Berkeley’s environment and climate commission could soon grow by one or two seats that would be reserved for youth between 12 and 19 years old.
The move would make youth a permanent fixture of the commission responsible for advising the Berkeley City Council on environmental topics, including reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The details — including the number of seats and the process for appointing the members — are still being finalized. The council should vote on the issue in October, according to Councilmember Kate Harrison.
Behind the idea is Sam Kaplan-Pettus, an 18-year-old Berkeley City College student who wants to bring more youth voices into local politics.
“One group of residents of our city that has really left out of policy decisions are youth,” Kaplan-Pettus said. “Youth in Berkeley can’t vote and yet are going to be affected by the policies that are happening right now, [especially] with climate change.”
Members of the climate commission are currently appointed by city councilmembers. The appointments can include youth, but it’s not common. If approved, this change would ensure youth representation on this commission, and their right to vote on it.
Kaplan-Pettus has been active in politics for years; he’s served as a YMCA Youth Governor and was chair of Berkeley’s Youth Commission for the last two years. During those experiences, he started thinking about how to get youth into leadership roles with real power to affect change.
He began reaching out to city officials and, over six months, developed a cadre of advisers and supporters for his idea that include councilmembers Terry Taplin, Rigel Robinson, Rashi Kesarwani and Harrison, school board director Ana Vasudeo, and the chair of the climate commission, Ben Gould.
On Wednesday, the climate commission voted 6-2 to add a single youth seat, following a recommendation by the city’s Youth Commission. Marc Hedlund and Shannon Allen were the nay votes; Hedlund had introduced a motion to only require a youth seat on the commission for four years.
“Is there any issue that affects youth more? I don’t think so,” Harrison said.
Harrison has agreed to write a proposal that would add two youth seats to the commission. She said she wanted to keep the seats at an odd number.
Young people have long affected change in Berkeley, leading climate actions and helping pass a partial ban on single-use plastics in dining. Last year, high school student Ella Suring was one of four people to spearhead a climate literacy resolution, which ensures BUSD students will graduate with an understanding of the causes and potential solutions for human-induced climate change.
But the efforts often come with an expiration date. Once students graduate from high school, their efforts can peter out. This resolution would formalize youth participation in city policy making.
“If there’s a way to teach kids early … that there’s things that they can do to make a permanent change, I think that will make a really big difference, especially in youth community engagement and government engagement,“ said Cecilia Lunaparra, a UC Berkeley student on the climate commission and the president of Cal Berkeley Democrats.
Lunaparra said having multiple young people on the commission could make them feel more welcome. Being the only young person, she said, “can be a little intimidating.”
While Kaplan-Pettus is glad to see his idea moving forward, he said he faced an “uphill battle” of logistical challenges to see it through. It reminded him of how high is the “barrier to entry for the community, especially youth.”
In the future, Kaplan-Pettus envisions adding youth seats to all the city’s commissions, but it remains to be seen if he can garner support for that idea as well.