International Youth Day: Sea Youth Rise Up Makes Waves At Capitol Hill Ocean Week

Sea Youth Rise Up delegates with Acting Assistant Secretary J.R. Littlejohn at Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2023. Photo credit: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation/ImageLink

Written by: Laura Johnson, Youth Program Supervisor, The Ocean Project

Throughout the last century, youth have driven transformative change, leading groundbreaking movements and reshaping past norms. As global communities continue to experience the effects of climate degradation, young leaders are demanding unprecedented change, with greater urgency than ever before.

“Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW) for me was very eye-opening and motivating. Getting to see how many people truly care for the ocean and all of their efforts was extremely inspiring, and has been (and will continue to be!) a great motivator to help me get more involved in my community.”

- MJ, 17, student delegate from Boston, MA

Photo credit: Sea Youth Rise Up

After years of persistent efforts, youth inclusion in high-level decision-making is improving- an encouraging development. Harnessing the power of youth for a sustainable future is not only strategic, but morally imperative. As changemakers, they inspire and innovate. However, true impact requires genuine listening and recognition at the table.

“CHOW broadened my concept of how much we need to improve upon. It really solidified the need for younger generations of ocean advocates to take a stand for what they believe in, even if they are nervous. I am glad to say I learned so much, made new friends from across the country that I never would have met, and have a deeper understanding of ocean and climate policy and the decisions that go into creating a sustainable future. ”

- Alejandro, 15, student delegate from Miami, FL

Photo credit: Sea Youth Rise Up

Since 2016, Sea Youth Rise Up, a collaborative effort facilitated by The Ocean Project in partnership with Big Blue & You, and for the first time this year EarthEcho International, creates catalysts for change. The program provides a platform for youth to express their ideas and magnify their environmental advocacy efforts, connect with peers and conservation leaders, and engage with government officials to address ocean policy during Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW), World Ocean Day, and beyond. After a virtual hiatus due to Covid, 2023 marked an in-person return, bringing 10 exceptional leaders to Washington, DC for CHOW. Special recognition to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for their longtime support of youth engagement and leadership, through Sea Youth Rise Up and beyond.

“Sea Youth Rise Up was so valuable and such an engaging experience that I am so glad to have been a part of. I was able to connect and share my own advocacy experiences with people from different sectors of marine conservation at CHOW, and learn about the work being done on the federal level. It was amazing to meet, bond with, and learn from youth advocates from across the country, and the work they are doing to protect the planet.”

- Lilu, 18, student delegate from Boston, MA

Photo credit: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation/ImageLink

Student delegates participated in Hill Day, holding numerous meetings with their representatives’ offices. Some had reservations about being taken seriously due to their age in high-level discussions, unsure if their voices would truly count. Growing up amidst politically turbulent times, their caution entering these talks was absolutely reasonable. During Hill Day, interactions with staffers varied. While some meetings were productive, others left students with mixed sentiments.

“Sea Youth Rise Up allowed me to get an inside perspective on the world of ocean activism. I was able to meet and connect with incredible people who are just as passionate as I am about the ocean. Even though in some of the meetings, in an example of young people not being taken seriously, it felt like group photos at the end were more important to staffers than the meeting itself and the chance to speak with us, I still learned a lot from each meeting. I have much more confidence now because of my experience. I also have a much better understanding of how I can turn ocean activism into a career for myself because of Sea Youth Rise Up.”

- Kyra, 19, student delegate from Savannah, GA

Photo credit: Sea Youth Rise Up

Following Hill Day, Sea Youth Rise Up was graciously invited to discuss the role of youth in conservation policy with J.R Littlejohn, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, at the Department of State. The realization that a highly influential figure in the Federal Government valued the role of young people so personally, was profound. Her enthusiasm and genuine appreciation for student perspectives and questions significantly uplifted the delegation’s spirits, and infused optimism into the delegation as they approached their next big meeting.

“At Sea Youth Rise Up, I was not only able to meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds, but I also got to share my own voice as a youth ocean advocate. My favorite experience was being able to meet with my representatives face-to-face and discuss the importance of ocean-based climate solutions. This provided me with the opportunity to build connections with my communities' representatives, and to learn about their stance on ocean/climate initiatives. And, staffers we met could take notes back on what WE shared and spoke about. It was an unforgettable learning experience. And a HUGE shoutout to all the folks who work to make CHOW amazing!”

- Myra, 17, student delegate from Berkeley, CA


Photo credit: Sea Youth Rise Up


On World Ocean Day, the White House released a notice seeking public input for the first-ever Ocean Justice Strategy. Sea Youth Rise Up was invited by the Council of Environmental Quality to discuss this strategy. The delegation buzzed with excitement, as this meeting demonstrated national leaders’ attention to youth concerns and their commitment to including youth voices. During the meeting, White House staff earnestly valued student’s presence and opinions, both noting and celebrating their input.

“The meeting with CEQ was incredible, and I also enjoyed the roundtable with Acting Assistant Secretary Littlejohn. These opportunities were true highlights for me, because in order to equitably address climate change and ocean degradation, youth voices NEED to be involved. We have been critical agents of change in the past and present, and young people have the power to inspire and mobilize our communities for serious change. I'd love to see even more young people get to experience things like this.”

- Katherine, 20, student delegate from Sioux Falls, SD

Katherine Escalante speaks during the Margaret Davison Emerging Leaders Roundtable during Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2023. Photo credit: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation/ImageLink

At the heart of International Youth Day is celebrating the potential of youth as global partners. Their collective political will is an untapped resource. Collaborating across generations is crucial for a brighter future. Programs like Sea Youth Rise Up and CHOW are actively building a more united world by celebrating diverse perspectives. This celebration is more than commemorative; it’s a call to action. It emphasizes how youth shape our future through unwavering dedication and innovative thinking.

“As young activists, our voices often go overlooked by older generations. While our group was in DC for CHOW, our cohort was treated with dignity & respect. Visiting the White House CEQ was really impactful. It felt so empowering to be seated at a table where the majority of people were young advocates and were able to offer insight to high-level officials. It is quite clear that folks working on policy to address our Ocean's health understand how critical our voices are in the discussions.”

- Armon, 23, student delegate from Corpus Christi, TX

Armon Alex speaks during the Capitol Hill Ocean Week opening plenary session. Photo credit: National Marine Sanctuary Foundation/ImageLink

Sea Youth Rise Up delegates had a fantastic experience at CHOW, and appreciated the strong emphasis on the ocean-climate connection that tied the panels together. Notably, two student delegates, Armon Alex and Katherine Escalante, added their voices to CHOW directly. Armon kicked things off during the “Ocean X Climate” plenary session with opening remarks highlighting youth’s role in conservation, while Katherine was the youngest speaker on the “Margaret Davidson Emerging Leaders Roundtable: Climate Innovations” panel, marking the conference’s closure.

CHOW demonstrates how bigger organizations can include youth perspectives in their initiatives. Authentic engagement begins with genuinely addressing young voices and concerns, avoiding superficial listening. Meaningful intergenerational collaboration must steer clear of tokenism; Youth seeking to contribute authentically and independently to the movement should never be propped up as mere mouthpieces for adult agendas.

The significance of youth representation cannot be understated. The infusion of young perspectives brings freshness and dynamism to the conversation, igniting enthusiasm between generations. This serves as a powerful catalyst for positive change. To sustain this momentum, building upon CHOW’s youth engagement model, organizations can establish platforms and support for initiatives by and for youth, create meaningful collaboration through youth advisory boards, implement mentorship programs, and more. Ultimately, cultivating mutual respect, open dialogue, and intergenerational equality empowers young leaders to create impactful and lasting change, securing a future driven by their transformative voices.