At the end of this week, local energy groups will name one area high school the winner of the Changemakers Challenge. It’s a social media contest to award environmental engagement, and the kickoff featured its own teenage changemaker.
Earlier this month, high school kids filled the Aspen School District theater to hear from climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. He’s 17, suing both Colorado and the U.S. government to act on climate change. He travels the country and the world, speaking at schools, environmental organizations—even the United Nations.
When Martinez took the stage, he opened with a rap in which he spells out his name, which is long, with lots of consonants. He spoke in three languages, sharing a bit of his history and identity, as well as his message about climate change.
"It comes down to daily action, and it comes down to being innovative and creative," he said.
Martinez also worked to explain the intersection between environmental issues and social justice.
"We see a disproportionate impact on communities of color, Latino communities," he said.
His primary message to the students at AHS is simple: Young people belong at the forefront of social change.
"And it's not like superheroes," he told the crowd. "It's people like us."
Martinez spoke at three high schools in the Roaring Fork Valley earlier this month to kick off the Changemakers Challenge. This social media contest is sponsored by two local organizations that support energy efficiency.
“It’s all about participation," said Lara Whitley, who works with the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. She explained that the Changemakers Challenge is pretty simple. It’s all done through social media. Students at Aspen, Roaring Fork or Glenwood Springs High School take photos or videos of any energy saving action—and post it, with the right hashtags, of course.
These actions can be anything from turning off the lights, to riding your bike to school, and each post earns points.
The school with the most points wins a $2,000 scholarship. Teachers and administrators will award that to a graduating student who is going into an environmental or sustainable field.
"That could be everything from they're going to work and want to get a certification that'll help them in the field in green energy, to they're going to a four-year university and studying environmental science," Whitley said.
Chloe Brettman is a junior at Aspen High School and a member of the Earth Group. She knows these little actions may not make much a difference on their own, but she said that’s not really the point.
"I think the cool part of this is it's a really great chance to foster some habits that have a bigger impact when you look at it on a larger scale," she said.
Brettman was particularly impressed with Martinez’s work to show how climate change is a social justice issue.
“This is a human issue, and this is about how we, as a population, can come together and combat this," she said.
The Changemaker Challenge is all about small actions from many people. Erin Bucchin, president of the Glenwood Springs High School Impact Club, said kids are excited.
“People seemed really into the assembly and they were really hyped," Buccin said. "We got a bunch of new members in the club because of it.”
This buzz over environmental issues is pretty new for Bucchin. She’s a senior and plans to enroll in the environmental law program at the University of Vermont. She said it’s been inspiring to watch Martinez’s work.
“Seeing him do something I love makes me excited for next year, and it’s not so lonely,” she said.
Martinez has been working with politicians and through the courts for years, but he said he believes the role of students is just as important.
"Everybody got a part to play. Whether you’re doctors or Lyft drivers or journalists or hedge fund managers, we all have a part to play," Martinez said. "It’s not about going out and having to change our lives to be activists, it’s just about including that in how we already live our lives.”
For Martinez, that means spreading the word through music. Local teenagers are breaking out their bikes and reusable water bottles, finding their own ways to create positive change.