Generational change

Alabama Environmental Youth Council advocates for statewide green efforts.

by Sydney Cromwell

Generation Z — today’s teens and college students — are more likely than older generations to see climate change as the biggest global challenge to be solved. And it makes sense: many of the worst effects of climate change, from rising sea levels to natural disasters, are already happening or are predicted to occur within their lifetimes without the implementation of radical solutions.

“People think that it’s far into the future and that it’s not affecting us right now,” said Oxford 16-year-old Sanjana Mupparaju.

After starting a Green Peace club at her high school, Prattville 18-year-old May Jung looked around for larger youth organizations focused on environmental causes, but she couldn’t find any statewide groups.

So, she decided she didn’t want to wait for someone else to get around to it.

Jung started the Alabama Environmental Youth Council last year. Now in its second school year, the AEYC consists of 20 high school students, including Jung and Mupparaju, from across the state with a passion for change in environmental policies, from the national level to their own schools.

Jung worked through local news, the statewide school system and other connections to get the word out.

“I remember thinking it was really interesting and I wanted to get involved,” said Montgomery 16-year-old Heaven Harper, who heard about the council from a friend who was a member.

Jung said there were no Alabama organizations for her to take inspiration from when creating the AEYC, so she looked to groups in other states, got help from organizations like the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) and started from scratch.

“Everything that I had to do was the first of its own,” Jung said. “… It’s very gratifying, the fact that this is a new initiative.”

When they started, Jung said the Council’s focus was too broad and the members tried to do too many things. This year, they’ve narrowed down their plans to smaller but attainable goals: continuing the recycling initiative from the first year of the AEYC, litter cleanup programs and finding other ways to make Alabama youth more environmentally conscious.

“People don’t know about it, people don’t care; that’s why there’s litter in these forests.”

May Jung, founder of the Alabama Environmental Youth Council

The AEYC is divided into committees with different focuses, such as the legislation committee, the education outreach committee and the sustainable waste committee. Each committee’s focus builds toward the overall goal

In the legislative committee, for example, Harper said members are researching and getting in touch with leaders about how to start recycling programs in their cities. Mupparaju said the sustainable waste committee has created a webinar series with topics like litter cleanup.

“Compared to other states, Alabama is definitely lacking in sustainable waste management. There’s not a lot of programs in cities, even less in schools,” Jung said.

Eleanor Elkus, a 16-year-old member from Birmingham, said the educational outreach committee looks a little different this year due to COVID-19. Rather than visiting schools and giving presentations on how to start a recycling program, the AEYC is creating a newsletter about making greener choices at home.

Elkus said they are making plans to return to school presentations in the future, as they don’t think there are nearly enough school recycling programs in Alabama right now.

“Whenever our schools even tried to start a recycling program, it failed because it was so hard,” Mupparaju said. If local students have the initiative, AEYC can provide the resources to guide them.

Teaching kids about recycling can be the foundation for a greener state in the future, Jung said. But, it’s an uphill battle of education.

“People aren’t really taught about how to compost or to recycle,” Harper said.

That lack of knowledge pervades most environmental issues, according to Elkus. Even if recycling is taught, the message is “just not reinforced,” she said.

“People don’t know about it, people don’t care; that’s why there’s litter in these forests,” Jung said.

Through projects like the recycling initiative, the newsletter and the webinars, Jung said AEYC hopes to be the connective tissue between Alabama youth and the science driving these environmental decisions.

Even for students like the AEYC members who are already environmentally conscious, there’s always more to learn.

“I feel like all of us have different specific interests and it’s really fun learning about what everyone else knows,” Mupparaju said.

Being in the AEYC has exposed members to new concepts like “environmental justice,” which Mupparaju said she had not heard of before. Environmental justice is the idea that communities of lower socioeconomic status and minorities often have to bear a larger share of the burden from unsafe ecological actions — such as landfills, chemical run-off and factory air pollution — and that environmental regulations need to do more to protect those communities.

“Those are things that not a lot of people know about,” Jung said.

Now that the organization has its footing, Jung said she is focused on building the strength of its current initiatives and making sure the AEYC’s education and service initiatives outlast her time as its leader.

“We want to get our roots into the system and make sure it’s a long-term goal,” Jung said.

Learn more about the Alabama Environmental Youth Council and its projects at aeycouncil.org or on Instagram @aeycouncil.

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