One of Nyaruot Nguany’s heroes is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has economically empowered Kenyan women through tree-planting and agricultural training since 1977.
“She’s someone that looks like me,” said Nguany, 26. “It’s important when I think of who my heroes are. It makes me feel that the work that I do is possible and there’s a place for me in the work.”
Nguany is a co-founder of Changemakers, a youth-led network connecting diverse Mainers with mentorship, training and the resources needed to take action on improving the environment in their communities. More than 200 young people have been a part of the program in three years.
In nominating Nguany for a Source Maine Sustainability Award, Olivia Griset, Executive Director of the Maine Environmental Education Association, which administers Changemakers wrote, “Nyaruot creates spaces where people are able to connect. This connection breaks down the deep isolation youth and adult allies from across Maine experience as a result of difference in our geography, race, gender and socio-economic status.”
Every fall Changemakers hosts The Gathering, a retreat for Mainers of all ages and backgrounds to talk about inequity in the environmental sector, issues from representational leadership to compensation, and funding for work.
Lack of money is a significant barrier to working in the environmental sector. Changemakers works with outdoors groups to get park entry fees waived and find partners to fund advanced trainings like a Wilderness First Responder course that could lead to a job or securing scholarships to environmental conferences. They sometimes simply make sure people have good food at meetings.
Working with people from all over the state has taught Nguany, who grew up in Portland, about the inaccessibility of healthy food to many Mainers. With the Gulf of Maine warming, she’s concerned about job security for people who work in the fishing industry. For Nguany, the connection from climate change to food production is absolute and direct.
In addition to her job at Changemakers, Nguany runs a green cleaning business that uses natural products, and she volunteers with the Preble Street Teen Center. She is a co-leader with Outdoor Afro, a national network of nature meet-ups for people of color. Her favorite trip last summer was leading the group to Hurricane Island, the headquarters of an Outward Bound school, in Penobscot Bay.
Nguany speaks frankly about the vital need for young, diverse people to lead environmental action.
“The people who are making the decisions are not going to live to see a lot of these problems that are going to arise. It’s important to have representation of marginalized people, women, people of color and youth. This is an everyone problem. We all have to work together. We all have our different talents and expertise, and they’re all valuable.”