Youth Profile #9: Young entrepreneurs driving sustainability at US campuses

By Tierney Smith 

The United States is often the central battleground for the climate debate.

The US hit the headlines this summer with record breaking temperatures, drought and wildfires.

Many scientists – including those from the UK’s Met Office and the USA’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration – warn are more likely with advancing climate change.

And the events this summer could be changing public opinion on climate change in the US with a University of Texas poll in July showing 70% of American’s now believe the planet is warming.

With the country heading towards an election in November, environmentalists remain on their edge of their seats to see how the outcome of the elections could impact the country’s climate policies both domestically and internationally.

On the ground across the country, however, young people and students aren’t waiting for politicians or climate sceptics to catch up and are already driving sustainability at their colleges and on their university campuses.

IDEAS for the Moving Planet event with Formed in 2008, by Chris Castro and Hank Harding, two students at the University of Central Florida, IDEASforUs aims to drive innovation and empower students and young professionals.

As part of RTCC Youth Series, I spoke to Castro about the group’s projects, climate change in the US and taking IDEAS global.

What is your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?

IDEAS is a youth led sustainability movement and we’re basically comprised of chapters at different US universities, K-through-12 schools and some communities. Our purpose is basically to empower youth and emerging professionals to become change agents for sustainability.

I am the co-founder of this movement and I started the first chapter of IDEAS at my university, the University of Central Florida (UCF) four-years-ago in 2008. I was a sophomore and I was really interested in getting students engaged in the environment and sustainable development.

We didn’t have the concept of replicating and making a movement, we just really wanted to be sustainable on our campus and be action orientated and implement projects. Over time different friends of ours at different universities we’re saying “you guys are making real big headway, we either want to partner our organisations that are doing similar things so we can be a part of your movement or create a new chapter”.

IDEAS UCF, UF, FIU at the Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference (SSREC)

IDEAS UCF, UF, FIU at the Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference (SSREC) (Source: IDEASforUs)

We have grown to 25 universities in the US and just recently in May we became an accredited NGO through the United Nations’ Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) – and we are also getting accredited through UNEP. Basically with that accreditation through DESA we were able to have a presence at the Rio+20 Summit.

In addition to that we were at the World Youth Congress that was two weeks prior to Rio+20 in Brazil and we were at the UN Youth Blast, so we had a presence for those three weeks. We had a number of different leaders who were in Rio and looking to partner with different youth and host projects. Because of that trip, in the past month we have been talking with youth leaders from more than 10 different countries whether they are already existing organisations or again a youth leader looking to start a chapter of IDEAS.

We are talking to people in Nepal, in Nigeria, two in Ghana, in Sweden, Columbia, Panama, Haiti and so the point is we are coming together to share best practices and initiatives, and actual solutions that youth can implement in their campus or in their community to progress themselves towards sustainable development.

It is very exciting, over the last four years we’ve developed nearly 40 different projects and these are projects where students have been empowered and have taken on a leadership role and have actually created an initiative. Once an initiative is successful at one university we create a tool kit and then add it to the toolbox of IDEAs organisations for all of our chapters to pick and choose from.

All of the initiatives fit into five categories – we call them the five pillars of sustainability – energy, water, food, waste and ecology. Our initiative focuses on the five pillars and they focus on youth empowerment and basically active citizenship to get people involved on campus.

IDEAS FIU hosts the Kill-a-Watt Energy Challenge educational seminar in the dorms (Source: IDEASforUs)

One project which is very popular, and continues to expand, is called Kill-a-Watt. It is basically an energy competition for on campus dormitories and on campus residents. We take it a step further and add interactive educational seminars throughout the competition and host a coming together at the end. We compare behavioural change to see if that has an impact. We have seen incredible savings.

At UCF for example in the three-month competition we saved $41,000 and 441,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in one three-month competition. Because of that, the US Department of Energy came down and did an entire video about the competition and how we are engaging youth to save energy on our campuses.

That initiative spread and is now at over five different university chapters. On average we are saving at least $21,000 for every two to three month competition and we have seen a lot of universities take our model. So we have created a tool-kit, a step-by-step guide, so a student could read it and go through the process of setting up a similar competition on their campus.

Another really important project that has been popular for more of our international chapters has been something we call Innovations Think-Tank. This is a concept where we are bringing together campus students, community stakeholders, and professionals – anybody who is interested – multi-disciplinary people. We are going through a strategic process where we breakout and we identify challenges and solutions for the major problems that we are facing in our communities.

We like to focus on the five pillars but we have seen that the Innovations Think Tank can also be for a wide range of things. It could just focus on policy or the challenges of education and the whole point is really to come together with this group to identify challenges, stakeholders and then the solutions to addressing those. It has been amazing.

Now we are doing global, virtual, Innovations Think-Tanks with our partners in Nepal. We are also doing one for the Africa Youth Conference and we are going to be doing them via Skype so youth from different parts of the world can communicate, we can share the challenges that we are both facing in different socio-economic areas and can come up with solutions together.

We encourage our chapters at universities to host these once a month because it is a great way to develop new ideas. That is basically the whole point of our organisation.

Another big initiative that is pretty popular is this concept of up-cycling. Up-cycling has been an initiative where people have really come together at the universities to create new ways of doing things. One that is popular is T-totes. We take t-shirts and using solar power and completely off-the-grid energy we sew them to create tote bags. We aim to completely eliminate single use plastic bags and offer people a complete solution on a campus where they can up-cycle a t-shirt that is in the bottom of their draw that they will never use again and they can now use that to have one less plastic bag when going to the grocery store.

We do campaigns where people bring us 50 plastic bags and they get a free T-tote and they get to actually create this by themselves, right there with the help of us. The cool part if our chapters get really innovative with this idea of T-totes. Some of them will go out and fundraise for a solar panel so they can do it completely with solar. Some will create a bicycle turbine connected straight to the sewing machine and as you pedal it is going up and down. So we really try to make it interesting and give it to the chapters to be creative and create new concepts of up-cycling.

IDEAS at the Bonoroo Music Festival as "Eco Change-Agents" for the sustainable section

IDEAS attends the Bonoroo Music Festival as "Eco Change-Agents" for the sustainable section (Source: IDEASforUs)

We actually won a competition because the T-totes competition was through Campus Progress or the Centre for American Progress, a pretty large organisation here in the US and we received best campaign of the year for that.

Up-cycling also goes into other products. We take juice cartoons and turn them into wallets; we take plastic bags that we make into bracelets.

One more I would like to highlight is called IDEAS for ARTS. ARTS stands for Artistic Representation Towards Sustainability and our concept here was we need to start engaging other people in different disciplines, not just environmental or biology majors or people studying physics or engineering. We need to start getting the artists, the lawyers, and the educators on board with this movement.

One of our members who is an inspiring artists said ‘Look I am going to start a competition called IDEAS for ARTS’. We call out to our art schools and art departments to host the competition with our local museum of art in our local community and we basically encourage youth and artists to make art which focuses on sustainability using different mediums – oil painting, up-cycling projects, theatre, different things.

That has really started to take off. We did an amazing one here in Orlando; it has started to spread to Tallahassee and other schools. Everybody loves art and it is a great way to promote sustainability and at the same time have a really good time.

What results have you seen from your work so far?

There are now over 4,000 different members who are engaged with IDEAS. We started as a group of 10 people at UCF and over four years we have grown to over 4,000 members.

People have graduated and created initiatives – for example the IDEAS for ARTS. There is an initiative called Ecosystem Facilitation that people have taken to now create a company out of. So we are starting to see that these cool activities and programmes are now turning into potential entrepreneurial opportunities for some of the students. The economic situation right now really sucks and the way we are going to get out of it is small businesses and innovation and entrepreneurship.

We are starting to foster and encouraging new initiatives which are turning into new non-profits and that are even turning into for-profit ventures. We have five incubations of new companies that are spawning out of IDEAS so I think that is an incredible metric.

Then with Kill-a-Watt for example, we have saved over all of our chapters over $100,000 on utility bills at these universities. So we are helping to reduce carbon emissions, we are helping to engage students at the university and then save energy – ultimately to save money.

I could go into tonnes of trash we have removed from clean-ups and stuff like that – we hundreds and hundreds of pictures of us doing clean ups – but those some of our main metrics.

What are the challenges you have faced in your work?

IDEAS For Education initiative helps incorporate sustainability into K-12 schools

IDEAS For Education initiative helps incorporate sustainability into K-12 schools (Source: IDEASforUs)

This group – believe it or not – has not been funded for four years. This has been a movement fuelled by what we call passion for change. A student who is just fed up by the fact that we have all of these challenges and no one is doing anything about it.

One of the major challenges is sustaining this. I personally have a full-time job, I work 40 hours a week for my own energy company at the same time I come home and work another 40 hours a week to continue this movement.

We are starting to get into the realm where we are starting to get donations and we are looking towards grants and foundations as well but the biggest hurdle in this movement for the past four years has been funding and has been the financial resources to sustain us because it has been completely volunteer based from our board of directors to the chapter leaders at each one of these universities.

It is incredibly inspiring – people will get empowered at the fact that there is nothing coming out of this other than sheer passion for change and wanting to make a difference in our communities.

I think another challenge we have faced is predominately at a campus level at each one of our chapters, administration. It has been about getting through the loop holes and the red tape to become a registered organisation or it has been about trying to implement campus policy which will shift our campuses to becoming more sustainable.

For instance there is a campus policy that we focus on called the Student Green Energy Fund and this is an incredible concept – we have about 17 universities trying to push this. The whole point is to create a tax on students. It sounds kind of crazy but we wanted to tax ourselves 75 cents per credit hour – a full time student is about 12 credit hours here so about $10 a year – that would pool money strictly for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on campus.

Now at the University of Central Florida where I graduated that would generate $990,000 a year for these projects.

The hardest part is that in the past three years we have been butting heads with the board of trustees and the board of governors in the state of Florida to actually pass this through the legislation system.

It has been a hurdle to deal with the administration when passing student referendums. Student government put out polls and we pass 86-90%. Students want this tax implemented on them but the administration is saying ‘no thank you we do not want to tax you guys more.’

They’re here saying we are not progressing because we don’t have funding, we are here saying we have a solution, we will fund ourselves and we will pay more to go to the school and it is not working out.

It has been a hurdle but we are actually making progress and this year looks like the year we are actually going to get one or two universities to pass the fund, make a showcase model and then in the coming years really spread it across universities around the world.

What support have you seen for your activities?

We have had some great support. Although the administration has been a hurdle, at times the administration has been our best friend. And really what we have found is that partnering with certain campus departments, whether it is the energy department, the landscape department, partnering with those departments allows us to make a connection and push forward with initiatives which we know are going to make true change.

Just recently this past year we have been really reaching out to our local politicians and legislators who have partnered with us on many campaigns. For example our commissioner here in our county has hosted a lot of different projects and programmes with us. So they help us out with the funding, bringing out volunteer support, and we go out within a community and do an environmental restoration.

It has been really great to work and negotiate with city officials and commissioners who really have a say in how we are going to move our cities forward.

In addition our former governor, Bob Graham in the state of Florida, he has recently jumped on board with IDEAS as almost like an advisor for us and he is helping us to make connections with different state congressmen and senators so that we can begin moving forward.

IDEAS hosted the 1st-ever International Climate Day of Action

IDEAS hosted the 1st-ever International Climate Day of Action (Source: IDEASforUs)

Other organisations, other non-profits and NGOs, such as, tcktcktck, Avaaz, Peacechild International out of the UK. All of these are partners of ours who we have got some incredible support from – not funding wise but programme wise – partnering on different campaigns which are getting our word out their and getting IDEAS out there to the world.

What impacts are you already seeing in the country from climate change?

In the US we are currently having problems with wildfires that we are experiencing at the moment and are tracing back towards drought and things like that – that has been a big thing. On the lake here we have heard a huge debate about corn and how the ethanol industry, the cattle industry and the food industry are all competing for this one crop that is doing horrible in this climate right now. Food and fuel are big deals.

In Florida in particular where I am there is an extreme amount of salt water intrusion into our aquifer. Florida has a fresh water aquifer under us and limestone in between and there is a lot of intrusion going in areas such as Palm Beach and South Florida where their wells are coming up with salt water. This normally would never have happened. This is in the past two to three years that we have seen a huge amount of salt water intrusion into the coast of Florida and obviously that is dealing with sea level rise and a number of other implications.

More RTCC Youth Profiles:

Profile #8: Why education is key to developing climate awareness in Ghana

Profile #7: Why Indonesia’s biodiversity is at the front line of the fight against climate change

Profile #6: Meet the African coalition that brings together 54 countries to tackle climate change

What would be your vision for the world in 2050?

The challenges that we are facing today and that we are going to be facing in the decades to come are primarily going to need to be focused on and attacks by our youth. Not even necessarily our generation but also the ones that are coming.

We are kind of in the middle at the moment. We are in this tipping point where our generation needs to be the ones to lay the groundwork for the generations to come and I think that the next people to come – those who are not even born to 10 years old – are going to be some of the major change-makers.

As far as what I would like to envision. For one I am huge on energy so I would like to envision a majority of our energy from around the world to be coming from renewable and alternative sources. I think that our energy crisis must be interdisciplinary and it must be integrated into a localised energy source – whether that is solar in your region, wind in your region, geothermal over here. It needs to all come together. We are too stuck on the silver bullet right now on the fossil fuels powering everything.

Energy, in my opinion, will be one of the biggest hurdles of what we are actually facing because it is so connected to water, food, and our waste stream. It really encompasses a lot.

I think the 2050 goal is obviously over 50% renewables. We need to be at 80% in my opinion, but realistically if we hit 50% renewable by 2050 that would be huge. Right now we are at less than 10% and with the corporations and the industries that are running this world right now it is very difficult to sway them so they see an economic benefit in investing in these technologies and completely transitioning our worlds.

IDEAS UF hosting Canoe Clean-ups in Rattlesnake Creek

IDEAS UF hosting Canoe Clean-ups in Rattlesnake Creek (IDEASforUs)

I think we need to incorporate more than just GDP into our economic systems for our countries. Obviously people’s happiness is a big one as well as nature’s happiness and the quality of the nature environment around us needs to be integrated into our GDP. That obviously needs to include our carbon emissions because right now that isn’t being included and that is one of the major problems.

Reinventing what GDP means and including ecological aspects and social aspects and not just the economic will be a major tipping point for progressing towards sustainability.

I think if we can tackle those two things the 21st century won’t be as grim as it is looking right now.

What would help your group move forward in its work?

One thing is visibility to the world. At this point we have some very cool, creative solutions that we want the global youth to get a hold of. We want them to know that they can be empowered to make a change and see the same results that we are seeing across the world.

That is why we are reaching out to youth movements in different countries. In Ghana, Nigeria, Nepal and we are not only partnering with one organisation but we are looking for a group or coalition of organisations to work with to disseminate this information and these solutions.

Obviously funding is another and finding true foundation and true partners who see the absolute need for this and the importance of getting youth engaged in this movement and really putting their money where their mouth is and allowing me and the rest of our team and the rest of other youth in the world and focus in on this for our life goals.

I would love to this to be my career goal for the rest of my life. Maybe it is because I am a founder of it and I want to see it continue to move. It is tough right now.

Continuing to make relationships with other non-profits, other NGOs and other corporations even who are willing to help us to grow and in creating new solutions all over the world.

Why did you get involved in the group? What do you think youth bring to the climate debate?

I personally got into this movement when I had a choice to make – I was undeclared at my university to tell you the truth. I had to make a choice of what to pursue and I looked back on my childhood and I fortunately grew up on a palm tree farm and my family still owns and operates an exotic palm tree farm. My entire life growing up I was not only connected to the natural world, grew my own crops and sold them, but I was also connected to the oceans – I am a surfer and a diver.

My sophomore year I had a decision to make and I stumbled on a new programme at my university that focused on environmental studies and sustainability and for some reason I had a calling. The first class I took I knew I had made the right choice.

I followed my passion. People don’t do that today and that is exactly what I did and because of it I have had opportunities at the US Department for Energy, I worked for my university and now I work for the county and there are so many things that have come from following that path.

My really good friend Hank Harding – the other co-founder of IDEAS – and I both had the same vision and I think when you have a teammate or somebody else who has the same vision it is a lot easier. We encourage people when they are starting new chapters to build a team. Before you start doing anything, build a solid team.

IDEAS at Greenwaves III Sustainable Music & Arts Fesival

IDEAS at Greenwaves III Sustainable Music & Arts Fesival (Source: IDEASforUs)

I think that the youth’s major difference is creativity. We are not hindered by the norms of our world. We don’t completely understand everything that is going on and if anything that is an incredible benefit because we think completely differently. We are thinking completely outside of the box and we are not looking at things in the same parameters in which our world functions. The solutions that we need to solve today are not going to be solved by thinking in the same box as our problems. We must come at them with a completely unique innovative approach and great new ideas.

That was our drive in creating this, if we focus on the youth who have that potential we could actually come up with solutions and we have seen success from them.

We still have the ambition I feel – even with all the negativity and the constraints – to think outside and see how can we solve it.

More RTCC Youth Profiles:

Profile #5: Bangladeshi youth fight to give world’s second most climate vulnerable country a voice

Profile #4: Nepal’s youth fight to save Himalayan paradise from effects of pollution and climate change

Profile #3: Canada’s climate coalition on taking on the Tar Sands lobby and fighting for Kyoto

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