Commentary

Climate Cafes Student-Led Conversations that Matter

An overview of the thoughtful and important conversations youth leaders are having with adults about the pressing matters of climate change. 

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash
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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship with an appreciation for our surroundings and the wellbeing of future generations. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards

No one knows what this decade will bring. But to quote a Climate Cafe Alum, we are “bravely taking the driver’s seat in our own future.”   Young people are making their voices heard about the state of the environment, they are building bridges across generational and political divides and they are shaping the future through dialogue.

For over five years, a dedicated group of area high school and college students have also been doing their part by hosting Climate Cafes. Each month they invite community members to join in “conversations that matter” about how we can shape the future of the Great Marsh.  At these student-led Cafes we talk about the challenges of protecting our watersheds and saltmarshes, preparing for extreme weather and sea level rise, and our responsibilities as ethical, well-informed citizen-leaders. 

Unlike typical conversations that often degenerate into serial monologues, Climate Cafes follow a more structured format that ensures time for everyone to share their personal perspective, time to listen respectfully to different points of view, and time to “think together” in new ways.  

This year our Cafes will explore issues related to water and weather.  Each student Host, trained in the “art of hosting,” will guide a small group of adults and/or peers through a series of increasingly challenging questions which explore these issues through different lenses. 


To surface personal perspectives, the first round of conversations will invite guests to share a personal experience or an initial opinion about the topic at hand: Tell us about a personal experience you had during a severe storm or a severe drought.  What steps have you taken to reduce your water footprint? In your opinion, what are the consequences of community development on water security?

The second round of conversations will move on to how well we understand our local ecosystem and the ways in which everything is interconnected: Where does your drinking water come from? How will higher tides impact the way we live?  What will be our greatest need for water in the future? 

And if time allows, we will tackle some deeper questions: To whom does water belong?  Do rivers have rights?   What would a fair water management policy look like?  Why should I care about future generations?

But the value of Cafe conversations is much greater than just exploring important issues or learning dialogue skills. It is also about building relationships with others, shifting our mindsets and expanding our own worldviews.

Cafes also give students a public platform on which to share their perspectives. Students say “it’s great to finally be taken seriously by adults,” and adults say these passionate young people “give them hope for the future.”  It’s a good place to begin.

Thanks to the ongoing support of many Great Marsh organizations, especially the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and the Ipswich River Watershed Association, Climate Cafes are making steady progress toward nurturing a culture of dialogue in our communities. Working with local environmental leaders also gives students a better understanding of the challenges we face and a chance to practice the social and communication skills they will need to navigate the future. 

We encourage you to participate in upcoming Climate Cafes.  Every Cafe is an exciting, unrehearsed adventure! It will give you an opportunity to get to know these amazing students, to help them develop a love for this special place and a concern for others with whom they share it.

Our most recent Cafe was a conversation among a few Cafe Aums, area educators and community members to explore new ways to engage youth in civic life.  It was our first “in person” Cafe in a long time and it was wonderful to get together, especially since we may have to be virtual again this fall. 

Stay tuned for our next Cafe and check out our website, Climate-Cafe.org to learn more about who we are and what we're up to! 

For Information about hosting a Climate Cafe in your community or classroom, please contact: Shari Melto, s.melto@nautilusleader.com 

This column was coordinated by ACES Youth Corps member Caleb Bradshaw. To share any comments or questions, send an email to acesnewburyport@gmail.com. To learn more about ACES, go to www.aces-alliance.org.


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about the author
Shari Melto

Shari moved from Manhattan to Plum Bush, and fell in love with the Great Marsh.  She is deeply concerned about environmental change, especially the impact on salt marshes and barrier beaches of coastal Massachusetts.  Shari’s personal mission is to help prepare our youth – tomorrow’s leaders – to tackle the socio-cultural challenges caused by environmental change.

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