November 2015

Thinking globally, acting locally at 15

Fifteen-year-old Mater Christi College student Caitlin MacDonald attributes her passion for environmental advocacy to a few significant influences: growing up on the land, support from her parents and being exposed to opportunities at school.

BY Stephanie Thomas

Fifteen-year-old Mater Christi College student Caitlin MacDonald attributes her passion for environmental advocacy to a few significant influences: growing up on the land, support from her parents and being exposed to opportunities at school.

Caitlin’s commitment to environmental advocacy was recognised earlier this year when she received the 2015 Ken McIntosh Memorial Award for Young Environmental Achiever of the Year from the Yarra Ranges Council.

“It was an absolute surprise but also an incredible privilege,” says Caitlin. “I was nominated by the teachers at my school, and as I said, a massive privilege. I’m very thankful for such an honour.”

Since she was two-months-old, Caitlin has lived with her family on a semi-rural property at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, about 35 kilometres east of Melbourne. Whether playing in the dirt as a toddler, working in the vegetable garden or exploring the outdoors, it’s been here on the family property that Caitlin’s love and passion for the environment began and has been cultivated.

“The natural environment has been the cornerstone of my life,” she says unequivocally.

Caitlin is grateful to her parents for this experience. “They’ve given us wonderful opportunities to be raised in the environment that we are in. Not every child is given that privilege,” she says.

Caitlin’s passion for the environment has also been nurtured at her school, Mater Christi in Belgrave, a Year 7-12 College for girls established by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and now operated by Good Samaritan Education.

For the past few years, Caitlin has been an active member of the College’s SoJuSt Group (Social Justice and Stewardship Group) which organises education, advocacy and fundraising campaigns with a social justice and environmental focus in the school community.

“It’s a vertical group in the sense that it’s an opportunity open to students of all year levels,” explains Caitlin.

“It’s led by two teachers, one per area, respectively – social justice and environment – and by two Year 12 captains and two Year 9 captains. Students from all year levels join in the fun in promoting whatever we believe is important.”

Together the group plans and implements a raft of activities throughout the year, including an annual week-long series of events, which can range from awareness-raising about recycling, composting, fair trade and responsible consumerism, to organising Christmas hampers for the St Vincent de Paul, fundraising for Caritas Australia or coordinating petitions.

Caitlin enjoys working on these issues with such a highly motivated group of students and teachers.

“First and foremost it’s just so much fun thinking of ways to promote things. I’m inspired by the people around me. I work with other students here at Mater who are amazing in their motivation and direction, and my teachers as well,” she says.

“I’m also inspired by the opportunities we’re given at school. We’re so, so fortunate that we can do all manner of things. All we really need is our imagination and our teachers will facilitate the rest for us. So those three factors combined create a really powerful atmosphere to achieve whatever you’d like to.”

Last year when Caitlin was one of the Year 9 SoJuSt captains, she and the two Year 12 captains worked on a campaign to promote composting in the school.

“We decided that we wanted to promote composting as a really accessible important means of reducing landfill. So my Mum and I sewed a carrot costume from scratch – even with the little green tuft on the head! I actually skated on roller skates into the assembly hall, got up and made a speech as ‘Caitlin the Carrot’! It was so much fun,” she laughs.

Caitlin is extremely informed and articulate about environmental issues (she cites Tim Flannery and David Suzuki as significant role models and is very familiar with their works), but is also committed to ‘walking the talk’. During recess or lunchtime, she and her friends are often seen walking around the school with a bucket, collecting compost scraps from other students for the school’s vegetable gardens. While doing this she says they also have conversations about “why we’re walking around with a bucket”.

Caitlin says the school community has been very responsive to the SoJuSt Group’s initiatives. “We have a really enthusiastic student body here; we’re really, really very fortunate.” But she recognises there are always challenges associated with environmental advocacy, and stresses the importance of making advocacy initiatives creative, accessible and fun, especially for young people. “We found that the more interesting the initiative, the stronger the response is.”

She adds: “Because we hear so much about climate change on a daily basis and some of the rhetoric is characterised by fear, our challenge is to turn that rhetoric around to help our classmates to understand and to see how it applies to our everyday lives,… and how we can make simple, innovative, relatively easy steps, to make a positive contribution – that it’s not all beyond our reach or beyond our capabilities”.

At the moment, Caitlin and other students are finalising a signature petition opposing coal developments near the Great Barrier Reef. It will be sent to the Federal Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.

“We collected signatures against the development of the coal port in the Galilee Basin in Queensland and we spent a lot of time in the local community collecting signatures from people who ended up being from all around the state [but] who happened to be in Belgrave for whatever reason.

“And we got a really, really positive response from those people. They were interested in why we were doing it; they were interested that young people were involved in such an initiative and it was just so encouraging to be a part of something like that,” says Caitlin.

While most of Caitlin’s environmental advocacy work happens within the school context, earlier this year she joined the Yarra Ranges Shire Youth Reference Group.

“I do enjoy using that as a forum to at least speak to other young people about what we can achieve, where that is possible,” she says.

Later this month, on the weekend before world leaders gather in Paris for the much-anticipated UN climate summit, Caitlin plans to participate in the Peoples Climate March. In cities throughout the world, millions of people like Caitlin are expected to march together calling for global action on climate change.

“I’m planning to go to the one in Melbourne… and I’m hoping to take along a few friends from school as well,” she says.

In preparation for the UN climate summit, Caitlin and her friends have been talking about the issues with as many people as possible.

“We find that a lot of the time the most powerful advocacy that we can carry out is just speaking to our friends and peers and teachers and families about these things, because when young people stand up for what we believe in it’s often quite powerful, perhaps more so than sensationalised media reports or other means of communication”, she explains.

There’s no doubt that Caitlin MacDonald is a powerful advocate for the environment who, at age 15, is truly living the adage, “think globally, act locally”.

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