Maine Environmental Changemakers Network, a program of the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA), has won a $25,000 grant from UL Innovative Education Award (ULIEA), a collaboration between Underwriters Laboratories and the North American Association for Environmental Education. ULIEA awards around $250,000 a year to environmentally focused science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, or E-STEM.
Changemakers was founded in 2015 by students and MEEA following an engaging annual conference, said Lincoln Academy graduate and current Rice University student Ezra Smith. The conference featured a panel of Smith and other youths; students steered the conversation toward the more personal and emotional aspects of everyone’s reasons for joining the panel.
“They've been working really hard over the past few years to bring the Changemakers organization to national attention and really trying to strengthen the organization's ability to involve students,” said Smith. “I think it's amazing because this (grant) is basically bringing this successfully to the national level.”
Smith said he wasn't involved with Changemakers during its first couple of years, but circled back to help plan its fall 2018 gathering. That is when fellow LA student Riley Stevenson, now a junior, began working with the organization on its social media presence and joined the planning team for the 2019 Changemakers fall gathering.
“It's a lot of trying to connect like-minded folks across the state and finding a way for youths to be involved in exciting and upcoming events,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson said Changemakers focuses mainly on climate justice, including how climate change and environmental work overlap with social justice issues.
“So much of the issues we are facing unfortunately affects lower income families, non-white families and communities, and indigenous communities,” Stevenson said. “A lot of our work focuses on how we can bring some of those folks to the table and we, when in those positions of privilege, can make sure we’re reaching out and staying with those folks through the work we are doing.”
Maine House District 88 Rep. Chloe Maxmin, also an LA graduate, was a part of the team that arranged Changemakers’ first retreat. Peripherally involved since then, Maxmin said Changemakers inspired her for three reasons: It inspires people devoted to social and environmental justice, it was founded by and for rural Maine people to connect across the state, and it views youth as having its own expertise and perspective on the issues and on how to connect like-minded people.
“I have followed and supported Changemakers throughout the years,” said Maxmin. “I meet many organizers who want to work at the intersection of climate/environmentalism and social justice. I always connect them with the Changemakers program.”
Maxmin said Changemakers does the deep organizing networking of young people across the state interested in social justice, environmentalism and in expanding the conversation, which is all hard work that takes time. “Changemakers is getting the recognition that they deserve for all their organizing in Maine.”
MEEA President and Changemakers program coordinator Olivia Griset is excited about the work Maine students are doing and for the recognition and opportunity they have found through ULIEA’s grant. Being a part of UL and NAAEE’s network is a rare opportunity, one the Changemakers are already learning from as they interact with past award winners and explore potential collaboration, she said.
“We're focused on doing our work through an equity lens and ensuring that we are working to support a diverse cadre of young leaders in the environmental sector rooted in justice and an understanding of how their health and the natural world are deeply connected,” said Griset.
Underwriters Laboratories’ Vice President of Education and Outreach Cara Gizzi said UL is equally as excited to welcome the Changemakers to its community. The organization was one of six award winners due to its ability to nurture connections between rural and urban areas and build collaborative networks across the state, said Gizzi. “We look at Changemakers as true leaders in the field as they integrate social justice, equity and continue to break down barriers to find innovative opportunities to engage diverse stakeholders and empower youth to take the lead and drive change.”
As Changemakers moves forward with programming and new partnerships in Maine and beyond, the origins of the organization will not be left by the wayside: Stevenson said when she became involved, it was the personal stories that really brought every volunteer together.
“And the grant is such an exciting opportunity for Changemakers because so much of what they're doing is volunteer led. In the past year, they've tried so hard to make some of these events more accessible especially for people who can’t … join in those opportunities, so I think having that grant and having the ability to kind of extend those resources … is super, super exciting for the organization,” said Stevenson.
Smith said the power of story was the foundation of Changemakers. “Having that emotional element at the root of storytelling really brings people together and empowers them ...,” said Smith.