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The Young Adult Environmental Leadership Program, also known as YAELP, is a conference that uses creative problem solving and education to guide high school student groups to create a plan of action for social and environmental changes in our community. Last week, 45 students from area schools gathered at the University at Buffalo for the eighth annual summit.

YAELP brings together teams of six students from schools and organizations in Western New York and has them tackle environmental and social justice challenges. Each group has professional facilitators from SUNY Buffalo State’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, to guide them through a strategic planning process. All teams also partner with a community organization to help design their projects. At the end of the two-day conference, each group presents its challenge and plan of action.

The program was created by Dave Bauer, an environmental science teacher for 34 years and president of Sustainable Earth Solutions. YAELP is funded entirely by donations from the community.

Education in change leadership is all about shattering false notions. We think of leaders as people who never makes mistakes. We think of them as unbeatable captains that inevitably steer our ships safely through treacherous storms. But, leaders make mistakes, and that’s normal. Mistakes are what help leaders grow. We learned that leaders have something called internal locus of control. When people have internal locus of control, they feel they are responsible for creating change.

“When we operate from an internal locus of control, we are responsible for creating the change we wish to see in the world,” Bauer said.

We also learned the five domains of change leadership: perseverance, intellect, heart-centeredness, psychological insight and creativity.

The groups also learned about the power of using a research-based model of creative thinking – the creative problem solving process or CPS, which is a process used to generate novel ideas for a defined challenge and create a plan of action based on these ideas. At YAELP, each group had one or two facilitators who have been trained in CPS to guide the teams.

CPS helps transform a broad wish statement into a feasible plan of action. We learned how to effectively diverge to find many novel ideas and then to converge to select the best ideas for our plans of action. We then formulated our mission statement, which summarized our goal for the project and how we might reach it.

Meeting students and teachers from other schools was one of the highlights of our experience. The other schools and organizations were undertaking amazing projects. Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School is aiming to improve its school’s overall health both physically and mentally. St. Francis is planning to create a more environmentally friendly campus that also serves others. Pembroke High is working on building an outdoor classroom in an unused space behind the school, while International Preparatory at Grover will be building a rain garden. Health Sciences Charter School is aiming to be a catalyst for environmental change in its community and at the school. Leadership Buffalo’s Youth Leadership Program is working to increase health awareness in schools all over Buffalo. All these projects will help the Western New York community and are being supported by local community partners in the design and implementation phases.

Our group’s Green Library Project is focused on raising money to build a library at a school in Puerto Rico.

When we were first invited to YAELP, we both had a very vague idea of what it was, but we decided to try it. We went into the YAELP experience with an open mind, and that was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. The conference was amazing, and we learned so much. We went home excited to share all the new skills and leadership qualities we have learned, and continue our newly formed relationships with students from other area schools.

To learn more about YAELP, contact dbauer@SustainableEarthSolutions.com.

Maya Nigrin and Hana Mamnoon are freshmen at Nichols School.