By Sarah Swenson, Editor in Chief

On Wednesday, June 2nd, enterprising students from five prestigious schools gathered under a tent outside the Greater Harbor Yacht Club to present the results of the Envision Resilience Nantucket Challenge, created and run by ReMain Nantucket, to a captive audience of 323 attendees, present both in person and virtually.

The students, 58 in total, from the University of Florida, Harvard, Northeastern, the University of Miami, and Yale, were given a challenge: design a Nantucket for the future, one that is up to the challenge of surviving the effects of the inevitable sea level rise and increased extreme weather caused by climate change. Depending on the program the students were from, they had a semester to a full year to answer this open-ended prompt. The students were to look at three areas in detail: Town, Brandt Point, and Washington Street.

Though Covid created certain limitations for the participants, like making it impossible for them to visit the island at all during the design process, the students made use of resources provided by ReMain Nantucket to create plans that took into consideration islanders’ perspectives and the unique history. A completely virtual program also opened up opportunities, like student teams spread across the world. The Yale team, for example, had students in 14 time zones during their work on the project. Twenty-five advisors, some from Nantucket, some from other places all around the world, were available for the college teams, and the teachers hosting the classes or workshops that offered this challenge worked with ReMain to provide them with Nantucket locals who lived or worked in the selected locations, as well as information about the island’s history and laws.

The challenge was dreamed up by Cecil Baron Jensen, executive director of ReMain Nantucket. This aforementioned organization is a local charitable foundation that aims to support Nantucket’s enduring future in many regards, namely, environmental. When she first shared the idea, as she relayed in a speech at the event, her colleagues laughed. Now, just over a year later, despite the pandemic, her vision has come to fulfillment.

Five massive tri-fold posters, crammed with diagrams, predictions, information, and statistics were set up around the edges of a tall white tent. The challenge had produced so many ideas you had to lean in to read them all. Rows of fold-up chairs sat in a semi-circle around a small stage, and TVs were set up around the tents, tilted to ensure they were viewable from every angle.

The event began with a welcome from Jensen, followed by one from Wendy Schmidt, president of ReMain Nantucket and president and Co-Founder of the Schmidt Family Foundation, who attended virtually. The event then gave acknowledgement to the indigenous peoples of Nantucket, whose way of life was used as partial inspiration for many of the student designs. Darius Coombs, Mashpee Wampanoag and Cultural & Outreach Coordinator for Education of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, spoke about Wampanoag culture and tradition. Wampanoags, the tribe of Native Americans who lived in what is now the Cape and Island region of Massachusetts, were responsible keepers of the island and its resources long before settlers came.

Faculty heads from the participating colleges gave summations of the work that their students did, and then the audience were told to stand and start looking at the student projects.

“I loved the student projects. I think the students did an amazing job… especially considering they had never been here.” Jensen commented. “For me the best part about their designs was the diversity of them.” The challenge drew students from a variety of fields, among them architecture, landscape design, and urban sustainability.

After taking in the students’ work, the audience gathered again for what Envision Resilience characterized as the “Inspire” portion of their event. May Bergman, executive director of the Nantucket Preservation Trust, gave a short but eloquent speech about climate awareness, and then gave the stage to Sarah Swenson, representative of the Nantucket Youth Climate Committee, who introduced the keynote speaker, Delaney Reynolds.

Delaney Reynolds is a 21-year-old climate activist and a fourth generation Floridian, who grew up in Miami and the Florida Keys. She grew up surrounded by evidence of climate change, its effects, and the solutions that we can implement. The tiny island where she spent part of her childhood, No Name Key, is just over 1,000 acres (compared to our 67,392 acres) with only 43 houses, and it is entirely powered by solar panels.

Reynolds is quick to point out her uniquely green upbringing, as well as living surrounded by the threat of rising water, as inspirations for her climate activism: “This is where I want to continue to spend my life, it’s where I want my kids to grow up, I want my grandkids to grow up, so it’s heartbreaking to watch it literally sink into the ocean, but that’s part of the reason that I’m so passionate about the work that I do.”

Nantucket, she commented, is a similarly at risk location. Islanders are forced to see the effects of climate change in a way those form landlocked states are not. Reynolds compared the two islands; like her family, which has been in Miami since 1910, many Nantucket families have been on the island for generations, and that is reflected in the way people here are now fighting to keep it preserved. 

Reynolds has seen many places that she grew up visiting become more and more affected by floods and storms—even the daily rise of water at high tide. Sitting at a picnic table, overlooking the Children’s Beach Park, Reynolds recalled the story of Matheson Hammock Park. Achingly similar to the Children’s Beach, Matheson Hammock Park is a beloved part of her home. Many children learn to swim there, including Reynolds, but now the park floods every day, sometimes twice a day, submerged with the rush of high tide. A restaurant at the park was put out of business for a few years due to storm damage, though it has now been rebuilt, redesigned to be resilient to sea level rise. The whole description is evocative of the future that Children’s Beach could have, its playground and grassy field underwater twice a day, The Hungry Minnow washed out in the next big hurricane.

Reynolds, who has been a climate activist since childhood, has accomplished a lot for her young age, including founding a climate education and advocacy organization, the Sink or Swim Project, heading a lawsuit against members of Florida’s government who refused to to take action against climate change, Reynolds V State of Florida, writing and illustrating several books to raise awareness, and speaking at countless events like the Envision Resilience Challenge on Nantucket. Still, she admitted it can be hard to stay motivated when facing opposition from climate change deniers.

She is encouraged by watching the youth generation fight for the planet. It is inspiring to her to see kids “all over our country and planet really start to recognize that they have a voice in climate action. Whether it’s seeing hundreds of millions of kids flooding the streets for climate strikes, demanding that their governments do something, or just talking… one-on-one or in a classroom setting with kids, listening to the comments and concerns that they have.” Kids from Nantucket High School participated in one such climate strike in the Fall of 2019, as part of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement.

Jensen mirrored this sentiment, stating that the focus on youth in the event was intentional: “[W]e’re looking out into a future where some of us may not be, but younger people will be.” But also, and more importantly, the challenge turned to the younger generation because they “have the capacity to imagine a future that is entirely different from our reality, and I love that.”

She emphasized the importance of young people getting involved in climate advocacy: “Don’t be afraid to use your voice, because you have a very powerful one. Because we’re so young, our voice is unique, and a lot of people will actually listen to you; it kind of looks bad if they don’t, so take advantage of that.”

Supporting other youth activists is one of the reasons she came to the island to speak at the challenge. She hoped to inspire further action on Nantucket. “The best way [to get involved in climate activism] is with politics,” she said. In her short time on the island, she talked with members of the Select Board, who told her that they want change, but feel it is hard, with the current voting system and lack of enthusiasm from citizens.

If kids and teens get involved, and take their ideas to the town, she suggested things may actually make things get done: “Even if you’re not 18, and you can’t vote yet… y’all can go and you can speak [at town meetings], and you can talk about the different environmental programs, or ideas that you guys have that you want to be implemented here on Nantucket.” She added that kids at the high school, just talking to their friends, classmates, teachers, and school officials is a good first step into the world of environmental activism.

Ultimately, she reiterated, you need to speak up: “Our planet doesn’t have a voice. It can show us that it’s struggling… but it can’t plead for help. So it’s our job to do that on behalf of our planet Earth.”

Whether it is through a college program, like the Envision Resilience Challenge, or on your own, taking ideas to your school officials or town meetings like Reynolds suggested, current climate activists agree that it is up to the youth to speak up and put a stop to our crisis.

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