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What if young students, leading corporations, and the communities around them united to reach the green future we all want? One small non-profit organization from Texas, EcoRise Youth Innovations, is soaring to new heights this spring with the support of Southwest Airlines. Here’s how they’re empowering a new generation of green leaders across the world.

Step One: Reaching the Audience. Teachers and staff from EcoRise Youth Innovations landed at the March 2017 Green Schools Conference and Expo in Atlanta, Georgia, ready to present to hundreds of teachers, administrators, and sustainability directors from across America’s school districts. Everyone there – hailing from NYC to San Francisco and in between – is committed to transforming ordinary schools into sustainability hubs, where your average backpacked student is also packing green leadership skills for the 21st century.

Enter EcoRise, which focuses on empowering youth to tackle real-world challenges by teaching sustainability, design thinking and innovation. EcoRise serves over 500 schools internationally, providing teachers access to K-12 curriculum that fosters student eco-literacy, connecting students to green professional mentors, and providing access to funding opportunities for student-designed sustainability projects. Its flagship curriculum, Sustainable Intelligence, centers on building students’ knowledge and exploration around seven eco-themes: water, air quality, food, energy, waste, transportation and public spaces.

Step Two: Empowering schools to tell their stories. Speaking in one of EcoRise’s five presentations was Tabitha Yeager, a Career and Technical Education teacher at Dighton Rehoboth Regional High School in Massachusetts. Her practical session on how to engage students in improving public spaces drew from her two years of success working with EcoRise.

“[My] students loved the opportunity to be outside, to be hands-on, the ownership of the project to make their mark on the campus,” Yeager said of their campus garden project. “With a little bit of problem-solving and brainstorming, we managed to make it something that everyone felt involved in.”

Yeager, an EcoRise Teacher Ambassador, was recently awarded $492,000 towards a campus Green Innovation Center by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker in recognition of her accomplishments.

Participating teachers were especially inspired to learn about building outside collaboration for students’ in-class work. “We left the presentation with a lot of great ideas we can implement,” said Meghan McCloskey, a teacher at Springdale Park Elementary, Atlanta Public Schools. But the presentation also appealed to broader audiences, including a number of green STEM professionals. I loved the level of participant engagement,” said Rebecca Bryant, a LEED Accredited Professional at Water Shed Architects. “This was absolutely the best presentation of the conference.”

Other partners in the movement for a more sustainable world spoke up too – from success story-sharing by Codman Academy Charter School in Boston, MA to profile-raising on social platforms by MindRocket Media, to a policymaking session with the Austin Independent School District.

EcoRise’s Deputy Director Jon Stott co-led a conference session with Darien Clary, Austin ISD’s Sustainability Manager. They offered do-it-yourself advice – and themselves as a joint case study – in building a wide-reaching sustainability strategy through cross-sector collaborations. EcoRise’s programs, they explained, address students’ and teachers’ engagement in forming and executing Austin ISD’s district-level green policies. When a group of kids conducting eco-audits call out as a problem on campus – be it poor recycling systems, inefficient water supply, food waste, or a lack of local biodiversity – Austin ISD officials and city leaders take note.

Step Three: Join hands across sectors for the long-term. Another session pointed out the relevant need for activating entrepreneurial sustainability in Career Technical Education (CTE). EcoRise’s Chief Innovation Officer Richard Kincaid, along with Ismail Ocasio, Manager of Curriculum and Workforce Development for CTE at NYC Department of Education, and Mark Swiger, CEO and Founder of ReGen Creative Strategies, spoke about groundbreaking work at the state, district and school levels.

Southwest’s support enabled EcoRise teachers, administrators, and program staff to come together in Atlanta to share best practices with a national audience. Like EcoRise, Southwest Airlines has pledged itself to redesigning for increased sustainability, in both air transportation and corporate social responsibility. With an established reputation in healthy business culture and improving community impact, Southwest has most notably converted its entire ground services fleet to electric vehicles, leads the industry in low-carbon renewable jet fuel usage, opened a LEED Silver Certified Training and Operational Support facility, and articulates the Southwest commitment to a triple-bottom-line approach through its corporate Environmental Policy.

So whether you’re a teacher, corporate leader, city planner, green professional, or an engaged citizen, support EcoRise in empowering a new generation of green leaders. After all, the next big plan to unite people, planet and profit could begin with one idea from a sustainability-savvy student asking: “What if?”

Sarayu Adeni is the Global Partnerships Manager at EcoRise Youth Innovations.

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