Earth Week 2021: Celebrating Youthful Leadership on Climate Change

Stenzel is Professor Emeritus of International Business Law, Michigan State University and Coordinator for Ethical Leadership Programs in the Broad College of Business at MSU.

By Paulette L. Stenzel

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed life in many ways, yet Okemos High School junior Bernadette Osborn and her classmates in the Lansing area have moved quickly and energetically to confront the challenges of climate change.

Osborn first heard about climate change when Hurricane Sandy hit her family’s home in Gunpowder Falls State Park, Maryland, in October 2012. In 2015, she moved to Michigan with her family and took a physical science course at Okemos High School with teacher Dave Chapman where she was inspired to learn more about the challenges related to climate change.

In the spring of 2020, Osborn decided that she wanted to start a Lansing area chapter of the Climate Reality Project, and she realized that goal in September. Since then, the chapter has grown and launched several campaigns. During Earth Week 2021 the chapter has launched a new campaign on water conservation that will include a presentation on Thursday, April 22, by FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood.

During the spring of 2020, while businesses were shutting down and schools were moving to online teaching, Osborn saw an advertisement on Instagram for former Vice-President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. She said she was “looking for something meaningful to do.” She was soon off and running, using her free time to make a difference at the grassroots level. She and her fellow climate activists have worked on climate education and initiatives in the Lansing-area community and across the world through the Internet. During Earth Week 2021, they are launching a new campaign focusing on water conservation. The launch includes daily presentations to help members and others learn about the relationship between climate change and Michigan’s waters.

When Osborn set out to form the Lansing area chapter, she learned that a team of five people is required to start a chapter and that the president of a chapter must be older than 18. So she enlisted three other Okemos High School students for the leadership team. Additionally, she searched the Internet for that “someone” over age 18.  She found a kindred spirit in Carolyn Randall, who trained with the Climate Reality Project in 2013. Randall currently volunteers with the Michigan Climate Action Network and the Climate Citizen’s Lobby focusing on legislative efforts. The Lansing Climate Reality chapter was officially recognized by Gore’s organization and launched in September 2020.

Randall now chairs the Lansing Chapter, while Osborn serves as Vice-Chair and Presentations Committee Chair. Three Okemos High School students lead three additional committees: Aiko Major (Marketing and Communications Committee Chair), Allison Schoen (Campaigns Committee Chair), and Anna Hicks (Membership Committee Chair). The 33 current members of the group include 19 high school students, two college students, and members of all ages from the general public.

Climate Reality Lansing holds monthly meetings. Osborn also hosts a series of weekly webinars on topics related to climate change. Presenters include members as well as non-members. Since September, Osborn has given nine presentations on topics including, “Current Climate Legislation” and “The Steps to Marine Conservation.” Those presentations reach 33 members and 20 non-members. Some attend the “live” Zoom presentation each Saturday at 5 p.m., while others watch from a link provided following the presentation. (The participating non-members are ineligible for membership in the chapter because they live outside the Lansing area.)

The Presentations and Education Development program comprises one of the Chapter’s campaigns. Other campaigns include, “Our Climate Moment: Let’s Get to Work,” “Plastic Pollution Reduction,” and “Water Pollution.” Activities related to the campaigns include participation in a postcard project. In cooperation with the Lansing-area Citizens Climate Lobby, members write to legislators to encourage them to support climate-related legislation. Lansing Climate Reality Chapter members have joined the Meridian Conservation Corps in weeding and removing invasive species on Meridian Township lands. They worked outside, six feet apart, and wore masks to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. Additionally, they are building relationships with like-minded people in groups including Michigan State University’s Student Sustainability Leadership Council and the newly-formed Michigan State Climate Reality Project–Campus Corps.

When I asked Osborn about her motivation and goals, she explained that she was surprised when she came to Michigan and learned about the pressing need for change in response to climate change. Many people in Maryland, her previous home state, did not think a lot about it despite hurricanes and oil spills that, directly or indirectly, are exacerbated by climate change. When I asked Osborn about her career goals, she responded, “I am dead set on this: I want to be a scientist, and my dream job will be in marine conservation. I have known that this is what I want to do since about second or third grade.”

I will be watching and cheering for them, as they make a difference, one conversation, one blog post, one letter, and one webinar at a time. We need our young leaders more than ever to make a difference. Based on what Bernadette Osborn and her teammates have accomplished despite COVID-related restrictions, I am convinced that they will continue to make a significant difference as we move beyond this pandemic. During these challenging times, Osborn and her teammates already are making a significant difference through education and action.

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