Young people from every corner of the Bay Area came together on a brisk but sunny Saturday in Oakland to work for a greener, more environmentally focused future. The draw was the fifth annual Youth for the Environment and Sustainability (YES) Conference at Laney College, held on February 24, 2018. The regional conference nearly doubled in size from 2017’s conference, welcoming over 1,000 students from all nine counties of the Bay Area. The annual conference is free to students as an initiative of the Spare the Air Youth program, a joint venture of MTC and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
The 50 student-led, interactive sessions at the conference included topics like “Teen Activism: Inspiring the Next Generation of Environmentalists,” “Green Careers in Government,” “Urban Transportation,” “North Bay Fires and Fire Safety,” and “City Planning of the Future.” Other events of the day included inspiring speakers; an Instagram scavenger hunt; yoga, capoeira, and chalk art in the Quad all day; and a raffle to win a new bicycle and $100 Amazon, iTunes, and REI gift cards.
MTC Commissioner and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf spoke at the opening ceremony. “We say yes—yes to you being here on your Saturday. You’re here because you care about your planet, and because we have a national government right now that is breaking its promises to the earth. But not here,” Schaaf proclaimed to applause in the crowded gym. “Our generation must not fail to address environmental problems head-on,” agreed high school keynote speaker McKenna Smith at the closing ceremony, “and the only way we can do that is if we create diverse and high-performing teams that include everyone.”
Jordan Chao and Diego Penate, both sophomores at John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond, came to the conference to meet people from other schools and support their classmates who were leading a session. They are both on their school’s Earth Team and are thinking about careers in AI and sustainable engineering. They attended the session “Tree Inventory and Urban Forest Value,” hosted by their Earth Team peers, where they were surprised to learn just how much monetary value trees can add to a home.
Coming to the YES Conference from Sonoma County, seniors Yeny Pineda, Hector Castillo and Rocio B. Carranza—all from Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa—not only participate in their school Eco Club, but also serve on a youth advisory board to the county government through ECO2school. Pineda will be attending Cal State Monterey Bay with plans to study computer science, and Carranza is set to start at Sacramento State University this fall with an eye on sociology and criminal justice courses. Castillo is waiting to hear back from colleges now and wants to try out different options in STEM fields before settling on a career path. Their advice to teenagers or adults who want to be more involved in environmental activism is to “create your own group. There are a lot of people wanting to connect with each other on important issues, so create those opportunities for yourself. It’s never too late to start.”