2004 Brower Youth Award Winners: Swimming Against The Tide

Meghan Casserly
September 22, 2004

“We can’t get caught in this vicious cycle of being apathetic because they view us as apathetic,” says 21-yr-old Christina Wong. “Our voice counts,” she adds, “it just needs to be cultivated.” Wong should know. She spent her junior year at UC Berkeley organizing and overseeing a team of student volunteers that traveled throughout western swing states informing student voters about the presidential candidates’ environmental policies.

Wong’s initiative, the Environment Victory Project, which kicked off in January, 2004, included students from a number of California universities including UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, Cal State Sacramento, The University of San Francisco, and Wong’s own UC Berkeley. Considering the number of students she has affected, it’s surprising to hear that her core group started with only four students and two additional volunteers. Today there are 20 young people working in conjunction with the Berkeley National League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan watchdog organization that ranks congress members on their environmental procedures. Wong is confident that her efforts have impacted the youth voter block in the swing states her group has focused on. “I think it’s important for young people to have access to this kind of information,” she says, adding, that President Bush is the first president ever to receive an “F” for his environmental practices and policies.

Wong is just one of this year’s Brower Youth Award recipients, but when she says things like, “I’m a true believer that one person can make a difference,” she might as well be speaking for all six of this year’s winners. The Brower Youth Award is the nation’s most prestigious award for young environmental activists. Sponsored by the Earth Island Institute of Berkeley, California, the Brower includes a cash prize of $3,000 that the institute stresses is not a scholarship but a reward for the students’ hard work, as well as a three-day Wilderness Encounter. The group will also be present at an awards ceremony at the end of September in San Francisco, California, where they will have the opportunity to hobnob with politically conscious celebrities like Michael Franti and Julia Butterfly Hill.

Competition is for the award is stiff, and the awards are determined by an application process, meaning the recipients have to be both self-selecting and hardworking. This year’s winners range from 16-year-old Lily Dong, who fought to protect Pasadena’s ancient Arroyo Seco, one of the last remaining undeveloped areas in the Los Angeles region, to Shadia Wood of Newport, NY, who spent nine years lobbying to restore the Superfund in her state. Each winner was inspired to work for the environment for the past year and through their passion and conviction have inspired hundreds of other young people to make change. And while some, like Wong, are approaching the elections head one, others have been working on hot-button environmental issues that many voters will be keeping in mind come November.

Mikhail Davis, the Brower Legacy Field Director at the Earth Island Institute, says he sees a definite connection between the work these winners are doing and the future of environmental work. He also points out, however, that many of their projects speak to the environmental challenges of the moment. “A lot of attention is being paid to issues that have been raised regarding the Bush Administration,” says Davis. “We have a winner focusing on preventing Global Warming, which Bush has refused to touch, we have Shadia Wood working on Superfund, which his administration has cut funding from, and we have Lily Dong who was working on a local open space issue. The Bush administration is the first administration in decades not to create a National Park.”
Davis believes that these activists are important to reward because they are “swimming against the tide,” not just in relation to the current administration, but Congress, as well. “The positive side of having such a negative administration [on environmental issues],” he adds, “is it has really motivated young people to respond.”

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Billy Parish, 23, interrupted his time at Yale for two-and-a-half years to organize a coalition of environmentally conscious college students called The Climate Campaign. The fact that Yale does not happen to rank very high on the list of environmentally friendly college campuses, he says, has little to do with it. “Yale has recently begun to take steps towards renewable energy resources, but there is definitely room for improvement, ” he says.

In helping create the Climate Campaign, Parish helped make the conversation about the use of clean and renewable energy college campuses a serious one. The group created a system of state-based networks of student environmental groups that then helped them reach their larger goal: to encourage colleges and universities to consider renewable energy sources as not only a socially conscious but economically feasible alternative to fossil fuel.

When students involved in the Climate Campaign came together last fall at Harvard, the head count was over 400. This October 19th, the campaign is planning a national day of action and Parish says he hopes just as many colleges and universities will get involved.

Parish says that winning this award has been a “huge honor,” but not one that he does not feel he deserves. “For the past year and a half,” he says, “I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked.”

While Parish focused on energy sources, his contemporary and fellow Brower Award recipient, Eugene Pearson directed his energy towards the architecture, in an effort to create energy conscious design. This Wisconsin native has helped the University of Colorado at Boulder become the nation’s top-rated campus for the greenest building standards and it all started with a student fee hike.

“The student government was asked to authorize a fee hike to finance new building construction on campus,” he recalls. “We took the position of a large donor to the projects. We knew that they would never turn down a donor’s conditions for substantial donations, and we told them that if they did not comply with our commitment to the environment, we would walk away from the table.”

Pearson played hardball to convince the administration that the environmental decision would be economically possible with tuition increases and ultimately his standards were met—all of the new buildings erected at CU Boulder comply with “green building” standards. This means that 100% of the energy used in the buildings comes from renewable resources. Other things that are taken into consideration for “green” buildings are window placement – to give the building the optimum amount of solar heat or shade during work hours – the use of low-water, or water-free facilities, and environmentally friendly building materials.

When Pearson found out that he was being honored with a Brower Youth award, he says he was, “ecstatic.” He says, “They asked me if I had any questions and, at the time, I was kind of speechless. I hung up the phone and started calling friends and family right away. It was only later that I was like ‘How am I going to get to California [for the award ceremony]?’ and things like that.” While he felt great about winning and being recognized for his hard work, Pearson also felt humbled by the process. When the twelve finalists were released, he says he read up on their projects and was incredibly impressed with all of the students’ work. “The competition was huge,” he says, ”and everyone put in an enormous amount of energy.” Still, Pearson is proud of his accomplishments in Colorado, particularly the fact that his work and the successes are still ongoing. The University of Boulder has since hired an environmental consultant that Pearson works closely with to ensure that the green building standards are being met, even as environmental standards are updated.

For most of these activists, winning Brower Youth Awards will be just one more step towards affecting the future of the environment movement, as well as their future with the Earth Island Institute. In the past, Earth Island has sent Brower winners to conferences and speaking engagements around the country and, Davis says, they often get nominated for other awards and scholarships. But the relationship doesn’t necessarily stop there. As Davis puts it, “We’re excited to be working with these kids for years for years to come.”



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