The EPA Launches Youth Council of Gen Z and Millennials

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Sixteen young people will launch a new program with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Michael S. Regan, beginning November 16. In an exclusive report with Teen Vogue, the National Environmental Youth Advisory Council (NEYAC) has announced it will provide independent advice and recommendations on behalf of youth communities regarding EPA efforts.

Climate change harms youth communities and their future in major ways. Input from young leaders is needed to address a range of environmental issues, Regan said, after publicly announcing the plan a year prior. He believes environmental protection “has a scope that touches a lot of different aspects that really do inform our collective lives.”

His interest stems from a personal connection to the climate crisis, Regan tells Teen Vogue. “Early in life I experienced respiratory symptoms that arose from pollution and emissions, determining how I charted my course both personally and professionally,” he explains. “I was impacted, and had ideas very early on in my life, as a young person.”

Economic prosperity, civil rights — it’s all connected, he says, and building the NEYAC is an opportunity for young people to speak out, be heard, and influence policy directly. Across the federal government, it is the very first youth advisory committee formed on the environment, and the first of its kind at the EPA.

At least 50% of NEYAC members come from, primarily reside in, and/or do most of their work in “disadvantaged communities,” according to the EPA. In its press release about the program, the organization described its appointees as bringing a “balance of perspectives, backgrounds, and experience” to critical environmental policy conversations, and young people as “long at the forefront of social movements.” All 16 members range between 16 and 29 years old.

Eighteen-year-old Gabriel Nagel of Denver applied to the council because he saw it as an opportunity to address the anxiety challenges faced by his generation. Nagel studies international relations with a double minor in economics and earth systems, and last year, organized his community to pass “one of the nation's first school district-based climate justice policies, which launched environmental justice curricula and school-wide environmental justice pledges,” he says.

Before a wildfire threatened his home, Nagel recalls, climate change, to him, meant only “graphs of warming temperatures.” But now the lives of his family and neighbors were threatened, “only one of countless communities disproportionately experiencing the adverse effects of climate change.” He notes that his family members in the Philippines have also experienced climate disaster. Says Nagel, abstract statistics have transformed into a “stark reality.”

He is deeply invested in environmental justice, which he describes as “radical climate action” that recognizes the interconnected impacts of climate action and the failures of inaction. In establishing NEYAC, Nagel believes, the EPA has made “one of the most meaningful steps taken by any government in the world” to uplift young voices in the climate crisis. He thinks environmental education in schools should come next.

Rural areas and agricultural communities, of which there are many in the United States, have representation in the council by way of 29-year-old Colton Buckley of Gatesville, Texas. “I feel rural communities are often overlooked,” he says.

Buckley began his career in the environmental and conservation movement because of his late-grandfather, who raised him with his grandmother on their Texas family ranch. “He taught me that we must always be stewards of the land to have a healthy life,” he says. “And many families in rural communities across America make their living from the land.”

Clean-water initiatives and stream restoration are a passion for Buckley. “Within the next 20 years, one of three things are certain,” he says. “When rural residents go to turn on their kitchen water faucet they will either have no water, severely contaminated water, or clean drinking water. I hope that policy decisions shape a plan that only the [last] of the three is the reality.”

Buckley is a PhD student in public policy, holds a master’s in communication, and a bachelor’s in agriculture development. His studies have informed his unique, nation-minded experience as a former executive of a national nonprofit network in the agricultural and conservation space, with organizations spanning 40 states, and will now add to his council contributions.

Wawa Gatheru comes from a long line of farmers. For 10 years, her environmental justice work has been driven by “people power.”

“My main priority is to ensure that the unique concerns, voices, and priorities of youth of color are represented at the federal level,” the 24-year-old from Philadelphia tells Teen Vogue. “And making sure this isn’t a tokenistic relationship. Youth-washing happens in the climate movement.”

But Gatheru did not always see herself as an environmentalist. “The term and representation of the term I saw growing up never resonated with me,” she says. “It felt like a top-shelf identifier, something that only wealthy white people could resonate with.”

Then, in high school, Gatheru had a drastic perspective change while taking an environmental science course — what she calls the "aha moment." “I realized that if I wanted to be a change maker and address any social ill," she remembers, "I would have to start with climate.”

Gatheru continues, “I began to make the connection that the climate crisis not only creates new problems, but exacerbates every existing social ill. I also learned that it was Black and brown communities experiencing the brunt of the crisis — while also being the least representative in environmental decision-making.”

Helping youth organizations obtain federal funds is an important issue for the council to address, she says. “There is a historic amount of federal investment around environmental justice, but federal grant applications are notoriously difficult to navigate,” she explains, which impacts how underrepresented they are in climate philanthropy.

Gatheru is the founder and executive director of a national Black youth-led climate nonprofit, Black Girl Environmentalist, and has an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and a master’s in environmental governance. We are living through what she describes as an “ecological breakdown,” while also suffering from a leadership crisis.

Without people of color in the climate sector, the front line remains without representation. She is dedicated, she says, to “ensuring that the climate movement is made in the image of all of us.”

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue