that angle has really shaped my mindset about it. It’s not something that like oh I have to think about this really scary fact, like obviously that’s going to motivate me to do something but I’m thinking about how much progress we’ve made as teens, as high schoolers and I’m looking at it through that lens.

Rico: Definitely. Adding on to that with more of the perspective of how specifically our experience being connected to the teens in EO or just the network of EO, in particular, has been a super valuable resource for us to have an audience of teens who are excited to hear about the work we’ve been doing with like the reusable to-go box project or the things we do in the hunger hub. So just having a network that is united by optimism and that fantastic community has done numbers and it’s inspiring and super productive for us.

Who are some conservation leaders that you follow and are inspired by?

Peale: That’s a great question. I think there’s a ton of different organizations I follow, a lot of ocean-based ones just because that’s one of my main focuses. But also obviously Greta [Thunberg] is amazing, something I think everyone looks up to in the hubs. I’ve also always followed Jane Goodall, I remember we had a little show where we dressed up as our favorite non-fictional hero of ours in elementary school and she’s still one of my idols. I think she’s always going to be like one of the nature conservationists I’m always going to strive to be like.

Rico: My interest in marine biology and conservation in general definitely wasn’t stemmed from her but she’s known as the “Shark Lady,” Dr. Eugenie Clark. She kind of founded the place where I fell in love with marine biology which is this aquarium and rehabilitation center near where my mom has a condo in Florida. I had a family friend send her book to me and she was a pioneer in the 1950s when she started this facility and no one was thinking about conservation, let alone a woman doing something like that. That’s very dually inspiring to me and her work is definitely a source of like if she can then I can and I’m proud to have a figure like that.

Sydney Rico (second from left) explains the reusable to-go box system to the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler (left).

How do we get more teens involved and how do you see us connecting with kids in elementary school through high school?

Peale: I think a great part of the Eco Teen Action Network and the hubs is that it’s all teens, obviously we do have mentors in the rooms that are guiding us and giving their resources, but it’s really a safe space to come in, even if you’re brand new to the subject. We have new members every week and say that “I’m really interested but I don’t really know where to get started.” I think a lot of them are connected through high school environmental clubs or even if there’s not one at their high school, we try to reach out to school activity directors and stuff like that. I think also it’s very much through word of mouth, like I know Sydney and I are both seniors and a lot of the hub leaders are seniors so we try to pass it down to younger high schoolers and say that you should really get involved with this and hopefully they will fill in our shoes because we want to keep it going as long as it can.

Rico: That’s a great way to sum up the way that we engage teens. I’d say that just giving people a role when they come into our rooms and then beyond that with trying to get people into our planning meetings, we’ve had a lot of success. And reaching out to school clubs, a lot of the time we’ve been getting responses from them saying that wow we’ve been teaching lessons about things or we’ve been doing our best here in our clubs where we don’t have ways for people to get service hours but you guys are a great resource for that. So presenting whatever your initiative or your goal is for engaging teens and making it seem like a resource that might be scarce in schools.

Peale: One more thing to mention on that too is I know that specifically in the Climate Hub we do a lot of movie screenings because I think it’s a great way to showcase what’s happening. We did one on the movie called Chasing Coral which was about climate change’s impact on coral reefs. That was a movie I had watched on my own and I was like I think that this is something that everyone needs to see because not everyone has the opportunity to go scuba diving in Florida and see the actual impacts. So I think that visual effects are really important, plus people in the middle of the country probably have never even seen an ocean. Bridging that gap and making people actually really passionate and see the effects, will make people more passionate about taking action. We try to do both for people who are already really involved with this but then also people who have no idea what these topics are. We want to try to engage them as much as possible.

For people who maybe are not able to join in on a meeting or attend an event, what are some good small scale things that people can do to take action?

Rico: There’s a lot of materials that we’ll put together as the Eco Teen Action Network. The Climate Hub just did one on fast fashion that I actually sent to a friend today. I wouldn’t say take to social media for those kinds of materials but seeking out materials, infographics, things that educate on how to make little changes in your own life if you’re not interested in getting involved with organizing and activism. The Eco Teen Action Network has produced a ton of those resources.

Peale: I agree with Sydney on that. I think another thing that I’ve started to get more interested in this year is legislation and signing petitions, super easy stuff that you can kind of do on your own. Like Sydney said there are guides out, we’ve produced them and other organizations have produced them. Just do a quick Google search on whatever topic you’re interested in and then send a letter to your representative or sign a petition. It’s a little thing but it kind of goes a long way sometimes. Also, I think lifestyle habits are a big thing whether it’s like walking instead of driving a car or using a reusable water bottle. I think those are things that people know but it definitely adds up if you’re not using plastics and contributing to your carbon footprint every day.

What makes you optimistic about our planet’s future?

Rico: I would say the willingness that I’ve seen in peers at my schools, in the Eco Teens Action Network, not just people in our Gen Z age group but the willingness of people to listen to what the problems are and for what they can do to take action. Seeing all of those ears open to change, I think that is an element of Earth Optimism, that makes me optimistic.

Peale: Adding off of Sydney, I’m really optimistic about the number of people that are engaged with this topic. Obviously, we don’t have time to wait so we have to take action but seeing new teens in the hubs every week makes me really optimistic. Also, I know people always say that it can kind of get overwhelming and there’s so much to do and you can’t do everything as a single person, but I think joining an organization like this feels much more empowering and everyone’s making action together. You’re having a much bigger impact and I think that’s really satisfying and also really empowering.

Are you working on any upcoming projects with the Eco Teens or other conservation-related things?

Peale: In the Plastics Hub as I mentioned we’ve been getting a few new members and they’re really interested in the reusable take-out program. And while we’re still implementing that in DC and Arlington, they’re also interested in implementing that where they live. We actually have teens in Ecuador who are interested, Las Vegas, places all over the world. We’re helping them take that initial step to reach out to different hotels, restaurants, different organizations that they can partner with. It’s been cool to be on the side where we’re innovating this idea and see how we can do it in our communities but also replicating around the world. And then as Sydney mentioned before those guides, we’ve been making those every month. They’re step by step guides where we research a topic and put together the backstory of why this is an issue and simple action steps people can take. They’re super short and sweet so people don’t have to invest a lot of time into them, but I think having one every month is really exciting to look forward to

Rico: Absolutely. That’s a perfect summary of what’s going on with plastics and I can speak a little bit to climate and our action network. The Hunger Hub is embarking on this mission to get a community of teens who are willing to regularly volunteer to garden here in Arlington. So we’re making strides with that and getting lots of people and interest in speaking with a couple of different leaders at schools where we might be able to start this garden and it would be very youth-run. And to get teens interested we’ve been teaching little lessons to classes for teens about sustainability in the way they consume food. Food in general really matters and once they’re interested in that and then we say that once there’s less COVID and maybe a little warmer to come out and garden with us. So we’re developing that network and also the plastics hub has face masks in development that will go up on our website. And there are masks from a bunch of the other hubs like climate has made masks, hunger has made one, and they’re designed by teens and all the profits that are made from them go back to the original hub that made them. So whether that’s money for - in the hunger hub we’ve made $48 and we’re hoping to host a little challenge where we can do like a giveaway or something like that - It’s a little sum of money but for the kinds of initiatives we do, that’s fantastic.

Peale: Yeah and the idea behind the masks is to really promote sustainable messaging. Because obviously everyone should be wearing a mask right now but while you’re doing it you might as well say something. I think it’s cool because it’s another way to spread your message and that’s something like you were asking before about how teens can get involved and just wearing clothing or spread the message on social media can actually create a ripple effect.

What are your future plans?

Peale: I think the Eco Teen Action Network and all of my experiences in environmental activism have really set the course for my future, now that I’m really looking into college and everything. Specifically, I’m really interested in business and the intersection of that and the environment, so I think I want to do something with corporate sustainability when I’m older. So I’m planning on studying environmental studies and pairing that with some sort of business, entrepreneurship, or something like that. I’m obviously really interested in how humans and individuals can make a really big impact but I think it has to be implemented on a larger scale through policy and businesses with their products and through the supply chain.

Rico: I’m interested in International Relations and looking at how development relates to sustainability because a big place where policymakers and non-profits and people who want to do things are stumped is in the developing world how can they not develop like first world countries and not be this consumerist super industrial country. I want to really look at policy in regard to how rural countries are developing and how that can be sustainable and also serve the individual people that are living in those countries and not just their government.