The Greta Effect
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Young Reporters for the Environment is helping to create the next generation of sustainability journalists. Chris Seekings reports
A new generation of environmental journalists is emerging, bringing lasting change to their communities and beyond. Inspired by Greta Thunberg's relentless crusade speaking truth to power, young people now know they can make a difference.
Coordinating this movement is the Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) initiative, which provides a platform for youngsters to research environmental issues and promote solutions through investigative reporting, photography and video.
With member organisations in 45 countries (and counting), the UN-backed educational programme enables 11-25-year-olds to tell stories about the natural world and environment, teaching critical thinking at a time when journalism has become synonymous with fake news.
“We hear from young people who feel they can do something to help protect the environment – our initiative gives them the opportunity to do that,“ explains YRE director Gosia Lusczczek.
YRE started when an enthusiastic young Frenchman, Philippe Saugier, founded the Ozone Project, sending three youth missions to monitor and report on scientific Arctic expeditions in the early 1990s. The project was absorbed by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), which coordinates it, before it was rebranded as YRE. Last year, it celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Luxembourg was the first country to officially implement the programme, in 1994, and more than 360,000 young journalists across four continents have taken part. Their stories have had a major impact, from helping to boost local recycling rates to covering international events such as COP climate summits and World Environmental Education Congress conferences.
“For one of the students, the experience changed his life so much that he became a professional documentary movie producer,“ Luczczek says. “He is now in Canada making movies and telling people 'once a YRE, always a YRE'.
Taking the plunge
The FEE distributes learning materials for YRE to students and schoolteachers in member countries free of charge, giving guidance on how to harness the media. Students gather for a meeting on a topic such as climate change, before having a workshop with journalists. They are then put in groups and sent to municipalities and other locations to investigate that issue, before presenting an idea for a news story, photo, video or podcast.
“A few years ago we had a student from Israel who went to the local playground, but there were no facilities for garbage, so children were drinking water and throwing plastic bottles everywhere,“ Luczczek says. “The student wrote a story about it, and immediately the municipality provided facilities to help.“
YRE is looking to work with universities to develop courses so that students can gain qualifications, and has also started a monthly webinar series. In addition, it holds an annual competition judged by UNESCO experts, who select the most impactful stories or photographs submitted by YRE students.
“Our programme is not just for students who want to write – we want to educate them on environmental issues, investigation and interview skills, critical thinking and social media,“ Luczczek explains. “We send them to conferences and meetings like COP so they can share their experiences with others – we are building an international network.“
Leading the way
YRE is looking to reach more countries and potential reporters, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The ambition is to create as many environmentally-aware leaders as possible. “We want people who can drive real change, and believe journalists have the power to do it,“ says Luczczek.
Looking back at the past few decades, it is easy to see why journalists look set to play a bigger role in environmental protection. Public interest is at an all-time high, and the subject has shot to the top of the news agenda. “There are more opportunities now, because 25 years ago it was mostly printed media and not digital,“ explains Lusczczek. “We now have social media, but the challenge is about being more selective about what is right and wrong. Reporters need to be responsible and know how to react without being accused of fake news.
“We are working on fundraising and looking for sponsors that can help us run more programmes and create more learning materials with members. Young people need to feel they have power and are not being ignored. We have 10 years to find a solution, and with this programme we are making a difference.“
Leaders of tomorrow
Francis Ametepey YRE campus coordinator at Knutsford University
YRE has positioned my mind towards addressing environmental challenges. It developed my critical thinking skills and knowledge around environmental issues, and taught me how to investigate and research solutions before reporting. One highlight of my engagement with YRE has been the acquisition of leadership skills. I participated in UNESCO's Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) youth leadership training in Portugal in 2018, and with the skills acquired, I have established the first YRE club at Knutsford University in Ghana to educate students on sustainable development and environment-related issues. Today I am a student journalist as a result of my participation in the UNESCO ESD training, which influenced my decision to pursue a degree in journalism and communication studies at Knutsford University, and to communicate and report on environmental issues. I highly recommend YRE to any student or young person who seriously wants to transform, improve and support the attainment of the SDGs by 2030.
International news reporter at City Presse (France)
YRE gave me a global perspective on climate change, environmental and sustainable development issues. Meeting with other YREs from all over the world and exchanging concerns on local issues shed light on those aspects and emphasised the interconnectedness of environmental issues. My best memories from the experience are from the workshop in Lisbon, the Youths save the Planet conference organised by UNESCO, and COP25 in Madrid. I find it so motivational to be with people who are involved in environmental protection and sustainable development; I've gained a lot of knowledge, but also new friendships with like-minded people. Winning the national YRE competition when I was completing my journalism masters was a great accomplishment, and I now work as a reporter. I have a better understanding of issues and an amazing network of scientists, officials and activists working in this field. Being a YRE inspires me to do more to help preserve our planet. It has been one of my best experiences and I would recommend it to any young person who is interested in journalism and the environment.
Creative director and partner at Level Studio (Canada)
I joined YRE in 2013 by submitting photos in a competition about solving environmental issues in Toronto. I ended up winning a DSLR camera – and my passion for photojournalism took off. I use my photography throughout my travels and curate a web gallery called Sustain-Able, highlighting how countries are coping and battling with global warming and climate change (bit.ly/2NaLkNW). My goal for the gallery is to showcase my experiences and document environmental issues from all around the world. I've become a Canadian ambassador for YRE, and in 2020 I will be involved in promoting the programme with Eco-School Canada to encourage students to submit to the Canadian YRE competition. I highly recommend getting involved. It empowers young people to take a stand on environmental issues, and provides a platform to articulate these issues through writing, photography and video. As a working photographer and designer, I can say that YRE fuelled my passion to be a young change-maker focused on creative design, photography and environmental issues. I believe others can share their passion to make a change and show that through YRE, you can make a difference.
Joana Pedro Fifth year veterinary medicine student
When I first got in touch with the programme I already loved nature and was aware of the environmental issues that surrounded us. However, being a YRE helped me get deeper into the problems, discover new perspectives and raise awareness on environmental issues. I improved my communication skills, critical thinking and consciousness around environmental issues and innovations. Moreover, it enabled me to get in touch with people around the world, sharing our experiences and knowledge and creating good friendships.
When I was 13 years old I was really shy, and despite being willing to share my thoughts, I usually kept them to myself. Today I love to speak to an audience and I don't mind asking anything to anyone, or sharing what I believe in. To be a YRE I needed to talk to people and get to know their story. This way I began to understand how important it was to do so, not only to write an article, but also in my life. In addition to this, I got in touch with different realities, people and cultures, understanding how different people look at the same problem has incredible power and enriched myself in innumerous ways.
I have participated in several missions, seminars, contests, workshops, and conferences, both in Portugal and internationally, and I am eager to continue as I have got fond memories, loads of good friends, knowledge, and skills. I would say that if you are between 11 and 25 and looking for a great challenge, and to improve yourself while sharing issues on the environment, and all the 17 SDGs, this is the project for you.
Kristin Rodrigo Educator at Ripley's Aquarium of Canada and Toronto Zoo
The YRE initiative opened my eyes to the value of effective communication of environmental issues through journalism. Prior to my journey as a YRE, I was already deeply invested and passionate about nature and the environment, but my involvement with YRE grew my determination in fighting for the world's cause and educating others through proper use of media outlets, such as video and photo, and translating these concerns to be received receptively.
The most amazing thing about YRE is the extensive network you become a part of. It's a group of individuals, coming from different backgrounds, working together to change the world. Being surrounded by such inspirational people around the globe is a phenomenal feeling that motivates me each day.
YRE has changed my life in the most stupendous ways as not only have they steered my life's path into actively educating people about the importance of environmental awareness, but also provided me the most wonderful opportunities in attending conferences and events that have allowed me to grow my skill sets as an environmental activist.
The YRE initiative has been life changing to all those I know who've partaken in it and I'm confident that anyone who becomes part of this network will boost their dedication for our environment and our one planet.
More information about the YRE initiative can be found here: https://www.yre.global/join-us
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