When Nicole Gazo took environmental science as a sophomore at Miami Palmetto Senior High, that was the first time she had been taught about climate change. “I started realizing that the material we were learning was actually life or death — like critical,” she says.
After discovering that the climate crisis by and large, and its human causes specifically — much less climate solutions — are not required teaching in Florida public schools, she set out to change that. “I went to my teacher and said, ‘Listen, I’m so scared. How are you teaching us about the climate crisis and not giving us things that we can do to help?’ All she said was to call CLEO,” she recalls. And that’s exactly what she did.
Gazo’s teacher was referring to The CLEO Institute, a Florida non-profit dedicated to cultivating an informed public that supports climate action. In 2019, Gazo partnered with CLEO to form its Climate Leadership Information Program (CLIP) — an after-school program that trains students as climate speakers. Students then give presentations on climate to their classmates and families, and participate in public service and social media campaigns that highlight specific climate issues they care about.
During the program’s first year, the 2019-2020 school year, the program certified over 50 students as CLEO Climate Speakers across seven schools across Florida. While this past school year’s plans were disrupted by the pandemic, the program continued on and pivoted to an online approach.
Julieta Rodrigo, a program manager at CLEO, says that they chose to make CLIP a high school program specifically. “We saw a tremendous lack of climate literacy in high school — really throughout all levels, but we noticed that high school is the time where students tend to be curious and want to feel empowered.”
Rodrigo says that students in CLIP “are not of voting age and often feel like they don’t have enough to contribute when it’s really the opposite — they have so much to contribute,” particularly in their ability to reach elected officials who tend to want to hear from youth. People like Gazo have a lot that they want to say, but often don’t know exactly how to communicate their message effectively. CLIP prepares students to do exactly that.
“CLIP trains high school students to teach their friends and peers through [presentations] in required courses like biology… so that people won’t graduate without knowing about the climate crisis,” Gazo says. Rodrigo adds that messages about the climate crisis and its impact on the future can be more powerful when they come from people who share that same future and who have an inherent understanding of what their peers are paying attention to. “It’s the solidarity of we’re all in this together,” she says.
CLIP training isn’t very long—just one day of climate education and one or two practice speeches to ensure adequate understanding of the material—-but afterwards, students like Gazo say they feel more equipped to have climate conversations with their friends, family, teachers, and more and CLEO is confident that the students are climate-literate.
Certified students are asked to give at least two peer-to-peer presentations at their school, have conversations with their families about climate change, participate in a certain number of CLIP events like social media campaigns, and just generally engage with other students about the climate crisis throughout the school year.
While CLIP took a break from adding new schools and certifying new students after the pandemic hit last year in order to focus on supporting the students they already have, the program is opening up to new schools and students this week.
Like many students that get involved with CLEO, Gazo, now a freshman at the University of Miami, has plans to make addressing the climate crisis central to her future. “I’m majoring in political science with a minor in ecosystem sciences and policy. I want to become an environmental lawyer and really go after these companies and hold them accountable,” she says.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.