Last October, at the National Audubon Society’s Fall board meeting, Benji Backer, Varshini Prakash, and Hannah Waters held a panel discussing the climate crisis. The three represented the collective voice of concern from a generation inheriting an earth deeply affected by climate change. Backer, founder of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and president of ACC Campus, and Prakash co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, ended that conversation by exchanging a fist bump and agreeing that ‘climate is their party.’ That exchange gave David Yarnold, CEO and president of Audubon, and Backer the blueprint for what would eventually be the Youth Environmental Summit (YES 2020).
Nine months later and amidst a global pandemic, Audubon and the American Conservation Coalition Campus virtually hosted nearly 100 students to discuss climate action and environmental advocacy. Young climate advocates across the political spectrum tuned into the Youth Environmental Summit, a two-day event filled with opportunities for students to learn from and be in conversation with renowned scientists, leading climate activists, and Congressional members at the forefront of bipartisan climate solutions. In addition to panel discussions, attendees received intensive advocacy training, developed and grew their professional networks, and even took a virtual field trip to Alaska and Colombia.
Originally designed as an in-person conference to encourage community building among advocates, the summit transitioned to an entirely virtual experience due to COVID-19 safety concerns. Though adapting the event to be completely virtual had its challenges, Backer says the strong partnership between his organization and Audubon helped navigate the summit’s transformation. Seeing all the enthusiasm in virtual meeting rooms, thoughtful questions in Zoom meetings, and overall energy throughout the weekend, Backer says that he hopes the two organizations make this an annual event.
“Our partnership with Audubon has been incredible, as has our overlap with their campus programming. If you get involved with Audubon or you get involved with ACC Campus, you’re getting involved with two wonderful organizations that work well and hand-in-hand together,” says Backer. “Audubon and ACC Campus have the same vision when it comes to wanting to build new environmental communities on campuses across the country.” Since the fall of 2018, both Audubon and ACC launched programs on hundreds of campuses that successfully engage students and leaders across the country.
Audubon staff who helped organize YES 2020 say that they’re hopeful it will be one of many collaborated projects where the organizations and their campus programs provide youth voices the platform, support, and tools to positively impact their environment and communities. Seeing the exhilarating energy and outpour of positive reception, Heather Starck, vice president of grassroots capacity building at Audubon, left feeling “more inspired than ever.” Starck, who led planning for the summit, says YES 2020 showed how two conservation-focused organizations can come together and shape the future of climate conversations.
“We look forward to working with ACC Campus again to bring students together and have conversations and trainings like this weekend,” says Starck. “It was a fantastic opportunity to bring the necessary tension to important conversations in order to move forward towards real change.”
Audubon and ACC Campus know that young environmental activists can make a difference – especially when it’s a unifying message around an issue that should not be partisan. Even in the midst of uncertainty for the fall semester, Audubon and ACC Campus staff say they hope the nearly 100 students that attended the Youth Environmental Summit are able to leverage their new advocacy training and tools to promote #YESonClimate and prove environmental protection breaks through political barriers.