Museum Mentors Enable a Future-Ready Generation of Young Environmental Leaders

A nationwide network of mentors demonstrates the power to challenge and guide youth to be the transformational leaders that they can be, and that the planet needs them to be.

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Skarlet, Abigail, Aniah, and Shimriya, co-founding student leaders from Small Changes Big Impact in Miami, lead beach cleanups and ocean health conversations with their peers with the support of mentors from the Frost Science Museum. Courtesy of the Frost Science Museum.

We need every solution and every solver. As the saying goes, to change everything, we need everyone.

-Activist editors Drs. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, in their book of compiled essays, All We Can Save

Young people worldwide live this truth every day, and just about everyone is familiar with the incredible efforts of youth from Greta Thunberg to the Sunrise Movement and many more. Within that spectrum too, are thousands of young people who care deeply about the environmental impacts on the places they live and love. Often though, they don't know where to start in taking action. Climate change has been an intractable issue for adults, so one can easily imagine the magnitude many youth feel. A recent study led by researchers at the University of Bath confirms this anxiety among students as a global phenomenon.

Beginning in 2019, Smithsonian Affiliations, in collaboration with staff at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, prototyped Earth Optimism Youth Action and Leadership, a project rooted in empowering youth in communities across the nation. Collaborating with the Smithsonian's Affiliate organizations in a variety of environments - urban and rural, coastal and plains, at sea level and thousands of feet above it - project directors established a shared mission of centering youth voices to create and execute community-focused solutions to issues that are most important to them. The project builds on the intellectual framework of the Earth Optimism initiative, one whose messages of hope, action, and social sharing particularly resonate with young changemakers.

One might think that the pandemic and the shift to all things virtual would disrupt action planning. On the contrary, the pivot to virtual expanded opportunities for national, interactive student gatherings online about their shared concerns such as living plastic-free, confronting climate change denialism, and environmental justice. Being virtual has provided a robust networking opportunity for young people to connect to experts and peers anywhere. As one student leader stated in a sentiment that was shared by many, "the initial phase that we spend just speaking to professionals [and] experienced people in the field allowed us to thoroughly explore our many ideas early on and gave a great sense of structure and importance that helped motivate and inspire me. Now I feel like I can do anything." Mentors noted shifts in student attitudes too, in that"despite being confined to a Zoom box, the project expanded their worldview," and "leading environmental actions were empowering to them during a time that was completely disempowering." 

The resulting student projects now span both digital and in-person action on a variety of environmental issues. In leading their own solutions, and seeing the impacts of their actions, teens' confidence has soared. As more of their work finds its way to social media, local news outlets and more, the more we confirm to young people that their ideas and solutions for environmental issues in their communities are welcome, needed, and valued. Their work and case studies have also been featured on the Affiliations website and published online via the Smithsonian Learning Lab.  

These youth-led successes were catalyzed by the investments of the Smithsonian and its Affiliate collaborators through a team mentorship approach. A reciprocal mentorship network can be replicated and scaled up or down based on a community's assets. For example, any community's ecosystem of environmental leaders—from interested teachers, museums, municipal or regional sustainability departments, to community and youth organizations, and conservation groups—can partner to play an impactful, reinforcing role in supporting student development. While the Smithsonian and its Affiliate collaborators may have provided the foundation, each organization brought its own contacts, resources, and expertise to support student growth. Students repeatedly share how the support of mentors has helped them to gain confidence in their ideas and skills, and to see new academic and career pathways. Students consistently talk about how motivating it is to be taken seriously by adults, and to see their ideas and actions validated, not as "teen" projects, but rather as integral, viable solutions to be emulated and scaled.

Effective mentors model respect. One such case study emerged from the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. From three area high schools, students collaborated with the museum to explore elements of the city's Climate Action Plan. Several of them started a "Teens for Climate Action Advisory Group," to host a virtual Teen Environmental Summit featuring local leaders. Mentors advised on composing formal invitations, developing persuasive communications about their goals, and eventually, working with local businesses for donations and cooperation to develop a compost program for their school. Along the way, mentors modeled professional standards. As educator Molissa Udevitz stated, "Teens learned life skills about collaborative work and communication best practices. We had many discussions about the appropriate etiquette if you cannot attend a meeting or complete what you agreed to do. Teens also gained experience in reevaluating the scope and complexity of their original project idea and how to modify this as needed." Respecting and acknowledging teens as the emerging professionals they are builds their confidence. Students in Anchorage went on to co-present with the Smithsonian to their peers at a national youth conference, and to write an article about their efforts in Edible Alaska. These young changemakers understand the relationship of their actions to those at city, state and national levels, and exercise skills appropriate to wield influence in those environments. With any luck, the students we mentor now will become our experts, policymakers, and activists tomorrow, amid times of rapid and inevitable environmental change. Training them in best practices is a wise investment.  

Students collaborating with the Anchorage Museum hosted a Virtual Summit for their peers, which led to a composting program as part of their evolving efforts to address elements of the city's Climate Action Plan. Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum.

Impactful mentors cede control. An excellent example comes from students who formed and now lead their own organization, “Small Changes Big Impact,” in conjunction with the Frost Science Museum's Upward Bound program in Miami, Florida. As their museum mentor Sofany Montoya stated, "Students had complete creative control and used mentors as both a resource and a guide." For the members of Small Changes Big Impact, it is important to meet both with and without their mentors; to make decisions with them, and independently of them. As Montoya noted, "Students accepted leadership roles, instead of being assigned to them. The inclusion of one member from each grade level had an unexpected impact in that the peer mentoring...was not just top down, but all directions as each student was able to contribute, have a voice, and be an important member of the team." She went on to observe that they "naturally became a more cohesive group as the project moved forward. This project fostered the development of teen participants into filmmakers, social media managers, science communicators, and youth activists." By resisting an urge to control processes or outcomes, mentors can provide opportunities for young people to practice skills such as collaboration, negotiation, consensus-building and decision-making, all of which bolster their academic and career readiness.  

Empowering mentors are comfortable with uncertainty. Collaborating with young people to advance their ideas, without specifying expected outputs or knowing their specific areas of focus in advance, can be challenging. It can also lead to unexpected yet wonderful results for their communities' environmental health. Gretchen Henrich, a seasoned educator at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming relayed her experience in working with the Center's Youth Advisory Board, "one of our staff were working on a conservation project that we thought the teens would be ideal for. We had that staff member present their proposed project for consideration just like any other idea. The teens decided to go another direction. This was great from our perspective because their choice made them feel invested. We watched our teens feel empowered to make decisions—we tried our best to stay out of their way. We formed unexpected relationships with many conservation organizations across the state, and I think our teens were surprised and excited when they saw their efforts highlighted by local media.” The teens in Cody decided to partner on a project with the Bureau of Land Management to plant new habitat for the threatened sage grouse. Mentors coached students to be their own spokespeople with the local press, a calculated risk, and one that literally paid off with multiple newspaper articles, and a resulting grant from a local philanthropist. In addition to illuminating possibilities, confident mentors follow students’ leads and provide valuable support to make their pathways meaningful, wide, and just.  

Members of the Youth Advisory Group of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming partner with officials at the Bureau of Land Management to plant buffalo berries to help conserve sage grouse habitats. Courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Supportive mentors provide social and emotional learning, in parallel with subject knowledge and skill building. As a young environmental activist recently told us, "My relationship with my mentor is unlike any other in my life. She's not being paid to help me succeed; she just believes in me that much." Mentors such as Raquel Almazan at City Lore in New York City understand that she is advising not only young environmental documentary filmmakers in an afterschool program, but rather, a whole person toward holistic success. That is, a teenager cannot focus on combatting plastic waste if he has no Wi-Fi, if she is hungry, or if they must care for siblings during traditional afterschool time. Sensitive mentors find solutions by being flexible and entrepreneurial. For example, the organization found pockets of time to share their organization's computers and Wi-Fi (and snacks) in safe ways. As educators and caregivers know well, it is often considered a victory for some students to turn on their cameras during Zoom meetings or speak up in a public setting. Yet this behavior does not belie their passions. Mentors craft safe spaces for students to take the time to explore the issues they care most about, their unique talents to contribute to problem-solving, and the comfort level to unlock both. In the case of City Lore, talented young filmmakers created original videos addressing the United Nations'Sustainable Development Goals, offering solutions around hunger, women's rights, and water pollution. These videos won top awards in the international Teens Dream Changemaker Challenge competition, garnering cash prize awards for students to execute their plans. Examples like this show that students' setbacks and triumphs, uncontrollable challenges, stumbles,and victories that they navigate together with mentors build resilient, persevering leaders, an imperative in our rapidly changing natural and socio-political environments.

A young leader mentored through City Lore in New York City now leads peers and action projects addressing the Sustainability Development Goals, such as drives to promote reusable containers to reduce plastic waste. Courtesy of Sumya Abida.

Our communities are treasure troves, full of members and organizations with the insight to engage and empower young people. Christopher Williams, a STEM educator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently reminded us, "It's one thing to tell students they can change the world. It's another to introduce them to professionals who look like them who are actually doing it." Mentors have the power to challenge and guide youth to be the transformational leaders that they can be, and that the planet needs them to be.