Many of Chicago’s middle and high school students spent their Columbus Day holiday resting, sleeping or watching TV. However, a group of 12 students from across the Chicago area could be found in the Shedd Aquarium’s new Teen Lab—the site for this month’s One With Nature meeting—discussing climate change, environmentalism and what they can do to make a difference in an urban setting.
As a senior at Northwestern University, and a new member of the YouthMuse team, I was thrilled to be able to participate in the October OWN meeting. Through this experience, I learned a lot about the passion and drive of this community of environmentally-conscious Chicago teens.
Teenagers in the OWN campaign are not just participants but creators. The teens decide what they want to do, how they want to do it and who they want to be as a community of socially conscious young adults. The students craft all aspects of the campaign, down to the “One With Nature” name and branding. Because of their passion, drive and curiosity, as well as the support of Chicago cultural organizations such as the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago Botanic Garden and Shedd Aquarium, OWN campaign teens are focused on making real change. Past projects include coastal cleanups, meeting with other teens at city-wide events like the Chicago River Congress, teaching teens to upcycle used clothing and generating OWN’s social media campaigns. The same model of teen-led environmental campaigns has sprouted across the country with varying degrees of success; most notable is Puget Sound: We Love You at the Seattle Aquarium.
The true beauty of these campaigns lies in the agency given to middle and high school students to create projects that are geared at real change in the community. Students are given mentoring, resources, tools and a platform for their campaigns. One With Nature meets at Lincoln Park Zoo or in the Shedd Aquarium Teen Lab. Adults in the campaign are not leaders but facilitators of the choices, visions and goals designed by the students. In the safety of this space, Chicago’s community of students is empowered. They are able to watch projects they design and implement come to fruition. They are able to interact with professionals who treat them as future leaders. They are able to push their limits, explore their interests and solidify their visions for the future.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 77% of U.S. students in grades 5-12 want to be their own boss, 45% plan to start their own business and 42% aim to invent something that changes the world. Through teen-led efforts like One With Nature, zoos, aquariums, and museums give Millennials a place to start charging their power to change their world.