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5 Things We Must do to Engage the Next Generation About Climate Change, Conservation, and the Environment

5 Things We Must do to Engage the Next Generation About Climate Change, Conservation, and the Environment

If we want to create meaningful and effective change, we must nurture new behaviors and habits from an early age. So how do we engage and educate the next generation about their relationship with our earth and encourage them to be the environmental leaders of a new era? In this interview, Authority Magazine's Martita Mestey spoke with Tyson Johnston to discover five things we can do, starting today.

Tyson Johnston

As we course-correct the climate crisis our planet is currently facing, we’ve learned that prevention is much more lucrative than finding band-aid solutions. We’re scrambling to right our wrongs with last-ditch efforts like carbon credits and eliminating single-use plastics, but is it enough to sustain us for the future and set up our children for success?

If we want to create meaningful and effective change, we must nurture new behaviors and habits from an early age. So how do we engage and educate the next generation about their relationship with our earth and encourage them to be the environmental leaders of a new era?

In this interview, we speak with Tyson Johnston to discover five things we can do, starting today.Tyson is the Self-Governance Director and former Vice President of the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN), serving in elected office for the past decade. He is also Head of Development and Chairman of the Board for Toptana Technologies, where he leads the enterprise development of Toptana and its subsea and terrestrial network solutions.

Today, Tyson serves QIN in matters of public policy by providing advocacy, support, and analysis on key policy issues on a local, state, and federal level. As one of the Nation’s primary spokespeople, his mission is to tenaciously defend and represent QIN on matters that impact the tribe’s daily life and its future.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was raised in Taholah, Washington — the main village and headquarters of the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) reservation. Family and community are very important to us, culturally, and so helping people has always been a passion of mine. When I was younger, I thought that meant I would end up in healthcare. But over time, I realized that my path to helping people was advocating for our community and putting my efforts into making meaningful changes that impact our economy, our environment, and our overall quality of life.

Community engagement is very much a part of my family heritage and it goes back many generations. My inspiration to become involved in our people’s leadership came from the strong examples of my grandmother, who held roles as Secretary and Treasurer on the QIN Council, as well as my aunt, who was the reservation’s Chief Justice for 30 years. Throughout my life, I’ve seen how the QIN people govern ourselves, help our neighbors, and improve life in the community each day.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to be an environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

Being deeply connected with the environment is part of indigenous culture. We are natural-born stewards of the land and water, learning from a young age how to live in harmony with nature. Because our communities have such strong relationships with our land, we’re also well-versed in environmental laws and related regulations.

It wasn’t really a singular “aha moment” for me. It was gradual. I began to notice a shift in environmental movements around the country, a shift towards honoring indigenous values and land as a means to protect the planet. When I thought about how I could harness my own relationship with nature, my culture, and my passion for my community and translate it into policy and advocacy work, it just started to make sense to take this path. I knew I wanted to set an example for others by making my commitment to the environment official and publicly accountable. That could make meaningful change.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to be an environmental and sustainability leader?

Native communities are place-based. Our identities, livelihoods, and way of life are tied to where we’re from. We’re tied to our geographical roots. So throughout my life, I’ve witnessed the consequences of environmental damage, like the loss or decrease of fisheries and plants that are no longer available and used to be abundant. And, it’s worth pointing out, I’m still fairly young — I’m far from being considered an Elder at this stage. But I’ve seen an incredible and alarming amount of change. So I’ve witnessed firsthand that the threat of losing these natural environments is real.

Viewing environmental damage as a concept versus experiencing it as a reality is incredibly eye-opening. It’s being able to say firsthand, “this is what it used to be like, not that long ago, but this is what it is now.” If young folks can cultivate a connection with the land on which they reside, they begin to understand that place as a piece of who they are. Then, losing that land turns into losing part of ourselves, and the risk becomes too great. Preaching the importance of conservation and sustainability can only go so far; developing a close relationship with where you live makes you naturally want to take care of it. It’s knowing that, in a way, your survival and the survival of your environment are one and the same.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Climate change is a hugely important issue for our community, and it has been for decades. As a coastal tribe, we experience climate change issues daily — rising sea levels and extreme weather, which leads to flooding, soil erosion, and mudslides. The places where our ancestors lived and worked centuries ago are now underwater, and we’ve had to take on a massive, years-long project to relocate our village and our citizens to higher ground in order to keep people safe. Putting a stop to climate change and living harmoniously with nature is integral to who we are, and we know the consequences of what happens when people don’t because we’re living it. This affects not just us, but future generations as well.

As a community that makes decisions with the next generations in mind, this concerns us deeply. So at Toptana, for example, we’re developing specific environmental programs to take action. Our aim as a company goes beyond goals like carbon neutrality — we want a net benefit for the environment. Examples include funding grants and coastal cleanup projects, such as retrieving abandoned fishing gear and other debris from the ocean floor, and partnering with organizations focused on environmental work, such as the Washington Environmental Council, to maintain the health of our waterways, beaches, and forests. This is a huge priority, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where the ecosystem is unique, fragile and has seen drastic climate change concerns and environmental disasters, like oil spills and other major environmental catastrophes.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

  1. Buy locally sourced products whenever possible. This helps lessen the carbon footprint of our consumption and supports farmers, fisheries, and other small businesses in the community. It’s also a way to become plugged into the unique culture and cuisine of where you live in a way that others might not have the privilege to enjoy. Take advantage of all the gifts right outside your door.
  2. Be involved in local politics and community initiatives. These smaller government organizations are responsible for impactful decisions regarding budget allocation, zoning, tax incentives for certain types of businesses, and other key issues that can make a significant environmental impact over time and affect policy and legislation in higher areas of government. Make your voice heard, make your values known, and make sure your elected officials understand the issues that matter most to you. It can affect more change than we realize, and it’s empowering to know we can make a meaningful difference with grassroots efforts.
  3. Grow what you can. Small gardens and greenhouses can help supplement household food shopping with fresh, organic produce. It saves money, helps reduce waste and emissions related to the production and distribution of food, and gives you a newfound appreciation and pride for the healthy, tasty foods that our earth provides us. In my hometown, we have a community greenhouse garden that’s become a great way for us to share tips and ideas and grow seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs that we use throughout the year.

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth-led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done.

In your opinion, what are 5 things adults should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement?

  1. Envision the future. The Quinault, like many other indigenous people, think seven generations out: what do we want the world to look like for our community in the future? We need to teach young people how to make future-minded decisions. This could start simply, like discussions of the world we see ourselves living in when we’re older, or the life they want for our kids. If we can create a clear vision for ourselves and our communities, we’re more inclined to take the necessary steps to achieve it.
  2. Lead by example. Younger folks will look to us, so we must mindfully lead the way. Let’s examine our habits and refine them where necessary so that we’re setting the right example. If we can’t follow through on what we tell the next generation needs to happen, why should we expect them to? Revisit your relationship with the environment, how your actions might impact it, and see where you can make small changes, because they add up and can serve as inspiration to do much bigger things. It starts with us.
  3. Show instead of tell. Sharing generational stories is valuable and sometimes the best we can do, but what’s even more impactful is showing younger generations the real-time results of these stories. Use specific examples of the natural resources you’ve seen be affected by human actions. Take a field trip to the area or find photographs that convey the before and after. Then, discuss how different decisions could have prevented the damage from happening and how to move forward so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
  4. Connect with nature & community. Get out there — appreciate what’s hanging in the balance. Encourage outdoor activities like walks, camping, and exploring conservation areas and natural parks. You can take it further by involving others in your community and incorporating education within these experiences. Learn about the local flora and fauna and look for specific plants or animal species. Take the time to slow down, observe what’s around you, and get to know your fellow neighbors. The stronger our bond is with the world around us, the more we will want to do right by it.
  5. Start today. Don’t put this effort off. It’s okay if it’s not perfect right away — get started where you can and plant the seeds of sustainability early. Can you take 5 minutes to get outside today? Can you center the dinner conversation around environmental issues? Choose one small action and take it today. These things have a tendency to snowball.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Sustainability is really just a logical way of looking at the long term prosperity and profitability of a business, and making decisions accordingly. When businesses realize that making sustainable choices is in everyone’s best interest in the long run, it becomes a lot easier to understand the choices that need to be made to make that ongoing success happen.

In our community, we’ve experienced shortages of the sockeye salmon — which we call the blueback. It’s a fish that’s integral to who we are as a people, to our culture, and, obviously, to our food security. We respect this fish and see ourselves as stewards of this unique and vulnerable species, as well as the other wonderful natural resources our land and waters have given us. Whenever the species has been under threat, we have modified our commercial and recreational fishing activities to ensure the blueback population can rebound to healthy, sustainable levels.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are a lot, but the first one who comes to mind is Ed Johnstone, the Chairman of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and former head of our QIN fisheries policy. He has an incredible amount of experience and wisdom. He’s also a great role model and speaker of truth — both here locally in our communities and nationally.

Ed is the one who taught me the true meaning of the fact that our natural resources are part of our treaty rights. And so, because of environmental changes we’ve experienced and the risks associated with that, this means our fundamental treaty rights are also at risk, which makes me value those resources even more and want to work harder to protect them. Ed is the person I credit with making me truly understand what’s at stake here, in ways that go beyond just what we’re seeing and experiencing outside our doors. It made me realize the true extent of the fact that we’re facing an existential threat.

Of course, Ed is also one of the most favored and valued elders in the Quinault Indian Nation — not just by me — and I try to emulate his teachings in all that I do. He probably won’t be surprised to hear this — he knows I’m a big fan of his!

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want young people to be inspired to be involved in politics. I think many younger people worry that they don’t have the life experience necessary for their opinions to be valid, but I really think that’s not the case. We all have something to bring to the table; we all have unique perspectives and ideas.

A community is built of a diverse group of people, of all different ages and experiences and walks of life. That’s why all our voices should be reflected. It’s all a collaborative process and the results for a community — large or small — are always the strongest when policy, law, and goals are reflective of what the entire community collectively brings together. Don’t be afraid to speak up — your point of view is always valid and worth sharing.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote?

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” - Chief Seattle, 1854

What is the best way for people to follow you and your work?

Sign up for updates at or reach out to me directly by LinkedIn. I always love to connect, learn and grow together.

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!