Never Too Young to Lead: Why Youth Environmental Activism Matters

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A group of student volunteers smiles at the camera, seated on the grass.

Two University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) professors lead a local charge to engage youth in civic and environmental issues through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Dr. Jennifer Willett and Dr. Mary Hylton, professors in the UNR School of Social Work, worked with 15 high school students to gather photographic evidence of the impact of environmental disasters, such as drought and natural disasters, in their communities. In collaboration with the professors, the students then lead community discussions about the photographs and developed a legislative bill as a way to learn firsthand about environmental activism.

This project demonstrates the importance of engaging youth in environmental and civic activism, particularly as it relates to minority and underprivileged communities. Through the lens of this research, here is a closer look at why youth activism is a crucial catalyst for change and how community leaders and politicians can help empower students to have a voice.

Why Is It Important to Engage Youth in Environmental Activism?

It’s important to support youth in bringing attention to environmental disasters, especially those youth who are part of disproportionately affected communities, such as low-income and tribal communities. Youth show increasing interest in community and civic engagement, particularly in relation to social and racial justice issues. And they report a stronger belief in the importance of becoming community leaders than previous generations did. Engagement in civic activism is also prevalent among youth who identify as Latino and/or black.

Today’s youth have inherited a planet ravaged by climate change. As they look toward their future, they’re more motivated to be environmentally active than older generations — and they have more tools than ever before with which to make their voices heard through youth activism. Teen-led activist coalition Zero Hour, for example, has held climate change protests at the National Mall in Washington and met with lawmakers to discuss its platform and inspire other teens to join the cause.

In fact, in Dr. Willett and Dr. Hylton’s preliminary research for their project, adult community members stated that much of the concern around environmental injustices in Nevada is driven by the youth. They’re seen as an untapped resource for addressing environmental issues and building skills for future change initiatives.

How Can You Engage Youth in Environmental Activism?

Community leaders and politicians can empower youth to use their own voices and skills to engage in environmental activism. By reaching these youth directly, leaders can transfer knowledge, show students that they’re being heard and help younger generations feel more connected to their communities.

The students involved in the UNR research project, for example, were trained by the professors on research techniques, phenomenology and gathering photographic data. They then went out into their communities and gathered stories from residents about their experiences with environmental hazards and natural disasters.

Once the photographs were collected and developed, the students led critical dialogues in their communities to discuss their findings and brainstorm strategies for change; they were backed by training in civic engagement, legislative advocacy and shaping public policy. By the end of the research project, the students created an action plan and sought legislative sponsorship of a bill based on their photo research.

As incentives for their work, the students received a stipend and were able to keep the cameras that were used for data collection. They will also be offered assistance on crafting resumes and college application essays that reflect their work on this research project.

By placing high school students at the heart of this project, UNR recognizes the importance of cultivating youth activism and empowering younger generations to build a better future.

Learn More

An advanced degree program for future social workers interested in becoming agents of change, the online Master of Social Work (MSW) from the University of Nevada, Reno, is designed to help you gain the knowledge to address complex problems across a range of disciplines. Learn more about how the MSW program can prepare you to make a lasting impact in diverse environments and underserved communities.


Suggested Readings

The Role of It in Helping Social Workers Serve Rural Communities

Understanding The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

University of Nevada, Reno, Online Master of Social Work



Fast Company, “It’s Worse Than You Think: The Case for Creating Climate Change Panic”

The New York Times, “Meet the Teenagers Leading a Climate Change Movement”

Pew Research Center, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues”