How do you engage Generation Z — that group born between 1997 and 2012 — in the climate change conversation?
That’s the question Austin-based Rainforest Partnership was asking when it started Gen Z for the Trees, a group led by a team of eight college and high school students.
Generation Z is expected to make up 40% of all consumers this year and by 2026 is expected to be the largest group of consumers, according to Business Insider Intelligence.
Rainforest Partnership, which began in 2007, has made having wide-ranging impact on protecting tropical rainforests its core work. The group does this by working directly with a network of communities, local governments and nongovernmental organizations in Peru and Ecuador.
The work includes listening to local groups and building bridges while having a team of volunteers and interns in Austin.
Rather then imposing its ideals on the people closest to the rainforest, the nonprofit starts with what founder and chief operating officer Niyanta Spelman calls "ground truthing."
"We start with what our teams on the ground are doing and what they are thinking our biggest needs are," she says.
They have a tremendous amount of knowledge, she says.
Diverse leadership is one of Rainforest Partnership’s goals, and that includes trying to have board members from every populated continent as well as in different age groups. They have struggled to engage people in their 20s and younger.
"We’ve been talking about getting the youth involved since 2010," Spelman says. "We’ve tried it in fits and starts."
This year, during a pandemic that has allowed Rainforest Partnership to continue doing what it has excelled at — connecting groups from around the world with shared missions by using technology — it was time to start a youth focus again.
"What I wanted us to do was create a thing for our youngest volunteers and interns," Spelman says, "but it had to be led by them.
"How do we help them turn their frustrations, their fears, the fact that not enough is happening ... how do we help them, empower them? They have a voice; they have a platform."
Using the group’s summer interns, the partnership created a team of college- and high school-age advocates to begin a new project.
Spelman says the goal was to give them a platform and turn feelings of frustration and hopelessness into hope.
Gen Z for the Trees launched June 22, World Rainforest Day. It spreads knowledge about climate change through social media by providing links to articles and connections to the work Rainforest Partnership and other nonprofit organizations are doing, as well as offering thoughtful action steps people can make at home.
This generation is growing up with messaging about climate change that is dystopian. Gen Z for the Trees aims for something different, something hopeful.
Rainforest Partnership helps with some parameters, but Gen Z for the Trees members devise the plans themselves.
"The team came up with their own name, which is what is cool about it," Spelman says.
"We have a lot of power in shaping the way things go," says Chung-Wing Ko, a 21-year-old University of Texas senior majoring in biology with a focus on sustainability and environmental statistics. "It’s very much like ‘Here’s a suggestion, here’s a seed to plant.’ It’s never ’You have to do this.’ "
Gen Z for the Trees is about being an educated activist. "It’s less about doing protests and boycotts and more about empowering individuals to change their habits, to dedicate their time to fight for rainforest conservation," says Champ Turner, 18, a freshman at Brown University.
It’s what Roshan Khan calls being "solar punk."
The 18-year-old is a junior at the University of Texas and is majoring in government, economics, international relations and global studies.
She says her generation sees the internet differently from her parents or grandparents. "Our idea is in order to have a digital breakthrough to continue doing good work, everything has gone online," Khan says.
Through social media — they’re using Instagram and Twitter — members of Gen Z for the Trees are starting to gain traction, says Ivy Moore, a 20-year-old senior at Pepperdine University who is a political science and journalism major. (Follow @genzforthetrees.)
The climate is "a thing we are all passionate about," Moore says.
The group came up with a big outline of goals and is reaching out to other organizations to find their youth leaders to bring them on board. "Our three pillars are educate, inspire and change," Moore says.
The educate pillar is important. "We are educating Gen Z about a lot of things they don’t know," Khan says.
Quizzes, statistics and research articles are shared, but it’s also about not chastising her generation for their behavior. An example: Instead of criticizing someone for using products with palm oil, the group offers nuanced information about the differences between palm oil plantations that have destroyed rainforests and palm oil production that is sustainable.
The group provides fast access to education as well as opportunities to do a deeper dive into a topic, Moore says.
Cool projects, such as using solar panels to provide shade for crops while creating an energy source, or combining fish farming and vegetable growing in one tank, are highlighted.
"What we are setting out to do is to shift the narrative about the climate crisis and deforestation," Khan says.
This is a generation that has access to an overwhelming amount of information and opinions because of social media. Many things are floating around, good and bad, Moore says.
"I hope that Gen Z for the Trees can be kind of like a centralized place for people to go to see which initiatives need the most attention," Ko says.
It’s also about having Generation Z feel like a part of the conversation by making it interactive.
"We are finding an inspiring and important way for Gen Z to participate, to be a part of it," Moore says.
Gen Z for the Trees wants to bring groups focusing on youth initiatives together to work, Ko says.
"We could centralize those efforts and bring a more powerful voice," Ko says.
"Our generation struggles with the hopelessness of the future," Khan says. She cites her own story of being born six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, dealing with the insecurity of gun violence in schools, and so much more.
"My generation needs hope," Khan says.
That’s not the story of deforestation and climate crisis. It’s the story of being the generation that turns it around.
"Gen Z has the power to change all these things as long as we know how to focus our energy," Ko says. "Once you feel like you can and have knowledge and resources, this is the future we could create."
The first goal is to grow the audience on Instagram and Twitter, and to start building materials and delivering them to anyone interested in learning about the rainforest and hopeful projects.
It’s delivering "our solar punk view of the world and the reasons why we have hope," Khan says.
Other goals include creating a newsletter and in-person chapters or clubs on college campuses once the pandemic is over. They also want to create a certification for sustainable products and have universities divest from investments in companies that do not have sustainable practices.
A big goal is to achieve net-zero deforestation by 2030 through education that inspires others to make changes.
"Every action we take every single day makes a difference in the world," Khan says.
"Generation Z is a tipping point for humanity. We have a great potential to turn that all around."