Lauren Workman, called Ren, is an inspiring young woman who is very active in environmental education and youth empowerment. flowful meets... talks with her about the importance of diversity, equality and the need to provide opportunities to everyone to be part of the big change. Read the full interview here.
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- youth empowerment
- climate action
- environmental protection
- environmental education
Information about The Fresh Air Fund, the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Program and the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute:
Music is by Andrew Healy:
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Read the full interview here:
Today, flowful meets… Lauren Workman, called Ren, an inspiring young woman who is very active in environmental education and youth empowerment. We talk with her about the importance of diversity, equality and the need to provide opportunities to everyone to be part of the big change.
Ren devotes her free time to two different organizations that are focusing on youth empowerment and environmental education. A few years ago, Ren started working for the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute (ESSYI), an environmental studies program of her college that focuses on the interdisciplinary nature of environmental issues and the complexity of potential solutions. That sounds a little theoretical and stiff but it is actually an amazing practical approach. But we’ll talk about that later.
Furthermore, Ren is active in working for The Fresh Air Fund, an independent, not-for-profit agency founded in 1877. Ren’s family joined the Host Family Program of the organization even before her birth and of course that influenced Ren a lot. Each summer, she now supports the Summer Camping Program of the organization. Both programs are aiming to allow children living in low-income communities in New York City to have the opportunity to play, laugh, make new friends, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life away from the city.
But for Ren all started with the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Program, a program that aims to inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service and innovation.
Ren: It sounds very cliché and corny but the three days did change my life. Before then I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I was a good student but not a great student and I you know I just have different priorities as a sixteen year old of course I had a lot of things going on but there were those three days which were just filled with positivity, and cheering, and excitement, and hugs and just all sorts of ways to make you feel like you're an important person and make you feel like you can do good in the world. That inspired me to do so many things. The first step was that I applied to college early and left my high school and left that small close-minded place and went out and now I am in Vietnam.
So my first introduction to youth empowerment which has become my overall passion in the thing that I spend most of my time on was the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Foundation. It is a program for sophomores in high school so when I was sixteen I was selected to attend and it's a weekend full of youth empowerment, community service, and team building that just really inspires people to be the best version of themselves that they can be and to make change in their communities. So that was my introduction to it and I still volunteer for them every year and I am now involved in a diversity initiative for that organization. So that's where it all started and it kind of snowballed into what I do now which is working with two primary organizations on getting involved with youth and getting them involved in their communities.
Ren comes from a farm town in upstate New York where she grew up being outside pretty much all day. This got her interested in nature and so she decided to study environmental studies and cultural anthropology. Through her parents who were part of the Host Family Program she came in touch with The Fresh Air Fund and every year she supports the organization’s Summer Camping Program.
Ren: Those camps serve as the primary way that students are able to go outside of the city and become connected with their environment and become connected with the people that they're able to work with as well. So the goal is to give these students who are from low income backgrounds and families to have an opportunity to get outside of the city and see what it's like to be in the fresh air, hence the name The Fresh Air Fund, and to be able to communicate and learn about bunch of other people too because before those camps we hire 500 staff members from all around the world so these kids get to meet people from all over the place, and hear their accents, and hear about their culture and it's so much fun to see because the kids love it and they really have never got that kind of experience before. And they're welcome to come back the second summer, third summer, they can do it once a year if they would like to and it is a free summer camp for all of the kids. That's the most important part; it's for a very particular group of people. And so one aspect of the program is the camp.
The second is having host families. It is called The Friendly Towns Program and my family was a part of it when I grew up. So for thirteen years we hosted a child from New York City in our home in upstate New York and he's now my brother, I know him since I was born because he started being with my family before I was even born.
So this idea is to allow this low income students to come and be with the family to not just get the camping experience but to also see what a family lives like and what they do day-to-day because, well, what I did as a child growing up being outside and doing all these different things is very very different from a child who's from a low income family within the city. We still may have the same interests and hobbies but they manifested differently just because of the environment that we grew up in. So having this Host Family Program allows for a lot of cultural exchange and also for these children to see the passion that we all have being from a rural area being really connected to our environment.
Both, The Host Family Program and the summer camps accompanied Ren through her youth and influenced her values and life decisions a lot. She now has a clear vision how she wants to be part of the big change
Ren: The overall vision for these programs and for myself are to give youth the opportunity to be all that they can be and to truly believe that their small actions can make real change in the world.
The reason that this is needed is just because it's not entirely there yet. Kids don't have a lot of support growing up in many parts of the world and they don't have the idea that their small things matter. Because they are just kids. We constantly say they're just kids, they can't do anything, but that's not true we need to tell them that they are people and that they can do a lot.
The world is a really tough place right now and has been for a long time in terms of politics that are going on, in terms of corruption and many different things that are happening.
Change only happens for people who are able to have any sort of confidence that that's able to happen. So in my opinion, starting with children is the most important part because they're going to be the future of what happens in our government and our societies in all these different things. So if we're able to tell them that at a very young age that they're able to make changes, and that they're able to do anything productive within their community, I think that that's the first start because you start to develop at such a young age these ideas of confidence in yourself and confidence in your ability to make change and to do anything productive. And if you are told at a very young age that nothing's going to change that's what you believe and that's what you believe through your life time.
The importance of it comes from unfortunately a lack of that. To learn or constantly being told that they're doing the wrong thing but that what they're doing won't do anything. And it comes from social media, it comes from societal pressures, of thinking that your tiny steps towards change won't amount to big change because I think we have this strange thought that little by little, like everyday things like recycling for example won't do much and perhaps that's the case, perhaps the one wrong bottle in the bin won't do anything but it's the mindset that does that thing because if you believe that your small efforts for change are going to do something then you're going to be able to be successful CEO of an environmental organization or something, like you be able to move forward and the reason that this is needed is just because it's not entirely there yet.
Ren learned a lot of these things through the Friendly Town Program when her family was hosting Jonathan. Jonathan already had been living with her family even before she was born and he stayed two weeks every summer. Having him as a part of her family and seeing him and her brother being so close opened her and her families mind a lot; and it even did a lot to the small community she’s from.
Ren: I actually can't even imagine what it would have been like if I didn't have that experience. I am extremely lucky that I do have that but in talking to my brother who is four years older and had more time where he didn't really get to know people from outside our small community. He describes to me the things that he was able to learn which are recognizing that people who don't look like you are usually very much like you and have a lot of the same interests. I think because my brother and Jonathan were so close in age and they were able to do things a lot together because they were so similar. That taught my brother a lot and also me because I was able to see these two children essentially these two children who looks very different but were the same. They grew up in very different communities but then when they came together and when they were on their bicycles or when they were running around they were just people. That was something that was really important for me to learn and for my family as well because when I, you know, when I tell my family that I'm going to Vietnam for a semester or I'm going to Indonesia that is something that a lot of families in areas where I'm from would be very against and would be afraid of because they're afraid of change and they are afraid of what is out there afraid of what's outside of our small community.
The town where I'm from is extremely small but we've had a bunch of Fresh Air Fund host families and I've seen a huge increase in the amount of international students that we host at my high school. So having exchange students too, is something that didn't happen a lot when I was very young and by the time I was graduating we were having three or four students from Europe come and study with us. And that's a huge change that really impacts the student body. And I remember when I was in high school I was able to have interactions with people from all over the world and I think that... You know, I'm not saying that it started with my family but I think that having that introduction might have spread a little bit more open mindedness and cultural sensitivity to having new people come in because there's a lot of close mindedness when you only have a certain group of people. So just having like small introductions to what the rest of the world is like can really open up a ton of opportunities.
Ren is still active for the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute that inspired her so much and affected a lot of her future decisions. This institute takes place at her college and it’s a 2-weeks training all about environment; it’s about sustainability, community development, but also about how the economy and how politics play into all this.
Ren: Usually thirty five students from all over the world who come to my college to learn and it's a summer program for that and so the ones that are there really are passionate about making change and passionate about figuring out what they can do to become actors in their community.
So the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute is just one part of my year because it's only two weeks out of the summer but it's also some of the most impactful two weeks out of my year, every single year, because the students are so youthful of course and passionate and they're really there to learn as much as they can because they have worked the hardest to get there.
So my first summer that I worked for the Environmental Studies Program I met with all of these students, and then a few weeks later and a few months later I'm able to see them applying to colleges and I'm able to see them going into environmental programs and really following what they learned within those two weeks. Some of them weren't even interested in environmental studies before they came to the program and now that's what they're studying for four years and that's what they might go into in the future. So those kinds of things where I'm able to reach out to them and the internet has helped a lot with this, they're able to just send me what they're doing and updates all the time to let me know how they are. In having a network with these students who I'm able to look to when I need advice for how to work with youth and how to go about these kinds of things is really important. So I have been able to see individuals change throughout this time and see them apply to colleges and do those kind of things.
But not surprisingly, it’s not always easy to get funding for those programs. For Ren, it’s not easy to accept the monetary environment and dependency of non-profits.
Ren: Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges is money because in order to host 3,000 children at a summer camp we need a lot of money and you need a lot of support from volunteers. and you need you just need. Basically, I guess the key thing is money. I wanted to get away from that but I don't think you can unfortunately because since nonprofits a lot of the time are focused on funding and are focused on grant writing in all these different things they have to do it in order to make this possible. And if we want to make it free which is what we're really, really focused on then we need funding, we need support from outside organizations, and outside people.
For the Environmental Program it's not free so the students do pay for it, so that helps with you know increasing the opportunities but we also have a cap, we don't wanna make it too expensive because we also don't want to make it exclusive too much so that people can't go because of money. So I think unfortunately the biggest challenge is just the capitalists economy that we live in, we can't get away from that and we do need money to do anything.
Change is just achievable when there are no barriers, when everyone is able to be part of it! And access to education and opportunities for everyone is the most important thing for Ren. But to stop environmental degradation we need more than this.
Ren: Time is really important because change takes a lot of time and the work that we are doing can't happen overnight and it can't happen in a year. The overall vision that we want to succeed in is to allow children to believe that they can do what they can do and to also open up opportunities to close this gap in poverty and to reduce environmental degradation and all of this big huge goals that we have, take a lot of time. So I think, that's one thing we need. But the other is just...; it is just people to believe in what we are doing, because we can't do it without people. All of this is about people, it is about connections and their role in the environment and their role within the communities, so we need people to have some sort of optimism that it is going to get better and that things can move forward. Because without that we'll not gonna get anywhere. We do need time and we need some sort of belief that any change is possible.
Ren’s theory of change is a very powerful one.
Her vision is that every person, may it be kids or grownups, poor or rich, feels empowered and is able to see their opportunity to be all that they can be and truly believe that their actions can make real changes. Because big change will not come from the top, real change only happens if all of us can participate and can use the power of community.
Ren puts all her energy into building structures to give individuals, communities and society the confidence to take ownership in the change process and to reduce barriers to opportunities.
Facilitating the progress to empower people to make small changes and first steps is Ren’s way to contribute to a great turning. And I so agree that starting with children is the most important thing because they are the future of the Earth and they are part of what will happen in our governments. Building capacity within the next generation and creating an empowered and enlightened society is Ren’s strategy to close the gap between the current reality and her vision.
You beautiful people out there, I hope you are as inspired as we are of Ren’s motivation. Thanks a lot Ren for sharing your ideas and visions!
As usual, you can find all links in the show notes below and on our website www.flowful.org. If you like what we do please share this episode, our website or whatever! Oh, and we’re also on Instagram and twitter!
Music is by beautiful soul Andrew Healy.
Thanks for listening! Be flowful!