In 2009, when Carter and Olivia Ries of Fayetteville, Georgia, were just 8 and 7 years old, they founded One More Generation (OMG) to educate children and adults about the plight of endangered species. They first got interested in starting their own organization after an aunt presented them with adoption certificates for baby cheetahs from a rescue center in South Africa.
Eight years later, OMG is still going strong, and one of a growing cadre of youth-led organizations tackling tough environmental and animal welfare issues. In 2013, after collecting over 10,000 letters from kids around the world asking the South African president to stop black rhino poaching, Carter and Olivia delivered the letters in person to the South African government. Recently, they started the global Pangolin Awareness Art Campaign, to teach K-12 students about threats to pangolin species.
For Will Gladstone, 13, who runs the Blue Feet Foundation with his brother Matthew, 10, the spark was learning about extinction in 5th grade science at the Fessenden School in Newton, Massachusetts. He zeroed in on a species he felt deserved to maintain its foothold on this blue planet: the blue-footed booby. At first, Will didn’t know how he could help. “Then one night before bed I was staring down at my feet and it just hit me. I could sell blue socks so everyone could have blue feet and I could use the money to help the bird!” The blue socks have been a hit. Today, all proceeds from sales go to the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos Conservancy.
Hannah Testa, 14, of Cumming, Georgia, says that “around the age of 10,” she watched a documentary called Plastic Paradise. “I saw how birds, whales, and sea turtles were dying from ingesting plastic or becoming entangled in plastic. … I knew I had to do something.” She started Hannah4Change in 2014 to educate consumers and businesses about the global crisis of plastic pollution. Hannah has presented to thousands of adults and children around the country, as well as to the Georgia governor, on plastic pollution and practical ways people can reduce their plastic footprint.
Launching an organization or campaign before one even enters high school may seem daunting. What advice do these young leaders offer? Aidan Bodeo-Lomicky, 17, of Greenville, South Carolina, says budding activists should “find something that makes you want to drop everything and go help it.” For him, it was the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. He launched V-log in 2011, a blog with news related to vaquita sightings, poems and facts about the vaquita, updates on gillnet regulations, news related to fishing in vaquita habitat, sustainable seafood promotion, and links to other organizations working to save the animal.
Thomas Ponce, 16, established Lobby for Animals in 2013 from his home in Florida to help animal welfare activists of all ages lobby elected officials and take action on issues affecting farmed animals, pets, animals used in entertainment, animal testing, and more. Thomas says preparation is key: “Do your research, formulate a plan and put it into action. Whether it is a campaign or an organization, having a well laid out business plan will definitely help you stay on track.” He adds, “Don’t be afraid to speak up and make your demands heard, politely and intelligently.”
One need not go it alone or go big from the beginning, though. Olivia Ries says that “you can start by finding other organizations in your area that are working on issues that you care about and reach out to them and ask if they would like help.” Hannah Testa offers similar advice: “Partner up with others … until you build your confidence and knowledge base.”
Will Gladstone cautions to be patient, as well. “We were really frustrated in the beginning because we had socks and a website and sold no socks for three months. We almost gave up but we didn’t know what we would do with all the socks. So we kept trying different things and finally we got orders. Now we’ve had orders from 48 states and 16 countries!” Their Instagram and Facebook accounts are now filled with photos of customers sporting their blue socks all around the world, including in the presence of blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos.
Several young activists speak of not being taken seriously at first. Carter Ries relates the meeting he and his sister had with Chick-fil-A’s director of sustainability: “At first he was like, ‘Ahh, you guys are so cute, sure I will meet with you.’ Then when we showed up with five concrete ways they could reduce their plastic footprint, he could not wait for the meeting to be over and he has refused to answer a single email or voicemail since. It really is sad... but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to effect change.”
Fortunately, other adults do take these young people seriously and are inspired by their tenaciousness. Josiah Utsch and his friend Ridgely Kelly of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, were 11 when they founded Save the Nautilus to call attention to how the shell trade threatens these animals. The boys now raise money to fund the nautilus research of Drs. Peter Ward and Greg Barord. “When I first met them in American Samoa in 2013,” says Dr. Barord, “we had just traveled from a research trip in Fiji that was difficult. Instantly when meeting Josiah and Ridgely, my resolve quickly hardened and they motivated me to continue to work even harder.” Dr. Barord says the boys have “invigorated the nautilus scientific community.” The work has borne fruit: In October 2016, all nautilus species were listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, thereby restricting trade.
Dr. Barord probably sums it up best with respect to all these admirable young leaders and their work: “When it comes to change, age is irrelevant. What is important is to provide opportunities and expose not just younger individuals, but everyone, to what is going on in the world around them. With knowledge in hand, change and action can have significant impacts on the world.”