Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Will Charouhis of We Are Forces of Nature Is Helping To Change Our World
Knock relentlessly. I have a thousand unanswered emails and a mound of form letters from our past two Presidents and a few others. But I kept at it. And mine is now the youngest organization admitted to the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Framework for the Conference on Climate Change. Somewhere along the line, someone will open a door. And we as youth cannot make change unless we get on the inside.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Charouhis.
Will, a sixteen-year-old environmental changemaker from Miami, Florida, is the founder of the nonprofit, We are Forces of Nature, a youth organization on a mission to halt climate change. Aiming to exert whatever influence he can on the climate crisis, he is the youth delegate for National Wildlife Federation, and America is All In, and National Youth Leader in Dr. Jane Goodall’s Institute. During the pandemic, Will spent the long hours of lockdown cleaning up more than six miles of mangrove roots along the Miami shoreline to regenerate growth. Will’s organization has provided disaster relief to Honduras, Haiti, and the Bahamas, countries Will says “are least responsible for carbon emissions but most affected by climate change.” His nonprofit’s A Million Mangroves initiative aims to restore or plant one million mangroves.
Aiming to amplify the voice of those from coastal communities who are often excluded from the conversation, Will serves as the Global Rapporteur to research science pathways behind COVID-related policies of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Will has edited policy drafts for the United Nations Youth working groups on Oceans and Energy, spoken on the youth perspective at COP25, UNGA 2021, COP26, Stockholm+50, the UN Bonn Headquarters in Germany, and the UN Oceans Youth Forum. As an environmental advocate, Will has testified alongside fellow youth before the County Commission to successfully have Miami-Dade declare a climate emergency, submitted testimony to the White House Environmental Justice Council, hosted the Mayors of Miami to roll out Aspen Ideas: Climate, and organized a global exchange of climate solutions with the International Heinrich Böll Cohort. Will is the recipient of numerous STEM awards. Having amassed more than 1400 hours relentlessing serving his community, Will was recently awarded the Congressional Award Gold Medal, the highest award Congress bestows on youth civilians, for his tireless efforts in doing what he can to halt global warming.
Talking with Will, he is relentlessly forward-thinking and optimistic. A published young author on the strength of youth and the power of hope, Will is adamant in his belief that “hope is the most powerful antidote in the universe. He is acutely forward-thing and action-driven. His message to fellow youth: “Our generation is the last generation who can save our planet. We can-and we will-halt climate change. Educate. Innovate. Implement. Let’s go.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Sure. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and I’ve had the absolute gift to spend my vacation time largely in the Bahamas. I’ve spent my whole life outside. I love the ocean, and spend my free time rowing crew, fishing, and freediving the reefs in the Bahamas, which are incredible. If you haven’t had the chance to see the blue waters of the Bahamas, they are still crystal clear and there is no place like it. If you can get there-go!
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
When I turned 13, I founded We are Forces of Nature, a non-profit aiming to halt climate change, with a focus on ocean health. My goal is straightforward-to do whatever I can to help get the planet to netzero carbon emissions. My organization is educating on solutions to protect shorelines from the perils of sea-level rise, delivering weather-related disaster relief to coastal areas, and mitigating coastal erosion by restoring mangroves forests..
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My home and my school sit near the edge of Biscayne Bay, like much of Miami. My city was once known as the Magic City, but the press now refer to it as ground zero in America facing sea-level rise. Because my City sits near sea-level, and has the third largest school district in the United States, we have more students facing the impacts of global warming than anywhere else in America. In 2017, the year I became a teenager. Hurricane Irma flooded my city all the way out to the airport. That is 7 miles inland, and our City was virtually underwater. We were learning about climate change in school, and I knew I had to do something.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I started out advocating for our world leaders to enact policy to halt global warming. My generation has little understanding of bureaucracy and probably a great deal of impatience with political divisions, so we don’t really see blockades to getting things done. It is probably why GenZ has a “can-do, don’t stop” attitude. I began meeting with any world leader and gaining access to any world organization that I could, because the only way I can assert any influence is if I can get on the inside. But a recent trigger that really transitioned me from advocacy to action was the collapse of an oceanfront apartment building in my neighborhood last summer. We lost more than a hundred of my neighbors in that collapse, and while the causes are still being investigated, saltwater intrusion rusting out the foundation’s concrete rebar played a part. At that point, I knew I had to do more. Youth advocacy has brought the issue of climate change to the frontpages. And while we still need our leaders to enact climate policy, it will be up to my generation to implement those policies. And that collapse made it so clear that we need to start-now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Yes, when you’re trying to make a difference by asserting influence on world leaders, know your audience. My first big United Nations meeting, I practically had to sneak in. I hit every door man, repeatedly, until one took pity on my youth, and walked me not only inside, but down to the front row. There were no seats in the room, except a few center ones, so I grabbed one. The lady next to me turned to speak to me, and I answered my purpose briefly because the speakers were about to start. My mistake. She was the main speaker-the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
Can you share something unexpected that happened to you since you began leading your organization?
At the last United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow I was the only youth under 16. In 2019, when I had attended COP25 in Madrid, Spain, Greta Thunberg and other youth leaders were inside what is known as the Blue Zone, and I really just followed their lead. Fast forward two years and one pandemic later, and I found myself navigating the conference alone. I do not know the reasons, but I was virtually the only 15-year-old in a sea of 30,000 delegates. It was intimidating, to say the least.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Yes. I am a member of Dr. Jane Goodall’s National Youth Leadership Organization, and I have had the incredible opportunity to panel twice with her last year at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the United Nations World Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow. Dr. Goodall has dedicated her life to environmentalism, and if we ever make any progress on halting climate change, in part we will have her to thank. She believes in the strength of youth and the power of hope. I’m a climate activist, but I’m also an optimist. I refuse to see the world through a bleak lens. So having the opportunity to work for her organization, and to panel with her on youth activism and the benefits trees provide as nature’s best solution to halting climate change, has motivated me to want to do more.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual or group who was impacted or helped by your cause?
My focus has been on coastal communities. We’ve provided disaster relief to Haiti after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and to the Bahamas after Dorian in 2019. But our largest relief effort was in Honduras after Hurricane Eta. This is a farming nation that had suffered a drought for 5 long years before the hurricane hit in 2020, killing over half their crops, and leaving more than 3.5 million people without food. Without plantings, they had no soil stability. The Hondurans had prayed for rain. In the cruelest turn of events, when Hurricane Eta hit and the torrential rains finally came, they caused mudslides which washed away the last of what they had. They lost everything. So yes, we tried to show all the way up there and provide what we could. Anything. They needed everything.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
-Our politicians need to enact policies-today-that protect our planet.
-Society needs to reduce consumption. Period. Materialism dressed up as progress was never going to go unchecked. We cannot save the precious resources we have left if we don’t cut back.
-We have all got to do our part. Plant 10 trees a year, buy an electric vehicle, and use less water.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I’m going to change it up just a bit. I wish I’d listened better to the advice I was given, so I’ll give it a shot.
1.Each opportunity may only come once, so you better grab it. I was 13 years old when I went to my first United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid, Spain. I really didn’t have a lot of confidence. My chaperones told me to hand out my newly printed business cards from Office Depot when I met important contacts, but I’d never done that before, and I didn’t have the confidence I needed. I was too tentative. I started to approach Senator John Kerry and Actor Leonardo DiCaprio after they spoke, but they were swallowed up by the crowd before I got close enough to get out my cheap card. It’s hard to make a difference and bend the ear of a leader if you don’t get close enough to have a conversation. I did up it a little after a few missed opportunities on that first go round, and made sure to get my card to Micheal Bloomberg and Harrison Ford, but I think I tripped over a chair doing it.
2. Knock relentlessly. I have a thousand unanswered emails and a mound of form letters from our past two Presidents and a few others. But I kept at it. And mine is now the youngest organization admitted to the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Framework for the Conference on Climate Change. Somewhere along the line, someone will open a door. And we as youth cannot make change unless we get on the inside.
3. Wear sneakers with your suit. In other words, be yourself. It’s okay to be sixteen. And sometimes the miles to go are long.
4. Listen. We as youth also have a lot to learn from those that have come before us. When I started my climate work, all I could see was the change that was needed, and the speed that was needed. Those things are more true than ever. But I met some incredible Puruvians and Indonesians that taught me it wasn’t that simple. These are people who are least responsible for climate change, yet facing the worst of its impact. Coming from undeveloped areas with few resources, if they don’t tap their resources, they can’t make enough to survive. Yet if they do tap their resources, like cutting down their forests, they bring worse global warming upon themselves. They know this, and they need us to listen to help them find a way out.
5. Every change that ever happened in this world started with the power of one. Every one of us can all make a difference. Figure out what you stand for, then stand up.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Our generation is the last generation who can halt climate change. If we don’t act now, multiple planetary systems will reach irreversible tipping points. Species will be wiped out, including eventually humans. It’s dire. It sounds like science fiction. But it’s real-and it’s upon us now. We cannot undo some of the damage-it is too late. But we still have time to halt the most catastrophic effects of climate change, if we act today. The solutions are here. We all just need to get busy.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Former President Barack Obama. He is a leader who has hype and influence. The issue needs both.
How can our readers follow you online?
Linked In Will Charouhis
Website We Are Forces of Nature
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Will Charouhis of We Are Forces of Nature Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.