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These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.

Emma Chu and her friend Anna Kovtunenko created Vancouver’s ORCA (Ocean conservation, Reform, Climate optimism, Action) Festival. The teenagers conceived, planned and hosted this event for two years, bringing sustainable small businesses together with environmental groups to strengthen relationships while educating the public about ocean conservation.

Tell us about your project.

We invite local businesses offering a sustainable product to occupy a table in a public space shared with small local environmental groups focused on ocean health. As they network and build connections with each other, passers-by browse, shop and learn.

Our second year was 2023 and the event keeps on growing. Businesses like Periwinkle Designs and Boostani crafts display their products, and local environmental groups like the Stanley Park Ecology Society and West Coast Environmental Law offer the public opportunities to become educated and engaged. Often, the businesses find ways to support the groups, which, in turn, help promote the businesses with their membership base. More than 350 members of the public stopped by to enjoy the opportunity to learn about sustainable consumer alternatives and learn about the work of the groups concerned about healthy oceans.

We are now training organizers for future events and are lucky to have Grade 12 students ready to help. We are hopeful that continued funding will allow us to offer participation without a fee because this would be a significant barrier for single people and families who run these businesses focused on making a difference rather than maximizing profit.

How did you get involved?

I was accepted into the Ocean Wise Youth to Sea program, which provides great education and experiential learning opportunities. Participants are expected to design and complete a project that will allow them to see they can make a difference in the health of our oceans. We wanted to amplify the work of sustainable local businesses and conservation groups while educating the public.

The ORCA planning team at the festival in August 2023. Photo submitted by Emma Chu

What makes this hard?

Emma Chu and her friend Anna Kovtunenko created Vancouver’s ORCA (Ocean conservation, Reform, Climate optimism, Action) Festival. #YouthClimateAction

We started when we were just six and had to learn fast to manage our time well because we put these events together while studying for exams. But the event planning and time management skills we learned will serve us well in the future and I was able to apply them to help organize a global youth conference with young people in 10 different countries focused on ocean health in preparation for COP28.

A lot of what we do is pretty tedious. Writing and sending endless emails, figuring out what permits are needed, getting rejected by those who are disinterested, who can lend us tables and chairs — that sort of thing. It can feel like a maze of insignificant and sometimes even disheartening, tasks. But I keep my eyes focused on why we do this and that keeps me going. Having a vision of the outcome gives meaning to the small things we need to do to get there.

What do you see if we get this right?

When people connect across shared values, good things can happen. When people are educated, they can see opportunities to make a difference. Whether our efforts result in a single decision to choose a sustainable product or support a major policy shift, it all makes a difference.

What would you like to say to other young people?

What makes environmentalism special is the many ways it gets done. You might not know what interests you unless you educate yourself about an issue. Once you find a niche, speak up. I found it hard to speak up about things that concerned me at first, so I began by talking with my family. Then, it became easier to write to decision-makers. They often do care about what young people say. Even if you aren’t convinced that it actually has an impact, at least you will sleep better knowing you tried.

What about older readers?

When I was nine, I participated in the Vancouver Aquarium summer camp programs and we visited the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. It seemed so unfair that these creatures, like seals, would get hurt in accidents with passing boats or get sick from human-caused damage to their environments.

I really wanted to volunteer at the centre, but I was too young. My dad noticed my interest and when I asked him to volunteer, he agreed. Two years later, I was able to start going with him. His support and willingness to do it with me made a huge impact and I began believing I could make a difference to the health of the oceans. That confidence has stayed with me, and I am at the University of British Columbia studying natural resource conservation to work in policy development. I like knowing I can make a difference on land, too. If you support the interests of the young people in your life, it will matter.