Hi, I’m Morganne, from the Sustainability Project here at McGill University. Last week, I spoke with Jessica Magonet, environmental activist extraordinaire, about school, sustainability, and youth involvement in environmental issues.
Jessica recently graduated from McGill, where she studied Law. During her time here, she was involved in many research projects related to aboriginal and environmental law. Jessica also worked for the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Law and Policy for three years. On top of her involvement at McGill, Jessica has been volunteering in more organizations and projects than I can count. From chairing the Sierra Youth Coalition Executive Committee to hosting community dialogues about climate change while biking from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Jessica has been quite busy.
A photo ofJessica taken on McGill campus
Jessica, how old were you when you first became aware of environmental issues?
I was in Kindergarten, and we had this thing called the “Litter Critters”. We were encouraged to pick up trash. If you picked up trash, you were called a “Litter Critter”. And if you picked up a lot of trash, you got to go on stage in assembly.
In First Grade, I had the most kick-ass science teacher, who taught us about the hole in the ozone layer. I lived in New Orleans at the time and she taught us about climate change and hurricanes. We built New Orleans out of Play-Doh and then inflicted a hurricane of different categories on it. For example, we did Category I and saw that – okay, our school would flood. And then Category II, we poured more water and then we saw that the Super Dome wasn’t looking so good. She also organized an Earth Day celebration at my school that I remember very well. That’s kind of when I became aware of these issues and care about them.
How did you first start getting involved in environmental issues?
Other than being a “Litter Critter” in Kindergarten, I was part of a casual environmental club at the beginning of high school. One of my teachers, Ms. L., said you should start an environmental club, and that’s where things really changed for me. I felt very passionate about it. I started going to environmental conferences in the city for other students.
In 10th grade, she asked me and another student to organize an environmental conference. I was one of the two co-chairs. I thought “Oh my goodness, I better not fail”, because we did everything, from finding the speakers to getting students involved, to finding students to come, even from out of town, figuring out where they would sleep, sponsorship... In retrospect, I see that Ms. L. was in the background, carefully monitoring what we were up to and providing support for when we didn’t know what to do. That conference was a total springboard for the rest of my activism as a young person. But that conference, about environment and poverty, was a really big undertaking and really shaped how connected I felt to these issues.
What about the other students in high school? Were they involved?
Well, everyone was involved somewhat against their will, because this teacher was a force of nature and recruited people to be involved in any capacity that you could imagine. It was interesting to me after the conference to hear how it affected people. I remember somebody telling me that “I was going to throw this can of pop on the street, but then I thought about this conference and you, and then I didn’t”. It created a certain culture at the school, like, “Okay, we’re caring about this issue right now”.
But I do think there is something special about being singled out and I wonder if more students were entrusted with a cause at the school, that that would make a difference. Because I felt like I had this duty with my friend to do it for the whole community. I feel like that could influence people a lot.
Were there any other teachers or the headmistress, apart from this Ms. L., who pushed you towards environmentalism?
The school was very supportive of the club and the conference and that is pretty special. They were very excited and proud that students were doing this in the school. They gave us money to bring speakers. They helped us get it out into the media. I think at times they were concerned that I wasn’t really going to class because I was doing this all the time. But yes, it was pretty special. And I think that even if the school doesn’t have very much money, if you’re in an environment in which student initiative is encouraged, that’s so helpful.
Did you feel that in the classes you took, that environmental issues were sufficiently talked about?
Except for geography where we talked about the issue of water in developing countries, I don’t think we ever really talked about them. I don’t think I ever was awakened by the educational course content in high school.
But I remember in high school, a teacher asked us to take on a project that would show leadership. I wanted to take on the project of causing public outcry at the fact that the Harper government was preventing environmental scientists from talking directly to the media. I remember my teacher telling me that that was a crazy project, “Try something more manageable”. I was so upset about this. That was kind of a damper, so then I thought “Screw it, I guess they’re all right, whatever”. It was really sad, to have a teacher take the wind out of your sails.
Did you see your involvement change as you left high school, since you didn’t have that teacher anymore?
It sort of didn’t matter, since that conference opened one door, which led to another and another and it was almost like I didn’t need the school anymore. But out of that conference, there was a speaker there that said, “You should volunteer for this organization called the Sierra Youth Coalition”. And that is a really cool organization because it is run entirely by youth. So I did that for two years, and it was crazy. We hired people, we dealt with HR policy, we did corporate social responsibility screening of our donors… It was a crazy thing to do at the age of 16-17… And that led to many other opportunities to be involved. So I feel like my school opened the door, and it was endless.
We often think that you need to have some kind of qualification to be doing these things. Did you ever feel afraid that you couldn’t do anything?
I was very afraid. And in fact I frequently called friends’ parents that had sat on boards and asked like, “What is travel policy for employees?” And in some ways I don’t think that my “expertise” as a 17 year old was best deployed in some of those positions, but in other ways doing strategic planning for a youth NGO in CEGEP was so cool. Thinking about what are the big issues, how should we organize ourselves.
If you were a teacher, how would you try to get your students involved?
I have a friend from the Sierra Coalition who is now a math and science teacher, and she posts descriptions of some of her lessons on Facebook. She is so creative. She brings sustainability into math class, having people calculate problems around emissions.
I think it would depend on the class I was teaching, but I think for sure it should be part of the curriculum. But I also think that outside of the curriculum, teachers should be thinking about how they can support students who want to take this on as a project or how to inspire them to do that. Or even being the teacher who is responsible for the Environmental Club. Even when we had this tiny environmental club at my high school that didn’t really do anything, we went to an environmental conference at another school that was amazing. I thought, “Woah, a school can do this?” and that really supplemented everything we weren’t getting in the curriculum. Just looking for opportunities to bring students out to other places where they can learn too.
What would stop a student from getting involved in environmental issues?
Well, they might not know about the issues. They might be interested but feel like, “How can I be involved in this on top of my course work. I just want to be a kid”. I remember when we were organizing that conference, I didn’t see my friends for so long because every lunch break, I went to that teacher’s office and that’s what we did. And I emerged several months later. They may feel like, “I’m not smart enough”. Even adults think, “What can I do?” But I think young people are so important in social movements because often we’re less jaded, less resigned, or even in the case of environmentalism, we may be bearing the brunt of the consequences. Our parents might be dead as the worst effects are experienced.
What do you think could be done or put in place to get students involved?
One thing that I feel lucky about is that when I left on the expedition for the Arctic, I had 86 friends from across the country, some from other countries, who cared about this issue and were full of enthusiasm and we kind of became our own network. So many organizations and initiatives were born out of that. So I think that opportunities where you get to hang out with other people who share your interests can be a springboard to creating initiatives. For example, I had a friend on the trip who started an organization that would go on bike trips and along the way they would do something related to sustainability. So they would do bike trips across Canada and they gave sustainability workshops along the way. I participated in part of the bike trip, from Vancouver to Inuvik, I did the Whitehorse to Dawson City portion, which was already outside of my comfort zone. We did dialogues about climate change in the North, which was super cool. One of my friends from that trip started an organization to make Antarctica carbon neutral. That’s where this trip to the UN Sustainable Development Summit idea was born.
What was also interesting about that organization is that they gave us contacts, like Inuit elders, Law professors, climate scientists, and we drew on them in all of these initiatives, because we had their emails. We would tell them, “We’re thinking about doing this, what how you advise us?” You’re on a first name basis with for example, the leading scholar on Arctic law, and he can advise you on how to lobby other governments. That’s so cool. I think that the relationships built out of that experience were really interesting.
As well, I think that if you frame something as a type of expression, that you’re expressing your concern or even your love for the place where you live, rather than fixing something that’s broken, for me that way of thinking about the issue has been paradigm altering. So maybe there’s a way for teachers to bring that in. To bring the joy into it, the fun, the friendship of being an activist, and the connection to the community. And not have it be, “The world is really screwed up. You guys are going to live into a terrible future unless something is done now”. Organizing an environmental conference was super fun. We would have late nights with pizza and brainstorming, just dreaming about “Who are our heroes we could bring to this school?” I think focusing on that, and teachers putting attention on that is really powerful.