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Durango student’s bipartisan effort to address climate change helps pass state education bill

Good Trouble, a network of high school sustainability clubs, testifies before Colorado lawmakers
Members of Good Trouble, from left, Leo Stephenson, Aisha O’Niel, Nora May and Sophia Valdez prepare to testify via Zoom in front of the Colorado House Education Committee on April 4. (Courtesy of Durango High School Green Team)

A Durango High School student has started a statewide movement to promote the addition of climate literacy into school districts’ curriculum.

Senior Aisha O’Neil, who is the president of the DHS Green Team, was able to create a network of high school sustainability clubs that call themselves Good Trouble. The group has spent the last three months working with members of the Colorado Legislature to pass climate literacy bill SB24-014, the Seal of Climate Literacy Diploma Endorsement.

The bill passed the state House on May 3 and will authorize local school districts to grant high school diploma endorsements in climate literacy to students who demonstrate a mastery of climate literacy or green skills.

A diploma endorsement is an extra designation indicating an additional achievement to passing the district’s traditional curriculum. Students can achieve that by participating in green initiative clubs, taking advanced placement environmental classes or involvement in environmental service projects.

One of the prime sponsors of the bill, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, said there is a need for this type of designation at a college level. But after hearing what students wanted to pursue at the high school level, it was decided it would apply to both.

“The main goal is to encourage that kind of education, but our motto is ‘We deserve an education,’ and feel like this is the first step in creating one that reflects the world we’ll live in,” O’Neil said.

The students were inspired by McLachlan’s sponsorship of the bill and decided they wanted to see what they could do to advocate for it.

“It’s just always been a really big part of what I’ve believed in,” said Sophia Valdez, a freshman member of the Good Trouble team.

Growing up in Durango, outdoor recreation has always played a part of the students’ lives.

Durango High School Green Team members celebrate after finding out that SB24-014 was passed by the state House of Representatives. (Courtesy of Aisha O’Neil)

Because of this, the students feel as if climate change can be a bipartisan issue. People from both political backgrounds have an appreciation for outdoor recreation and how climate impacts that enjoyment, the students said.

“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue in Colorado, and our job is to have people recognize that,” O’Neil said. “Both the DHS Green Team and Good Trouble are nonpartisan organizations.”

Outdoor recreation is also an economic driver in Colorado, another reason why the students say having climate literacy is important.

In 2022, the outdoor recreation economy generated $13.9 billion for the state, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis.

After sending multiple emails to state senators, Good Trouble was able to get Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, to support the bill. Simpson was the only Republican state senator to vote for the bill on March 15, when it passed the Senate in a 22-9 vote with four senators excused from the voting.

Simpson said when he first read the bill, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to support it.

“We’ve struggled to get kids proficient in reading and math,” he said. “... I didn’t know if I wanted to create a distraction.”

But after hearing testimony and reading emails from the students, it had an impact on his decision.

“Had they not engaged with me? I couldn’t say that I would have voted ‘no,’ but they certainly helped me tilt the scales in favor of support for the bill,” he said.

Simpson’s background as an engineer and his support for education also played a role, he said.

The Good Trouble students also took to social media to advocate and testified before the House Education Committee on April 4.

“The representatives were just in awe of their intelligence, it was really great,” McLachlan said.

McLachlan, a former high school teacher, said young people are nervous about climate change.

Students said they believe people tend to listen to younger generations when it comes to climate change, even though advocacy can be difficult when youths aren’t decision-makers.

“We had some other members of Good Trouble from a different Colorado Springs school testify in person and all of the testimonies were high school students,” Valdez said. “It was really powerful to see.”

In just three months, O’Neil has recruited 50 local students and 10 school sustainability clubs across the state to join the initiative. While she will be leaving DHS in just a few weeks, she would like to see the Good Trouble network expand.

She hopes the group will grow to 20 clubs by the end of 2024 with the potential to go national after that.

O’Neil said the real accomplishment was not how many legislators voted in favor of the bill but the impact a small group of high school students had.

“I started good trouble, individually, two months ago. And we already have way more than one person involved,” she said. “It sounds cliché, but we all have a power and responsibility to make an impact on environmental legislation.”


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