Sarah Holcomb

First Steps to Becoming a Climate Changemaker

Young leaders on how to take on the most pressing issue of our generation


Even though we know the climate crisis is an existential threat, “people aren’t freaking out about it enough,” 20–year-old activist Katie Eder writes. But she understands why taking action can be such a challenge — “the facts are so daunting and discouraging, they can often paralyze people.”

Faced with an overwhelming crisis, where do we start?

As Katie, an Ashoka Young Changemaker, reminds us, sitting still is not an option. Even small actions are critical. Over the last year, young climate changemakers have shared with us helpful hints in the First Steps series, drawn from their own experience making change in their communities and beyond. Here’s where you can begin.

Get firsthand experience

Before launching a project, research is essential to understand the issue and how to approach it — and real-world research is best.

“I wanted to gain knowledge from people and communities that were dealing first-hand with these food sustainability issues on a daily basis,” Megan Chen remembers. The summer before starting The Urban Garden Institute, Megan had the chance to work at an urban farm right in the center of Wilmington, Delaware.

There, “I was able to not only learn more about urban gardening, but also connect to the local community on a weekly basis via farmer's markets where I would help to sell produce,” she says. “From these farmer's markets, I learned more about what strategies had been set in place to tackle these problems and got feedback on some of the ideas that I had been creating. These helped me to have a much clearer picture of the solution before launching TUGI.”

Reach out to mentors

After Vivian Wang and her sister May started developing an idea and business model for how they hoped to collect and distribute perfectly useable hotel linens to people who needed them, they reached out to mentors who offered their time to provide feedback from a professional perspective.

A mentor might be a teacher, entrepreneur, businessperson, activist, or anyone else with experience connected to the issue or idea you’re working on. “May and I connected with our school teachers for guidance,” Vivian says.

Involve the people right around you

“My first step was as simple as influencing my family and my school to collect e-waste,” Rafa Jafar, a young changemaker in Indonesia, recalls.

“At first, I really wanted people to know about the e-waste problem and how it can contaminate our environment. So, I spent time educating people. Afterward, I provided a box for people to drop their e-waste. After I collected enough, I sent it to a recycling center, where they could dispose of the waste properly.”

Eventually, Rafa’s initiative, E-Waste RJ, would grow to include over 400 members across different areas — but it started with his immediate circle.

Find a pilot

For Surbhi and Maxwell, founding The Tomorrow Project started with sending emails to all of the elementary schools in their local district.

“We hoped at least one would respond and express interest, and once we could prove our success in one school, others would want to follow,” they explain. They originally emailed around a dozen schools and received two responses: “a solid start.” Then they set up meetings with a faculty or staff member at the school to explain their project and what they hoped to do.

Megan also started at local schools. Testing out the educational program she and her team developed, they led workshops. “We got plenty of valuable feedback,” she says. “We learned about what topics and activities resonated better with students and which ones did not work. Many surveys, workshops, and gardening activities later, we began to develop our base program.”

Pour thought into the process

Vivian and May put their business model first as they launched Linens n Love. “We considered the recipients, the donors, and the volunteers, and how we could streamline the linens donations,” Vivian says. They asked questions like “how can we establish sustainable partnerships with hotels and local nonprofits?”

For sisters Allie and Chloe, who started an initiative to help people convert their own car engines to electric, planning was key. “We spent months learning, researching, and planning our approach and schedule. We figured out the specifications and budget for all the parts. We completed our first build over the summer. While building, we filmed our experience so that we could incorporate it in our learning materials to empower others to make their own electric vehicles.”

Build a team

“Form a strong team. It’s so important to find the right people who support the mission of your organization and are willing and able to commit to making that mission and vision a reality. “Connect with friends who you think embody your mission and vision,” Vivian says.

When challenges come, having a tight-knit team you trust will make the difference. Lean on your support system. Megan adds: “This may be a bumpy road, but you will be able to meet so many incredible people as you take action on the issues you are looking to solve.”

When it comes down to it, just start.

“The hardest part is starting. But there is no correct way to do it, you just need to start,” Maxwell and Surbhi say.

“Why wait?” Vivian asks. “It’s never too early (or late!) to take action.”