The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
Green shirts. Green headbands. Green posters.
The group of high school students standing up in the auditorium catches the eyes of the few adults scattered around in the public hearing on solar panel installation in Fairfax County, Va.
One after another, students took to the microphone and voiced their mission—going green.
In the middle, leading those passionate environmental activists stood Wendy Gao, president of Solar on the Schools.
Those testimonials and others throughout 2018, led to Gao and her group successfully lobbying for solar panels as renewable energy sources in Fairfax County Public Schools.
In January of 2019, the school board approved three schools’ solar panel installations. Gao’s angle focused on communicating youth voice directly to policymakers: the next generation needs a solution.
“We often feel alone,” Gao said, now a senior at Oakton High School in Oakton, Va. “It’s hard trying to make big changes as kids in a game that’s controlled by the establishment and the older generation.”
For three years, Gao and her team took every opportunity possible—from county festivals to public meetings—to collect over 2,000 petition signatures in support of adopting solar energy.
Gao’s passion for environmental activism sparked after a chemistry experiment in her sophomore year when she found out about the heavily polluted water in her neighborhood stream. After witnessing the devastating effect of climate change around her, Gao said she was “pushed to take more actions.”
She taught climate change education at local elementary school and held a “trashion” show displaying recyclable clothes.
“I am a young person, so I’m one of the frontline populations,” said Gao, “and that really scared me because my future is being stolen.”
From research Gao realized that the potential impacts of global warming disproportionately affects women. She said they are the “largest displaced population” due to lack of financial resources to deal with natural disasters and rising sea levels.
“By speaking up, women can educate other women around us so that people do understand that women are really at high risk” when it comes to global warming, said Jennifer Marlon, research scientist in the School of Forestry and Environmental Science at Yale University.
“We have a great capacity to organize, mobilize and raise our voices to be heard, demanding that we shift from fossil fuel-based economy to a clean energy economy.”
After Fairfax County proceeded with the adoption of solar energy, Gao and her team worked with Virginia delegates and testified in the General Assembly to push forward the Solar Freedom Bill.
The bill, which was adopted in early March, expands the usage of solar panels for government organizations at a local level and removes caps for renewable energy sources.
But Gao’s work isn’t finished. Her next step is to target electrifying bus fleets in the county in order to reduce carbon emission.
“A lot of people like to be activists for the sake of being an activist,” said Ryan McElveen, Fairfax County School Board member emeritus who worked with the group to pass the solar panels proposal. “Wendy, certainly has her eyes on the prize.”
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