SANDWICH — Students from across the Cape swapped their classrooms for Sandwich Town Hall on Wednesday to voice concerns about the environment at the “Climate Change Action Summit.”
The forum, centered around environmental justice, included a policy-making workshop, where students were asked to present arguments for and against fictitious regulations, which would turn Route 6A into a canal to accommodate future sea level rise.
Before going up to the podium one by one to give statements to the five-member mock election board, the students were divided into groups, gathered together, and strategized their public commentary.
Cape Codders, in 100 years, could have this argument, says Ella Sampou, director of communications for the Youth Climate Action Network. A facilitator at the summit, Sampou said the aim of the exercise was to teach students how local government works.
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“Participating in local governance is a useful tool for climate activists to use when making change,” says Sampou. “Advocating for our ecosystem is very important.”
The policy-making workshop is part of the second annual summit, organized by Cape youth climate leaders and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. A group of youth from as far away as Plymouth participates to help develop action in response to the Cape’s climate-related challenges.
Student participation brings confidence
Throughout fictional elected council meetings, students talk about the causes and impacts of sea level rise and discuss challenges and solutions to climate change problems such as erosion, wastewater and plastic pollution. Students also raised issues related to social justice and transportation access.
John Bresett, 16, a student at Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, opposes the creation of a canal on Route 6A’s premises, and says speaking in front of a fictional voteboard gives him the confidence to attend actual city gatherings. One of his strongest trepidations about going to city meetings was feeling intimidated, he said.
“It’s challenging to understand the process and know how to talk to a certain point,” says Bresett. “Practicing is rewarding and once I sit down I’m sure I can go to a city meeting and talk about something I believe in.”
Julia Abercrombie, 17, also a student at Sturgis, said the summit’s local policy workshop prepared her to use her voice in the future but also showed her there is power in numbers.
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“We encourage each other and help each other decide what to say. The decision-making process is important and inspiring,” he said.
Abercrombie has also been a student climate ambassador at the Cape Cod Commission and says her experience also influenced her decision to become a climate change activist.
“I don’t get to vote yet but preparing us to advocate and use our voices in the future is very important,” he said.
Cape adults embrace youth resilience
John Russell, from Barnstable, volunteered to appear on the Summit mock election board and said he hopes the policy-making workshops can help students realize there are opportunities in the real world where they can share their voices and create pathways for making change.
“Our discussion today is not supposed to be a real issue, but rather a good exercise to show them how to get involved and how they can make a difference in real situations,” he said. “Strong enough that they want to be here.”
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Often, says Sampou, high school and college curricula do not include education about local government, meaning many young people are not helping make the decisions that most significantly affect their lives. Decision makers tend to be older members of society, he said. While their life experience and wisdom are valued, he said, everyone should sit at the table.
“We want these children to make decisions about Cape Cod and build resilience in our community,” he said. “We want them to have a voice.”
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Barnstable City Councilor Kris Clark was also present as an elected councilor for the summit, and said he remembers going to his first town meeting when he was a teenager. He said he was nervous when speaking at conservation commission meetings when he was in high school and realized afterwards that he didn’t finish his thoughts during those meetings.
“It’s good training to understand and go beyond yourself to get the message across,” says Clark. “It’s a good way to harden up and get some exposure for public speaking.”
Student participation proves its worth in Barnstable
Gordon Starr, a member of the Barnstable City Council, participated in the summit’s mock election council. In November 2020, he said, a group of students helped influence the Barnstable City Council to pass the Climate Emergency Resolution, which Starr sponsored.
“We’ve seen this work in real-time,” said Starr. “When young people show up to push for resolutions, their input is very emotional and makes a difference to the city council members who are listening.”
Jim Wolf, director of sustainability for Cape Air, participated in the mock board selection and attended the meeting when the Climate Emergency Resolution was passed in Barnstable.
“I am very interested in the power of young voices, in their reactions and efforts to mitigate climate change,” he said. “Their voices are stronger than ever on this matter.”
Tian Ya Liu, 16, a student at Cape Cod Academy in Osterville, said he enjoyed the formal process of mock election board meetings.
“The goal is for people to challenge themselves in public speaking,” he said. “And for students to understand the concept of how their ideas can influence the general public and make a difference in policy.”