Youth advocates travel across Canada with a simple message: Learn about the SDGs

Steve Lee, executive director of Foundation for Environmental Stewardship. Photo by: Steve Lee

NEW YORK — A youth-led Canadian nonprofit has taken its mission of sharing the Sustainable Development Goals on the road — all the way up to Tuktoyaktuk, the most northern point in Canada’s Arctic that is accessible by car.  

The Foundation for Environmental Stewardship, staffed by three full-time employees all under the age of 30, is close to reaching its goal of introducing the SDGs to 3% of Canada’s population. That works out to roughly 1 million students across 500 high schools in Canada’s cities and rural areas.

“The majority of the population seems to think climate change is real, that we are all going to die, and we don’t have to do anything about it because we are all going to die.”

— Steve Lee, executive director, Foundation for Environmental Stewardship

Steve Lee, the organization’s executive director, set off an SDG-sharing road-trip in August, driving from Tuktoyaktuk towards the eastern province of Newfoundland, where he will wrap the three-year project in December.

The idea, he says, is to engage youth on how to take individual action on the SDGs, especially targets that focus on mitigating the risks of climate change and promoting environmental stewardship. Students are encouraged to vote, get involved democratically, and to make sustainably smart purchases.

“A lot of the time, people say, ‘I am just one person.’ And you are right, one person doing something is not enough to solve a global systematic challenge,” Lee, 26, told Devex. “We need to be strategic in what kind of action we take.”

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Since January, Lee has driven more than 70,000 km to speak at an average of two high schools each day. Most of those high schools are remote, rural areas where youth are often isolated from dialogue on climate change, according to Lee.

“We are going where other organizations are usually not going,” explained. “The electoral system is set up so rural communities have disproportionately high representation, but they are the least reached on these politicized issues. It is crucial the rural communities are engaged in the conversation.”

Other organizations, such as the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, engage in SDG youth training projects. FES, though, is distinguished by its focus on Canada, where climate change remains a political and contentious issue. Canadian environmental organizations, for example, are facing regulations on their advertising during the upcoming federal elections in October.

“Climate change is a highly politicized topic and as much as I can contribute to depoliticizing the issue, the better,” Lee explained.

Lee initially was introduced to the Millennium Development Goals when he was 16 and won a U.N. Children’s Fund competition to attend the G-8 summit in 2009 as a child rights activist. He found that directly engaging his friends on risks of climate change was his most useful contribution. As a college student, Lee launched FES with a dozen student volunteers at the University of Toronto four years ago.

"We are going where other organizations are usually not going ... It is crucial that the rural communities are engaged in the conversation."

— Steve Lee, executive director, Foundation for Environmental Stewardship

Reactions to Lee’s 50-minute presentation on the SDGs can be extreme.

“When I go to city schools, students are so anxious about climate change. For them, it is viscerally real,” Lee said. “Then you go to the other end of the extreme, where parents and students are so angry about the fact that I am coming to brainwash their children on a fake issue they will come and physically remove me from the school.”

Most people, though, are simply apathetic.

“The majority of the population seems to think climate change is real, that we are all going to die, and we don’t have to do anything about it because we are all going to die,” Lee said.

Students can follow up on Lee’s presentations through FES’ mentorship program, which is currently operating at more than 100 high schools in Canada. There are 44 high school action projects currently underway, according to 23-year-old Kat Cadungog, a sustainability project consultant at FES. Cadungog mentors students on their projects, and helps them secure funding and additional partnerships.

The projects run the gamut, ranging from a $30,000 solar installation to new recycling bins at schools.

“What we really wanted to bridge a gap with youth looking at a systemic problem and giving up on it or not understanding it,” Cadungog said.

Cadungog said she is accustomed to fielding questions about the SDGs’ broad scope and feasibility. But the universality of the goals often resonates with students, she said, once they learn more.

“Everyone can relate to looking at an SDG and say, ‘I want something in my life that other people deserve, too,’” Cadungog said. “As soon as you get to the nitty-gritty, the more I show students visuals and facts, the more they seem to emphasize with the SDGs and why they need to exist and why they are very real goals.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.