How students are tackling the climate crisis in their neighbourhoods

Through the Innovate MY Future program, the student-led projects address issues like single-use plastic and eco-anxiety

On a Sunday evening in a small classroom at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, around 20 people sat in a circle discussing what climate justice could look like in Scarborough.

They envisioned a future Scarborough with a robust network of bike lanes, an expanded TTC to decrease the reliance on cars, more green jobs and a place that’s welcoming to climate refugees, people who have been forced to leave their homes due to the effects of climate change.

The group – which ranged from U of T students, retirees and millennials – discussed what they’re doing individually to help combat climate change. A young woman from a local environmental non-profit explains the shoreline clean-ups she organizes along Scarborough’s ravines, while a student says that she recently become vegetarian and is trying to ditch single-use plastics.  

These discussions were part of a two-hour workshop hosted by Sustainable Scarberians, a student group whose mission is to help Scarborough residents better understand the climate crisis, how it’ll affect their neighbourhood and how to be more eco-conscious.

Sustainable Scarberians formed last June out of the new program, Innovate MY Future (IMF). It’s the first local program created by Youth Climate International (YCI), the Toronto-based non-profit that provides internship opportunities for Canadian youth to work on community projects in other countries.

“While we currently run programming that operates globally, and we realized that we also wanted to turn attention to our own backyard and support [local] youth to mobilize action for climate change in their own communities,” says Laura Haché, the climate action lead of YCI.

In addition to the Sustainable Scarberians, there are 20 IMF teams made up of high school, university and post-grad students aged 16 to 24, and based in Toronto, Scarborough, Hamilton, Whitby and the Halton Region.

Over a six-month timeframe, each team holds community consultations to identify local climate issues and then brainstorms creative ways to address them.

The teams are tackling a diverse cross-section of topics connected to climate justice.

In York region, Seedlings created a seed library to promote urban gardening and raise awareness about food waste. Community members can borrow seeds from the libraries, located in community centres and at events in Newmarket and Richmond Hill, to grow their own vegetables at home. After their plants have grown, they return the harvested seeds to the library.

Inspired by Roncy Reduces, a grassroots commitment to decrease the amount of single-use plastics and waste in Roncesvalles, Sustainable 6ix launched a BYO container program in Bloor West Village. They created stickers that businesses can put in their storefront windows to encourage patrons to bring their own reusable containers or shopping bags.

In the Peel region, the group Greener Spaces is focused on advocating for more zero-carbon buildings. During public presentations and university classroom visits, the group explains how standard residential and commercial buildings produce a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and the importance of adopting greener development practises.

These projects are examples of a wider youth-led climate justice movement across the world. Over the last two years, students like Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier, the Indigenous water activist from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, have galvanized their fellow students to call out politicians for their lack of progress on meaningful climate policy. Here in Toronto, the September 27 #FridaysForFuture climate strike brought out more than 50,000 people.

The goal of the IMF is to provide students in the GTHA with guidance, structure and financial support to design and execute their own ideas to address the climate crisis, and also to develop their own personal leadership skills. IMF has partnered with local municipalities, including the City of Toronto, to provide support and mentorship to the students enrolled in their program. Toronto’s climate action strategy is called TransformTO.

For their community project, the Sustainable Scarberians planned two public workshops focused on explaining climate science, eco-anxiety and how marginalized communities are affected by climate change.  

“I have lived in Scarborough for almost a decade and have gone back and forth about my feelings for the community,” says Sustainable Scarberians member Rohma F Chowdhury, a psychology and biology undergrad at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “A lot of the negative feelings were imposed on be my other people (i.e. ‘Ew you live in Scarborough? Isn’t that the ghetto?’). I think communities like these, ones we take for granted and willfully neglect, are the ones who need climate awareness the most.”

The workshop at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus ended with advice on how to start conversations with your friends and family about climate change.

Chowdhury recommended offering examples of the local impact of the climate crisis and potential solutions, avoiding overly technical language and incorporating your own personal story into the conversation. Chowdhury was in grade four when she first became passionate about environmental issues. She stumbled upon a YouTube video about how everyday items like pillowcases, clothing and water bottles were made with toxic chemicals that would eventually leech back in our environment.

“A lot of my undergraduate studies has focused on the science and policies behind climate change. As much as I valued gaining that knowledge, I also felt like I could be doing more to actually work towards climate awareness,” says Chowdhury. “When there is a lot of information about available the climate crisis, but not specifically on how you can improve it, those feelings of eco-anxiety are bound to happen.”

If a symptom of eco-anxiety is feeling helpless, providing opportunities for empowering your own communities can be a balm.

“We need to elevate young people’s voices because it helps ease that sense of anxiety and apathy that youth fall into when they don’t see their views reflected in the broader discourse,” says Haché.

“When they are given a little support to help them see that their voices really matter, they get to feel hope that they’re part of a positive push forward.”


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