A thumbnail which shows photos of the four Lawson Youth Action & the Environment Pilot Fellowship recipients captured from their documentary videos. Alexandria Whiteduck sits infront of a window, Mariam Vahed stands infront of a school, Serena Mendizabal walks through long grass with her arm outstreched and Madeline Carr sits by a stream with a forest in the background.

With the Lawson Foundation’s inaugural Youth Action & Environment Pilot Fellowship coming to a close, this article shares the whole story of this unique initiative, our lessons learned, and what comes next, as well as premiering four must-watch mini-documentaries spotlighting the incredible work undertaken by our fellowship recipients.



Empowering Today’s Youth for a Sustainable Tomorrow

The Lawson Foundation launched its first-ever fellowship pilot in 2022 to directly support young environmental leaders, learn about their needs and aspirations, and fill a real gap in the landscape of resources available to them. Together with an advisory group of young environmental leaders, we crafted a fellowship that emphasized flexibility and established a direct relationship between the funder and the recipient. We then worked with national charitable organizations to help us recruit applicants, seeking out young leaders with bold environmental action ideas but who had not been able to access the resources to turn them into reality and provided them with funding at a level rarely seen in the field ($25,000 per person). 

This was an exciting new venture for the Foundation–we had never run a fellowship before, and we were asked why we, as a funder, would want to conduct a program like this. Our guiding “double bottom line” was: “(1) to strengthen youth leadership and civic engagement, and (2) to encourage connection to nature and environmental action” with the goal of supporting young leaders who possess the passion, skills, and knowledge to effect genuine environmental change in their communities but lacked the critical resources to enact their impactful ideas. 

Designing and launching this fellowship was a big leap for the Lawson Foundation, and we have been consistently inspired by the young individuals who chose to join us on this journey.


Youth Action & Environment Pilot Fellowship

In a time when environmental challenges have escalated around the world, young leaders are courageously meeting the moment with hope, activating their creativity and innovation to forge solutions to the problems they encounter.

Yet, the youth movement for environmental action suffers from a lack of support. High burnout, lack of resources, lack of gathering space, and a critical need for funding all compound to chip away at the necessary foundations young environmental leaders need to grow, innovate, and drive change.

Across the country, young Canadians are bringing forward big ideas and taking bold steps to address the environmental challenges they see despite clear roadblocks and lack of access to necessary resources. So, in imagining ways in which the Lawson Foundation could nurture this unique leadership, we asked ourselves, “Who better to take action on the interests and concerns of young people than young leaders themselves?”

Recognizing the value of empowering young leaders, we launched the Youth Action & Environment Pilot Fellowship Initiative to support the work of four young Canadian leaders eager to take the lead on environmental action projects. The fellowship recipients were chosen for their distinctive vision and commitment to environmental stewardship, showcasing ideas and a dedication to creating sustainable changes within their communities, embodying the essence of youth-driven environmental action.

The fellowship recipients, all young leaders who had faced different societal, cultural, or economic barriers along their unique journeys into environmental and community advocacy, benefited from a year of comprehensive support, including funding, coaching, and capacity-building resources, to enable their projects and empower their leadership development.


Announcing our Fellowship Documentaries

We are excited to share four short films about each of our fellowship recipients, produced by MyMedia Creative as part of their Climate Warriors Series. These films capture the incredible stories of our fellowship recipients, the projects they’ve championed, and how much they have grown as environmental leaders.

Each film is a testament to the fellowship recipients’ resilience, creativity, and impact, shedding light on the power of youth-led environmental action and the innovative solutions they can implement when equipped with the necessary resources and support. Let’s explore the stories of these young leaders whose work continues to inspire and challenge us to think differently about our collective environmental future.

 


Alexandra Whiteduck

Alexandra Whiteduck (she/her) is an amplifier of Indigenous voices and an environmental advocate who, through Project Nibi, works to empower Indigenous Peoples with community-owned solutions to access safe and clean drinking water. Growing up in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg where her upbringing was deeply affected by the absence of clean drinking water, Alexandra is now determined to mobilize and support a new generation of youth-led environmental justice grounded within community knowledge and self-determination.

 


Madeline Carr

Madeline is an environmental leader who, inspired by generations of familial connections to nature, created M. Ruth Retreats. This eco-tourism organization reconnects people with the environment and provides nature connectivity and leadership retreats for youth. Drawing from her roots growing up in remote Tay Creek, New Brunswick, Madeline recognized the impact of exposure to nature on cultivating sustainable environmental awareness and now dedicates her work to facilitating these vital experiences.

 


Serena Mendizabal

Serena is a dedicated advocate for Indigenous land defense and stewardship, who created the Community Hub Network for Protect the Tract, bringing together kinship and allyship along the Haldimand Tract. As a Cayuga Panameñas woman from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, Serena’s commitment to Haudenosaunee sovereignty and environmental stewardship is deeply personal, inspiring her professional journey to unite communities through shared visions of land care and climate justice.

 


Marium Vahed

Marium Vahed is a storyteller, entrepreneur, and community organizer who spearheaded Green Ummah. This initiative recognized, spread awareness of, and worked to address the barriers Muslims face to participate in the environmental movement. Her project, the Greening Muslim Communities Toolkit, provides an activity-based curriculum for young Muslims in Ontario to empower critical and creative thinking about their relationship to the environment.


 

What We’ve Learned

Launching the Youth Action and the Environment Fellowship Pilot Initiative provided the Lawson Foundation with an invaluable opportunity to support and empower a group of young environmental leaders and gather insights from our first experience designing and running a fellowship. Through the feedback and information collected throughout the pilot, we have reflected on our objectives and distilled a number of lessons learned as we move forward.

The evaluation of the pilot made it clear that the fellowship achieved the double bottom line of the Youth Action and the Environment impact area: to strengthen youth leadership and civic engagement and to connect youth to nature and environmental action. Fellowship recipients felt supported throughout their journey and spoke specifically about the positive impact of the fellowship’s leadership coaching, financial resources, and overall empowerment.

One key insight was the significance of elevating the voices of young leaders. As a foundation, our direct engagement with young people on this scale was a new experience. It was both rewarding and enlightening, though not without its challenges, particularly in finding regular and effective ways to connect, given their busy schedules. 

We aimed to cultivate meaningful relationships with each of the recipients so as to understand their work and provide support for their needs while also creating an open space for connection and mutual learning among the fellowship recipients. Our leadership coach was instrumental in offering training and personalized support throughout the year and a series of group gatherings.

Adjusting to the right frequency and format for these interactions was a significant part of the Foundation’s learning journey through the fellowship. These young leaders, juggling full-time schooling or work and personal and volunteer commitments, needed a flexible and responsive support system. Eventually, we found a balanced approach by integrating our regular update meetings with leadership coaching sessions, enabling us to address their progress and challenges in real-time alongside our coach.

We also learned that the fellowship recipients were especially keen on connecting more with each other, expressing a desire to strengthen their peer community within the fellowship. They emphasized coming together, sharing experiences, and building a supportive community. This aligns with broader feedback from our grantees and partners, highlighting a universal need among young leaders for spaces that facilitate peer learning and community building.  

Another recommendation from our evaluation was to include an initial in-person gathering to establish strong bonds and familiarize recipients with the Lawson team and mentors. Additionally, expanding training on public policy/advocacy, legal issues, fundraising, communications/marketing, land-based learning, and more up-front clarity about dates and commitments were recognized as points to work on.

Overall, all the recipients noted that they gained significant confidence in themselves as environmental leaders during the fellowship. This outcome resulted from numerous factors, including the validation they felt from seeing their ideas selected for the fellowship, receiving financial support, having their voices elevated, and being able to turn their projects into successful community initiatives.

These lessons have been invaluable. For the second year of the pilot fellowship initiative, we are committed to integrating these insights into our approach, ensuring that the fellowship is a nurturing ground for young environmental leaders.


Looking Ahead

The Youth Action & the Environment Pilot Fellowship Initiative has proven the power of investing in youth-led solutions, building on the Lawson Foundation’s commitment to the healthy development of children and youth. This experience has enriched our understanding of the dynamic landscape of Youth Action and the Environment and strengthened our resolve to continue amplifying youth leadership and nurturing the growth of young leaders.

With the pilot’s success, we at the Lawson Foundation are eager to build on the lessons learned over the past year and launch a second pilot fellowship initiative that will continue providing direct support to young leaders, elevating their voices, and connecting them to new opportunities. This will add to our learning about the needs of the youth environmental leadership sector and how we might best approach supporting those needs.


Our Call to Action

In launching the Youth Action and the Environment Fellowship, we recognized the critical role young leaders play in environmental advocacy. Their passion, creativity, and commitment to change are undeniable, yet they face significant challenges if they cannot receive the urgent support and resources needed to help spur their success.

Our experience has underscored the impact that more funding and support for these young environmental leaders can have. They are not just future leaders; they are leaders today, trying to shape the world they live in. To succeed, they require financial backing, skill development, a community of peers for support, and equitable access to opportunities. 

We would welcome funders in the environmental and youth leadership sectors to join us in this crucial mission. Let’s work together to empower young environmental leaders with the resources, support, and recognition they need to lead us into a greener, more sustainable future.

Amanda Mayer

Amanda Mayer

COO & Program Director, Amanda has been with the Lawson Foundation since 2014. Cause-driven, engaged, and socially conscious – Amanda embraces opportunities that allow her to take on issues and support causes that inspire her.

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