While getting to travel halfway across the world to attend one of the largest conferences on climate change, a local student says it is the changes that we make on a local level that can make a difference.
Manolo Avalos, 17, attended the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27 held in November 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. He made that trip along with other students from the Chicagoland area who participated in the Seven Generations Ahead youth-driven project, It’s Our Future.
The junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School said he was dedicated to addressing issues surrounding climate change that his generation has inherited, saying that the consequences of passiveness will be grave.
“We are going to be dealing with it,” Avalos said. “Sorry to be blunt towards the old generations but they have frankly done nothing or a poor job. We will see cities, villages, wiped out because of sea levels rising, flooding, and that is just one of the reasons why we should care and act and educate ourselves. That is a barrier with some people, especially with topics such as recycling and composting, education is key.”
For Avalos the interest in environmental issues began in his seventh-grade science class at Roosevelt Middle School, 7560 Oak Ave., River Forest, where his science teacher raised trout in class to release into the wild.
“That really got me interested,” Avalos said. “Just watching it during class, when we weren’t taking care of it, he had us put in a lot of work but it was for a good purpose, releasing it afterwards.”
At OPRF, Avalos got involved in the OPRF Sustainability Committee, which helped create the high school’s ambitious sustainability plan, which is currently being implemented. Avalos also got involved in the environmental club at OPRF.
Cindy Wong, OPRF Environmental Club Sponsor, said Avalos, is the president of the environmental club.
“He is the type of kid that just goes for it, he is not afraid of the red tape or people possibly saying no, if there is something on his mind that he feels is an issue, he goes for it,” Wong said. “Rarely do I see kids who have that sort of initiative.”
That initiative to be active in finding solutions to the climate crisis has long been with Avalos, who not only participated in clean ups but also joined It’s Our Future when he was in the eighth grade. The program was developed by Seven Generations Ahead with the help of local community partners as well as Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, Chicago Climate Youth Coalition, Sunrise Chicago, and The River Forest Sustainability Commission among others.
It was through It’s Out Future that Avalos attended the biggest climate change conference, COP 27.
Gary Cuneen, founder of Seven Generations Ahead, said the program received support from the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation along with the Lumpkin Foundation to help send participating students to the conference after receiving approval from the United Nations to be an official observer of the conference.
Cuneen said a major goal of the program is to send Chicagoland youth who might not otherwise have exposure to the conversations surrounding climate change.
“Now we are expanding to new communities, to make sure that youth of color and some low to moderate income youth have the opportunity to participate in the COP experience as well as other students,” Cuneen said. “This project gives us the opportunity to expose high school students to the largest conference in the world that is attempting to deal with the climate crisis. It is a life changing experience; all the students say it.”
With over 200 countries participating in the conference, students were able to hear important dialogue and learn more on how certain actions from more affluent countries are impacting others across the globe.
“A big part [of this year] was loss and damage, where they talked about how a lot of rich countries, like the United States, are causing the damage but we are not paying it forward to more lower-income countries that don’t have the resources to combat that issue,” Avalos said.
Being able to go to Egypt was a phenomenal experience, said Avalos, adding every day they were exposed to different panels as well as sessions by key leaders in the world of climate change advocacy, including John Kerry, U.S Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, who gave the closing statement at COP27.
Avalos said a highlight of the conference was speaking with Dr. Katharine Hayhoy, a climate scientist and professor at Texas Tech University, who said something that will stick with him forever.
“She said we have to connect our hearts to our hands,” Avalos said. “I think a lot of people in Oak Park and River Forest, and I would argue across the country, we know what is happening, we are feeling the impacts, or hearing it on the news…the hands part, that comes in by educating and taking small steps to make a difference.”
While learning and coming face-to-face with issues surrounding climate change can be overwhelming for many, including himself, Avalos said the best way to combat the information anxiety is to take action.
“I need to get my hands dirty and start acting,” Avalos said.
These opportunities give students a chance to see issues from outside the perspective of Oak Park, said Wong.
“The number one thing is perspective. We, here in Oak Park and River Forest, I think that we are a little bit cuddled. We have leaders here, at the school level, at the village level that are very environmentally focused,” Wong said. “But when you look outside globally, that level of support is not there…so for them to go to a conference with such a global perspective, they get to see [that].”
Being able to expose students to the conversations happening around the world regarding the climate crisis opens up their minds to how they can help on a local level, said Cuneen.
“It gives them an opportunity to see what other people are doing, to learn from other leaders and hopefully [it] gives them a leg up moving forward on developing their interest, and potentially professional interest, in relationship to sustainability and climate and equity,” Cuneen said. “As you know, climate and equity go hand-in-hand.”
Avalos said he has walked away with a stronger passion for change at a local level, saying it is often more doable and reachable, and important.
“Local actions are easier to convince mayors, like in Oak Park and River Forest, and others, than working on the federal level,” Avalos said. “While there are big federal groups that are lobbying, that is really hard.”