Youth Voices are Integral in Creating a Just Transition to a Regenerative and Fossil Fuel Free Economy in Alaska
by Satchel Pondolfino
When you walk into a decision-making space, take note of who is in the room. The decisions that come out of that room are going to reflect those people and their world views. I think we all know what the typical decision-making space looks like, while this is slowly shifting, historically and presently still, white males of an older generation dominate these spaces.
Walking through the doors of the convention room at the Wedgewood Hotel in Fairbanks to participate in the first Alaska Just Transition Summit was an energizing experience, it felt different than any other decision making and visioning space I have been part of. The room was intergenerational, and if it was dominated by any type of person, it was indigenous and female. This was not happenstance, the organizers of the summit intentionally prioritized inviting indigenous and young people to join the space and conversations.
We were there to envision a just transition for Alaska, the pathways to a sustainable local economy in balance with the land that supports all Alaskans in thriving. A just transition will take many voices, and it will take intentional centering and uplifting of the voices that have been overwhelmingly unheard in decision making spaces.
Namely, we need to include and center indigenous voices who have been in relationship with the land we now call Alaska for thousands of years, who are rooted in a value system that understands we are part of the ecosystems around us. Our actions today will affect all future generations to come. Likewise, we need to include and center the voices of young Alaskans who have the most at stake if we are unable to transition to a just, sustainable economy. These world views, and these voices must not only be present in our decision-making rooms – we need to follow their lead.
Throughout the course of the summit, I had the privilege of getting to know and mentor teen leaders in attendance. This experience reinforced my confidence that teens and young people are integral in creating a just transition to a regenerative and fossil fuel free economy in Alaska. Young Alaskans understand that climate change will impact them more than anyone else in the room and are thus aptly motivated to push leaders to be bolder by being bold themselves. While elected leadership drags their feet, young people all over the state are carving out spaces for themselves in court rooms, tribal councils, schools and local governments, making their voices heard.
These youth are changing the narrative about the oil and gas economy of our state. They understand what needs to change and have a vision of how to get there. Young people have the unique advantage of growing up with the understanding that the fossil fuel mono-economy is a broken system, which they will be living with the consequences of. While the rest of us spend time unlearning the belief that our oil state will allow us to thrive, young people are ready to lead.
At the Summit, we asked youth what it feels like to be heard. The teens spoke of feelings of validation, respect, belonging and pride. I thought back to the not so distant past of my teenage years, I attended a school in which every student was part of student government, and in most cases students had more collective power than the administration. I graduated and headed to college feeling empowered, but quickly realized that my university was not intentional about centering student voices in its decision making, I was disconnected and disempowered.
After a few years with the support of adult mentors I found my way back to civics, back to change making with my community. Spending time with teens at the Just Transition Summit made it clear to me that young people feel a heavy responsibility to be part of driving these big structural changes, and that adult support is essential as they step into leadership and navigate through influential spaces they normally are not part of. Part of this support means that the next time you create a collaborative space in our institutions, ask the question – Who is in the room? We are obligated to include, value, encourage, listen to young Alaskans who are bravely stepping up.