By Don Landry

If you were to judge the future of local climate leadership by the energy and accomplishments of three Stratford teens, you would have to say that future is very bright.

Never mind the future, actually. With the recent and ongoing efforts of Emily Adam, Sammie Orr and Rachael Stephan, you could say that future has already dawned brightly, and in energetic fashion.

Rachael Stephan (left) with Emily Adam

Sammie Orr

“Right now is the time for change,” said the university-bound Emily, when asked why she has found a clear vision and strong voice on climate issues in the last year or so.

“There’s more to be done,” said Rachael, also just beginning her university career. “I’m not finished yet.”

“It would be amazing if we could have even more people,” said Sammie, hopeful that her determined efforts are resonating with concerned but as yet unengaged people on the climate sidelines.

The three have been very active in the areas of education, advocacy and outreach in the Stratford area, supporting one another in efforts to raise awareness and to prompt leaders into action, as they organize events and hone their public speaking abilities, all in the name of a brighter future for the planet.

“We all kind of started on the strike, last year,” said Emily, referring to the 2019 Fridays For Future strike, which saw high school students walk out of classes in order to bring attention to the seriousness of climate change issues. “Since then we’ve all sort of hopped on each other’s projects.”

There’ve been many such projects throughout the last year, including an advocacy initiative that saw Rachael and Emily speak before Stratford City Council, last February, insisting that City Council pass a climate emergency declaration.

It did.

“I was so ecstatic that it passed,” said Rachael. “And that Council seemed, generally, all in favour. That they were discussing ideas and budgets. It was really nice to be part of the task force getting the ball rolling here.”

“I’m not one for the spotlight, but I think it’s a very important issue and that something needs to be done. At some point I decided it might as well be me.” ~ Rachael Stephan

“It was certainly nerve-racking,” admitted Emily of her speech to City Council. “I’m not the most comfortable with public speaking. But I do like to step outside my comfort zone and push myself to do new things.”

“I found it a bit easier talking about something I was passionate about, something I felt really needed to be said,” she added.

“I’m not one for the spotlight,” echoed Rachael, sizing up her new experiences in public speaking, including the presentation to Council. “But, I think it’s a very important issue and that something needs to be done. At some point I decided it might as well be me.”

Go to Video: Presentation by students Rachael Stephan and Emily Adam to Stratford City Council discussion of the motion for a climate emergency declaration.

One of the current projects that the three are involved in is the Shoe Strike, to be held on September 25th. Sammie Orr is the chief organizer, with both Rachael and Emily helping to coordinate an event that will spotlight the need for urgent climate action and a just recovery as the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we return to normal, that normal means there is injustice,” said Sammie, who is also currently co-leading – along with Emily – a new Indigenous issues education group.

“There are environmental issues that are being ignored,” Sammie added. “If we come back even better with these just recovery principles, it’ll be great.”

“I feel like there’s people out there who are like-minded and who care about the environment and want to make change. I feel amazing when I get to connect with those people.” ~ Sammie Orr

With that in mind, Sammie would like to see more people joining the chorus of advocates who want to see a greener and more just future unfold. She sees it as a duty to help bring them aboard.

“It’s definitely there,” she said of the possibilities of swelling the number of climate activists in Stratford and Perth County. “I think we could get a lot more people involved and wanting to help. We just need to start that. I don’t think they’ll come to us, we need to go to them and help them.”

“I feel like there’s people out there who are like-minded and who care about the environment and want to make change. I feel amazing when I get to connect with those people.”

Sammie remembers attending the City of Stratford’s Energy and Environment Advisory Committee meetings when she was in grade seven, after her mom informed her of the committee’s existence.

“I just started to get into it,” she said of the meetings.

Indeed, she was so into it that she applied to be a youth rep on the committee the following year, when she was thirteen years old. She was a year younger than the committee guidelines suggested, but keen and with a revision to the guidelines was granted a seat at the table. She’s now been on the committee for two years.

“We try to provide guidance to Council,” she explained. “So when issues arise, we can make suggestions.”

Sammie Orr, online climate strike post

For Rachael Stephan, climate advocacy began with an art project during her senior year in high school.

“I had been doing a portfolio all about the earth, particularly the ocean,” she recalled. “One day I decided that maybe I should make it a little more impactful.”

Rachael Stephan, online climate strike post

That was the seed for her growing energy around climate change, and soon after, Rachael spearheaded an initiative to reduce plastic waste in her high school cafeteria. As well, she answered a call for volunteers after seeing a social media post about an organizing meeting for the 2019 Fridays For Future climate strike and day of action.

“Once I took that first step, I was like okay, I have to see it through,” she said. “When I saw an opportunity I was interested in and that I thought was beneficial, I thought ‘let’s do this.’ I was excited to do it and I was determined to do it.”

Emily Adam reached a point where she felt she wanted to do more than just be aware of climate issues. She wanted a more active role in bringing those issues to the fore. She wanted to help bring about action.

Emily Adam speaking at the 2019 climate rally. Watch her speech here.

2020 climate shoe strike notice, Instagram @ClimateStrikeStatford

“I’d sat back for long enough and eventually I realized that if I want to make a change in the world, I should start now,” Emily said. “And if I want to see a change in the world it has to start with me, and that I have to promote that any way I can.”

With that in mind, Emily, like Rachael, decided to help organize the 2019 Fridays For Future rally, and continued from there.

While dedication and passion for climate and social justice issues are clearly fuelling the actions of the three young activists at the present time, it is safe to say that they will in the future as well.

As they start out at university, Rachael and Emily will keep the planet and its peoples front and centre in their endeavours.

Rachael is majoring in marine biology. Emily has her eye on an engineering degree.

“I’ve been looking for eco groups at the university,” said Rachael. “And looking around at the local community to see if there’s something I can take part in, especially considering marine life and marine conservation.”

“I don’t know yet my specialization,” said Emily, “but I definitely want to come out working in renewable energy.” In the meantime, she will find ways to stay connected with green initiatives on campus.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to get involved in sustainability at my university, so I’m certainly looking forward to that,” she said.

As Sammie tackles her Grade 10 curriculum – and stays active on the local climate scene – she thinks of a personal future in more general terms. The specifics will come later.

“I want to expand my knowledge of environmental issues and how to help through university,” she said, adding that she does see a professional life that will be earth-friendly. “I do want to have a career that benefits the environment. I’m not one hundred per cent sure what that could be yet.”

In the meantime, there is urgent climate advocacy to do. Sammie, Rachael and Emily say they are up for it. There is no reason to doubt that. This remarkable trio has already proven that they are leaders.

Emily Adam, Rachael Stephan, friend Amber McNeil, & Sammie Orr