This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Salina Kung, current Burnaby Youth Sustainability Network (BYSN) President and grade 12 student, about the network, where they have come from, where they are going, and how they are shifting the ways we deal with sustainability in schools.
The BYSN, founded in 2010 by Jennifer Hao, is a “student driven organization that unites youth from across Burnaby to take action towards a more sustainable future for our district”. It began, Salina describes, when Jennifer realized that there were unaddressed issues in Burnaby and that schools were operating separately.
What started as a school club became district-wide, aiming to address what it means to be a Sustainability network. How do you connect schools? How do you work as a team and district to accomplish the goal of becoming the greenest school district in the greater Vancouver area? They have a current network of seven high schools and about five elementary schools in Burnaby, and are continuing to build connections with more schools.
“Essentially, it is a support network to help students with their own initiatives,” says Salina. Getting involved in sustainability initiatives, Salina describes, is an opportunity for the students to explore not only what it means to be living on this planet, but also to think beyond the textbook, developing connections with the environment and gaining leadership skills early on.
In fact, the term “sustainability” to the BYSN doesn’t just mean living green or having good environmental habits - it’s “a legacy of teamwork” and about a group of people driven to accomplish a goal, working together to “transform ideas into reality”, and collaborating with all areas of the community.
One of the first big initiatives taken on by the newly formed group was a fundraiser for schools to install new water fountains and a campaign to eliminate plastic water bottles. Since then, they have participated and organized community clean ups, invasive plant species removal, and electronic waste programs; established Generation Green, a mentorship program that closes the bridge between high school students and elementary school students; and started a Waste Watchers program that BYSN hopes will divert at least 70% of organic waste from school by the end of the school year.
The BYSN also hosts a Do It Green conference every year, where they connect around 400 high school and elementary school students to celebrate sustainability and share ideas. “We hope to bring it back again with a greater emphasis in experience based learning and hands on workshops to help students take the first step into starting their own initiatives and encourage youth leadership within the community.”
This year, BYSN helped establish school gardens in many Burnaby high schools. With support from the schools’ staff and administration, students, parents, and local organizations, this endeavour was successful. Fruits and vegetables now grown at the schools are supplied to home economics classes and some student salad bars.
Another achievement taken on over the summer break was a collaboration project with the Canadian Youth Sustainability Network (national club) to host Vancouver’s Largest clothing swap. “It was a lot of planning and promoting,” says Salina. “We had 30 volunteers help day of, over 300 people attend, and over 15,000 articles exchanged including accessories … any left over clothes were donated to Big Brothers Organization”. This was one of the largest initiatives taken on by the BYSN, and clearly a popular event that I hope will be brought back next year.
“Working together is life-changing. You can build on each others potential.” The successful coordination and collaboration for all their sustainable initiatives at the district level was one of the driving factors for BYSN becoming a recipient of the City of Burnaby’s Environmental Award in 2013. This award “recognizes and celebrates organizations and individuals who contribute their time and effort toward the protection and enhancement of a sustainable environment."
For those individuals that have passion about any issue and want to make changes to their school or community, Salina says its important to be open minded to what you want. “Don’t be afraid to take the first step. Have a vision, something you want to accomplish, and be passionate about it. Not everything will go the way you might envision, but the process of learning to take initiative is vital.”