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Helen Watts is empowering the next generation of climate activists

With its ‘rich social justice background,’ Concordia was a special place for Student Energy’s executive director to find groups that represented her values
February 15, 2024
By Adam H. Callaghan

 A woman in a red turtleneck smiling against a warm-toned background. Helen Watts, BFA 17 | Photo: Calvin Thomas Photography

From an art history degree to a career in climate activism — isn’t that a big leap? Absolutely not, says Helen Watts, BFA 17, who has nevertheless faced her share of impostor syndrome.

These days, her role includes normalizing such seemingly disparate paths to foster interdisciplinary youth coalitions pushing for progress on the sustainable energy transition.

“You don’t need to have a typical STEM or climate background to come into the climate space,” she says. “But I didn’t necessarily hear that from other people when I was younger.”

As executive director of the global, youth-led Student Energy, Watts works with young people for young people, empowering them to act in the interest of sustainability.

Finding groups that represent your values

Watts loves history and the role that artists can play in creating change, such as spreading important messages in a universal language. Concordia was a special place for finding groups that represented her values.

“The university has such a rich social justice background,” she says, “and fosters the types of communities that are engaged with topics like the UN Sustainable Development Goals and community-based grassroots issues.”

One of those communities is AIESEC, a youth-led organization founded by European students after the Second World War to foster peace and progress. Formerly the Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales and now known only by its acronym, it has an active Concordia chapter and its international headquarters in Montreal. The organization facilitates paid and volunteer exchange opportunities for young people throughout the world.

“We were working to create international experiences to foster knowledge, awareness and empowerment of young leaders around human rights and social justice issues,” Watts says. It helped her home in on her own point of view as a young leader and figure out how to navigate that role as a young person who cared deeply but didn’t have 10-plus years of experience.

A transformative Co-op experience

Woman sits in a chair with a microphone speaking to a group of people with a sign Energy for All on the wall behind her. Helen Watts speaking at COP28 in Dubai

Her own internship in art history, offered through Concordia’s Institute for Co-operative Education, was transformative. “That was massive, because I had a ton of support from my Co-op advisor to go deep into what I cared about and think outside the box of gallery work,” she says.

Looking at art history through a colonial and post-colonial lens allowed Watts a unique perspective on modern migration issues, for example, which led to an internship at the UN with the International Organization for Migration

The internship inspired Watts to take on more responsibility within AIESEC, including running a series of events to build awareness of how students could affect issues of sustainability and human rights. The series brought together leading voices from across Canada — including the former executive director of Student Energy, Meredith Adler, destined to become Watts’s boss and then predecessor.

“For young people, I think everyone’s path to the climate space looks wonky, but we need to invite them in and let them internalize the idea that these are challenges that will only be solved by collective action.”

A moral and practical imperative for young people to be heard

Watts is emphatic on this point: “It’s impossible to overstate how important it is to get young people into the fight for a livable planet and a livable future.” Decisions being made — or not — right now absolutely define what the future looks like, she says, and many areas simply aren’t being addressed with the urgency and scale needed, “so there’s a moral imperative for young people to be heard and recognized as key stakeholders in this space.”

There’s also a practical argument: Because they haven’t yet become entrenched in existing systems, “young people are much more willing and inclined to challenge the status quo.” Part of what Student Energy wants to ensure is that young people get a foundation of access and knowledge of how the system works so they can challenge it in constructive, specific and informed ways.

“For me, it was about finding that community where I felt safe and accepted as somebody who did not come from a highly technical background, or who had grown up overseas and didn't necessarily know how all of Canada’s systems worked,” Watts says. She found it through AIESEC, and it’s now also available through Student Energy university chapters. Concordia doesn’t have a chapter yet, but that could easily change if someone requests it.

“We try not to do the top-down thing, because I believe in young people deciding what they want to do, then we help them do what they’ve decided to do,” Watts says. “Ultimately, this work is going to be done through movements and coalitions — and campuses are such an important environment to start that work.”


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