These days, environmental issues plague our society so prevalently that some of our kids have also learned to passively live through it, numb to the truth that's hiding in plain sight: we're having a climate crisis. From the occasional mention of how any animal is eaten in China, how grey skies are just another day in Beijing to how there doesn't really seem to be a difference between the litter thrown into the non-biodegradable and biodegradable bins. In this world that our children are inheriting, do they need to wait until adulthood to advocate for the planet?
A global network of compassionate and empowered youth – the members of the Roots & Shoots community, will tell you that age isn't a limitation to begin one's advocacy. Bit by bit, the organisation is empowering youths across the globe to take a stance to defend the world they are living in.
We talked to Lucy Liu, international programme coordinator of Roots & Shoots in Beijing, to understand more about the program and how it is shaping the city's youth into changemakers.
We are a grassroots, environmental education programme operating in more than 80 countries worldwide. Dr Jane Goodall and some local students in Tanzania founded the first Roots & Shoots in 1991. The focus of Roots & Shoots is to empower and encourage young people to make a positive difference by identifying problems in their local community, usually in the areas of environmental protection, animal welfare and community service, then creating and implementing solutions to those issues.
Our programs fall under three main areas: environment, animal and community.
We also have an old project that's still running called the Guardians of the Elephants campaign, where we're trying to curb the demand for ivory because it is killing the elephants.
While most people can't afford to buy elephant ivory nor do we have the need, there is a small percentage of very very rich Chinese who feel that it's prestigious to have and, from a cultural perspective, it's beautiful, it's art and it's heritage. The demand for ivory needs to be curbed, but it's difficult to catch the people who want to buy ivory and say 'hey, don't buy ivory cause you're killing an elephant.' A lot of people think that it's just cutting off the elephant's tusks, and it's not like teeth where you can just extract a wisdom tooth from an elephant. To get the ivory, you need to kill them and take it off their skulls.
And the young ones are left very displaced, lacking the wisdom of their ancestors on where to go. They migrate from summer to winter to go to the waterholes to find water, but when they get lost, they trample on the farmers' land, who get really pissed off because their livelihood gets affected, and so they go and shoot the elephants or spear them down. So the parents are killed for the tusks while the young ones are hurt or killed for destroying livelihood. There are a few NGO's working on helping the elephants, installing flashlights around the farm spaces to scare the elephants off and avoid the area.
These elephants they generally mind their own business. They're super intelligent and they have a very long memory, so they will remember their parents, and you see these heartbreaking videos of these young ones going up to their dead fathers and rubbing their trunks over them and not wanting to leave, and you also see if a baby elephant falls into a ditch or something, you see the whole herd try to help.
So how do we solve this kind of situation where economics and livelihood are involved as well?
Learn more about the endangered White-headed Langur here
The chimpanzees are another example. In poorer countries, chimpanzees are hunted as bushmeat as part of the locals’ diet. But now that they're endangered and are in need of protection, how does one talk to the elder locals about it? The locals have always eaten them, their ancestors have eaten them but now because of deforestation and many other factors combined, these chimpanzees are now on the verge of extinction. So the problem becomes more complicated when human livelihood comes into the equation.
School Garden Project: Students from Qiyin Deaf Mute School working together to plant seasonal vegetables
What role does the youth play in this?
We can't get to the consumers, and if we do they won't listen to us. But we can get to their children. The children have such powerful, gentle souls and when they see an elephant they don't think of profit like adults do. They think, aww cute. Like my daughter, when she sees a dog she wants to go over and hug it. And I'm like, 'no. First you have to ask the owner if you can hug it'. But she doesn't sense danger, she only sees it as cute and friendly and happy.
If we can reach the children, we can reach the parents or their parents' friends who might be consumers. The children will be able to tell the news, they will be able to tell their parents and friends at school that ivory comes from a dead elephant and that thousands are being killed right now. Because at the rate that we're going, they'll be gone in ten years; that's how drastic it is. So, if I remember correctly, President Xi outlawed it from the beginning of this year. But though buying, selling and trafficking ivory is now illegal, that doesn't mean the black market has stopped. But it's still a good start. So going to a demand perspective, the children should be more aware and we hope that it's not too late to save the elephants.
But we don't tell the kids what to do or how to do it. We get them to come up with the ideas on how to do the advocacy. Some will select to go out there and do a campaign, mainly university students, while the international schools tend to do posters or raise funds within their own schools. Like last year we did this project where we mobilised all the international schools and some of the Chinese schools to go out there and get some signatures from people pledging not to get Ivory products. Last year's winner was WAB with 3,000 pledges. We estimate that the project reached at least 10,000 people across Beijing.
We want the youth to initiate, to be the firestarter, to come up with the ideas because sometimes they can come up with ideas we adults might find crazy but, when you really think about it, why not? And then with the help of their school teachers or their mentors, then they would go and implement whatever they’ve come up with.
Lucy and volunteers getting ready to make animal cookies at the British Embassy Open Day
What has been the response from the community so far?
We would like to think we shaped environmental education in Beijing for the last quarter of a century! International schools were quick to accept us as we fit in seamlessly with their serviced learning programmes. Local public schools, especially those that are outside of Beijing took a lot more effort, but they were very welcoming and we now have over 700 Roots & Shoots groups in 31 provinces in both tier 1 and tier 2 cities, of which 70 percent are university students. Our Roots & Shoots groups have taken part in projects and campaigns, such as action against the consumption of shark fins and elephant ivory, creating green space in their school, fundraising for migrant children and fighting against single-use plastics.
What other projects do you have at Roots and Shoots outside schools?
At Roots and Shoots, anyone under 30 is considered part of our "Youth" program, and since my time here, we’ve been getting corporate sponsorships where we create and develop projects for some companies. For example, we have worked with petroleum companies, and as part of their social responsibility, they wanted to have more planting activities. Through this, we would invite Roots and Shoots groups to come to do the planting or if it’s in a school we would invite the students. These corporations or enterprises want to have a Roots and Shoots group for their young employees.
Volunteer helping a migrant child at MCF make her favourite companion animal
And what age are your youngest members?
As far as I know, it’s 5 years old. They raise awareness by drawing pictures of protecting the sharks, draw posters or join an educational activity. For example, the upper class would do a play and perform it for the younger children. Being part of Roots and Shoots isn't always about getting mobilised. In some situations, children become part of the solution by learning more or participating in these activities.
Other charities or NGOs can describe their mission in a few words, such as saving impoverished children or helping people with disabilities. I always struggle to sum up what we do in less than two or three sentences! What we do is so broad but essentially it is environmental education for young people. We focus on educating, experiencing, and helping students have a deeper understanding of a problem and from there, creating empathy. When they care enough for certain issues, when they are of age maybe they can do something about it. Like once you learn about save the elephants in school, you can join an eco-tour. We've partnered up with another company to bring some children to Africa to see firsthand the stories they've learned from school and from there on perhaps empathise. The next wave of voice may be going out campaigning for their advocacy.
Volunteer quizzing a young boy on his companion animal knowledge at the British Embassy Open Day
Wow, this all sounds pretty amazing. How do kids sign up? And what should they expect?
Roots & Shoots is already in a lot of public and international schools in Beijing. All you need to do is sign up! Volunteer with your school’s unit, where each unit has their own mentor or teacher who supervises the group while the students manage the programs.
But each school runs their units differently. A really good example would be ISB. They are very well-structured: they have like a President, a Vice President and underneath they have every single group, an Environment group, an animal group and a Humans group, and they have leaders under that and project leaders under them.
And we don't run the projects but the units will report to us as well. Like how ISB reported selling bubble tea and donated their earnings to a rescue centre or to an orphanage. But if they used plastic the first round and want something more environmentally-friendly, they can come back to me to bounce ideas off on how to do it better next time. And they also have their own WeChat groups and students and teachers get to share their ideas and what to do. The students are super pro-active and do their own thing.
If you would like to set up a Roots & Shoots group in your school or organisation, join our internship programme or become a volunteer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
8. Do parents have to sign anything off before the kids join?
That depends on the school policy.
Lucy and volunteer put on their animal faces with the children
Do you have any tips for parents who would like to encourage the spirit of volunteerism in their own kids?
Always start with an inspiring story. I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard the story of Jane Goodall living in the wild with chimpanzee but after that I wanted to be just like her — a female heroine, running wild, making friends with wild animals and speaking their language! I didn’t get to do that unfortunately, but it did make me go outside and run around in the horse paddock behind our house. It brought me closer to nature, closer to the animals and even closer to my neighbours who brought carrots for me to feed the horses. Living in an urban city life, stories help us become connected and only when that relationship is forged do we feel empathy. In Dr Goodall’s words: 'Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.'
For more information visit their websites (www.goodall.cn and www.genyuya.org.cn), subscribe to our WeChat account (English: RootsandShoots) (Chinese: 根与芽时讯) and register for our projects and campaigns!