Thursday, October 20, 2011

12th Annual Brower Youth Awards

Who: Publisher Joseph Connelly
What: Brower Youth Awards
Where: Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
When: Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Why: Skateboards and Girl Scout Cookies

The Scoop: At the podium, 2011 Brower Youth Award recipient Alex Epstein dedicated his words "to the young people in the room." Alex is 20.

It gets better.

Of the hundred or so fundraisers, awards, dinners, conferences, and other functions I attend each year, the Brower Youth Awards, named in memory of environmental pioneer David Brower, might just be the one I most look forward to. Each year, six BYAs are given to "the most visionary and strategic activists between the ages of 13 to 22." The public awards ceremony—which culminates a week of Bay Area speaking, networking, training, and bonding sessions for these overachieving leaders—is a delightful mix of youthful optimism and untarnished naivete.

The awards bring a tear to the eye and hope for the future. Nothing is more inspiring than young people who believe in themselves, are fearless, and won't take "no" for an answer.

The 2011 Brower Youth Award honorees: Vorva, Tomtishen, Epstein, Pulido, Davila, Walk, and Thiermann

At 14, Epstein co-founded New York 2 New Orleans Coalition, mobilizing 1,500 NYC high school students, via 43 trips, with 9th ward post-Katrina New Orleans' residents. Next was college, where he co-found The Philadelphia Urban Creators, a cadre of young community organizers building relationships with disadvantaged communities. Epstein's motto: "When you have positive energy, good things happen."

Kyle Thiermann isn't your typical Santa Cruz, CA surfer dude. His online video series, Surfing for Change, encourages the multi-billion dollar surfing community to make small adjustments that can add up, including divesting $340 million from coal-funding banks. "Changing the world can be as simple as changing a daily personal decision," advocates 21-year-old Thiermann.

Junior Walk, an anti-strip mining activist from West Virginia, fights big coal in Appalachia with Coal River Mountain Watch. Walk, 21, is an outspoken advocate in a fossil-fuel dependent community, and risks being ostracized, which doesn't deter him from his mission. "Eventually, this will get stopped," Junior says of the environmentally devastating practice of harvesting coal via mountain top removal. "We're gonna be there for the final nail in the coffin."

Tania Pulido, also 21, uses agriculture as a tool to reach out to people. She works with Urban Tilth, a community garden in the food desert of Richmond, CA, a Bay Area city plagued by high crime and environmental racism. Inspired by her fellow awardees to take her activism "to the next level," Tania's words of wisdom include "never give up on yourself," useful for someone also fighting the local Chevron refinery.

Victor Davila went veg two years ago because he wants to live longer. Davila is 17. He started EcoRyders, workshops that combine environmental and health education with skateboarding, in his native Bronx, NY. "I don't have to move out of my neighborhood to make it a better neighborhood; I can make my neighborhood better," one skateboard at a time.

As 11-year-olds, Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva created Project ORANG—Orangutans Really Appreciate and Need Girl Scouts, cutest acronym ever—when they learned that the cookies they sold contain palm oil from plantations destroying orangutan habitat. Project Orang has been featured in national media, and garnered the pair an audience with the leaders of the Scouts—and a promise by the org to use only sustainable palm oil in the future.

Tomtishen and Vorva, now at the ripe old ages of 15 and 16, respectively, best sum up the spirit and substance of the inspirational BYAs: "We can dream in a way that is not limited by an adult's perspective."

Congratulations to all 2011 BYA recipients on your amazing, encouraging activism.

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