Grace Gill, Program Assistant, CMI/India/Climate Center, New York
Last week I took to wearing a lace headband—60’s flower child style—to prevent my hair from sticking to my forehead in this blistering East Coast heat. Suffice it to say, this act of fashion necessity elicited its share of gentle smiles and comments of “ah, the youth…” from my colleagues.
Yes, the youth. With our statement headbands, Twitterverse, and use of abbreviations. We are often dismissed as shallow, frivolous, and indifferent to the pressing issues of our time. It’s an easy label to slap on us—sometimes justified (mea culpa with the headband) —but a dangerous assumption to make across the board.
Millennials, the demographic group generally accepted to have been born in the 1980’s, are a powerful voting bloc; as my colleague, Kelly Henderson, points out in her blog, we were critical to shaping the 2008 Presidential election. CIRCLE, a non partisan organization, estimates that millennials accounted for 22 to 24 million youth votes four years ago. Today, they account for 24% of the American voting public and there are 16.8 million new young voters since 2008. As social trends and demographics shift in America, millenials can be expected to have a growing impact on elections and policy, especially on issues that directly impact our futures, such as climate change.
The environmental community has a real opportunity to ramp up its efforts to attract, engage, and retain millennials. If we are to succeed in addressing the urgent environmental challenges of our time, concepts like conservation should be presented not only as crucial and time-sensitive, but also as alluring to entice millennials to stop, listen, and take action. 350.org is a great example of a successful environmentally-focused social media campaign targeted at attracting the youth. But there are other marketing avenues for attracting millennials that can be explored to their full capacity, namely campus engagement.
The environmental community could do even more to engage students—particularly college students—with an interactive, academic agenda. This includes greater participation at informational and career fairs, Earth Day events, and inside science classrooms. Organizations could partner with university facilities to promote volunteer student campus clean up days or garden and flower planting. Or they could partner with local farmers to bring small scale farmers markets to college campuses, improving student access to local, sustainable, organic food. While I was in university, my alma mater didn’t provide many options for environmental engagement. I can’t help but think that if it had, many students, I included, would eagerly have taken advantage of these opportunities.
Many of these activities are already happening on college campuses, albeit without official outside organization partnerships. For example, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington already has a partnership in place with local farmers to feature local, fresh organic food on its campus menus. In addition, the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) has signed on 668 colleges and universities that are committed to advancing green initiatives on their campuses and working to limit their carbon footprints through an outlined commitment to reach carbon neutrality by a designated date. These are just some of the efforts that I’m aware of and I’m sure there are many more. It’s very encouraging to see academic institutions taking the lead but I think environmental organizations can go a step further and dynamically utilize students for the cause.
For example, instead of routinely setting up booths and handing out plastic pens and brochures at fairs, environmental organizations could host free evening lectures and seminars, in a TED-esque style, on the campus grounds. Similarly, they can screen environmental documentaries and films and invite filmmakers to Q&A sessions. Scholarship-based competitions, via a joint partnership between environmental NGOs and universities, could provide the incentives for students to attend and participate in these talks. Not only would this actively engage young people, but the competitions could be structured to generate creative eco-friendly solutions to environmental challenges.
I think environmental organizations could also harness young adults for internships in social media and marketing. There is so much creative energy in our generation; if you’ve been on the internet lately, you know how good we are at creating hilarious short films/videos/spoofs on social commentary. So just think of what we can do with a significant cause!
(Not to imply that parody is not a significant cause; I maintain it is a true art.)
Informational videos on environmental topics already exist, but you only need to do a cursory search for “climate change” on YouTube to come across videos of wonky talking heads discussing something that feels distant and unreal. Not exactly viral material for the youth. But slick videos with an educational purpose resonate with people of my generation. Here’s an example of a brilliant short film explaining daylight saving times that went viral on YouTube. Imagine how well a similarly produced short film on climate change could do.
As powerful as social media is for courting the youth, sometimes its informal nature undermines the effectiveness of conveying critical issues. Institutional channels, which lend gravitas and legitimacy to the cause, could be more effective for reaching the youth; polling shows that millennials are more accepting and trusting of established institutions than that of the previous two generations. Despite the misconceptions, millennials are highly engaged and connected to our world; the 2008 general election turnout is example enough, as is the social media tech boom that has exploded in the recent years. We understand the current situation and the ramifications of our environment’s decline; we just need opportunities to get involved, to make our mark and help clean up the earth we stand to inherit.
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