Youth activism already leading the way, and it was the big climate story of 2019

Jasmine Huggins | April 20, 2020

Towards the end of 2019, CWS interviewed Allen Ottaro to learn more about his work in mobilizing and organizing young environmental activists in Africa. Allen is the Executive Director of the Catholic Youth Network for Environment Sustainability for Africa. This continent-wide network of young people has for many years been involved in environmental protection activities, community based educational work, and public speaking. Their activism started in church. Faith teaching was the catalyst which helped young people visualize a new relationship between people and the planet.

The Catholic Youth Network for Environment Sustainability for Africa starts by asking community residents who are experiencing environmental and social problems about their concerns in the community and identifying the roots of the issue. Climate change often emerges as the root cause of many of the day to day problems being experienced, which in both rural and urban Kenya are include erratic food supply, health problems, dwindling water supplies and the subsequent health and sanitation problems which arise from that. The network describes Kenya’s changing climate not just as a scientific issue to be discussed at school, but as a complex social, economic and cultural issue. Then, they use Catholic Social Teaching to generate interest in young people, as well as compassion and determination to address the problem.

Allen Ottaro. Courtesy Photo.

Coordinating this work often involves overcoming people’s initial surprise about seeing faith actors engage in political discussions about the environment, and particularly young people. But this comes as no surprise to Allen.

“Young people have a special drive for social justice issues,” he says. “They don’t just want to just come to church and sing hymns and then go home. They want to explore how they can respond to situations of injustice that they see. … Our work captures their attention; it is also part of being something bigger and not wanting to work alone.”

Engagement of faith teachings, and networking with faith actors is also an essential part of this process. Faith, according to Allen, builds bridges between the community and political leaders, between the personal and the political, between the inner realm of individual faith and the physical realm of the environment. And this bridge building is now crucial to the challenge of addressing climate change.

“We have seen the possibility of people working together. We have seen agreements. I think that we can build on these small wins. We can tell stories about positive changes, even if they are small stories, in our communities. Because that can help us to advance the broader agenda.”

This week, CWS joins others in observing the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. We are pleased to present the full transcript of this interview. As we continue to grapple with the dual implications of the coronavirus epidemic in a climate changed world, we are all in need of new optimism, and positive, and hope filled models of public engagement on complex social and environmental problems. We invite you all to read this extended interview! Allen and the Catholic Youth Network in Africa provide us an inspiring model for motivating and organizing young people of faith in environmental advocacy.

Jasmine Huggins is the Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at Church World Service.