Catalyzing Real Change: Reflections from a Harvard Chan C-CHANGE Youth Summit Alum
This blog post features writing by Rhea W., a 2022 alum of the Harvard Chan C-CHANGE Youth Summit on Climate, Equity, & Health. While at the summit, Rhea worked to developed legislation to address e-waste in Australia, and this legislation was recently awarded $16.5 million AUD to be incorporated into federal law. Here, she reflects on the experience of the summit and her ongoing activism since the summer.
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It’s been almost six months since I was invited to the Harvard Chan C-CHANGE Youth Summit, yet, the experiences and lessons of interdisciplinary activism that I have gained from the experience still resonate deeply and permeate all the advocacy that I am fortunate to pioneer to this date. The summit provided me a platform to ideate and collaborate with other high school students, incorporating diverse ideas and backgrounds, which I have been able to take home to Australia, to mobilize and create change back at home in the intersection of climate and public health activism. All these lessons stem from the incredible experience I had, and I’m so excited to share this with you, and give you an insight of what it was like to deliberate and collaborate in a global activist space.
After having made the almost 30-hour trip from Melbourne, Australia to Boston, I arrived at our housing and accommodations for the summit. Met with American slang, my Australian accent definitely stuck out, but I was soon greeted by an excited chatter of introductions and get-to-know-each-other games. Upon meeting my amazing new roommates, we settled in. We meticulously organized our rooms and shared space (a state, which, I must report, we unfortunately were not able to maintain for the full five days) and played cards—a tradition we continued every morning and evening before preparing for a week ahead, marked with lectures, discussions and talks from international activists and stakeholders dedicated to public health and climate justice.
I was fortunate to be invited to partake in the Medicine & Health Care track. My roommates chose different Action Focuses (such as Environmental Justice and Climate Science) but due to the collaboration promoted in the summit, I often saw them during different seminars and joint lectures!
On the first day, we were greeted by an amazing talk by the former Governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin. A climate leader internationally, he was able to connect with us and relay the truth about climate change on a political scale, discussing the intricacies and unspoken truths of advocating for such a pertinent issue when you have to contend with factors such as public opinion, private companies, and conflicting interests.
Throughout the week, we had similar experiences with other prominent leaders, such as a lecture on public health with Dr. Howard Koh, who encouraged us all to view public health as preventative: in order for public health systems to work, it is imperative that we are working on preventative systems and care.
Between our incredible discussions and seminars, I made lifelong friends, bonding not only over our activist passions for public health and climate change, but over shared hobbies, interests, and of course, over the apparently quite strange words or phrases that I seemed to be using. Apart from learning that a lift is called an “elevator,” and having to learn to say “water,” not “wat-ah”—because otherwise I was greeted by very strange stares—my roommates and groupmates shared joint experiences.
Every morning, we would get up at the crack of dawn to run, exercise and/or play cards, enjoying a glorious Boston sunrise in the process (of which I still have approximately 300 pictures on my phone of, not even counting the other photos of the summit). Throughout our days, we loved canoeing in Boston and having the best ice cream at a little corner store because we chose the strangest sounding flavor we could find and being taught an amazing game called Spikeball. These little experiences are truly what made the summit special. They inextricably bound us together beyond our activism, into a group that is still driven by a fervent passion to create tangible change, while at the same time aiming to find a purpose to their lives, whilst creating generational change.
My personal highlight of the summit was discussing the intersection between mental health and climate change. I have been so fortunate to be able to advocate for mental health legislation and education in Australia, but before the summit I had never truly realized that both of these seemingly disparate topics had such large overlap. At the summit, I was fortunate to work together with leaders in the field at the Harvard T.H. Chan School, and Harvard C-CHANGE, to develop climate change legislation, as well as developing an eating disorder educational module that incorporated facets of climate change into discussions of public health to educate adolescents internationally on this global issue.
Since returning to Australia, I have sought to implement the solutions I developed over the summer. Recently, due to the activism pioneered at the summit, I led a team that developed federal legislation controlling E-Waste in the state of Victoria. This legislation has just been awarded $16.5 million AUD to be incorporated into federal law by the Federal Minister for Energy. Moreover, the eating disorder module that I was able to ideate at the Harvard Chan C-CHANGE Youth Summitl is being published and taught internationally, at a summer program for pre-medical students affiliated with the Columbia Valegos College of Physicians, Harvard STRIPED, and nationally in Australia through partnering with the Foundation of Australians and the Mental Health Foundation Australia.
I am so fortunate to be working with the Australian of the Year as well, in order to educate young people about the intersection of climate change and public health—particularly mental health and body image—with events nationwide, pioneering national conversation around the topic to create change. None of this would have been possible without the inspiration and international activism driven by the summit, and I am so excited to continue to collaborate with fellow international youth leaders to catalyze tangible change across the world.