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snapchatters and climate policy: future constituents on future issues

Carrie Karsgaard

NOTE: This blog post is connected to the work of hundreds of youth across the planet as reflected in the International Youth White Paper on Climate Change: Education and Cities written in conjunction with The Centre for Global Education.

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) hosted the “Cities and Climate Change Science Conference: Fostering new scientific knowledge for cities based on science, practice and policy” in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference aimed to generate a global research agenda by bringing together academic, practitioner, and urban policy-making communities. In a radical move, the conference organizers invited a group of young people aged 14 to 18 from all across the planet to join the expert climate scientists and economists, city mayors and international policymakers, in contributing to the agenda.

Watching these young people take Snapchat selfies in front of the conference signage, fill their backpacks with snacks during conference breaks, and sit on the conference center floors next to outlets to charge their phones and FaceTime their friends back home, a person might wonder at the IPCC’s decision. Why involve youth in a conference targeting high-hitting scientists, government officials, and policy-makers? Shouldn’t these kids be in school?

As the educator who got to spend the weeks leading into the conference working first online with these students through a virtual classroom with The Centre for Global Education – and then the 10 days prior to the conference preparing their paper and presentation – I also asked myself these very questions. Did these young people have something legitimate to contribute, or were they just going to be a great photo op for the IPCC folks, a cute group of “diverse” kids from Indonesia to Kenya, Colombia to Slovenia, who could be patted on the heads, photographed, and sent back home?

Certainly, the risk was there. Young people are rarely considered in the climate research and policy agendas, despite being the inheritors of our increasingly unstable global climate. In a pre-conference session, a well-meaning panelist called the youth to move beyond recycling and carpooling to political participation through voting. His aim was to inspire them to be politically active for climate justice, rather than limiting themselves to individual actions. The youth, while inspired, followed up with me afterwards by asking: what if I can’t vote for five more years? How can my voice “count” in political decision-making?

Good questions. And ones that are imperative for young people, who have fewer means for protecting themselves from climate disasters, relying on their families and education systems to prepare them for a changing planet, the future of which will be in their hands. Far from being naïve to climate realities, young people find these issues pressing, and their positions within their cities give youth a unique perspective on climate issues that cities could learn from.

The people - the people are who have the power to kill or to keep the Earth alive, and we are all in this.
— Fabrizio, Peru

Let me elaborate. The thousands of youth surveyed through this project indicate very real fear, concern, anger, anxiety, and helplessness in the face of climate change. They recognize that youth within their home cities are differently impacted by climate instability, due to compounding factors such as gender, race, caste, ability, social and economic status, provision of education, and more. Even those youth from privileged positions notice that other schools in their cities are more vulnerable to climate disasters than their own, closing for weeks due to flooding or high levels of smog. They also see schools that are poorly (or not at all) equipped by their local governments to mitigate climate change through contextual initiatives, ranging from development of green spaces to effective waste management in schools. These young people see and feel things that older folks may not – and they want to participate in policy-making to address these things. Yet they have few spaces to share this insight with those who “count.”

At the IPCC Conference, the young people’s ideas – on subjects including equity and inclusion, education and updated curriculum, infrastructure, project based learning, and social media and communication – were applauded and taken up by researchers and policy-makers, including Edmonton’s city mayor, Don Iveson, and members of the IPCC steering committee (you can read their final thoughts in their White Paper). Our group celebrated with selfies, dance moves, and spontaneous applause, marking this unique chance to express youth voice at an international level.

Yet these very acknowledgements also draw attention to the gaps in political engagement with youth and the limits of our democratic structures in involving youth in decision-making. While the feedback at the IPCC conference was hopeful, there are no accountability mechanisms by which the young people can hold these policy-makers to their promises.

Without being able vote, youth have few options for influencing their governments at the civic, regional, and national levels. Only one of the 14 city councils represented by the youth in our project hosts a youth council as part of civic decision-making, so youth have no official or influential voice in their cities. While cities such as Edmonton, as well as regional governments like the province of BC, are entertaining lowering the voting age to 16, this has yet to become a reality.

Further, few cities reach out to young people through schools, surveys, or social media, limiting the impact of youth on policy-makers. A few cities run or support climate projects for youth, but few consider insights from and projects by youth, so that even where some political engagement is happening, this is unidirectional – shaped by adults who may not see climate issues through young people’s eyes.

Limits such as these are built into the very structures of our governments, revealing the limits of democracy in addressing not only marginalized populations such as youth, but also in addressing future issues that may not be currently felt by the grown-ups holding decision-making power. Youth are thus caught within political systems that leave little space for their voices, their issues, and their participation since they are left out of the conversation by their framing as future constituents facing future problems. There should be space for youth to contribute to policies and government programs that are most relevant to them.

As young people in the United States are currently demonstrating in relation to gun control, youth hold great potential for influencing governments through organizing and social pressure despite their lack of official voice – and perhaps youth will increasingly mobilize around climate issues. At the same time, however, most youth in our project expressed dissatisfaction with how their education is geared towards citizenship as obedience rather than for social change. Young people could benefit from learning about social movements, organizing, and the power of social media in order to enable greater public participation.

While in many ways the IPCC conference successfully promoted youth perspectives on climate change, the limited ability of the IPCC to take up youth voice thus presents us with a need to set up meaningful and accountable public engagement with young people, not just to hear from youth but to do something with them in response. This might look different in different cities – but it is something we need to consider, if we want to ensure equitable care of the populations that share our planet.

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the skirts. or, when running is a feminist issue.

Carrie Karsgaard

Hey, it’s the Skirts – looking good, girls!

I acknowledged the comment unthinkingly, with a wave and tired smile over my shoulder at our new friends on the trail.

By Day Two of the 2015 Gore-tex Transalpine run, being A Skirt was already old news for my teammate, Rene, and I. Out of the blocks, on a particularly rough and toasty climb, some local hikers looked us up and down in our fluorescent salmon skirts and other matching get-up. A German competitor translated their chuckling comments as they stepped aside for us to pass: well, they're not the fastest, but they sure are the prettiest. 

After that, we were off (as it were) to the races. Hikers stopped us during the race to take our photos as we curtseyed, men’s teams encouraged us to run ahead so they could follow (if you catch my drift), and other racers greeted us as The Skirts from Canada while they fell in with us for bits of each stage. Nathan (my husband) and (his teammate) Dan sidled up alongside us when they could, enjoying how their male competitors stepped aside chivalrously for us – a mini-skirted women’s team – allowing our boys to ride our petticoats and pass more easily than otherwise.

Among those who didn’t have good sight lines to my name on my race bib, I became A Skirt instead of Carrie – a new name for a new landscape, for eight days of running from Germany to Italy. We were one of 30-some women’s teams in a race with nearly 250 teams – and our skirts, common back home but a novelty in the European landscape of white spandex, announced our presence on every stage: The Skirts are here!

Do you hear me?

A Skirt. A Skirt.

 The boys following in line at TAR 2015.

The boys following in line at TAR 2015.

Back home, skirt or no skirt, I’m back to being Carrie. Whether at our training clinic or in a group of friends, I settle into a conga line of grubby runners where I’m just another body on the trail. Nobody cares what I wear – and there is neither celebration of my ability as a female runner nor condescension towards me as a girl. I have been elbowed competitively by Kevin and by Alana, held up by my shorts when I'm tired and picked off the ground when I've fallen, chased up a hill and offered an extra fig newton, been pushed and supported by all manner of runners in our group.

When I asked some of my homegirls how they felt being – well – skirts in Kelowna’s running community, they nearly all answered: I never think about it. I just feel like a person when I run – not a girl

That being said, none of us have signed up for a running group for skirts, where participants are motivated to train by promises of glittering necklaces, congratulatory hugs from firemen, pink headbands, and universal sisterhood. We’ve chosen to run in a mixed group that trains according to fitness and ability, not by gender. Now and again, a guy joins the group who takes a week or two to realize (with more than a few huffs and puffs) that the girls run with the boys in this scene – that we all run together – but for the most part, they tend to come around.

Which is maybe why, in the Alps, I didn’t mind so much being A Skirt. While the responses to our flouncy mint gelato or blue accordion numbers may have been the stuff of pop culture (fueled, at least to some extent, by our predilection for dancing - however nervously - in start lines), Rene and I felt nothing less than solid respect and recognition from our fellow runners. As we swung from Marilyn Monroe-ing for tourists to churning through cow shit as fast as fast can be, so did the guys around us abandon masculine posturing for - well - skirtier behaviors. At one finish line, a new friend cried as we slouched together in reclining chairs, thankful for the encouragement that buoyed him through a tough stage. Another day, along a technical, rocky ridge, a flatlander from the Netherlands shared his fear of heights with us (literally: Carrie, I'm scared). We ran chunks of stages with men's teams, mixed teams and women's teams, bumping beers at finish lines with the runners who shared our race bubble - our pace bubble - throughout our journey.

As at home, we felt strong  - perhaps doubly strong - both as female runners and as simply runners - gender set aside for the online stats of women's rankings and taken off the trails, where we could simply run.

 Skirt scrambles on McCrae near Revelstoke.  

Skirt scrambles on McCrae near Revelstoke.  

trail names against humanity; or, what Kelowna's trail names have to do with reconciliation

Carrie Karsgaard

I’m no mountain biker, but trail names appeal to the blend of English teacher and dirt bag in me. Too slow on the draw to create puns myself, I can’t help but nod appreciatively at Jabbarocky, Tumbelina and Berm Donor (bonus points to the first two for also being literary allusions – BAM!). As for my dirt bag side, I’ve taken photos at the Dusty Beaver, discussed whether Moose Knuckle should be renamed Camel Toe, and imagined an entire back story to Brian’s Worm (think: Brian’s ex built the trail and left a warning for all who may be eyeing Brian up as a future partner).

I certainly don’t head out on MTB trails expecting the peaceful, natural names of hiking trails – the rockwalls and ridges and rims. Instead, I get a chuckle or two at the trail signs and concern myself with making adequate airplane sounds (or racecar – it’s open to interpretation) while banking corners by foot. Follow it up with a pint of Backhand of God and a dirt tan, and I’ll sleep easy.

So it’s been a bit of a thing for me that I haven’t slept so well since hitting some local MTB trails a couple of weeks ago. A few of us were running through the Gillard trail system, where we could have been skipping down technical downhill trails with names like Roller Coaster or Drops-a-Lot. Instead, using a combination of trail signs and the Trailforks app, we found ourselves on Squaw Hollow.

Surprised by the name, I casually raised it with my group and got a boys-will-be-boys-esque response along the lines of – well, you know mountain bikers. Which I do. (In fact, I’m hoping to one day trade my spandex roadie shorts for baggy ones – as soon as I can get over the implications of trail names like Knuckle Duster and Skull Coaster). But this shrug-off seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me. I get that we need our spaces to loosen up and crack jokes at Brian’s worm – and trails are one of the best places for that – but come on now. Squaw Hollow?

A quick culture lesson for the folks who think the word “squaw” is no big deal – or at worst, is a titch politically incorrect. Kind of like the N-word (some folks dub it the S-word), it carries a special zing as it refers exclusively to women (think slut here, not superwoman or survivor). A derogatory term, it’s tied to the casual, insidious and all-too-familiar discriminatory attitudes towards Indigenous women and – let’s be honest here – to serious forms of sexual violence, along with Canada’s shockingly high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tack on the word hollow, as the trail name does, and the whole thing takes on an ominous tone.

A nasty name indeed – but perhaps I’m being too sensitive here? MTB trails are basically a deck of Cards Against Humanity, anyway – have another beer, and they become funny. Shall I return to my Backhand of God and just stick to Kerplop next time I’m in Gillard?

I-would-if-I-could-but-I-can’t-so-I-won’t.

See, the trick is that it’s not just a nasty trail name. Let me elaborate. This nasty name (nastier than Brian’s emasculation - sorry, Brian), like all the other names of the trails, is stuck on a piece of crown land – land I (as a syrah-drinking trail runner) might see as a fine chunk of Okanagan recreation and wine country but that has never (in fact) been handed over to said crown by the Syilx people who know it like the backs of their hands. Who know it because they have inhabited it, lived from it, and traversed it for millennia (before mountain biking was a twinkle in anyone’s eye). So, by naming our trails in any way that ignores this, much less in such a way as to overtly degrade, demean, and dehumanize, we lay one more crust over this fact. A crust that means we continue to forget that this land isn’t ours to name (which could be what we want – is it?).

People across Canada are starting to recognize the name game and are peeling off this crust by renaming everything from mountains in Banff to Toronto city streets, re-minding us that Indigenous people are here now, and many of us are living and working and mountain biking and trail running and Backhand-of-God-drinking as guests on Indigenous land. I’m not always a bandwagoner – but there’s a movement here that I think we Kelowna folks could learn from.

Some of us, I’m sure, think it would be a big waste of time and taxpayer money to put the effort into renaming, especially considering how solidly we’re attached to our trails. With every trail (and its name) comes a memory – whether it be of a wipeout or a great rip. We’ve watched the landscape change as we’ve ridden through the seasons – as the mud dries up and the larches turn – and we might feel that by changing the trail names, we will lose our connection to the trails we call home.

(Funny thing – the names were changed and the land shifted hands a long time ago, in ways that sought to remove Indigenous people’s even deeper connection to their spaces, their lands, their homes.)

So often, unless something matters to us personally, we shrug and move on. Even right now – as I struggle to write – I notice the sun starting to come out, and I feel like closing my computer, downing the dregs of my mocha, keeping the crust where it is, and heading out for a trail run in Gillard, where – if I keep my eyes on the technical terrain and wicked MTB features – I can miss the Squaw Hollow sign entirely, or brush it off again. Damn, it’s a good day for a fall run. I think the larches are turning.

I-would-if-I-could-but-I-can’t-so-I-won’t.

Because you know what? We are in a perfect place to change the name of Squaw Hollow and have a big chat about the significance of names in the Okanagan.

We have a hard-working (and downhill-ripping) local crowd of folks at MTBco who maintain the currently “illegal” Gillard system. They are pursuing Section 57 status, where MTBco will gain the right not to own the land, but the authority to construct, rehabilitate and maintain the trail network. They already know (they’ve expressed to me directly) that new trail names are a must, from Squaw Hollow to the straight-up sexist trail names (look them up – they also have to change – for overlapping but slightly different reasons). So why not do it right? Let’s really think about how we do our naming. And make Gillard a well-maintained trail system that our whole community may be proud of.

To be honest, I thought about doing some renaming myself (I’m pretty sure there’s a hammer and some scrap wood in my garage). But despite my English teacher roots, I don’t have the pun-skills to do the trails justice ( – Berm Donor! How do people think of these things?). Pretty sure I’m not the best person for the job.

Instead, perhaps Gillard provides an opportunity to bring our community together, where people like me may get to know our Indigenous neighbors better and listen to what they have to say about matters like this. Where, instead of naming our trails in a way that continues to erase (or worse: discriminate against) our neighbors, we find ways into meaningful relationships as we build our trails together.

So. Let’s talk.

Can we do this?