2021 Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 Winners – Climate innovation and literacy


 |  The Starfish

“Every school in the world must have compulsory, assessed climate and environmental education with a strong civic engagement component.” EarthDay 

Technology and literacy are the two best ways to educate and influence people’s actions. Combating climate change requires more than just daily actions, and the most powerful way to change it is through knowledge. Climate literacy is more important than ever due to rapid global warming and climate change. Our 2021 Top 25s have done a fantastic job influencing their communities through innovation and education! From bioplastics and fishnets to podcasts and storybooks, these changemakers are educating and shaping up our communities with their innovative minds. 

Here’s a quick list for our Climate Innovation and Literacy winners:

  • Naila Moloo, 15, Location: Ontario
  • Aleksandra Spasevski, 24, Location: Ontario
  • Jessica Liu, 17, Location: Ontario
  • Sophie Weider, 19, Location: Ontario
  • Jenna Phillips, 22, Location: Ontario
  • Sam Tierney, 14, Location: British Columbia

Naila Moloo, 15

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: Anishinaabewaki land

Naila’s sustainability journey began in the fifth grade when she worked on an energy exhibition assignment, sparking a passion for her to dig into environmental issues on oil spills, endangered species, and suffering economies. Keeping informed was her primary form of engagement with such topics until grade nine when she started looking into solar energy. While being disappointed by the fact that solar energy accounts for 3% of our global electricity generation, she began digging into why this happened and noticed an issue of accessibility. Thus, she started thinking about a transparent and flexible solar cell, which allows a panel to be placed on any surface virtually. Her research goal is to bring an accessible and cost-effective solar cell design worldwide! 

The world of bioplastics is her latest area of exploration. Duckweed, the fastest growing and smallest aquatic species in the world, is her proposed biomass source to tackle bioplastic waste. When initially starting out in the field in May, she reached out to the CEOs of the biggest bioplastic companies, Pond Biomaterials, and ended up being offered an internship to work on building out her idea at the company. She has also begun to work in the Carleton University chemistry lab on this project and collected 5 kilos of duckweed so far (after reaching out to every farm in Ottawa!)

Being chosen as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women is another excellent achievement Naila has accomplished. Her favorite part about this experience was meeting inspirational and incredible women that she looked up to. “Women involvement in the workplace is crucial, but social norms and stigmas have created a gender imbalance — it is always amazing to meet trailblazing women making real impact and defying gender norms.”

When asked about her advice for young environmentalists looking to get started in climate innovation, she emphasizes the importance of taking initiatives and following your curiosity. Pursuing your projects at a young age is valuable because you have so much time and it’s a lot lower stakes! If something goes wrong, or you end up not liking what you’re exploring, it is totally fine to pivot but you won’t know what you like if you don’t look into it. If you’re interested in the environment, this is a super large field so start narrowing this down. You may have a particular interest in biofuels, agriculture, transportation, etc. — go deeper into what interests you, do research, read papers, and network! Follow your curiosity, push yourself, work hard, and most of all, enjoy the journey.

Aleksandra Spasevski, 24

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: Traditional territory of the Neutral Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples

As a youth changemaker in the environmental field, Aleksandra has worked and volunteered with non-governmental organizations on conservation and literacy on international agreements since she was 16. 

Growing up in Georgetown, Ontario, Aleksandra began her journey by volunteering from grade school all the way to university. This involvement and passion for social and environmental work shaped her path and inspired her to pursue her environmentalism journey.

Her first pivotal point happened at her high school, where the staff mismanaged the waste disposal process. She worked closely with staff members to start the school’s Green Club through the Special High Skills Major, which improved the school’s waste management programs and encouraged more awareness for environmental issues. She then took a co-op position at a local non-for-profit called Protect our Water and Environmental Resources. The organization focused on sustainability and biodiversity from a grassroots level, and she advocated for youth involvement and worked to develop programming for high school students given by conservation authorities.

Eventually, she transitioned to a board member for Protect Our Water and Environmental Resources and started her journey at the University of Guelph for the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science. She obtained a position at the Ontario Environment Network and worked there for about one year and was nominated to participate for the first time to be a part of the Canadian Delegation for the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. As a member of the Delegation, she represented Canadian non-for-profits and Canadian youth. During the weeks she was a Canadian Delegate, she came across youths from other parts of Canada and the globe. It sparked her desire to make a Canadian Youth Biodiversity Network. This national network aims to connect young people aged between 15-35 who are interested in protecting biodiversity at a global scale and provide a platform for Canadian Youth to support biodiversity and sustainability. 

Despite facing mental health challenges, it didn’t stop Aleksandra from pursuing environmental issues and supporting youth along the way. Throughout her experiences, she created amazing communities and connected with them to participate in impactful discussions. In the future, she is looking forward to studying law and supporting biodiversity and youth.

Her advice for young people that are pursuing environmentalism is to keep trying. “I have learned that there is no such thing as being a perfect climate change or sustainability activist. But as long as you are trying, you are actively making a difference.

For me, I started trying by volunteering with my community. I emailed a local conservation group and was instantly thrown into this world. Volunteering changed my life and my pathway in life and I couldn’t recommend it more. I am often someone who gets incredibly nervous and anxious but even by emailing a group I found via social media, I took a step forward to do my part in mitigating Climate Change.

Check out CYBN If you need any advice or support and don’t be afraid to take the first step to become involved in your communities!

Jessica Liu, 17

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, The Anishnabeg, The Chippewa, The Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat Peoples

Since a young age, Jessica has been an avid advocate for the environment — particularly marine biodiversity. Her passion project, KelpNet, is an innovative fishnet that revolutionizes a stagnant industry that has been using the same conventional fishnet for decades. Her net uses cultured microalgae to create a versatile bioplastic by adding polymers, plasticizers, and compatibilizers to make a new, durable material; something that has never been done before. Her innovation can reduce our dependence on harmful oil-based plastics like nylon and protect our fish stocks and marine species from ghost fishing and becoming bycatch. 

Growing up by the ocean, she saw fishermen meticulously sorting and throwing out all species of animals and decided to create a solution. Her disruptive technology has been awarded first place at the Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition (the most prestigious virtual pitch competition, competing against 2000 students from 45 countries). She has been nominated as a finalist for the Canadian Youth Inspiration Awards with her KelpNet project achievements. KelpNet has also attracted the attention of investors, researchers, reporters, and manufacturers from across the globe—Kuwait, Germany, Hong Kong, Thailand, the USA, and Switzerland. Her work in environmentalism and protecting our oceans is featured in the Toronto Star, Ripley’s Aquarium, Canadian Geographic, as well as by world-renown strategists and professors, Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, Thinkers50, The Blue Ocean Strategy, and INSEAD University. Ultimately, she aspires that this project would be one step towards protecting all the animals that are killed due to our negligence and preventing marine species from becoming extinct. 

Jessica extended her involvement in environmental activism into the community. She took her experience from innovating her bioplastic fishing net to create an organization, Next Generation Nations Toronto, to help youth actualize their environmental and social ideas and raise awareness regarding the issues our next generations will face. Jessica led students from over 13 schools and mentored many projects, from solving food wastage in grocery stores to revolutionizing water pumps. She encouraged them to consider future consequences of their actions, such as consuming a meat-heavy diet or wasting our resources. Jessica also assisted in teaching her club members to work cohesively together. Through helping younger students from all over the GTA, she felt it was rewarding and meaningful to see them find a new passion towards bettering our future. Many young members have reflected on how eye-opening this opportunity was and even brought in their friends to work on their passion projects. Jessica aspires that the young students will continue to carry out their projects such as creating apps to eliminate food wastage, or creating more efficient composting programs that minimize greenhouse gas exposure. 

Sophie Weider, 19

Location: Ontario

Traditional Territory: Traditional territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation

Since the age of 13, Sophie has been using her creativity to advocate for the environment and share her passion for wildlife protection. As a strong believer in the power of art and storytelling, she wrote her first children’s books, The Girl Who Saved a Tree and Who?, lovable characters that introduce environmental issues to young children and encourage them to care for planet Earth. 

During the Covid lockdown, Sophie put the time to good use. She worked on her second children’s book, Who?: Who Can Help the Warming Arctic?. Inspired by her participation in the 2019 Students on Ice (SOI) Arctic expedition, Who? draws on Sophie’s first-hand experience of the North and the insights she learned from Inuit, climate change scientists and wildlife experts.

Who? is available in both English and Inuktitut and was created with the support of the SOI Foundation, a Not-for-Profit venture that aims to increase awareness about climate change. 

Who? follows the journey of a Snowy owl, Ukpik, in search of a new home, after her own is left uninhabitable by the impacts of climate change. This inspiring and informative Arctic tale is a wonderful story for teachers and parents to share with younger children and start discussions about climate change and environmentalism.

“I hope my book will help children form a connection with the endangered places and species that need our help today” said youth author-illustrator Sophie Weider. “Igniting passion in children for the natural world is a step towards raising the next generation of environmental stewards.”

Sophie regularly joins elementary schools as a guest speaker to share the story of her personal environmental activism, and the story of Ukpik the owl.

While studying in the Interfaculty Environment program at McGill University, Sophie continues her work on protecting the environment and promoting sustainable living as Co-Chair of the Arts and Science Sustainability committee. 

Jenna Phillips, 22

Location: Ontario

Traditional territory: The Haldimand Tract, the traditional territory of the Neutral Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples

Pursuing her fourth year of Environment and Sustainability Resources at the University of Waterloo, Jenna developed her passion for environmentalism through co-ops and the campus communities. Noticing the barriers and inaccessibility of climate and sustainability-related news, she launched her first online platform – Clear the Air. CTA was originally her personal blog to share her university journey and slowly transitioned to educate, inspire, and mobilize youth to take climate action. Through the platform, she provides youth with the tools, knowledge, and motivation to take action into their own hands and uses a variety of channels (blogging, podcasting, social media) to cater to diverse forms of learning and make it more accessible for her audiences.

University of Waterloo Sustainability Office’s podcast is another great project Jenna initiated during her time at the University of Waterloo Office. She realized the importance of engaging with her campus community innovatively and making sustainability more accessible and engaging than ever before. She took on the whole planning and facilitating process for the UoW’s podcast and created a unique opportunity for young people to develop new skills that will benefit their sustainability endeavors.

She hopes to continue creating systems change and empowering young people to be leaders in this change for her future aspirations. Step outside the comfort zone, explore sustainability challenges and solutions around the world, and work with the global community to foster long-term prosperity. “I have no set “”career”” goals in mind, except for one: creating change that feeds into other systems so that we can address multiple issues of sustainability (social, environmental, economic, and cultural) together, strengthening the resilience and equality of society.”

Her biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to get involved with climate action is to build your network. Networking can lead to potential partnerships, provide insights you could not have found on your own, and help you shape your values and priorities. “I know networking can seem scary, but I promise you, it is SO important and just takes practice; networking is relationship building, and all you need to do to get started is say hello to someone.” Start by sending the people you look up to or an organization you favor a connection request to learn about their field of work and potentially find new people to collaborate on projects with. Never underestimate the new opportunities for school, conferences, work that can come from a single hello! 

Sam Tierney, 14

Location: British Columbia

Traditional Territory: Traditional land of the Lilwat Nation

Sam is a young climate activist from Pemberton, British Columbia. Throughout his exposure to climate change, he felt depressed and anxious to the point where he couldn’t sleep. To overcome his climate anxiety, his parents encouraged him to reach out to Protect Our Winters (POW), where he met Mike Douglas (an influential skier and director at POW). The mission at POW is to turn passionate outdoors people into influential climate activists.

At the age of 13, Sam wrote a letter to Mike expressing his concern. Mike met with him to mentor Sam through this issue and created a movie about the process. Although COVID didn’t permit a gathering of more than six people, Sam organized a climate march with a few friends through the Village of Pemberton. Sam created a climate action plan suggestion box at his school in Pemberton, then collected these ideas and presented a letter to the mayor.

The movie Sam & Me made accessible analogies to overcoming fears and taking action from both skiing and climate change. The linkages in the film were well made and Sam spoke at a Q&A period after the film screening. He had a lot of support from his classmates, it’s clear that his concern for climate change and subsequent action inspired his peers. “

As a young and courageous youth, Sam genuinely cares about tackling climate change and eco-anxiety. It is concerning that young individuals are suffering from eco-anxiety because of the reality and powerlessness of climate change, even more so for the Pemberton community. Sam’s role model behavior is inspirational for young people as it shows the initiative and courage to take action despite the scariness and powerlessness of climate change.

Climate literacy takes time and everyone’s effort to build, the pessimistic news around climate change might not be the best motivator, but remember, we have a huge group of like-minded people, not just youths and not just in Canada, but all around the world to make the world a more livable and sustainable place. Start by influencing your closest friends, and eventually the circle will get bigger and bigger.

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