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Fostering Leadership for Sustainability

Student Leadership forum

Originally appears in the Winter 2013-2014 issue

I met an amazing young leader this year. He was only 14 years old, but already has taken on a project to install solar panels on the roof of his school, because, as he sees it, the school should be a model to the community in using renewable energy. It has not been an easy project. The school has said that they don’t have the money, but he has persisted, producing convincing arguments to any objections raised and generating numerous fundraising ideas. Giving in is not an option. He told, me “If I don’t do this, who will?” His goal is to have the panels on the school by the time he finishes his final year.

During this time, he has demonstrated entrepreneurship, resilience, excellent communication skills, courage, determination, strategic planning, futures thinking on multiple occasions. We are only now beginning to realize such qualities are the hallmarks of young leaders for sustainability.

Since I met this driven young man, I’ve observed many students that shared similar leadership skills and passion for sustainability. More and more schools are successfully introducing and maintaining sustainability initiatives that have similar students actively engaged and encouraged to take leadership.

A recent study of schools in Victoria, Australia has provided evidence that supports the idea that student engagement and empowerment is key to success in sustainability initiatives. The authors concluded:

“Motivating students to identify and take charge of their own projects and also making the work they do visible to the wider school community (through T-shirts or badges) helps keep them motivated and elevate sustainability work as ‘mainstream’ or ‘cool’ from the perspective of other students.”1

These observations and research results raised a number of important questions about young people ages 11-18. What does the literature tell us about leadership for sustainability in young people? How can teachers and educators motivate young people to become leaders in sustainability? To what extent can young leaders contribute to their school’s achievements or outcomes in sustainability?

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Pat Armstrong has worked as a sustainability educator for many years, and now specializes in youth leadership for sustainability and professional development programs and other approaches that bring about lasting change. She is also a doctoral candidate at RMIT University, Victoria, Australia, undertaking research into adolescent leadership for sustainability.