The global youth-led climate awareness movement has found its way to Fredericksburg.

Students from area schools—including Colonial Forge, James Monroe and Stafford high schools, as well as Fredericksburg Academy and the University of Mary Washington—are working with a group of local residents called Fossil-Free Fredericksburg to plan a conference that will explore solutions for climate change, to be held April 6 at UMW.

“It started out with eight or 10 teenagers, then there were 14 and then 16. Now there are about 35 students. They keep bringing their friends. It is very cool,” said Julie Kay, who established Fossil-Free Fredericksburg last year with two other adults. “There are about 12 adults now who come to the meetings and they are totally outnumbered by the kids.”

The group’s goal is to build support for a City Council resolution that pledges to ensure all electrical power supplied to Fredericksburg comes from 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Fossil-Free Fredericksburg wants to build support for the initiative in a “nonpartisan, nonconfrontational way,” Kay said.

“We want to be partners,” she said.

In the fall, the group sponsored a 5K Walk and Pedal for the Planet. Kay has worked as a teacher and has experience helping youth advocate for themselves, so she wanted Fossil-Free Fredericksburg’s next event to be youth-led.

The students came up with the conference idea and brainstormed what they thought should be covered. They’ve been in charge of all aspects of organizing the event, from securing funding to scheduling speakers to collecting registrations.

“Having that responsibility has been cool,” said Eva Heller, 17, a senior at James Monroe. “It feels good to be trusted with that. We feel very mature.”

Heller, who started an environmental club at James Monroe this year, said she has always been an advocate for the environment, but in organizing the conference, she has learned how to approach the subject in a nonconfrontational way.

“Some people might not have the same perspective, but we have to go in with an open mind and open ears,” she said. “[I’ve learned how to] tell my opinion without hurting or being superior.

“If people just have opposing views, nothing will get done.”

The conference will present perspectives from a wide range of disciplines. Speakers include scientists, students, engineers, activists, business leaders and an evangelical preacher.

It also includes music by So Badly, a local high school band, and a Family Feud-type game that organizer Alex Pawlica, 16, a junior at Colonial Forge High School, said he hopes will help make the event fun as well as serious and thoughtful.

“I feel like the ultimate goal of this conference is to spread awareness about climate change and bring together diverse perspectives on what it is, what it does and how we can fix it,” Pawlica said. “Not everyone will always see eye-to-eye on everything, but we are all united in our common desire to protect this earth.”

Kelly Flynn, 21, a junior biology major at UMW, said she hopes the conference will educate everyone—but specifically high school and college-aged kids—about actions they can personally take to reverse the negative impacts of climate change.

“We need people of all backgrounds to understand that environmental stewardship doesn’t have to be a political or social idea,” she said. “It really is just a daily choice made by you to change one small thing about your lifestyle that will make positive changes in the environment we live in.”

Fellow UMW biology major Elisabeth Heras, 21, said being involved in the conference and with Fossil-Free Fredericksburg has given her advocacy a focus.

“I’ve always been fairly involved with advocacy, but this is definitely a new form for me, because we are working directly with the community and have a specific, set goal with a timeline and proposal,” she said.

Planning an event of this size, with all its moving pieces, has given her an appreciation for what people can do when they come together with a passion for a cause, she said. It makes her hopeful that the negative effects of climate change can be fought.

“Individuals have more power than they think, and once everyone sees that the little changes add up with the millions of people sitting next to them, I think we’ll be on the right track,” Heras said.

To find out more about Fossil-Free Fredericksburg visit fossilfreefredericksburg.com.

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele