Climate Conversations S3E4: NextGen Learning to Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN


What happens when a high school student passionate about climate action shows up at a City Council meeting? In this episode, we talk to Cate Arnold, Boston Latin School history teacher and climate instigator and two of her students, Rebecca Park and Susan Tang. They are members of YouthCAN, a climate action network designed by and for high school students. Through their experiences, we learn about the trials and triumphs of some of the next generation of climate leaders.

Rajesh:  [00:00:00] Hi, and welcome back for the third installment of Climate Conversations, Season 3 "Learning to Change: Educating for Global Climate Challenges." My name is Rajesh Kasturirangan and I'm here with my co-host Dave Damm-Luhr.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Hey Rajesh, great to be with you here today.

Rajesh:  So, in the last couple episodes, we went deep into Season 3 of "Learning to Change" with groups that are leading the way.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  That's right. And if you haven't already, please check out our episodes on MIT's Terrascope and Mother's Out Front. Both available wherever you get your podcasts.

Rajesh:  So in this episode, we're going to be highlighting conversations with another awesome group that we've been talking to. They're called the Youth Climate Action Network, or Youth CAN for short. These are a group of middle and high school kids learning by taking actions that respond to the climate crisis.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  This group is part of the Boston Latin High School on the other side of the Charles River from us. Some of our listeners may remember our [00:01:00] inspiring conversation with Timothy Gay, an environmental science teacher, at Boston Latin, back in Season 1.

Rajesh:  You know, it's got a lot to do with the systems that we think that we are part of. It's not necessarily what first comes to our mind when we talk about how to address the climate crisis. But let's listen to Cate Arnold, the Boston Latin teacher who initiated Youth CAN 11 years ago.

Cate Arnold:  One of the things we've really thought about is that we need to be teaching students to think in terms of systems and how they're interconnected. So we've been, you know, pushing that kind of thing in our school and, you know, with some success.

Rajesh:  So what's become evident from people who have really invested in the "Learning to Change" work is that the first step almost always involves expanding the idea of your place in the community. You know, whether it is as an individual or as a school, or as a city, or as a nation. However [00:02:00] small or large it might be, you need to expand your horizon and see the partners in learning within that community.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Which leads to reassessing roles in the larger, maybe less apparent, systems we're actually a part of.

Rajesh:  And Dave, you know what I find really exciting in the Youth CAN example is seeing the learning about the change and then bringing it as close as possible to the systems that we are connected to.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  That's why a middle school U.S. History teacher saw her chance to bring climate action into her work at Boston Latin.

Cate Arnold:  I'm an eighth grade U.S. History teacher, starting year 19 of teaching there. And I am also the faculty advisor for several clubs including the Boston Latin School Youth Climate Action Network; Youth CAN.

Rajesh:  So how or, to put it a little bit better, why did a long time history teacher found a youth movement around the climate emergency?

Cate Arnold:  It's a very strange story from my perspective. [00:03:00] I teach U.S. History and every year we do a mock trial about a German printer in the 1730's that started printing the truth about the corrupt royal governor. And I do a follow-up with students about how today's media is functioning, because the media then kind of served as a watchdog on that government. And it wasn't, they didn't have freedom of the press then. But it was kind of the first inkling that the colonists had that that was something that they really needed. They needed those papers to be able to tell the truth. And so we did a follow-up and we looked at how the media was covering a current issue and I chose climate change, because it was 2007 and I had gotten a copy of Al Gore's video for Christmas from my dad.

Rajesh:  Mmmhmmm.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Ha ha.

Cate Arnold:  And I decided to show it to the kids and then have them look at how's the media doing covering this issue. And they were horrified. They were appalled. There was nothing being said really. And what was being said [00:04:00] was, you know, denials. Big huge attempt on the part of companies like Exxon to really confuse the science.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  And from the way Cate tells it, that was really all it took to get the students engaged.

Cate Arnold:  So, they decided they wanted to do something. And they came out with three pages of stuff they wanted to do. One of them was form a club, and I said, "You have to get permission." So they went, we kind of prepared what they were going to say, and they went and talked to one of the assistant headmasters and we decided we're going to start a club. We got permission and I started taking a straw poll of how many kids were interested and it was almost everybody. I had like one hundred and forty kids in my classes and they were all planning on coming. And my classroom wasn't big enough. I said, "Okay, so we're gonna have to get a different space and some of you are going to have to bring your parents, because I can't supervise one hundred and forty kids at one time."

Rajesh:  Dave, it's amazing how history can help us imagine our current media and political [00:05:00] atmosphere.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Oh and I was blown away at how Cate citing journalists in eighteenth century German brought home the need to take action today on climate change for her students.

Rajesh:  And you know the way that she explains what happened, it almost sounds like a natural next step from the history class to founding Youth CAN. But, there's no way she could have done that without having a macro perspective. You know, having that systems view that enables her to see her place in changing the world.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Yeah, I don't think so. But it sounds just like Ari Epstein, how he does that with MIT's Terrascope.

Rajesh:  And how Vanessa Rule did with Mothers Out Front.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Most effective movements need participants who understand their capacity to lead and effect change. To recognize their place in larger systems in the fight for justice.

Rajesh:  And talking to Cate and to Rebecca and Susan it's clear that her students have been rising to the occasion every year for over a decade.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  We heard that a number had direct contact with government leaders and they've sparked climate justice movements in their work and life [00:06:00] beyond Youth CAN. And brought real change to their school, Boston Latin High School, and beyond.

Rajesh:  And we were lucky, really lucky, to speak to one of those leaders, Rebecca Park, who is a Youth CAN and Boston Latin alum and is herself a teacher in New York. As a result of her work with Youth CAN, she interned with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Right. Some of what we heard Rebecca talk about in explaining what drives her teaching methods and practice connects directly to what Cate brought forward for her students when Youth CAN began.

Rajesh:  Yeah, specifically, you know, the forces that control and shape our society, our media, and our culture.

Rebecca Park:  I think the students in my classroom are getting to have the kinds of difficult conversations that most Americans, including myself, don't have with people who are really different and really disagree on a lot of things. So, if my classroom can be a space for people to start to learn to have those conversations, very much including myself, then that's [00:07:00] a drop in the good bucket.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  In talking about her days in Youth CAN, it became very clear that Rebecca's participation in the program shaped so many of the leadership qualities she now shows in her work as a high school teacher in New York City.

Rebecca Park:  One of the biggest things I learned in Youth CAN was that leadership is very much not about you and all about how you help other people be successful. When I was in ninth grade, the city at the time Mayor Tom Annino was putting together a committee to put together an advisory report about how the city should respond to and also adapt to climate change. Or, I guess, we called it mitigating and adapting to climate change. And they asked for a youth representative. And I had the amazing privilege and opportunity to be that student.

 So over the course of my tenth and eleventh grade years, I went to committee meetings with professors and business leaders and other, like I think a city councilor was on the committee, and realizing that when you put the work in, you're gonna have the opportunity to have a voice in those spaces and how [00:08:00] important that is to not just assume you're not gonna have that opportunity.

 And also figuring out when I was in those spaces, you know, I'm sure it looked good for them to have a youth representative. Maybe, not supposed to be silent, but they're not necessarily expecting me to say a lot of things. And it's also really hard to say a lot things. You know I'm fifteen, sixteen and these are all really important people. So I think that was a moment of understanding growth for me, of how do you take advantage of these opportunities once you get your foot in the door?

Rajesh:  You know Dave, it's hard to imagine a more amazing experience for a young activist.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  Right. At it's heart, so much of the work activists are doing is to change the conversations in the very room Rebecca was sitting in.

Rajesh:  And being in that room is like an ideal education for an advocate. Gaining an understanding of the minds of those in power. The way they govern the system and the real choices they have to make.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  It's something I wish everybody could experience. As it [00:09:00] might bring home the idea that we as a society are interconnected. So much of what happens in those committee meetings shapes our country and comes to be the manifestations of the choices we as a collective make when we vote.

Rebecca Park:  Climate justice is an understanding that climate change is bad for our entire human community and entire planet. But also has particularly adverse effects on communities that are already facing injustice. Low income communities, communities of color, countries around the world with less advanced technology and with less access to resources that climate is a further aggravating factor around systems that have already lost the lives of a lot of people.

 When I was in tenth grade, we launched this project to try to get the state to incorporate sustainability into it's teaching standards. And the word we kept using was "systems thinking." And this idea that all these different systems that we're talking about were connected to each other. Which, you know, flows beyond just climate [00:10:00] issues. But I think that idea that the issues that we're talking about, even if it's good things that we're talking about, are not isolated things. That they're all connected to each other and contributing to each other, that was the beginning.

Rajesh:  So listening to Rebecca, it's clear that so many of your stories are stellar, like what amazing experiences. And you know it's pretty clear that she's an exceptionally talented individual.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  But you know, neither she nor her experiences there at Boston Latin are the exception for Youth CAN. Cate also pointed us to a current Youth CAN member, Susan Tang.

Susan Tang:  I'm Susan Tang and I am a rising senior at Boston Latin School.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  And Susan Tang's pathway toward Youth CAN has a familiar ring to it.

Susan Tang:  I think I first got involved or like interested in issues of climate change way back in sixth grade when for class we had to read Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." And that really opened my eyes to like a lot of issues like [00:11:00] sea level rise, and all sorts of things that I felt were really deeply important. But since I was only in sixth grade at the time, I didn't really have like a means to really do anything.

 So it was only after I came to BLS, and I found this network with Youth CAN, that I was able to actually take action against the things I'd only like read about before.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  And while so much of what Susan said was really heartening...

Susan Tang:  Everyone in my grade, I'm pretty sure, knows that climate change is real. Knows that it's a pressing issue.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  ...it became clear that a lot of what she's grappling with personally and with her peers at Boston Latin is similar to what many struggle with around the globe.

Susan Tang:  It's really hard to keep people engaged in climate change. Especially since most of it's effects are way down the line. Like we'll see sea level rise by like, well it's happening now, but most people think it's like "Oh it's a thing of the future. It's not going to happen until 2030, 2050." So they put it off in their minds and instead [00:12:00] focus on different issues, like maybe how the headmaster was trying to restrict our dress code, or more pressing issues that people feel like they could identify more with. So I feel like, while yes, people are interested in climate change, and yes they know it's an issue, they have other things that they feel are more pressing. Which is kind of frustrating, but it's just how it is.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  So what do we do to address the world the way it is.

Susan Tang:  Through Youth CAN, I was able to get a fellowship with the Alliance for Climate Education, I think two years ago. Which was really an eye opening experience for me. It taught me so much more about the political side, or the networking side. So we were able to go and speak to city councilors about climate change. We were able to organize like an actual rally about climate change, which was like absolutely awesome. So Youth CAN has been a really great, like, home base for me to come back to. And it's also been a great springboard for me to [00:13:00] go and explore other things like ACE, the Alliance for Climate Education.

Rajesh:  And these experiences have contributed to citizens learning how to effect lasting real change.

Susan Tang:  We have to do things like lobby our lawmakers to not have a huge natural gas pipeline running through West Roxbury. We have to do things like ask our representatives to commit Massachusetts to one hundred percent renewable energy. So while doing things as an individual is obviously great, it's not going to be as effective if we don't have the legislative power behind all those things.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  And once again, a theme that's become key to this podcast series on "Learning to Change" came up, the importance of mentoring. Helping the next generation to step into the mix.

Susan Tang:  After I graduate, we already have, like, a sort of, next generation of Youth CAN leaders that are coming up. They're [00:14:00] all rising sophomores, and we've been sort of like teaching them the ins and outs of what we have to do. Like sending emails and other administrative stuff. So next year, I want to like maybe usher them into more of a leadership role so that Youth CAN can still continue on even after me and the other co-presidents have graduated.

Rajesh:  And also the beauty of collaborative mentoring, and coming together to get the wheels of change spinning.

Cate Arnold:  So what we've done is dig in together, side by side as though I'm one of them, except that I'm a grown up. So I can add a little more to the mix about how we want to write something, or what we think we need to think about, you know, to make something actually happen. How much we need to prepare if we're going to make a pitch to somebody, you know. Who's going to say what? So I help in that way, and they have more success.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  And the collaborative mentoring extends to high schools well beyond [00:15:00] Boston Latin.

Susan Tang:  We have an annual climate summit at MIT every year in May. It's been going since Youth CAN's inception back in 2007. And it does engage a lot of BLS kids. We invite everyone to attend the summit and learn more about different climate issues. We have different workshops, different exhibits, different keynote speakers, performances, all sorts of things. But it also does engage other schools from other towns and from all over Boston.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  When taking into account all the amazing experiences the teaching and learning that propels Youth CAN, it's astonishing to think about how Cate's one small act of courage, that is, offering to be the faculty advisor of Youth CAN, and then seeing the power of learning in community really changed those kids lives.

Rajesh:  And she's mentored Rebecca and Susan and many others in ways that continues to create lasting ripples, you know in their lives, and in other peoples' lives. And ultimately in the climate action movement. And there are countless others who have [00:16:00] been a part of Youth CAN, whose stories we couldn't tell here.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  And when you think about all we've heard, it's clear that the Youth CAN approach to learning to change isn't all that different from Terrascope at MIT or Mothers Out Front. They all see the climate emergency as a great opportunity for community learning and action.

Rajesh:  And all three groups use these common tactics of leadership development, mentoring, and community engagement to further their causes. We want to leave you with a fantastic quote from Cate Arnold which we think is really inspirational.

Dave Damm-Luhr:  So, what gives you hope?

Cate Arnold:  Well, the students. I mean, because they're amazing. And because they can do anything. They're so passionate and smart and, you know, capable and you never know what's going to happen next. I [00:17:00] also think that change comes in these weird fits and starts. So, you know, as discouraging a time as this is in so many ways, profoundly, I wonder sometimes if it isn't inspiring people to do exactly what we need them to do.


Climate Conversations S3E1: The Psychology of Learning to Change, a Conversation with Renee Lertzman - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e1-psychology-learning-change-conversation-renee-lertzman


Climate Conversations S3E2: Free Choice Learning in Universities with MIT Terrascope - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e2-free-choice-learning-universities-mit-terrascope

Climate Conversations S3E3: Learning in Community with Mothers Out Front - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e3-learning-community-mothers-out-front

Climate Conversations S3E4: NextGen Learning to Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e4-nextgen-learning-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan

Climate Conversations S3E5: More with MIT Terrascope Lecturer Dr. Ari Epstein - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e5-more-mit-terrascope-lecturer-dr-ari-epstein

Climate Conversations S3E6: The Making of a Climate Scientist with MIT Terrascope Alumna Lauren Kuntz - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e6-making-climate-scientist-mit-terrascope-alumna-lauren-kuntz

Climate Conversations S3E7: Building a Community with Mothers Out Front Co-Founder Vanessa Rule - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e7-building-community-mothers-out-front-co-founder-vanessa-rule

Climate Conversations S3E8: Moving into Action with Mothers Out Front Chapter Leader Stacy Levy - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e8-moving-action-mothers-out-front-chapter-leader-stacy-levy

Climate Conversations S3E9: Teaching Climate Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Teacher Cate Arnold - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e9-teaching-climate-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan-teacher

Climate Conversations S3E10: From Learning to Teaching with Boston Latin School & YouthCAN Alumna Rebecca Park - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e10-learning-teaching-boston-latin-school-youthcan-alumna-rebecca

Climate Conversations S3E11: Learning to Lead with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Co-President Susan Tang - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e11-learning-lead-boston-latin-school-youthcan-co-president-susan

Climate Conversations S3E12: Turning Learning into Habits with Quinton Zondervan, City Counselor - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e12-turning-learning-habits-quinton-zondervan-city-counselor

Climate Conversations S3E13: Season 3 Wrap-up: What Have We Learned About Learning To Change? - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e13-season-3-wrap-what-have-we-learned-about-learning-change