Daphne Joyce Wu showed up at Indie Coffee for an interview with a reusable mug — an on-brand move for a 18-year-old sustainability activist.
“I’m happy that they took it!” Wu said. “A lot of coffee shops don’t take them after the pandemic.”
Wu graduated from Middleton High School this past spring. During four years there, she recruited over 110 students to join her “Green Team” sustainability organization, successfully lobbied the school board to adopt a sustainability referendum, and founded the Dane County Youth Environmental Committee to push for similar resolutions at 17 other area schools.
When Wu heads to Yale University this fall, she’ll bring an eco-friendly mindset and reputation as a National U.S. Presidential Scholar and Congressional Gold Medalist with her.
None of this is about awards for Wu. It’s about ensuring her generation has a planet left to live on.
“It’s amazing news, but honestly, it doesn’t really change what I’m doing,” she said. “I never did it thinking that I would win awards.”
Wu spoke with the Cap Times about teaching elementary schoolers about climate change, working within tight schedules and the mindset she’d most like to change.
How’d you get involved with sustainability work?
I was originally a part of the Student Council at my high school, where I founded the environmental committee. I learned there was a garden club and there was an ecology club, so I worked with the ecology club advisor to merge them into one big “Green Team.” Originally, it was only me and three of my best friends, but it grew to over 110 people last year, which was really exciting.
Do you have a personal favorite project that you’ve worked on?
There’s a lot, but I definitely think it’s the elementary school visits. I organized that my sophomore year and we visited pretty much every elementary school in the district. It was just really fun to talk to them, and they were so knowledgeable about climate issues.
Why do you think that it’s important to talk with kids about climate change?
When you start talking about climate change and environmental issues to people that are already in high school, they don’t care anymore. You have to build and instill a sustainability culture when kids are young because it’s a value and moral thing.
There are a lot of little things teachers can say or do that students pick up on and remember. For example, in social studies, I learned about sustainability issues across the world. In science, I learned how climate change affects ecosystems.
You also tried to get the Middleton School District to adopt sustainability goals, right?
Yeah, so when I was a sophomore, I drafted the initial version of the sustainability resolution for my school district that included three pillars.
First, we wanted to embed environmental education into every single grade level so that students continually learn about environmental issues. We also wanted to get 100% renewable energy for our school district by 2035. We have a share in a solar field now and one of our middle schools has geothermal, so we’re off to a good start.
Lastly, we’re trying to reduce waste 35% by 2025. Right now, Middleton High School is working on purchasing an industrial-sized composter so students can make their leftovers from lunch into dirt.
What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
The biggest problem was that teachers and staff at our district are incredibly overworked and couldn’t find meeting times, even a month ahead. I think a lot of staff were unwilling to put more on their plate.
I also had several staff say to me, “Oh, sustainability isn’t even in my list of top five concerns for the school district.” That was frustrating, especially because as a student, you rely so much on the staff. It’s not like I can get a resolution passed by myself, so I had to work around other people’s schedules, which was the frustrating part because I couldn’t control that.
When did the sustainability resolution officially pass?
It passed in March 2021, unanimously. It was still during COVID so I didn’t get the chance to sit at the school board meeting, but I was so excited to find out that it passed!
Do you think there’s room to grow at high schools, as far as sustainability goes?
Every single school district should have a sustainability resolution. That’s part of why I created the Dane County Youth Environmental Committee. Districts can have a lot of ideas, but if you don’t write it out, there’s no accountability.
Is there a piece of advice that you remember vividly?
When I was a high school representative for the city of Middleton Sustainability Committee, I remember Ms. Weitzel, a retired teacher, said: “No matter what you do, I’m sure you will make a really positive impact. You don’t have to feel pressured to stay in one path because everyone’s recognizing you.”
Sometimes I feel pressured to stick to sustainability since I’ve been recognized for it already, but hearing her say that reminded me that I will make a positive impact no matter what career I go into.
So where are you headed now? And what other interests do you want to explore?
I’m attending Yale University in the fall to double-major in economics in environmental studies. My dream is to go to law school, and I’d love to work for the Environmental Defense Fund or the drastically underfunded Environmental Protection Agency. I’ve been inspired by policymakers, so I want to work on sustainability policy.
If you could change one sustainability mindset, what would you try to change?
Oh, this is too easy! A lot of people say, “Oh, the planet is already going to waste, there’s nothing I can do.” I would try to change that mindset. It’s really frustrating because it’s the reason why nothing gets done.
Are there ways for people to jump in and get involved in sustainability, especially if they don’t have much time?
No matter how busy you are, you can still think about sustainability. That extra step of thinking is what really makes a difference. You don’t have to spend hours upon hours volunteering or doing anything like that, you just need to think a little more and make conscious decisions whenever you buy anything, use something or waste something. Just think about what your impact is.
Do you have any advice for any sustainability advocates who are in high school and looking for ways to get involved?
Get involved with a local environmental organization! That’s number one, whether it’s within your school, it’s in your school district or you start your own. There’s usually someone you can represent or a school, city or county board that needs a youth voice.
Why do you think it’s important for people to stay focused on climate change when there are tons of other big world issues?
Climate change will be irreversible in 10 years, according to the United Nations, so I think that, more than anything, should be at the front of our minds. It needs to be a priority and be on every single politician’s to-do list.
Does it ever get to be a little overwhelming thinking about climate change?
Sometimes, but I stay focused on what I can do. For example, I just turned 18, so I can vote for people who believe in climate change and people who care deeply about the environment. I can also get involved with sustainability organizations. When you look at climate change as a whole, it’s just too overwhelming. It’s better to focus on your sphere of influence and what you can do.