Pennsylvania Legacies #206: A Seat at the Table

Young people stand at the forefront of the environmental movement. A new advisory council gives them a direct line to the federal government.  

When the Environmental Protection Agency introduced the creation of the National Environmental Youth Advisory Council (NEYAC) in November of 2023, it marked the first federal advisory committee at the EPA comprised exclusively of teens and young adults.

Kim Noble, the EPA’s Senior Advisor for Environmental Education, called it a historic moment for the agency, one that will offer a younger perspective and provide recommendations on some of the nation’s most pressing issues.

The idea for the NEYAC came, in part, from a York County high schooler. Grace Ziegmont helped to pitch the idea as the Pennsylvania delegate at last year’s National 4-H Conference, where she presented before the Council on Environmental Quality, a division of the Executive Office of the President.

“In 4-H, there are a lot of different youth leadership opportunities,” Ziegmont said of the impetus for the youth council. “We took our favorite elements from the different things we all did and mashed them together into what would not only foster the best ideas but also increase diversity and increase the effectiveness of this council.”

Impressed by the idea, leaders worked with the young delegates to turn it into a reality.

The public response was robust. When applications opened over the summer, the EPA received more than 1,000 submissions. The NEYAC, now composed of 16 members between the ages of 16 to 29, will advise the EPA on issues like climate change, pollution, and food security.

The selected members boast outstanding resumes. For example, Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, a 24-year-old council member from Philadelphia, is the first Black person in history to receive the prestigious Rhodes, Truman and Udall scholarships for her environmental scholarship and activism.

“Our youth, they’re the ones that are sounding the alarm. They’re sparking those global conversations,” Noble said. “They’re not only talking about the urgent issues that we face today because of climate change, but they’re also talking about the kind of world that we fundamentally want to create.”

Council members represent the EPA’s ten geographic regions, including tribal communities and the District of Columbia. At least half of them reside or work in disadvantaged communities as defined by the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.

While Grace Ziegmont isn’t one of the NEYAC members, she’s found other ways to get involved with climate action and conservation. She serves as the President of the Governor’s Youth Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, a state project ambassador for Pennsylvania 4-H, and a member of the student leadership team for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She’s one of many young people dedicated to building a better, healthier for generations to come.

“They want to be a part of the conversation. They want to be a part of solutions,” Noble said. “We’ve got to make sure that they’re at the table.”

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