Increasing eco-anxiety is a sign that young people feel real concern over failure to address environmental challenges. Following on from the school strikes for climate many young people are asking to learn more about advocacy and political engagement.
Northern Ireland has two Our Bright Future projects, one with The Belfast Hills Partnership the other with Ulster Wildlife. They typically involve a large component of practical conservation skills. Both had arranged successful youth voice participation events and we wanted to build further on this work by engaging in a specific project to listen to and promote the voices of young people.
In 2020 Ulster Wildlife was tasked with forming and providing support to a group of young people to advance the Our Bright Future Three Asks in Northern Ireland. These are:
1 – More time spent learning in and about nature
2 – Support to get into environmental jobs
3 – A louder voice for young people in society
Like many projects in 2020 our initial plans were quickly derailed. Mindful that young people were going to be hugely negatively impacted by the Covid-19 crisis we pressed on and recruited a passionate group of young people from all across Northern Ireland.
I’ve really enjoyed being part of Our Bright Future, especially during the lockdown when I haven’t had the chance to do as much volunteering or meet new people. The campaign feels urgent and relevant and it’s very rewarding to be working with like-minded people. As young activists, a lot of us sometimes feel hopeless about the crises facing the environment but mobilising collectively helps us achieve real change.” Dakota
Everything had to move online; this meant that a diverse group from right across the country could meet in a way that would not have been possible in person. They received in-depth training from a local consultancy on the structure of government in Northern Ireland, lobbying and advocacy, writing a brief, speaking to politicians, use of social media etc. Everyone stays connected via Zoom sessions and a lively Whatsapp group. It is lovely to see everyone so supportive of each other’s actions and celebrating each other’s successes.  They have strengthened their peer mentor networks, networks with local decision makers and have used their learning already within their own organisations and interests including school eco clubs, young farmers’ clubs, wildlife recording, climate strikes, youth politics and even a sustainable fashion business.
Our Bright Future has taught me so much about how to effect positive change in my community – skills and knowledge that I will be able to take forward in many areas of my activism.” Frances
The group is now actively connecting with policy makers including:
  • Edwin Poots, Minister for Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs, who paid a visit to the farm of a young person from Grassroots Challenge to see some of the work in action and listen to the concerns of young people
  • Robbie Butler, UUP MLA, who was particularly interested in the mental health benefits of outdoor learning
  • Peter Hall who is working on a Youth Assembly for Northern Ireland. Young people were able to give him feedback on the details of the plans
This is only a representation of the policy makers that the young people have met and meetings are ongoing. Both leaders and young people benefit from the sharing of perspectives during these opportunities. Having received training they are more knowledgeable about the political structures in Northern Ireland and are increasing in confidence to take up opportunities that they are being increasingly invited to attend. These included speaking at climate action working groups, being a youth ambassador for the 2020 Youth Climate Summit and meeting a group of researchers from various UK universities to consider ideas for a research proposal relating to Ask 1.
For Outdoor Classroom Day 2020 the group connected with a range of teachers and politicians for a social media day. We are now hearing that there is an increasing level of pessimism surrounding education as the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children, young people and teachers becomes apparent. As people benefitted from connecting more with nature during lockdown young people are keen to ensure that this is not lost in the rush to recover lost academic progress. As the project draws to a close, we are focusing more on Ask 1. The group feels this is a crucial time to be delivering a message of positivity in education. I am excited to help facilitate the opportunity to work with a professional and get first-hand experience of the process of creating a successful media campaign and showcasing the talent within the group.
Ulster Wildlife is now looking at plans to integrate the Grassroots Challenge and the Our Bright Future Youth Forums to continue to inform the youth work of the charity going forward.  It is young people who will live with the choices our society makes and deal with the biodiversity and climate crises. In this group there has been a space created were there has been in-depth intergenerational discussion across political persuasions with both urban and rural youth. People with different lived experiences giving feedback and perspective. If we are creating a youth initiative, who better to give creative input to its development? As an organisation if we are shaping policy that will impact the next generation, their views should be included in the decision-making process.
Initiatives like this give young people a voice, let us take charge and allow us to make a difference to improve our future.” Hanna
Apart from advancing the Three Asks there are other, less tangible, but equally important benefits. Many young people feel overwhelmed by the challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises; groups like this can be a mechanism to facilitate change and guard against young people feeling overwhelmed. Already we have seen a multiplier effect. The young people have added to their transferable skills, increased their own support networks and the impacts ripple outwards. When they take the training and share it their own networks so their campaigns can be more impactful then you know the learning has been transformative. When they describe the training as part of an interview and secure a placement or apply for a small grant to start outdoor learning in their own school you appreciate that it’s not just the campaign that benefits but those taking part and their communities too.
For me personally, the Our Bright Future group run by Ulster Wildlife is a safe place, where I feel encouraged and validated when sharing my opinion and thoughts on the climate crisis and the changes we need to see for a better future. It provides young people with hope and the opportunity to get involved in the decision-making process.” Andra
The young people in the group have been a privilege to work with. Young people are a key part of the solution to environmental threats and those of us with a platform won’t regret making room for them on it.