June 17, 2019|By Robin McKinney| Climate

Teens Use Their Voices to Become Environmental Advocates

In late May, I attended the “Rural Food Justice Summit: Addressing Climate Change From the Ground Up” at Camp Rockfish in eastern North Carolina. This wasn’t just another meeting with some youth participants; young people identified climate change as a priority and worked hard over the past year to plan the agenda, secure speakers, and drive this event. Of the 70 participants, the majority were youth of color from rural, low-income communities, which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They came together to talk about how climate change is intensifying their stresses—particularly access to affordable, healthy foods—and how to be changemakers in their communities. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the event’s organizers, Chance Holmes-Snowden. Chance is the 17-year-old president of the Youth Ambassadors Program for a grassroots non-profit called Men and Women United for Youth and Families, which serves local youth by teaching them workplace, leadership, and environmental advocacy skills. We talked about the driving forces behind this summit, and the greatest issues facing his community and generation.  

Robin McKinney: Why did you help organize this event? What issues did you want to address through the summit?

Chance Holmes-Snowden: We want to make people more aware that the severe storms and heat waves we’re experiencing are the result of carbon emissions. We wanted to address what we need to do to prepare for the future effects of climate change. We also wanted to talk about improving access to healthy food for everyone through things like community gardens, education and advocacy.

6 17 19 Chance Edited01Chance Holmes-Snowden. Photo by Nathan Burton.

Robin: What inspired you to make climate and food systems resiliency the theme for this youth summit?  

Chance: When Hurricane Matthew came around in 2016, it hit this area hard. My family was okay, but I have friends who lost everything. And then a year later, Hurricane Florence hit while people were still recovering from Hurricane Matthew. The campus of my high school was under water. So the Youth Ambassadors coordinated with a group called Operation Air Drop, which was flying in food and supplies to disaster victims. We picked up the donations, and we organized a distribution center at a community support agency. 

At this summit, we wanted to talk about what we’ve witnessed and been through and what it all means. We’ve seen how climate change is connected to food shortages. We wanted to talk about these issues. At the same time, we wanted to help cultivate long-lasting impressions and friendships because that will take you a long way in life. We wanted a safe space for youth to be able to talk about issues that they may not be able to talk about in their own communities.

Robin: Do you think that a lot of these kids struggle to find the confidence to speak out on important issues?

Chance: Yes, I feel like the main problem in lower income communities is that people don’t think they have a voice. I always say that your voice is your most powerful weapon, and that’s why teens are so powerful in this movement because we use our voices. You definitely won’t have a voice if you don’t use your voice.

6 17 19 NathanBurtonPhoto by Nathan Burton.

: Whom did you invite to this youth summit?

Chance: We invited many of our partners, including ABC2, NC Field, Lideres Jovenes en Accion, Growing Change, Highland Cultivators, West Marion, and the Blue Ridge Commission of Wilmington. We invited many African American and Latino groups that we work with because we feel like they represent the people who are the most affected by all the stresses that come with climate change. We brought them into this community space to talk about these issues and also our strengths and how we can share and advocate together. 


Robin: Can you describe the role of The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program in this work?

Chance: Every time we list our partners, Resourceful Communities is at the top. They are a very important resource for us—basically like our support system. When we write grants, when we organize events like this, they are there to support us.  They stand behind us and help us to be leaders in our own communities. 

Robin: During the summit, I saw a lot of dancing, singing and hugging. Why are you so connected? What binds all of you together?

Chance: I think the thing that holds us together is that we are young and we care about each other and the future. The glue that holds us all together is a sense of community, the sense of belonging, and knowing that we’re fighting for something good.

Robin: What is one thing you hope participants will take away from this event? 

Chance: One thing I hope that everybody will take away from our event is the fact that they have somebody to talk to about all these issues. I also want people to know that climate change is a real thing. I want them to take away enough information that they can go home to their communities and talk about all of these issues with confidence. When people are educated about these issues, they are a lot less likely to pay attention to conspiracy theories and crazy things on the Internet.

6 17 19 NathanBurton2Photo by Nathan Burton.

: Why do you think this work matters? Why is it important to you?

Chance: About two years ago, I was in that whole “ignorance is bliss” stage. I was aware of the environment, but I didn’t really understand how our carbon footprint has a direct impact on the environment, or how the health of our environment has such a direct impact on our food supplies. But once I understood how climate change is directly affecting me—and people that look like me—I started to learn even more and to advocate for people in my community.

Everyone’s actions have consequences. Like that plastic bottle you threw out the window; it’s not going anywhere, it’s not going to decompose. People need to be aware of their actions and take responsibility for them. I talk about how everybody in my generation needs to be aware of what’s happening because it’s going to affect us. We all need to be educated because knowledge is power, and power is knowledge.

This work is very important to me because we are the future. This problem is going to hit us hard, especially if the world keeps going the way it’s going with carbon emissions. And I feel like we have to step up, we have to raise our voices and show up to make the change. 

This project was supported by The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program, which strengthens local capacity to implement community-driven priorities and projects. We thank the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, and Oak Foundation for making this work possible. Men and Women and Women United for Youth and Families worked directly with a number of funding partners to develop and deliver the summit, including Good Food for All Collaborative, USDA Farm Service Agency, Cape Fear Farm Credit, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Rural Advancement Foundation Int'l (RAFI), University of North Carolina-Wilmington's Center for Healthy Communities, Why Hunger, and Self-Help Credit Union.

Written By

Robin McKinney

At the time of publication, Robin Ashley McKinney was the Graphic Designer for The Conservation Fund.