Students at the country’s oldest public high school are organizing and advocating to combat climate change.
By Calvin Hennick
Students at Boston Latin School, established in 1635, are constantly reminded that their school is steeped in history. Every student learns Latin, a holdover from a long-ago time when the “dead” language was thought to be a necessary foundation for rigorous academic study. And when students enter the school’s auditorium, they look up at the walls and see the names of alumni luminaries who also appear in their history and literature textbooks: Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Hancock, Samuel Adams.
Boston Latin School students plant a vertical garden at the school—part of the Youth Climate Action Network (Youth Can).
But while the school’s illustrious past is a point of pride, its current students are focused squarely on the future.
The school and its Youth Climate Action Network (Youth CAN) were named a 2017 Best of Green Schools honoree at the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Green Schools Conference and Expo in Atlanta in March. Youth CAN was founded in 2007, and its efforts have resulted in a 28-panel solar array at the school, 350 trays of vegetation on the school’s green roof, a zero-sort recycling program that reduced waste by 50 percent, and a lighting retrofit that saves the city an estimated $33,000 in energy costs annually. Perhaps even more importantly, the students who lead and participate in the program have become highly engaged on environmental issues, even hosting an annual sustainability summit at MIT.
“It’s very much student led,” says Phoebe Beierle, green schools fellowship manager at USGBC. “These kids have blown me away over and over. They know what they’re doing is important, and they’re having fun solving problems together.”
Youth CAN traces its beginnings to—of all places—an eighth-grade history classroom at Boston Latin. Teacher Cate Arnold (who received “Coolest Teacher in the World” designation from the USGBC for her sustainability efforts at Boston Latin and traveled to Antarctica with the organization 2041 to study climate change) wanted her students to evaluate how the media covers controversial issues. So she showed her class the Al Gore climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and then asked the kids to look at news coverage of climate change.
“They were appalled,” Arnold remembers.
Students wanted to take some sort of action, and decided to form a student club. Arnold held an initial information session at the school, expecting at first to draw a handful of interested kids. Instead, around 90 showed up.
Within four months Youth CAN had held its first sustainability summit. A decade later, the students have all turned over twice, but the group continues to give kids a voice on climate and sustainability issues, as well as a platform to push for the greening of their own school building. The students have proven adept at organizing, fundraising, advocating, capacity building, and even marketing. One came up with a pitch-perfect tagline to describe Youth CAN’s efforts: “The Oldest School, The Newest Thinking.”
The centerpiece of the group’s work is the annual summit at MIT, which this year drew 240 kids from 37 different schools. After a keynote address, students broke out into workshop groups, where they learned about topics like renewable energy, youth activism, and social justice. Thirty exhibitors participated, with some just-for-fun activities sprinkled in with the more serious and educational. Greenovate Boston, an initiative of Mayor Marty Walsh to engage Bostonians around climate change, the Boston GreenFest show, and a regional composting and garden club all participated in the event, which also included a photo booth, face painting, live reptiles, and featured a performance by a clean energy–focused hip-hop act.
“It’s a really fun event,” says Ariana Rauch, who will be a junior at the school in the fall, and who has participated in Youth CAN since she was in eighth grade. “It’s great to lead a bunch of youth in environmentally themed activities and make them more aware of impacts on climate. I think it definitely educates and informs other students. They might know that climate change is bad, but they don’t know how they can work to solve the problem.”
Beierle says that teens respond better to events put on by their peers. She recently attended an event for kids that mostly featured seemingly endless speeches by adults, she says, which quickly bored the young audience.
“It’s so fun to see youth-planned youth events,” she says. “If you’re planning an event for young people, you’ve got to have entertainment. You can’t expect them to sit in their chair the whole time.”
Youth CAN’s reach isn’t limited to other teens. The students have made presentations to Boston’s mayor and school superintendent, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and have even traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby their representatives in Congress.
“The advocacy and planning are important for me as a person entering society,” says Yanxi Fang, who will be a junior at Boston Latin in the fall. “I feel like youth as a whole are generally less valued than adults [by government officials], probably because we can’t vote. I think what youth have to do is show up in numbers. With a large group of people being active and being present at events, that shows that these future voters deeply care about this issue.”
Arnold estimates that Youth CAN students have brought more than $400,000 to the school and community through fundraising, grants, and competition prizes. Those efforts have resulted in tangible green improvements to the school, including the installation of water bottle refilling stations, a “living wall” in the cafeteria, and a hydroponic growing lab made from a recycled shipping container.
The group’s most ambitious project, which garnered national attention—including a Today Show spot—is a green roof for the school. Organizers of a French sustainability conference saw the Today Show segment and paid to fly a group of Boston Latin students and teachers to France to present at their event.
Students worked with design professionals to draft plans for the roof, which included outdoor classrooms, a greenhouse, and small wind turbines. The design was made part of the school’s strategic plan and capital campaign, but it likely would have cost around $5 million to build out, and as of now the green roof is limited to vegetation trays and solar panels.
A number of former Youth CAN participants have gone on to careers in sustainability, and some have even come back to present at the group’s annual summit. But even for alumni who pursue other careers, their experiences stay with them.
“Personally, I don’t plan on entering a field surrounding climate change or the environment,” says Jia Yu, a rising junior at the school and a Youth CAN participant. “However, I feel like it’s really important to be an involved citizen [on climate issues], and to make sure we don’t fail future generations”