Recounting the 2nd Annual Youth Leadership Conference

Psychologist Warren G. Bennis once said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Sixty-three high school and college students and fourteen conservation organizations did just that November 11-13th for the second annual North Cascades Youth Leadership Conference. Brought together by common goals to improve their leadership skills, learn about future opportunities, and reconnect after their original conservation experiences, these dedicated individuals were the heart and soul of the weekend. Hosted by North Cascades Institute in partnership with North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the second annual conference built upon last year’s success. As part of the planning committee, I came into this weekend excited for an energetic, life-altering experience with youth and adults like. I was not disappointed.
High School sophomores, juniors and seniors and college freshman from the Pacific Northwest converged in the heart of the North Cascades to reminisce, learn, and explore the beauty of this fall landscape. Most of the students had participated in North Cascades Wild, Cascade Climate Challenge, Student Conservation Association, Youth Conservation Corps, Mountain School, and other conservation-based programs.
The event was a success due to the hard work of our staff and partners. The North Cascades Institute, National Park Service, US Forest Service staff, Western Washington University graduate students and other partner organization representatives dedicated their time as small group leaders and mentors, lodge chaperones, Masters of Ceremony, breakout session leaders, and logistics coordinators.

Students participate in a sensory awareness activity during Saturday’s breakout session.

Friday was an opportunity for students to reunite with friends and to be introduced to their small groups. After an adventure hike in the surrounding area and team-building games, participants were treated to a multi-media experience from New Wilderness Project. Maketa Wilborn and Benjie Howard presented a thought provoking and energy-laden performance intertwining video, still images, songs, drums, storytelling and spoken word. Focused around the value of the environment and social justice, Maketa and Benjie’s powerful message resonated with both the youth and adult crowd and was a powerful way to start to the weekend. Following New Wilderness Project, students joined North Cascades Institute instructors for a lively campfire.
Leadership development, communication, future opportunities, and reconnecting with nature were the focal points of Saturday. Students engaged with partners in four breakout sessions on a range of topics, including: communication and conflict resolution, job interview skills, college applications, applying for federal jobs, citizen science and ecological studies, trip planning, sensory awareness and reducing one’s carbon footprint.

Students work together to organize a timeline for applying to college.

Following these information-filled sessions, students had a break to either participate in a naturalist activity, catch up on homework, or simply relax with friends. The break was well deserved, as students then met with conservation organization partners to learn about current and future volunteer, internship and job opportunities during an interactive opportunity fair. The Student Conservation Association, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, North Cascades National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Western Washington University, North Cascades Institute, Alderleaf Wilderness College, Northwest Youth Corps, Oregon Zoo (Portland), Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and Wilderness Awareness School offered students information about their organizations. The room was filled with the prospect of the future as students saw opportunities within their grasp.
Partners also participated in a partner roundtable where the conservation organizations collaboratively looked at the spectrum of opportunities offered to youth. The roundtable resulted in an intricate timeline highlighting the opportunities to youth from birth to adulthood across the different organizations. The roundtable gave partners an opportunity to network, learn about programs offered by other organizations, and think critically about creating pathways for youth to progress from a quick visit to a potential job with the organization.

Student panelists share their insight and experiences with the student audience.

A highlight of the weekend was hearing from six alumni of North Cascades Wild and Cascade Climate Challenge and the success they have had following their involvement in the programs. Jessica Alvarez, Kassandra Barnedt, Grace Bogne, Colin Ridgely and Bianca Valles engaged in interactive dialogue with the students about their amazing lives and transformations. Facilitated by North Cascades National Park Service’s Skagit District Interpreter, Andrew Pringle, the panelists lent their advice on getting jobs and internships, discovering one’s passion, the college experience, and balancing work and play. The panelists were an inspiration to all, including the adult audience, reminding all of us of the impact youth have on the natural world, their peers, and the larger world.
Sunday came too soon. After breakfast, the dining hall filled with the chatter of sixty-three students for an activity called Open Space. Open Space was an opportunity for the students to discuss topics of importance to them without the interference of adults. Students enlightened each other, collaborated on and discussed student-chosen topics such as How to Make Sustainability Relevant to All People, Local Organizations and Businesses, Possible Career Paths, The Issue of Over Population, Ambition, Social Media, and Human and Civil Rights. It was remarked that these conversations could be topics of college courses and were stimulating for both the student participants and adult on-lookers.
Later in the day, if you’d walked along the Environmental Learning Center trails you would have seen students hiking, sitting contemplatively next to trees, or perched on rocks working diligently on their Action Plans. The Action Plans were the culminating component of the conference. Throughout the weekend, students had been developing short-term and long-term goals, writing down information from organizations about potential opportunities, and thinking about how they could achieve their goals. Students spent a large part of Sunday developing actions that would allow them to achieve a goal and meeting with mentors to activate their action plans. Armed with the Action Plans and committed mentors, students could head back to school and home ready to take on the world.

Students huddle together during the closing ceremony.

The conference came to a close with a moving closing ceremony. Packed together like penguins protecting each other from the wind and cold, the sixty-three students and thirty-plus adults converged by a fire to reflect on their experience over the weekend. Masters of Ceremony Kerri Cook and Grace Bogne offered poignant reflections of the weekend and the impact the students can have in whatever they desire. One by one, students began to share what they treasured from the weekend such as meeting like-minded people, getting back to the North Cascades, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, and seeing each other as inspiration. Retired National Park Service employee Gerry Cook offered up a moving closing message that brought the official parts of the conference to a close. Keeping with the high spirits begotten from the closing ceremony, the group of one hundred held hands and completed a cinnamon swirl, an intricate non-contact hug enabling every student to walk by and see each person in attendance at the conference. Spirits were high as students waved goodbye to their new and old friends on their way back home, changed for the better and with a brighter future.

A small group celebrates the Youth Leadership Conference as they say good bye to each other on Sunday.

I was extremely touched throughout the weekend at the energy, drive, inspiration and dedication exhibited by these high school and college students. I know I am not alone when I say that I was inspired to be a better person and to strive for my own goals as a result of working with these outstanding youth. Further, I am eternally grateful for the help that the adults provided to the weekend, offering a helping hand whenever needed and supporting the students as mentors throughout the entire conference. This is surely a weekend I will never forget!
All photos courtesy Jess Newley.


  1. Tanya Anderson

    Great coverage of an inspiring event. Thanks for making it happen!

  2. Saul

    This weekend was one of the highlights of my year. Inspiring, energizing, totally fun.

  3. Jeff Giesen

    I second Saul’s comment – one of the best things we do all year. I swear that I was not crying, just moisture in my eyes.

  4. Amy Brown

    I love the Youth Leadership Conference! Thanks for writing such an inspiring post, Mollie!

Leave a Comment