by Mike McLeod
Her eyes lit up and the smile she carried all day had grown wide as ever as Rekha Dhillon-Richardson received the Henry H. Meigs Leadership Award at the end of the first annual Girls Climate Summit at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy last Saturday.
The award is given annually by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education to community leaders who “embody a bold new environmental vision for generations to come,” according to its website. It was the perfect icing on the cake for Rekha, just a sophomore at SCH, who watched an idea she had a year ago turn into a wildly successful event.
“It just started as an idea,” she said. “I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to host a conference to empower a bunch of youth in Philadelphia?’”
The event itself hosted dozens of girls from schools all over the city who wanted to learn more about climate change and its impact on Philadelphia and beyond. There were activities where students learned how to calculate their carbon footprint, breakout sessions where students were given presentations on key climate change issues, and keynote speakers, including Raluca Ellis from the Climate and Urban Systems Partnership, who gathered the girls at the end of the conference to talk about the all too real effects of global warming.
“So many people want to make a difference but they don’t know how,” Rekha said. “It’s important that we show people that there are things that really matter. That’s what the purpose of today was.”
The information sessions and presentations seemed to have an immediate impact on the knowledge of the students in attendance. There was a whiteboard setup in the middle of the library asking the children what they knew about these environmental issues. At first, the board was bare and the answers were simple, with “Al Gore” and “we’re killing our environment” scribbled on the board. By the time the kids had a chance to learn, however, information about fracking, greenhouse gases, carbon footprints and biofuels were written proudly over the previous answers.
“I tried to focus the workshops on showing, individually, how is the climate change affecting you,” Rekha said. “I think it’s so important to see the effects individually first.”
At the end of the conference, the young people broke into teams to create what Rekha called “climate action plans.” In these plans, they wrote down how, based on what they had learned during the day, they could make individual changes to help the cause. After listing them, they used that knowledge to take aim at how they could make changes in their schools and, overall, in the City of Philadelphia.
Rekha, a native Canadian who moved to Philadelphia in the third grade, has always had a passion for environmental activism.
“We lived in a really small town between the mountains and the ocean, so we would go on hikes a lot, and I was really involved in nature,” she said. “Then I started learning about climate change and other environmental issues, and it got me thinking, because I really want to protect the Earth that I love.”
She began her activism in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, participating in internships at the David Suzuki Foundation, which focuses on the environment and Justice for Girls, a youth and civil empowerment group. She was a part of a group that wrote a submission to the United Nations on the Conventions of the Rights of the Child in Canada, claiming that the country was not meeting the treaty’s requirements from an environmental level. The submission was accepted, and Rekha and her team were flown to Geneva to present their findings.
“I learned so much,” she said. “I think that is what inspired me to take my project on in the Venture Incubator.”
The Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Venture Incubator at SCH gives students the chance to learn by doing, taking on projects with the guidance of mentors to help them succeed along the way. Anne Sudduth, the Venture Incubator member who was assigned to mentor Rekha after the Girls Climate Summit plan was accepted, proudly praised the young student’s abilities and drive.
“She’s an extraordinary kid, an extraordinary student, and is very capable, passionate and extremely hardworking,” she said.
As a mentor, Sudduth, a parent and board member for the Venture Incubator, met several times a week with Rekha to guide her through the process of molding the idea into reality.
“She guided me through the entire planning process and execution,” Rekha said. “Mrs. Sudduth has been my biggest inspiration.”
Being a 15-year-old and planning such a large event was tedious and difficult work, but the self-proclaimed “nerd” was happy she took on the challenge.
“I never thought it would be so much work, but it’s been an incredible learning experience,” she said. “I love learning. I’m nerdy, I’m one of those people who like to go to school every day and learn.”
Rekha, who is also on the crew team and writes for the school newspaper, still has plenty of time before she has to worry about choosing what college fits her vision for her future best. In the meantime, she just plans on continuing to spread her message and advocate for the environment.
“I’m just trying to show the positive side of things,” she said. “We’re learning about all of these negative things that are destroying this Earth, but I think it’s important that we also realize that we have the power to change what’s happening, and that the youth are the people to do that.”
She has two more years to grow the Girls Climate Summit, so we can expect even bigger things from this exceptional student in the years to come.