March 28, 2018

10 ways parents can support youth advocacy

Werklund School PhD candidate Gina Ko shares tips on how she supported two sixth-graders with a science fair project that went viral

Whether they are advocating for stricter gun control with #MarchForOurLives, social change with the #MeToo movement, environmental change to protect the planet, or other social justice issues, kids today are getting involved and taking a stand.

Over the last few weeks, Gina Ko, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and a sessional instructor at the Werklund School of Education, has watched and supported her 12-year-old daughter Mya Chau and 11-year-old Eve Helman in their efforts to advocate for fully recyclable coffee cups at Starbucks. The petition the girls started for their Grade 6 science fair project has not only racked up more than 325,000 signatures (and counting), but was also likely a catalyst for convincing Starbucks to recommit to creating a fully recyclable cup.

Last week, just hours before the girls and Ko met with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in Seattle ahead of the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting, Starbucks announced a US$10 million pledge to fund research into designs for cups that can be more easily recycled. (In 2010, Starbucks committed to switching to fully recyclable or reusable cups by 2015, but missed its own deadline.)

“We were in our hotel room in Seattle when we heard the news and we all screamed,” Ko says. “The girls had initially set a goal of 900 signatures, so we never imagined this kind of success. I am so proud of them.”

While Ko is quick to heap praise on the girls’ efforts, the girls are also very grateful to Ko for her support with the project, which they could not have done without her. “When we were shopping at a souvenir store in Seattle, Mya secretly bought me a journal with the phrase ‘Life is always now’ printed on it, and Eve gave me flowers,” Ko says.

“My place as a parent is as a support. I don’t think it’s about having an adult ‘motivate or encourage’ them — that can be problematic wording. I really think it’s up to the kids.” That said, the girls were not old enough to start the petition themselves (you need to be at least 13) and they also needed parental support to travel to Seattle, among other things.

Gina Ko, Mya Chau and Eve Helman at the 2018 Starbucks shareholder’s meeting.

Gina Ko, Mya Chau and Eve Helman at the 2018 Starbucks shareholder’s meeting.

Gina Ko

UCalgary PhD studies help support the kids’ efforts

In fact, two years ago, Ko’s PhD studies also helped the girls start their quest for recyclable coffee cup advocacy. For their Grade 4 science fair project, the girls came up with the idea to create a survey to find out what percentage of people use reusable and disposable coffee cups. The girls surveyed 157 people and found that, on average, people use 155 disposable cups a year.

At the time, Ko was auditing a doctoral level statistical analysis class taught by Man-Wai Chu, a UCalgary assistant professor at the Werklund School. “Man-Wai is a stats person, and she helped us analyze the survey data the girls collected,” says Ko.

More recently, Ko also received support for the project from her own students — as a sessional instructor, she just finished teaching EDUC 450, Diversity in Learning, a course offered in the Werklund School which teaches about activism, mobilization and social justice issues. Throughout the fall semester, Ko gave her students weekly updates on the science fair project — a real-life example of how to support youth activism and advocacy.

It was actually the UCalgary students who encouraged Ko to accept’s invitation to take the girls to Seattle. “I was so busy, I didn’t think we had the time to go,” says Ko. “But my students convinced me that we had to make time for the trip.”

Even after the semester ended, Ko’s students were emailing her for updates on the project, which continued to gain signatures and significant attention from the media. Ko ended her most recent email update to her class by telling them, “I am so glad I listened to you and chose to go to Seattle! This was a great learning experience for Mya and Eve.”

Mya Chau and Eve Helman campaign outside the Starbucks shareholder's meeting in Seattle.

Mya Chau and Eve Helman campaign outside the Starbucks shareholder's meeting in Seattle.

Gina Ko

Here are Gina Ko’s Top 10 pieces of advice for how parents can support their kids’ youth advocacy efforts:

1. Let the kids choose their own project: “Any project has to be something the kids want to do, it has to come from their heart. They have to connect with it and be passionate about it,” says Ko. Her daughter, Mya, for example, as well as her nine-year-old son Kowen, have always been very environmentally minded. “Since Mya has been very young, when she showers, she shuts off the water to apply conditioner. She says ‘I can withstand the cold.’ I think this project is in her DNA,” Ko adds with a laugh.

2. Help the kids stay organized: “As a parent, I have a huge to-do list of what I can I do to help the kids and give them my full support. It can be as simple as printing out research, or obtaining materials for a tri-fold presentation board, or helping them make a packing list for a trip,” says Ko. “And I stay in email contact with organizations on the kids’ behalf.”

3. Keep the focus on the kids: “As signatures to the petition increased and we decided to go to Starbucks headquarters in Seattle and meet with environmental organizations, we received many requests to talk to the media, and for me, as a parent, to speak on-camera. In almost all cases I said no, ‘I want the girls’ voices to be heard’ and to be heard first. I reminded the media that this is the kids’ time to be heard,” says Ko.

4. Help the kids practise for media interviews: “It can be scary for an introverted 11-year-old to talk to the media. So I sat with the girls, we asked ourselves, ‘What do I want to say?’ many, many times. The girls typed out their answers and practised, sometimes 10 times, until they didn’t feel so nervous,” says Ko.

5. Seek expert help when needed: “I didn’t go into this knowing a lot about paper coffee cups, and neither did the girls. You have to help the kids read up on the research and know when to reach out for expert help. In our case, some of the people at helped us with the process. They Skyped with us and sent us a PowerPoint presentation with advice about dealing with the media. You just need to invite help when you need it and be grateful for whatever help can come in the moment,” says Ko.

6. Remember to have fun: “This project has taken so much time and focus. It has been so worth it and the kids have been such troopers. But it’s not always easy. We went to Seattle for less than 48 hours and we were so exhausted. So many media were reaching out after the Starbucks shareholder’s meeting — but we also needed to take time to eat, and to walk around Seattle and take time for the kids to just be kids. You need to remember ‘Let’s have fun, it’s not a drill!’ You have to find the humour in things and remember to be light. When we got back to Calgary, the girls said it was the best trip they’ve ever had. Making sure the kids have a positive experience is so important,” says Ko.

7. Remember to be thankful: “We had a lot of help with this project. While we were in Seattle, the girls picked out journal books to give as little tokens of thanks to the two campaigners who helped us. The girls have been very good at thanking everyone for all the hard work that’s been done to support their goals.”

8. Let the kids take the lead: “The girls are already talking about what kind of science project they want to do next year. They continue to be engaged and excited. My place as a parent is as a support. Mya loves to sleep in. But I haven’t had to wake her up for this project. Just a tap on the shoulder, and she is up. I don’t have to drag her out of bed. She puts on her own clothing and she has started doing her own hair for the first time.”

9. Take time to reflect on the experience: “The girls have both commented that they learned so much and felt like they grew up so much over the course of this project. They really have grown. They are both leaders at their school already — doing announcements and volunteering in the library — and what they have learned during this project has made them excited to do even more. That in itself is worth celebrating,” says Ko.

10. Be realistic — and grateful for luck: “Since we’ve returned from Seattle, I’ve reminded the kids that despite our success, this kind of advocacy work is not always easy. They really did luck out with timing, launching the petition not long before the Starbucks shareholder’s meeting. But I reminded the girls that in these kind of efforts, there can often be people that are not as nice, or that might not agree with you, or that could throw comments at them that are not so kind. So I reminded them to come to me or another parent or a teacher for support — that they have lots of support. Because their next experience might not be this positive,” says Ko.

Next up: Mya Chau and Eve Helman will present the results of their petition project at the Calgary Youth Science Fair, April 13 and 14, 2018, at the Olympic Oval.