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Ecoleaders Organize Youth Climate Summit

Ecoleaders Organize Youth Climate Summit

“We should not let climate change define who we are; we should let how we respond to climate change define who we are.” –– Ecoleader Wilson Cheung ’24

Last Sunday, NMH’s student Ecoleaders hosted the Interscholastic Youth Climate Summit 2024. The event, which focused on climate crisis education and action strategies, drew more than 60 students from NMH, Deerfield Academy, Eaglebrook School, Phillips Academy, Stoneleigh-Burnham School, and The Putney School. The day included a keynote speaker, dynamic workshops, and brainstorming sessions. The Gilder Center, a building conceived and constructed around sustainability principles, served as headquarters for the day. 

Aerial view of climate summit crown in Gilder

Now in its second year, the summit was put together by the Ecoleaders with support from science teachers Pete Sniffen, the campus sustainability coordinator, and Skylar McAlpin, a science teacher and the group’s advisor.

The day commenced in lovely weather with dialogue about students’ responses to the question “What pops into your head when you think of climate change?” Ecoleader Wilson Cheung ’24 moderated the discussion, encouraging participants to elaborate on their input, as responses such as “intersectionality,” “biodiversity,” “global warming,” and “sad” were projected on a large screen above him. 

Cheung steered the conversation to reflect a sense of positivity. After asking one student to elaborate on why they chose the word “fear,” he noted, “Fear is a hard emotion. But it can be what motivated us to act and to gather here and find solutions.”

David Newman, a conservationist and former environmental lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, served as keynote speaker. In his introduction, Newman discussed the timeline of human impact on the environment and the evolution of the climate crisis. “The moment we are in is an inflection point,” he said. “The choices we make now will affect billions of human lives in the future.”

Students sit at a desk in a climate workshop

Newman expressed a sense of optimism about environmental work, pointing to marriage equality and anti-smoking laws as examples of once-unthinkable change brought about by focused activism in recent decades. “Albie Sachs, the anti-apartheid lawyer and activist, has a famous quote: ‘All revolutions are impossible until they happen,’” said Newman, who encouraged the students to identify a focus for their activism and to find “meaningful work” for themselves. 

After the address, students took part in workshops, choosing from topics including art and activism, private sector sustainability consulting, introduction to energy policy, and natural solutions to the climate crisis.

Sofia Assab ’17, a sustainability consultant who works in the private sector, led the “Sustainability in the Mainstream” workshop, which looked at the sustainability statements of for-profit companies. “I believe that, as we move forward, every single company needs a foundation of sustainability,” she said. “Companies should not necessarily work the way they currently work, because it's not working for the future of the planet.” 

Students broke into small groups to dissect an assigned company's report and then offer critiques. “I was amazed by the way each student immediately engaged with the exercise, coming up with solutions that were creative and truly change-making,” Assab said after the workshop. “Though it was only six years ago that I was a student at NMH, the change in how deeply young people are thinking about the future is staggering.”

In “Energy Chain 101” workshop, led by Diguanto Chatterjee, a vice president at the New England energy company Eversource and an NMH parent, students learned about the power grid and how energy consumption is measured. They also learned about how Eversource is working with policymakers to establish clean-energy generation. 

Later, Chatterjee said he was impressed with the event as a whole. “The conference was planned really well to draw out student engagement and drive toward actionable steps they can make by belonging to organizations within the school and by partnering with other schools,“ he said.

Cheung, who attended the workshop, said, “I am in deep resonance with what Diguanto Chatterjee said: ‘The solution to climate change is the painstaking attention to small details. Chatterjee refers to the amount of effort and time one has to pour into policy-making.”

After the workshops, the students were divided into peer groups led by Ecoleaders, where they expressed both excitement and frustration. In one group, Xander Strulouic Lord ’24 of The Putney School shared a desire to walk away from the summit with concrete steps for action. “I was curious about … how can we implement this, in a practical sense,” he said. “I felt like there wasn't much from the workshops that left me feeling like ‘I can't wait to do this when I get home.’” 

A group of girls chat at the Ecoleaders Conference

Ecoleader Priya Chatterjee ’25 offered a productive response: “One of the things we've done in our group here is writing to legislators in support of different bills,” she said. “If you look at bills that have very specific plans to address things, if you zero in on that, that's where you can find things that we can actually do, even as just high schoolers.” Chatterjee offered to share with the other students letter templates and contact lists.

Students reconvened to close out the day with questions and reflections in the context of a panel discussion. Cheung summarized the day: “We have a shared goal ahead of us, and that’s combating climate change.” 

Both McAlpin and Sniffen expressed satisfaction with the outcomes of the summit and pride in the Ecoleaders. “They do things independently that adults do at other schools, like organizing and hosting conferences,” Sniffen said. “Young people really seem to understand that moving from individual action to collective action is important. They wanted to connect to other students in the movement and build a larger coalition beyond NMH.” 

McAlpin said the conference provided a space for students to build community in their pursuit of climate justice and offered inspiration, which is essential. “Whatever path they choose to pursue after high school, their voice and actions can make a difference in promoting a more sustainable world,” she said. “The day certainly left me feeling inspired and was one of those soul-satisfying experiences that help remind you that the work we're doing is pretty awesome.”

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