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Empowering Youth as Conservation Leaders

SNO Squall,
Sarah Hedges,
March 24 2016

Ontario Nature believes that young people can play a special role in protecting and restoring nature. To cultivate the next generation of conservationists, Ontario Nature provides opportunities for young people of diverse backgrounds to experience and connect with nature through the Nature Guardians Youth Program.

A key pillar of the program is the Youth Council, currently comprised of 70 young leaders, 13-20 years of age, from across the province who are dedicated to conservation, volunteering and environmental action. Working alongside Ontario Nature, the council provides a youth voice for the organization. Since its establishment in 2010, the Youth Council has chosen to focus on the following areas: conservation campaigns, event planning and delivery, outreach and fundraising.

Each year the Youth Council plays a lead role in planning and delivering the Youth Summit for Biodiversity, a unique weekend-long event that is designed and led by youth, for youth. The summit aims to develop an understanding of provincial biodiversity and environmental issues among the 100-plus youth who attend, as well as to inspire the drive and ability to take action and show leadership. Youth Council members host this memorable, one-of-a-kind experience and play a lead role in preparation and set-up, leading team-building activities and workshops, and acting as mentors to their fellow peers. For 2016, the Youth Council has chosen to focus on the theme of biodiversity and environmental leadership, and workshops and activities will provide youth with guidance and advice on how to start environmental initiatives in their communities. The 2016 summit will be held at YMCA Geneva Park in Orillia from September 23-25, 2016.

Another annual initiative that the Youth Council runs is Our Special Spaces, where members plan and coordinate conservation volunteering events in their communities each spring in partnership with local community groups. It is designed to give youth the opportunity to engage in conservation action while developing important leadership skills through involvement in event planning, fundraising, promotion, delivery and evaluation. The Youth Council plans to host events in at least eight communities in spring 2016.

Conservation campaigns have been a big focus for the Youth Council lately. In spring 2014 they launched a campaign to protect Ontario’s pollinators. The Youth Council is acting as the youth voice for pollinators in Ontario through advocacy activities such as letter writing, electronic action alerts, and a postcard campaign, and outreach efforts including delivering workshops to youth, creating awareness posters and videos, and attending outreach events. In 2015, Ontario Nature and the Youth Council played a lead role in convincing the provincial government to restrict the use of neonicotinoids, a group of pesticides known to be harmful to pollinators. The Canadian Museum of Nature recognized the Youth Council’s efforts as a finalist for the 2015 Nature Inspiration Awards.

At a recent leadership retreat in February, 32 Youth Council members gathered to develop plans for the remainder of the year, including an ambitious and exciting next stage of their pollinator campaign. Over the long-term, involvement in the Youth Council is proving to be a catalyst for youth leadership, inspiring many participants to take action within their own community. Youth Council members have gone on to start environmental clubs in their schools, deliver workshops to their peers, and plan and host outdoor events and conferences in their communities. By providing youth with the confidence, knowledge, tools and support networks they need, involvement in the Youth Council creates a ripple effect, where one young leader can influence and change the lives of many others.

For more information please contact Sarah Hedges, Ontario Nature’s conservation and education coordinator, at sarahh@ontarionature.org.