Bergen County teens hopeful yet worried as they educate others on climate change
Pooja Rayapaneni, 17, Samiya Pathak, 17, and Jisae Son, 16, all attend Bergen County Academies, a magnet high school in Hackensack.
They also have in common that they are members of the student-run initiative Sunrise Bergen County, whose work focuses on climate education, protection and advocacy through community-oriented volunteer work. In August, the group was awarded the Presidential Environmental Youth Award by the Environmental Protection Agency for work in their region. Their work included organizing a climate summit hosting 40 speakers, education events for younger children, climate art galleries at parks featuring local artists, and park and river cleanups.
The three recently talked to the USA TODAY Network about their concerns about the current climate change crisis. Rayapaneni resides in Paramus, Pathak in Waldwick, and Son in Old Tappan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to be interested in the climate change crisis?
Rayapaneni: “I was really sparked into the climate change crisis during the [2020 Covid] quarantine and especially with the Black Lives Matter movement and recognizing the privilege I hold living in Bergen County, and living in the United States and not really recognizing that a lot of marginalized communities are facing many crises including climate change.”
Are you ever angry, upset, disillusioned, or frustrated about the climate change crisis, and particularly on the East Coast where you live? What makes you feel that way?
Pathak: “There is a lot of frustration … especially when on the East Coast there are people living in communities that are being impacted where their own homes are being destroyed by the climate crisis through these floods. It’s just so heartbreaking to see that. People on the East Coast, people that I may know, my classmates, may have their homes flooded and they may have to go through these crises, and not enough is being done about it and it’s pretty frustrating to see.”