A Confluence of Young Leaders

Last weekend, North Cascades Institute partnered with North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to offer the North Cascades Youth Leadership Conference, A Confluence of Young Leaders, Nov. 12-14 at  the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. The conference included students from nearby communities such as Seattle, Mount Vernon and Concrete, Wash., as well as representatives from as far away as Wenatchee, Wash., and Pendleton and Astoria, Oreg. All of these students have participated in a program on public lands such as Cascades Climate Challenge, North Cascades Wild, International District Housing Alliance WILD, or Youth Conservation Corps. Many of the student leaders are first generation Americans, born in places like Bhutan, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines and Somalia. All of them were motivated by the power of the North Cascades environment and came to this conference to further develop their leadership skills so that they can help protect this special place. I went hoping to inspire the 48 high school students to become even stronger environmental leaders, and I left inspired by their hope and leadership.

Students and staff work on their Action Plans to help further develop their leadership skills

Friday evening’s keynote featured brothers Benjie Howard and Maketa Wilborn of New Wilderness Project. Benjie and Maketa presented a powerful interactive message on race, identity and the natural world through spoken word poetry, songs, storytelling, video and still imagery. The packed dining hall was awestruck and inspired by these dynamic speakers. One student commented after Benjie and Maketa’s playnote, “You guys are pure positive human energy!”
Day two of the conference was jam-packed with breakout sessions, free time to explore, canoe and hike, and an Opportunity Fair. Conference attendees participated in four breakout sessions on eleven topics including “Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: Leadership Styles,” “The College Admissions Experience,” “Red Carpet Ready: Job Interviews” and “No More Sweaty Palms: How to Speak to a Group with Confidence.” These interactive workshops led by Institute, National Park and Forest Service, Western Washington University and Washington Conservation Corps staff gave students the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and enhance their communication and goal-setting abilities.

Students connect with Forest Service staff to discuss job possibilities

Following the breakout sessions, students participated in an Opportunity Fair, where they met with representatives from Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Klondike National Historical Park, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, EarthCorps, North Cascades Institute,  Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, Washington Conservation Corps, SCA and Western Washington University’s Office of Admissions. Students were able to discuss job, internship and volunteer opportunities with these partners, and use this information to help them formulate academic, service, and career goals to work towards strategically.

Park and Forest Service staff serve as mentors for student leaders

The conference provides an opportunity for students to engage with many different partners

Our Saturday evening keynote speakers Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele of Facing Climate Change presented a series of compelling documentaries and discussed how to use media to change people’s attitudes, behavior and policies.
On Sunday, the last day of the conference, students focused on finalizing their Action Plans, which they had been crafting throughout the conference with the help of their small-group leaders. Participants spent the morning engaging in an hour-long silent, outdoor reflection where they looked back on their experiences from the weekend and how they can further their short- and long-term goals. Afterwards students reconvened for a free-form Open Space discussion. Students suggested any topic they wanted and then led a round-table conversation. Topics included “Stress Management,” “Overpopulation and Consumption of Resources,” “Group Dynamics” and “The Philosophy of Climate Change and the Environment.” Listening in on the conversation about climate change, I overheard students asking each other, “How can we get our generation fired up about being green?” and “How long are we going to be able to live on the planet this way?” Their conclusion? It all comes down to personal responsibility.

Students offered inspiring reflections during the conference’s Closing Ceremony
The conference’s closing ceremony arrived all too soon, but gave everyone the opportunity to share their hopes and reflections of the weekend with the group. North Cascades Wild alumnus and now North Cascades National Park summer seasonal staff member Grace Bogne reflected that, “My involvement in the North Cascades has totally changed my life. I’m grateful there’s a place like this where we can all come together and be in nature, and be free.” This sentiment was shared by youth and adults alike. National Park Service Skagit District Interpreter Andrew Pringle charged the group by saying, “A torch is something you can’t put down. I hope you feel the urgency to take that torch and light other peoples’ fires.”

A diverse group of students came together for a weekend of community and leadership

As I reflect on the weekend’s experiences, I am amazed by the initiative, passion and leadership that these students are bringing to the table. The North Cascades and the students’ experiences here have left their mark on them; these students have now left their mark on me. I can tell these students are already becoming change agents, and envisioning the powerful roles they can play in their circle of influence.
It gives me hope that the parting words from Benjie Howard will be realized in these young leaders: “May your minds be set free and your bodies be set into motion.”

Photos courtesy of Nick Mikula, Elizabeth Penhollow and Megan McGinty


  1. Tanya Anderson

    Great blog post, Kate! It truly was an inspiring weekend.

  2. Tanya Kitterman

    Sounds like a pretty amazing weekend. I feel inspired just reading this article.

  3. Mary Rinder

    Sounds like a powerful experience. Maybe you will offer one for older leaders someday! Good job lighting many sparks.

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