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Pittsburgh teen summit aims to build community around collective action on climate change

Teenagers sit at a table as people walk up and talk to them.
People participating in the Youth Climate Action Summit at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Pittsburgh students are taking climate change into their own hands. Teens from across the region will gather at the David Lawrence Convention Center this weekend for a day-long summit on climate action.

“[We’re] hoping that youth, our age and younger, will have an opportunity to learn about ways to take action on climate change in their communities,” said Vanessa Gonzalez-Rychener, one of the summit’s student organizers.

Gonzalez-Rychener, a senior at Winchester Thurston, said the goal is to help teens “level up” their knowledge of climate change and leave the summit feeling more prepared to address climate-related issues arising in their neighborhood. That’s in addition to building a sense of community among Pittsburgh youth interested in climate change.

“I know for myself, climate action can feel isolating, but knowing so many people who are really into it is just awesome,” said Mathilda Turich, a junior at Pittsburgh CAPA and another one of the summit’s organizers.

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The summit, initially launched in 2021 as an online gathering, will bring together roughly 75 students from across Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cumberland, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

While the day’s agenda features presentations from some of the region’s adult leaders in sustainability, the program will be primarily student-run. Teens will lead workshops on the basics of climate change, sustainable diets and eco-friendly crafting.

“Our generation has been [brought] up with so much more going around than some adults’ generations have. So we think about things a different way than adults do,” said Avery Henderson-Thomas, a sophomore at Woodland Hills Senior High School.

Henderson-Thomas, who is also part of the summit’s organizing committee, said young adults in Pittsburgh are encouraging older generations to look at climate change in other ways, and to engage in conversations about it.

With support from staff members at the climate change-focused nonprofit Communitopia, students leading this year’s summit developed programming with their individual school communities in mind.

Each of the event’s teen organizers comes from a different school, which Gonzalez-Rychener said has spurred a more interesting and diverse planning process.

“You get a lot of different perspectives — like everyone has a slightly different school lunch system, so how much waste is produced is different,” Turich added. “Or everyone has different green spaces in their school.”

She said students at the conference will be able to exchange ideas and learn from each other when it comes to addressing climate-related challenges.

Quoting Back to the Future’s Doc Brown, Henderson-Thomas said the future is whatever students attending Saturday’s summit make of it, so they should leave feeling empowered to “make it a good one.”

“If you go outside and you plant a tree, you're going to inspire other people to plant trees. If you start talking about climate action, you're going to inspire others to start talking about climate action,” Henderson-Thomas said. “It's what you do with what you've taken away from our summit.”

Gonzalez-Rychener encourages people to get involved in climate action however they can: calling their local lawmakers, joining volunteer groups focused on sustainability, and voting are just a few ways she said anyone can make a difference.

And I think that the more people who clearly care and are doing something about climate change, the more politicians will see that we care and make that a priority,” Gonzalez-Rychener added.

With increasingly extreme heat, declining wildlife populations, and urgent deadlines for emissions reductions, Turich said it’s normal to feel like climate change is too big to address. But maintaining hope, she stressed, is just as important.

“And then maintain hope, but don't burn yourself out,” she continued. “Because we need people who are engaged with this and who can be engaged and who aren't overtaxing themselves by doing all of the stuff they can, all the time.”

When asked what Pittsburghers should know about climate action, Henderson-Thomas said that people must be reminded that they matter.

“You have a say in so much more than you would think you do. Your votes matter. Your words matter. Your actions matter. Whatever you do matters.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.