Guest Post by: Jerri Jerreat, writer
In the fall of 2022 a new festival was held in Eastern Ontario. Youth Imagine the Future—a Festival of Writing & Art offered a chance for youth to explore solutions to the Climate Crisis. Students designed a better future, (no fossil fuel allowed) with social and environmental equity in mind. They created art or a short story set in their future.
The art and stories were diverse and brilliant.
There are many excellent projects offered to youth to involve them in positive eco action. Some are designed to simply get urban youth out into nature to let them connect. It is possible that you cannot truly steward a forest or fight for a wetland if you haven’t had the opportunity to connect to one. If you plant even one tree and care for it, you will come to understand that bark is a language, and trees are creatures who live in community, like us.
I write short fiction, lately, solarpunk. Solarpunk (or “hopepunk”) is a genre of fiction that posits a more hopeful future, one where a reader might see a community working together to solve climate issues. People of different cultures and abilities might be living and working in harmony. These stories are not utopias. One could be a murder mystery, a drama, a romance, a comedy, or all of those together (my favourite), but the stories should be set in a believable future somewhere on Earth.
A couple of years ago a publisher from Poland asked Sarena Uliberri, the publisher of, “Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters”, (World Weaver Press) for permission to translate my story, “Rules for a Civilization” into Polish. He wanted to run a solarpunk contest for youth in Warçaw. We gave him permission. This led to 2022, when I committed to creating a festival to encourage youth in Eastern Ontario to imagine a better future.
I asked friends for advice and help. We needed a respectable sponsor, posters, prizes, a website, and a way to approach the schools to reach students with the information. I asked our public library to be a sponsor, (no money needed, just to advertise it on their social media) and began the work. When the library dropped out, I nearly gave up.
Then I met a university student at a friendly Climate protest. “Great to see you out here,” I commented, waving my sign.
She shook her head. “I don’t know if it’s worth it,” she said. “They won’t change anything. So–,” she shrugged. “I’m just–not sure there’s a point to—anything, really.”
Simon Fraser University is doing a study on the rise of Climate Anxiety in youth. Her words were the push I needed. We needed to engage youth in looking at solutions, not dystopias.
No More Hunger Games.
I asked respectable groups to sponsor us. Queen’s University’s Faculty of Education and 350 Kingston both agreed and offered prize money. The Kingston Community Credit Union offered two prizes of $500, as awards for the top artist and top story writer. They would be GIC’s to mature when each winner graduated from high school. Providence Centre for Peace & Justice joined in generously.
I purchased a domain, a website template, and worked for a solid week. With help, I wrote my first media release, and we arranged a photo of the sponsors. The Kingstonist printed it. We sent out well over a hundred emails to the Directors of the local Boards of Education, the principals of each secondary school, and to individual teachers of Art, English, Environmental Science, Indigeonous studies.
We hung posters on nearly every shop downtown and asked for prizes for our youth.
By late September I was giving workshops in classes in schools. I created a slideshow of inspiring new green technology and nature-based solutions, such as Miyawaki Tiny Forests or green roofs.
How will folx create electricity in your future, I asked. How will they manage transportation? Keeping in mind the millions of climate refugees, how might food or housing look different?
There was a strike. Schools closed. Then a snow day. High school students had midterms; grade 7/8 teachers had Progress Reports. We had to push the Nov. 1st deadline back.
We advertised through the Arts Council for volunteer artists for a jury, searched for writers, teachers, environmentalists to read the short stories. I sent them each a short solarpunk story as an example.
We were swamped as the submissions came in, most, incomplete. Finally, we sent them out in batches to our 17 readers and our 10 artists.
On Dec. 1st, Kingston School of Art’s gallery opened with a beautiful display of our students’ positive future art and stories.
One art piece showed a freight ship repurposed into a large food garden, atop a series of towers and living spaces to represent the end of long-distance shipping and urban sprawl.
Another used freight containers to add housing to heritage buildings, community food and pollinator gardens on rooftops, in dome greenhouses and in yards, and solar roof tiles and renovations to keep the beauty of heritage buildings but make them multi-family homes for the future.
At the Award Ceremony, we invited local politicians and celebrities to present awards, and printed two positive comments from jury members to be read for each award. We gave out 24, and a few surprises.
We shared one story with federal MP Mark Gerretsen. He was away but wrote a beautiful letter to the youth, enclosed in a House of Commons binder.
The first place story was about an astronaut. We invited Dr. Judith Irwin, a famous astro-physicist, to read that story. She too, wrote a lovely letter.
The first place art was 3-D, of card stock, with some the old heritage buildings in the city. One of is a well-known boutique hotel so I contacted them, suggested perhaps they could invite the youth for lunch and a tour? They did not reply.
On the morning of Dec. 4th, three presenters had to withdraw. Sore throats! Covid was on the rise in our region. I panicked, divvied up jobs, and sent a last note to the boutique hotel. That piece of art, chosen by the art jury, would give them some publicity in the media.
The gallery was full by 5:30 pm. Nearly everyone wore a mask, as requested. We had extra by the door, with hand sanitizer. We set chairs in front for elderly folx or anyone who needed to sit.
We gave out 24 awards.
The youth who had the M.P.’s letter read aloud was stunned, clutched the binder the rest of the evening. The audience enjoyed hearing honest praise from different jury members. One surprise was that a great piece of art by a student who was—eight years old. Finally, at the last award, an employee of that hotel stepped forward and gave our young winning artist a coupon for their family to spend a night at the inn. A cheer went up from their three siblings.
We think we gave a voice to youth in our region on the Climate Crisis and social equity issues. We think some of the adults in our community listened.
One student wrote: “I hope that people actually get brain cells and start fixing things,” and really, so do we. So do we.
Now, preparing for September 2023!
Note: We are working on a toolkit to help others to run a similar sort of festival for youth. Feel free to contact us through the festival website.