As is evident in the growing awareness and influence of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, many of the most powerful voices in the climate justice movement are coming from young people. Bioneers has been aware of the potential of youth leaders for many years. In 2000, Bioneers keynote speaker Julia Butterfly Hill, a young activist who had spent two years living in a redwood tree to protest the clear-cutting of old-growth forests, called for Bioneers to engage more young people in its work and community. Bioneers heeded that call and, in 2001, launched its Youth Leadership Program, which they describe as an “incubator for the next generation of leaders.” The program provides young people the opportunity to attend the Bioneers conference, connect with other activists, and participate in skill-building workshops, mentoring sessions, and creative projects.

As contributors to the Youth Leadership Fund which helps support the program, we wondered: might there be someone in this “incubator” who has an interest in the kind of work we do at Biohabitats? If so, how might Bioneers influence his or her life, activism, or career path? We had a chance to learn the answers to this question when Bioneers connected us with Vanessa Rebentisch a high school senior from Redondo Beach, California.

In June of 2019, while most of her friends were attending summer school, working summer jobs, or hanging out at the local beach, rising Redondo Union High School senior Vanessa Rebentisch was scrambling to write a speech that would compel her local city council to pass a resolution supporting the Green New Deal. Just two weeks earlier, Vanessa and two of her classmates had stepped to the microphone during the non-agenda period of a Redondo Beach City Council meeting to request that such a resolution be put on the agenda for a future meeting. They were told their request could take months to process. A week and a half later–with only two days’ notice-they were informed that they’d be on the agenda of the very next meeting.

Fortunately, Vanessa is an action-oriented multitasker. In addition to being a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist with an interest in ecological engineering, she is the Editor in Chief of her high school yearbook, a dancer, and the founder of the local chapters of two national organizations: the young female empowerment organization, I AM THAT GIRL, and the Sunrise Movement, a growing army of youth activists working to stop the climate crisis.

Vanessa (3rd from R) and fellow students prepare to address the City Council

When Vanessa and her classmates delivered their speeches before the city council, they neither ranted nor raged. After praising the town for having an existing climate action plan, they spoke of the its potential to become a national leader. At the time, only five city councils had passed resolutions supporting the Green New Deal, and Vanessa and the students wanted Redondo Beach to be the sixth. As Vanessa put it in her speech, the passing of the resolution was “a completely doable baby step” in helping the entire country to become active in climate change.

Vanessa (L) and her fellow students address the Redondo Beach City Council

The City took that step and passed the resolution on July 2, 2019. According to Vanessa, a key to the students’ success was their approach. “There are people who complain and complain,” she said. “We wanted to be different. Instead of attacking them, we wanted to inspire them to action by addressing them with respect and saying, ‘We have this ability and we need to use it. We can do better.’” Another factor that worked in their favor was their age. “There is literally no one under fifty in there, ever,” said Vanessa. “I think it was refreshing for them to see teenagers wanting to get involved and concerned about the future.”

While working on the next step in that advocacy effort—getting the City to establish an environmental commission that could actually change laws—Vanessa learned about the Bioneers Youth Scholarship from her former nanny, Hope Rollins. Hope, now a digital marketing expert and musician, helps Bioneers with social media.

“Recognizing Vanessa’s passion for environmental engineering, and that she is part of a generation that is way more on top of making the world a better place than mine was, I encouraged her to apply,” said Hope. Vanessa did apply and was accepted.

Vanessa’s primary goal in attending Bioneers was to learn about nature-based thinking and solutions so she could share that knowledge with her community. She was particularly looking forward to listening to the science-oriented talks, but she was also hoping to gain a better understanding of how the climate crisis is linked with other social issues. “I love how Bioneers has so many different things scheduled–not only around climate change, but also other topics I’m not well versed in and would like to become more familiar with,” she said.

Midway through the conference, Vanessa was not disappointed. “So far, Bioneers has been so enlightening, so amazing,” she said. “The diversity of the speakers and their topics… all of these people and subjects sharing a platform… I’ve never had access to anything like this.” She expected the science-based talks to be her favorites, but she was surprised to find herself powerfully moved by talks about women’s rights, indigenous knowledge, other social issues, and surprisingly, love. “I used to think of these issues as being separate, but they are not,” she said. “You can’t get everyone to care about climate change, but if you can teach people how to love, it will, in turn, make them care.”

…soccer doesn’t matter if the world ends.

She was also finding community. “My club at school only has seven people in it. It can be disheartening when kids say things like, ‘I can’t come to the meeting because I have soccer,’” she said. “On one hand, that makes sense because people have daily responsibilities. But on the other hand, soccer doesn’t matter if the world ends… It is so nice to be with other people who are feeling the same things as me and know that I’m not alone and know that there are all of these resources in all of these people at Bioneers that I can take with me beyond this weekend.”

Vanessa chats with Biohabitats Practice Leader, Erin English, about colleges, environmental engineering, and life.

Though she still had a day and a half of Bioneers’ talks and workshops yet to experience, the conference was already reinforcing her desire to study environmental engineering and to create and implement solutions.

I want to leave this world better than I found it, and for me, environmental engineering is the most direct way I can do that.

Referencing the poem “Hieroglyphic Stairway” by Drew Dellinger, which was featured in a moving video that opened the conference, Vanessa said, “When my great, great grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do while the earth was unraveling?’ I want to say, ‘I did something.’ I want to leave this world better than I found it, and for me, environmental engineering is the most direct way I can do that.”

A few weeks after returning to Redondo Beach, Vanessa was still unpacking the goods gained from her Bioneers experience. “I came away from Bioneers really seeing how interconnected everything is and how beneficial it can be to get ideas from nature to apply to human problems,” she said. “I also learned how much we have to learn from indigenous people. They have so much wisdom that we don’t learn about in history classes.”

Vanessa is eager to share the knowledge and insight she gained at Bioneers. Her first priority is to spread the Bioneers’ message through her own community, and she sees many opportunities to do that. She has already spoken to her environmental science teacher, and she has plans to work with her to introduce some of what she learned at Bioneers to future classes. She intends to reach out to her school and local newspapers to pitch stories about her participation in Bioneers, and she is considering writing a piece about her experience to include in next year’s yearbook. She has also talked with her parents about Bioneers and plans to have her family watch the talks online. “They need to experience what I experienced,” she said.

Bioneers has also given Vanessa insight into the power of a positive mindset, something that can be elusive for a young person coming of age during such a volatile time in our national and planetary history.

“Bioneers is all about solutions, which is so much more positive than identifying the problems and then identifying more problems,” she said. “For me, the effects of climate change are absolutely terrifying, but it’s cool to hear people who have solutions that are ready to be put into practice. It’s reassuring to hear that we have the power to fix what we’ve broken.”

Vanessa has also felt the transformative impact of her Bioneers experience on a more personal level. She recently has had to devote a considerable amount of time and attention to her twin sister, who is recovering from ankle surgery and on crutches. Caring for someone else while balancing activism, schoolwork, college applications, and extracurricular activities is bound to be challenging, and before attending Bioneers, Vanessa would easily become frustrated with her sister. After Bioneers, she said, “I’ve been reminding myself to just approach it with love because it could me in her situation. I’ve actually noticed a difference. I’m genuinely happy to help her out. Even just like that little thing in my own life has already had an impact.”

Vanessa (R) and her twin sister

Vanessa’s Bioneers experience has also impacted her efforts to advance climate action in Redondo Beach by encouraging the City Council to establish an environmental commission. The week she returned from Bioneers, she and her fellow students attended the City Council’s strategic planning meeting, where they joined the mayor, Council members, and other officials who were planning the Council’s agenda for the coming months. When Vanessa had an opportunity to address the group, she mentioned her recent trip to Bioneers. She shared a quote from author and founder, Bill McKibben keynote talk: “Climate change is humanity’s single biggest achievement as a species, if you can call it that. We have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, and with that, have altered every square meter of the Earth’s surface. People are supposed to get old over the course of 30 years, but planets are not. If we do not win soon, we do not win.”

According to observers, the move impressed the chief of police. Several days later, Vanessa was informed that the Council voted to start compiling a report of other cities that have environmental commissions. “It’s a good first step,” said Vanessa.

Attending Bioneers also provided Vanessa with some clarity about the next phase of her education and her future career path in environmental engineering. She is currently visiting colleges to which she has been accepted. “I’m discovering that at a lot of schools environmental engineering is more about mitigating harmful things that humans are doing instead of regenerating nature,” she said. “I’d rather be doing the latter. So that’s another consideration I’ll have to put into picking a school.”

“Bioneers has really reaffirmed my goals,” she said. “I’ve always been a helper, and it would be awesome to be able to do it on such a large scale.” Chatting with Biohabitats senior engineer and practice lead, Erin English at Bioneers, also proved useful. “I was really excited to learn about what Biohabitats does because that is exactly what I want to do.”

Vanessa will likely return to Bioneers. “I would definitely love to go back, especially in the coming years as I’m pursuing a career,” she said. At future Bioneers conferences, Vanessa would like to see even more talks and programming focused on regenerative agriculture. She sees this as critical, given population growth, climate change, and the need for food security.

What advice would Vanessa offer a young person who is considering learning more about Bioneers or attending a Bioneers conference?

“Have an open mind,” she said. “A lot of what you learn at Bioneers is not stuff that we learn about in school. If you go to Bioneers, think of how you can apply the things you learn in your own life. Nothing’s going to change if we go to these speeches, say ‘that was cool,’ and just return to our regular lives. Implementing the ideas shared at Bioneers–even if they’re little changes or mindset changes–will affect the people around you, and that will ripple out from there.”

Vanessa (2nd from R) with Biohabitats’ Erin English, Keith Bowers, and Amy Nelson

[Editor’s note: We plan to stay in touch with Vanessa as she continues her journey toward a career in environmental engineering. We enjoyed getting to know this young leader, and we view our support of the Bioneers Youth Scholarship as an investment in the future of our field and our planet. If you’d like to learn more about the Bioneers Youth Leadership Program or the Bioneers Youth Scholarship, please visit the Bioneers website.]

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