This post is sponsored & written by The Office of Sustainability, the city department that is working toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, a healthy & just local food system, and climate resiliency.
This post is sponsored by the City of Austin Office of Sustainability. All Austin Common sponsors are screened by The Austin Common team to ensure they’re doing good for their employees, customers, our community, and the planet.
Meet Sheridan Ray, our newest Net-Zero Hero! At only 19, Sheridan is becoming a fixture in sustainability circles across Austin. Inspired by a high school practicum course with Austin’s Park Rangers, Sheridan has sought out opportunities to raise her voice — and those from her community — to support Austin’s environmental movement. In 2019, Sheridan joined a team of twelve Community Climate Ambassadors to support the creation of the newly adopted Austin Climate Equity Plan. She continued exploring her passions by becoming a member of the 2021 Youth Forest Council with the City of Austin’s Urban Forestry team.
These experiences helped Sheridan choose her course of study: she’s now a sophomore at UT majoring in Sustainability Studies.
We spoke with Sheridan about her journey to sustainability, what it means to work in intergenerational spaces, and what advice she has for others.
What inspired you to take action?
As a black 17-year-old female in my Austin community, I had seen inequalities in my own area and wanted to bring justice to these issues. My knowledge of these issues deepened when I became a student in the Park Ranger Cadet Practicum at Akins High School. I entered the class my junior year, and before the class, I had never had a passion for the outdoors. As a child, my family never really participated in recreational activities, such as kayaking, slacklining, etc. Although I knew I liked nature, I never actually found a passion for it until I joined the class. During the class and through continuing internships with the Rangers after, we developed skills in fishing, rock climbing, caving, digital media, Leave No Trace principles, kayaking, archery, and more. Additionally, we gained conservation knowledge, led youth programs, developed skills in native plant and animal identification, and learned about ecosystem factors such as watershed, soil, atmosphere, and energy. We also talked about significant history involving the equity that Austin lacked for decades.
As I went on into more environmental internships, I came across the opportunity to become a Community Climate Ambassador with Austin’s own Office of Sustainability. Throughout this opportunity, I learned how to represent my community and improve the Climate Equity Plan by bringing racial equity to natural areas and diminishing climate change. This is where I really was able to connect with people who were actually experiencing inequity firsthand, including my mother and I. Moving during high school to another area of the city provided a culture shock for me. Seeing areas with no sidewalks, gentrification, and poorly taken care of apartments made me realize that the playing field needs to be leveled so that everyone has the same access to resources.
How did you do it?
My duties as a Climate Community Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability included:
gathering and sharing information about climate issues with my community
participating in workshops to learn more about climate-related issues
contributing my thoughts to the conversation
working with City staff to design and develop an interview guide
and much more.
My biggest takeaway from the experience had to be that out of people from different ages and ethnicities, a majority of people knew of environmental issues, but only a few actually knew what sustainability is and how climate change affects more than the environment. It reaches into communities as well.
After this experience, I was inspired to become an intern with the Youth Forest Council in Austin, Texas. Here, I am currently working on a project where I have built and placed a little free library in my mother’s neighborhood. I’ve had support on the project from members from the Park Ranger and Youth Forest Council teams, including Karl Loftis, Lydia Gomez, Patrick Chaiken, and Kerstin Johansson. My hope is to encourage mostly kids, but also everyone of all ages, to read about nature and tree-related topics, learn to take care of books, learn how to use a tree guide, and be encouraged to plant wildflower seeds. Additionally, kids will learn about trees and nature as a whole. I hope this project will encourage people to pay attention to their communities and possibly inspire future projects that anyone can accomplish.
What’s been most rewarding about getting involved in this way?
The most rewarding thing about getting involved as a Community Climate Ambassador was being able to contribute to the 2021 Climate Equity Plan and be a voice for my community. I’m very grateful that I was able to be involved in the discussions and listen to professionals and regular everyday people give their input, as well as provide my own.
With the little free library, I’ve had fun being able to get some experience with woodworking, painting, and applications such as Canva. However, the most rewarding part had to be when I showed my nephew the painted version, and his mouth opened wide. Seeing the excited look on his face made me so proud to be impacting so many young minds for the future.
Another way I have gotten involved recently has been becoming a new Tri-Chair for the Youth Leadership Working Group of the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Initiative. In this position, I am able to collaborate with other Tri-Chairs and facilitate discussions involving equity, inclusion, and the environment. The most rewarding thing about this position has been being able to spark important discussions with youth like me and hear meaningful perspectives.
What’s been the toughest part?
The toughest part of working on the little free library has been time management with getting everything done. Unfortunately, building the little free library took more time than expected, and deadlines would be set back frequently, but I am still on track to completing it on time. Another challenge, in the beginning, was feeling like I had taken on a bit too much. However, with help from others and my supervisors, I’ve been able to come a long way and hope to continue contributing to my community in many ways.
The only challenge I faced as a Climate Ambassador was the feeling of intimidation because I felt like I wasn’t qualified enough. This imposter syndrome came from working with very intellectual adults who had much experience and ideas to give. Getting over this took realizing the importance of youth-adult partnerships and understanding that I had a voice to give and could contribute just as much as anyone else.
It seems like you’ve had the opportunity to work in a lot of intentionally intergenerational spaces. Why do you think it’s important to work in this way, and what qualities do you think are needed to make intergenerational collaborations successful?
Working in intergenerational spaces is very important to give young people a voice and diminish the idea that young people don’t have much experience or something to contribute to conversations and projects. Additionally, youth are the ones who will be able to enjoy what’s left after adults, so they should definitely be a part of the change.
Both youth and adults can benefit from one another and gain new insight, knowledge, and perspective on ideas. For intergenerational collaborations to be successful, everyone involved must be willing to engage, give others a voice, stay supportive, be respectful, and focus on the goal of collaboration without judgment.
What advice do you have for others?
Networking will come in handy! If you ever need a job, reference letter, or a mentor, the professionals you meet along the way will always help out! Don’t be afraid to reach out and meet others that might be able to refer you to other organizations and possibilities.
To learn more about Austin’s Net-Zero Goal and the Community Climate Ambassadors, view the Austin Climate Equity Plan.
Share your Net-Zero contributions with us on Twitter or Facebook and use #NetZeroHero. If you know a Net-Zero Hero (or heroes!) who should be recognized for their efforts, send your nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org.