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West Lafayette teen honored for work fighting climate change at home and across Indiana

Ethan Bledsoe was only a freshman in high school when he organized a nonprofit that would eventually introduce a climate resolution in his hometown of West Lafayette and bring a proposed bill to the statehouse.

These actions prompted the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes to honor him this year.

Bledsoe's work began in 2019 when he organized the West Lafayette Climate group. His idea was to raise awareness and bring people together around climate change issues. One goal, Bledsoe said, was to push for more climate-related education in schools and the group succeeded by bringing an advanced placement environmental science course to the high school.

Gathering momentum, the group eventually turned into Confront the Climate Crisis.

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“There was a lot of energy around youth activism, but not really anything by youth locally,” Bledsoe said. “That played in favor for us because no youth organizers were really doing anything around climate.”

Executive directors of the bipartisan student group "Confront the Climate Crisis," Ethan Bledsoe and Annabel Prokopy, speak to fellow students and legislators on legislative advocacy day, Jan. 18, 2022, at the Indiana Statehouse.
Executive directors of the bipartisan student group "Confront the Climate Crisis," Ethan Bledsoe and Annabel Prokopy, speak to fellow students and legislators on legislative advocacy day, Jan. 18, 2022, at the Indiana Statehouse.

The group began to organize with community members and eventually was able to get an ordinance and amendment passed in West Lafayette addressing climate change. The work included getting the city to set a date for becoming carbon neutral.

Following the win at the city-level, Bledsoe and a group of fellow activists began discussing their achievements and how to unite more youth organizations across Indiana. The goal was to spearhead a youth-led push for climate action in the state.

The group's proposed legislation would have acknowledged climate change as a problem and established a task force to address the climate crisis. Bledsoe said it is not such a radical idea, and it’s a bad look that the state could not even acknowledge climate change as a problem that should be addressed.

While their effort to get legislation at the state level failed, Bledsoe said the action was a way to help raise awareness.

“From the get-go, we knew legislation was not going to be successful. It’s nearly impossible to pass any type of positive climate action in Indiana,” Bledsoe said.

More:Indiana students demand action on climate change. Lawmakers respond with hard 'no.'

Bledsoe is now 18 years old and a freshman at Northwestern University and interested in figuring out how to use analytics to help with the climate crisis. He’s also joined a Mathematical Methods in Social Science program focusing on math, economics, statistics and modeling to better understand social situations.

“I want to use these skills to help the climate crisis,” he said.

He’s also considering a double major that helps bolster the environmental theme of his education.

Beldsoe’s work as a teen caught the attention of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which named him an honoree this year.

Executive Directors of the bipartisan student group "Confront the Climate Crisis," Ethan Bledsoe and Annabel Prokopy, speak to fellow students and legislators on legislative advocacy day, Jan. 18, 2022, at the Indiana Statehouse.
Executive Directors of the bipartisan student group "Confront the Climate Crisis," Ethan Bledsoe and Annabel Prokopy, speak to fellow students and legislators on legislative advocacy day, Jan. 18, 2022, at the Indiana Statehouse.

The group is founded by young adult author T.A. Barron and has honored more than 500 kids so far, Executive Director Barbara Ann Richman said.

“The prize is meant to shine a spotlight on real-life young heroes as an offshoot of (Barron’s) fictional writing where he highlights fictional young heroes,” she said. “He believes deeply in the power of all of us to make a difference and act on our heroic potential.”

The Gloria Barron prize celebrates 25 youth leaders between the ages of 8 and 18 each year who “made a significant positive difference to people and the environment,” according to the prize’s website.

The organization is very interested and committed to conservation in all ways and protecting the plant, Richman said.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t see climate change work really and now that’s obviously a huge part of what many applicants focus on,” she said. “It’s the issue of their generation and they feel if they don’t tackle it and do something then it’s too late.”

More than 500 kids and teens applied for the Gloria Barron prize this year, Richman said, and the 25 names selected represent the ideals of the prize.

“The prize is about honoring young people for stepping out often of their comfort zone to act with compassion, determination, courage and perseverance,” Richman said. “We look for the best 25 examples of that and hope they can motivate others to also act for the greater good.”

More:Scrub Hub: How can teenagers help protect the environment?

Bledsoe was one of 10 honorees named this year and another 15 youth were each awarded a $10,000 winner prize.

He said he was excited to be named an honoree and it’s fulfilling to be recognized in this way.

“It’s kind of crazy: I remember looking back and just seeing high school seniors who graduated and all they had done. I thought it was completely out of reach and insane,” Bledsoe said. “Looking back at this success and doing it with really close friends and I had a lot of fun doing it.”

His advice to other kids and teens wanting to make a difference: “Just do what you love.”

“If you just do something you genuinely love and with people you love, it is so much easier and I promise it will grow so much more,” he said. “It can be really daunting looking at massive organization, but I can’t believe we achieved all the things we did and, I think, the mindset shift with a lot of legislators; at least they know who we are.”

Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at karl.schneider@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana teen honored for work on climate change