Echoes for the Environment: Trials and Tribulations in Youth Environment Advocacy

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By Rachel Lee (19A01D)
Photos courtesy of Community Advocates, Pamela Low, Ang Zyn Yee

It was a scene that would have put any self-respecting teenager to sleep. Yet the forty-three or so fifteen-year-olds gathered in the Innovation Centre were anything but unwilling to spend a too-early Saturday morning at an environmental forum – Echo for Eco – of all places. In fact, its organiser Raffles Community Advocates (CommAd) reported a 100% rate of approval from participants.

CCA chairperson Ashley Leong (19S03J) noted: “What blew me away about the participants was their eagerness to learn! A number of them brought notebooks to take down notes and were also very willing to share their ideas during discussions and generally seemed genuinely interested in the topic, which shocked me because I didn’t expect such a high level of interest in sustainability, especially from secondary school students.”

Perhaps these kids were but exceptions within the larger group they belong to, who have too often been characterized by the media, older generations and even themselves as apathetic at best. Perhaps this perception has some truth to it. Newspaper articles regularly bemoan the growing indifference of youths towards ongoing and significant issues that will impact their future.

Yet, this hasn’t stopped individuals and groups such as CommAd from continuing to step up and reach out to their community, often finding unique and engaging ways to connect with their audience and promote their causes.

“To me, advocacy means speaking out for a cause that you believe in and inspiring people to take action about it.” — Ashley Leong

It may be hard for many to understand the causes they are trying to promote, and few may aspire to achieve the same goal. This is especially so for advocates of the environment. Ang Zyn Yee, a J1 Hwa Chong student behind the account @strawfreesingapore, weighed in with her opinion. “I think it’s so hard for people to care because climate change and environmental issues seem too far removed from their actual lives. I mean, we’ve been hearing scientists and environmentalists crying about the environment for decades but our lives (apart from the warmer weather) seem not to have changed much! I think most people think that caring about the environment is this hippie thing (that’s all about the trees and polar bears and bees), and fail to realise that climate change will impact them the most.”

Though Zyn Yee may have only been running @strawfreesingapore for a relatively short time— since March 2018!— her journey of advocacy has been thoroughly impressive and has brought her far, including to the pages of multiple news outlets. In particular, she does mention that interacting with the wider community poses a challenge: she finds it demanding dealing with those who are skeptics of her cause, overly-critical or simply do not care to try and sympathize. And, of course, these are individuals who are present every step of the way in an advocate’s journey, whether they embrace the challenge or not.

While initial engagement is the first step in this long journey, it is definitely hard to achieve. The team behind Echo for Eco struggled in reaching out to schools at the start and receiving enough responses back to meet the requisite number of participants.

Zyn Yee at a recent eco-event

For Zyn Yee, direct engagement is the answer to getting more people to care. She is a regular attendee at eco-events, where she talks to members of the public, getting their attention with her information booths. She also gives school and corporate talks which allow her to share her cause with a smaller audience in a more direct and engaging manner.

Similarly, Echo for Eco had premised their event on the concept of sharing information through conversations with one another, rather than the static transfer of information. Students from six different schools including Whitley Secondary School, St. Margaret’s Girls’ School and Chung Cheng High attended the event, creating a melting pot of unique perspectives and experiences that value-added to participants’ experiences. Previously, they would not have been able to interact with like-minded peers in such a capacity.

In the first half of the event, students attended workshops held by various environmental organisations such as Plastic Lite, Connected Threads and ViroGreen, where they listened to industry experts share more about the three main issues of microplastics, textile wastage and e-waste, that the forum revolved around. Following a short tea break, they were given an opportunity to put what they had learnt into practice through the ‘World Cafe’ segment. There, they were split amongst different tables, each one with its own unique topic that participants were supposed to discuss by applying the knowledge they had learnt during the workshop. Subsequently, participants would then move on to the next table, and hence the next topic, after the round was up. The short but meaningful forty-five minute session provided participants with the opportunity to gain fresh perspectives and share their own personal experiences through the discussion of topics such as consumption of meat and energy wastage.

Idea generation through the World Cafe

By structuring the event around the active exchange of ideas and application of learnt knowledge, rather than simply providing for the static passing down of information, the forum gave students a sense of empowerment in their own work. They were also able to bounce ideas off one another and improve their initiatives based on their peers’ suggestions.

In addition, Ashley also explained that there is a need to explore previously unknown topics, instead of issues such as global warming and pollution which most environmental advocacy efforts tended to focus on (though still as important!). “They end up quite boring and repetitive, which may cause students to be desensitized to them. So we hoped to be able to talk more about such ‘hidden’ topics so participants could learn something new, as well as pique their interest before establishing the link to larger environmental problems during the World Cafe.”

Keynote speaker Ms Pamela Low further commended the team on their work in this area. “The event was probably the best I have attended in this year. I have been to several events, but most were centred around showcasing work done (something like a report card) and networking. But your event made the most progress in educating your audience with relevant knowledge to hold meaningful discussion.” Ms Low is also an active voice in the scene of youth environment advocacy herself, having founded the ground-up initiative Tingkat Heroes while she was still an NUS undergraduate merely a year ago.

As for Ms Low, she learnt the importance of connecting with the masses through firsthand experience. Initially, she had tried to make changes at the policy level by working with NUS directors and administrative officers, believing this to be the most effective path to meeting her goal of waste reduction. Upon realising that the sentiments on the ground were also valuable to them, she switched her focus to educating the NUS population, carrying out a zero-waste roadshow with about ten environmental outreach and business organisations. “I was heartened to hear friends learning and to see how that knowledge translated into action,” she explains. “That taught me the importance of outreach and how everyone is on some journey towards being more sustainable, and we/I have to create opportunities and platforms for them to learn.”

She disagrees with sticking by a strict environmental angle such as resource-saving, but instead endeavours to use prevalent issues such as money, health and convenience to help her in conveying her message. “People who think they don’t care about the environment will switch off. But these people would care about [issues such as] money and health, hence they listen and the movement grows,” she elaborated, explaining her strategy of framing larger environmental issues within more familiar and everyday concepts to appeal to her audience.

One of the most important elements in any advocacy project is sustainability, or measuring the impact it leaves on its audience. If the numbers of @strawfreesingapore and are anything to go by, then they’ve certainly achieved their goal. But clearly, true impact is not measured through numbers, but by intangible human experience. Participants of Echo for Eco were noticed to be actively changing their lifestyle to be more eco-friendly and advocating for sustainability after the event, with one such example being @greenpokkadots, an environmental advocacy Instagram account started by one of the St. Margaret’s student attendees.

The forum also set the foundation for potential collaborative efforts. As observed by Pamela: “It was heartening to see students from different schools coming together and contributing enthusiastically to the topics during the World Cafe. I could tell that some had only just gained new information from the workshop and were quickly applying it! I like the synergy that comes from mixing people with different backgrounds to exchange, complement and challenge perspectives. Everyone was eager to learn and respectful of each other. I think they made new friends – with Instagram, it’s not hard to find each other again.”

But the efforts of advocates may not always bear physical fruit, and uncertainty about their efforts are often most keenly felt in trying to measure intangible impacts. Zyn Yee expresses her worry that “I have many experiences where I’ve felt like I’m doing so much for nothing.”

Pamela acknowledges that while “the efforts don’t always pay off… you have to knock on 10 doors for maybe 5 to reciprocate – be it schools, decision makers, policymakers or similar NGOs. But you learn in the process! There’s a lot of learning, you meet seniors who are so forthcoming and eager to mentor and share their experience and coach you. It makes you thank the bad guys for teaching you patience, professionalism and appreciate the good for coaching you.”

Not many events end on an optimistic note. Some leave their participants feeling even more jaded and cynical about the current state of affairs in the world, but not Echo for Eco. A particularly poignant moment shared by both batches of students— secondary and JC — summed up why advocacy is all worth it in the end: one of the many secondary school leaders in attendance was expressing how she felt about the event, commenting that, seeing all the passion and motivation the participants and organisers had put into this event, she had felt even more inspired to make a change. You could see the weariness in the eyes of those who had stayed up late to rush last-minute errands for the event melt away into happiness, and they were finally able to heave a sigh of relief, knowing that their efforts had fully paid off.

“We are the generation, besides those younger than us now, that will feel and suffer the impact of climate change for a long time, yet we are also more connected with information to take climate action. Despite climate change’s transboundary nature, everyone has a voice and right to articulate their desire for collective action to secure of shared future – remember people’s power! It took one email for me, the same can go for you – start from school.” — Pamela

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