Maryland Youth Unite to Advocate for Climate Justice for Communities of Color

Every Tuesday evening, Hannah Choi logs on for participation in seminars on advocacy along with a group of two dozen high school students.

These students are all interns with BIPOC [biracial, indigenous, people of color] Montgomery County Green New Deal, organized by the nonprofit National Institute for Peer Support. The organization conducts weekly training workshops where Choi and her peers are trained to plan strategies for promoting environmental and social change.

“Overall, it has motivated me to become more politically involved in my community and more informed about current events, realizing my actions can create change,” she expressed.

Leading the non-profit is Jim Driscoll, a seasoned climate activist who initiated the internship program in 2021 and acts as its coordinator. “As a preliminary step, we opted to enlist a team of interns from local high schools to educate them about the climate crisis and to foster our connections within and beyond our BIPOC priority communities,” he elaborated.

The Climate Emergency Fund, a national entity, along with various Maryland-based faith-focused and environmental groups, have allocated $75,000 to train and compensate the 150 interns who are active participants in the program.

Interns Unite for Transformation

During the Tuesday sessions, students are introduced to leaders from non-profit organizations, immigrant groups, labor unions, and environmental organizations, and are prompted to collaborate with them. The interns are instructed on the fundamentals of lobbying, composing letters to local and state authorities, testifying at hearings, and promoting their message via social media and non-violent protests organized by them and their associates.

Choi, a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, was among the initial interns and has progressed through the program. Over three years, she has voiced support for the Green New Deal at rallies, advocated for electric buses at the Montgomery County Board of Education, and assisted in rallying for rent stabilization and social housing in the county.

Shortly after Tracy Espinoza, a sophomore at Watkins Mill High School, joined the internship a year ago, she provided testimony before the Montgomery County Council regarding the rental bill, recounting a friend’s struggles with affordable housing.

BIPOC interns demonstrating for social housing and rent stabilization outside the Montgomery County Council building. (Em Espey)

“She constantly had to relocate. It was challenging for her to start afresh each time she moved,” Espinoza conveyed to council members.

Choi shared that while knocking on doors in Gaithersburg alongside volunteers from the non-profit Everyday Canvassing, she encountered similar accounts.

“Some individuals mentioned that the rent had doubled, making it difficult for them to cope with the increased costs and [worried] about potential homelessness,” she recounted. “Hearing these stories consistently, from a mother and a veteran, heightened my awareness of the gravity of the issues for which we are advocating.”

Youth Engagement in Policy Making

Twenty organizations endorsed a letter on rent regulations initiated by the interns. The students celebrated a triumph when the Montgomery County Council agreed to limit rents to 6% in 2023.

“The interns were a well-received addition to the campaign and significantly contributed to its progress,” acknowledged Driscoll. “This BIPOC internship has also facilitated the transformation of the local climate movement from being relatively isolated and politically weak to fostering stronger connections with the BIPOC, youth, and labor communities in a multifaceted coalition committed to social housing, a crucial climate target.”

Hannah Choi served as a page during this year’s Maryland General Assembly session while actively supporting Del. Vaughn Stewart’s social housing bill. (Emily Price_

Choi has extended her advocacy to the Maryland General Assembly, where she has twice served as a page this session. She crossed paths with Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery), sponsor of House Bill 7, a bill proposing a pilot social housing program that Choi wholeheartedly endorsed.

“It’s a rare sight where someone transitions from a page role to advocating simultaneously by testifying,” remarked Stewart. “Her presence left an impression on many. It was impactful.”

The bill advanced to the Senate with bipartisan backing.

Sharing the journey, Junee Kim, like Espinoza, a Watkins Mill sophomore from Gaithersburg, attested her widened network courtesy of the internship. Kim initiated the first YPP high school chapter at Watkins Mill, was elected president of the larger organization, and assumed the roles of outreach and campaign chair, aided by Espinoza as vice president and policy director.

“We concentrate on aspects such as policing, restorative justice in high schools, and the school-to-prison pipeline,” Kim detailed. “I addressed the Montgomery County Board of Education regarding the allocation of funds for restorative justice coaches in every high school and I am currently advocating for the implementation of a restorative justice survey in the school system.”

Advocacy Boosts Democracy and Personal Growth

First-generation Americans and daughters of immigrants, Kim, Choi, and Espinoza shared how the internship had transformed them. Kim attested that it turned her from being reserved and soft-spoken to becoming assertive and open to diverse perspectives. “This experience has greatly enhanced my confidence,” she proclaimed.

Choi emphasized that the journey made her more receptive to varying views. “I believe we all need to take a step back and consider other viewpoints, seize every opportunity to be well-informed because that’s crucial in our democracy,” she advocated.

Espinoza acknowledged that young individuals are actively shaping their future and the decisions they make now have lasting repercussions. “Participating in this program taught me how to advocate for myself, defend my stance, find my voice, and understand the significance of using that voice,” she stated. “I discovered my passion within government and public policies, and I hope to continue advocating for as long as possible in the future.”

At a recent Tuesday gathering, interns were engrossed in planning their next endeavor, a protest rally scheduled for April 23 at the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education in Rockville. They aim to convince the school system to uphold their commitment to exclusively purchasing electric school buses.

“Recent developments witness MCPS reverting to purchasing diesel buses, which pose substantial health risks and contribute to climate and environmental degradations,” reads an internship online petition.

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