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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Mobilizing the Potential of Youth

Charles Orgbon III is an 18-year-old presidential leadership scholar at the University of Georgia, studying environmental economics and management. In addition to booking speaking engagements around the country, being named a Jefferson Awards Globechanger in 2012, receiving a 365Black Award by McDonald’s in 2013 and appearing in TEDx talks, he is the CEO of Greening Forward, a nonprofit organization that seeks to change mainstream thinking about young people as leaders of the future into leaders of today. He states, “Our organization defines young people as ages from 5 to 25.”

Orgbon’s company comprises a full-time staffer funded by Americorps and a handful of dedicated volunteers. Far more than an attractive Web presence, Greening Forward Earth Saver Clubs are located all over the world, lining up grantees and sponsors for tens of thousands of dollars in grant money that is distributed to other nonprofits and schools using a demanding application process that includes follow-up reports and even on-site visits when practical. Greening Forward also works with partners on Global Service Days, the largest day of service in the world in more than 100 countries.

Greening Forward’s third annual International Young Environmentalists Youth Summit will involve more than 100 young change-makers on March 1 and 2, 2015, in New York City. This youth-driven, capacity-building conference provides an the opportunity for participants to gain the skills they need to take their environmental campaigns to the next level, including sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, plastics free, transportation, water quality and more.

Orgbon says about his generation, “We grew up in a very digital world, so we understand what that means and how to operate in that kind of society—if we want an answer, we push a button.” But the Internet provides more than information. “I think that young people are growing up in an extremely interconnected world. Social media has connected our world in really profound ways, so I’m able to get emails from Nepal from people who have heard about our conference and want to attend,” he notes. “That’s an experience that would have been unheard of even just 20 years ago.”

One of the biggest influences on Orgbon’s thinking is the pioneering work of UNICEF Sociologist Rogert Hart, whose Ladder of Youth Participation describes seven levels of interaction between youth and adults that range from exploitive to empowering. Orgbon says, “I use it as a tool quite a bit to help adults understand the different levels of youth participation and decision-making processes.”

Grounded in a pragmatic view of the world, he also notes, “We live in a world where adults have much more societal power that young people; being able to recognize and share that power can be one of the most powerful ways of really creating change, instead of young people working by themselves to create change. Young people need substantive power, and Hart’s Ladder helps us understand at what rung of participation an institutions operates.”

Orgbon says, “We don’t see either of those things in education; it’s more assigned and told, versus young people and adults sharing power. If young people don’t have power, that inherently means that educational systems give them no value in the decision-making process about what is taught. Young people should be able to add some kind of feedback, such as, ‘We want our school like this. These are some of the priorities that we think are important.’ The administration should be able to consider those things and, as Roger Hart has noted, what level is merely consideration and what level is really substantive power.”

”Part of my advice to adult-run organizations is that young people listen to other young people. That doesn’t necessarily mean that adults take young people and manipulate them to say what the adult wants them to say in order to get more young people engaged, but that means that they are genuinely engaged, and that’s when they bring their friends in. That’s how you bring other young people into the pipeline.

“I have always been in support of a learning style and teaching method that allows students to demonstrate their proficiency in a subject in a very hands-on, creative way. The work of Greening Forward is to get that opportunity by making learning come alive. Some of the projects that we’ve funded combine academic subjects that the students are learning in school with meaningful change and meaningful community service.”

For instance, monitoring streams and reporting back to a local water quality agency teaches participants about chemistry and biology, but also provides eyes and ears that extend the state’s resources, providing an authentic service beyond the benefit to the students.

“That is a methodology we promote in Greening Forward grant making,” says Orgbon. Some of our curricula are related to academic content, but some are skills that young people can learn. As a young environmentalist, how do I do research on my community? How do I find the coal power plants in my community? How do I find the nearest polluters in my community? It’s more youth leadership than anything.”

Offering a perspective on the future, Orgbon states, “I think that our Greening Forward is somewhat historic because adults may not be able to recall a time when young people were doing this kind of work when they were this age, and that means that what we’re doing is new, revolutionary and historic! The fact that we can say that means that maybe perceptions will change and it will not be so surprising that young people are entrepreneurs.”

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Martin Miron is the editor of Natural Awakenings Atlanta.

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