NYC Students Stand Up for Environment at UN Summit

Global Kids activists at a recent rally against climate change at City Hall. Photo by Sue Rissberger.

Five New York City high school students will attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20-22. The conference, better known as Rio + 20, echoes a similar event held 20 years earlier in in 1992. It will bring together world leaders to discuss climate change, the green economy and ideas for sustainable development.

The five teens are members of Global Kids, a non-profit organization that teaches urban youth about international affairs and helps them to develop leadership skills. They spent the past year studying environmental issues and advocating for change at the local and national levels. For these students, the fight against climate change is personal.

“The reason I’m interested in climate change is because natural disasters are happening to my country,” Dave Sayfrain, 16, says. “I want to step up and take action.”

When I came to Global Kids it opened my mind to the idea that it’s okay to let people know what you think.

Sayfrain, one of the five students who will attend the conference, immigrated to New York from Haiti shortly after the devastating 2010 earthquake. He worries about the increasingly harsh storms that climate change could bring to his small island nation, like the four that hit during the hurricane season of 2008. Sayfrain says that before joining Global Kids, he wasn’t aware of problems like rising sea levels or deforestation in Haiti. Even if he had been, he would not have felt comfortable speaking up about it in public.

“I was afraid people would judge the way that I speak because I have an accent,” he says. “When I came to Global Kids it opened my mind to the idea that it’s okay to let people know what you think.”

Global Kids has worked with students from under-served communities in New York City since 1989. They offer programs for about 600 middle and high school students each year. Like Sayfrain, most of the students who attend Global Kids have little knowledge of international affairs before they join. They develop it during weekly after-school meetings, workshops with guest speakers and field trips.

The five students attending the Rio+20 Conference all took part in a Global Kids program called the Human Rights Activist Project in which students chose an issue and developed a campaign around it, complete with community outreach tactics and a media strategy. For this year’s campaign the students focused on changing environmental policy at the federal level. They asked President Obama to end subsidies to oil and gas companies, invest in renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They called the campaign “Honor the Check” because their demands were based on promises the U.S. government has made in the past but failed to keep. The students have held several events to garner attention for their campaign, including a rally last week on the steps of City Hall.


This year’s Global Kids campaign against climate change is called “Honor the Check.” Courtesy of  YouTube/Global Kids.

This focus on creating social change at the policy level sets Global Kids apart from other youth organizations.

Nassim Zerriffi, a Global Kids youth development specialist and the leader of the Rio+20 trip, said the policy approach has two benefits.

“We feel that it’s the most effective path for social change. You can get 20 people to stop littering or get a law in place that impacts eight million,” he said. “It’s also an intellectual challenge for the students because to change policy, you have to understand political systems.”

Dave Sayfrain,16, holds "End Oil Subsidies Now!" sign at a Global Kids rally on the steps of City Hall.

Alysha Huggins, 17, will also attend the Rio+20 Conference. She said that working with Global Kids on large policy issues has also taught her how to implement change closer to home.  Last year, she grew frustrated that her high school didn’t start working with students on their college choices until senior year. Huggins started a monthly newsletter to provide the junior class with information about the college admissions process. She said without her Global Kids training, she would never have attempted such a feat.

“It’s given me confidence and taught me the skills I need for organizing,” she said. “From Global Kids I learned that I actually can create change.”

Huggins and the four other student delegates understand that the international policy changes of Rio+20 will be much harder to achieve. However, they are hopeful that some real progress will be made at the U.N. conference.

“Being a part of this movement is like being a part of history,” said Maya Faison, 16. “Hopefully, I can say I was there when they said they would do this and I was there when they actually followed through with what they said they would do.”


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