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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Growing up, Alexia Leclercq (she/they pronouns) saw a disconnect between the climate crisis taught in school and the one they experienced firsthand. “When I lived in Singapore, there were times when school would close for a week due to air pollution,” Leclercq says. Yet in the classroom, “climate change was framed as a future problem that would only impact polar bears and the Arctic.”
When Leclercq attended an environmental education expo during college, the disconnect became a chasm—and an opportunity. Of the hundreds of associations onsite, “not one organization focused on the justice aspect of the climate crisis,” Leclercq says. So they started one that does.
Leclercq, a WWF 2022 Conservation Leadership Award winner and Harvard University graduate student, founded Start:Empowerment, an education nonprofit that engages students via an immersive climate justice curriculum. To broaden students’ understanding of topics like environmental health, food sovereignty, water rights, and advocacy, the organization partners with educators to develop lesson plans and activities—everything from Monopoly games that spark conversations about the unequal economic system to hydroponic gardening workshops.
Since 2019, Start:Empowerment has reached around 5,000 students across New York and Texas. Education is the first step; action is the second. Participants have gone on to launch community gardens and bolster access to clean water. “The most successful projects come when you listen to and center the people’s needs, and the environment’s needs, and figure out how to make them work together,” says Leclercq.
Also proving the power of listening is the Colorado River Conservancy, which Leclercq cofounded in East Austin in 2020 to support their neighborhood’s oft-neglected and polluted stretch of the waterway.
“Community members shared their experiences and the issues they wanted to address, and we talked to them about how their health and concerns are connected to the environment,” says Leclercq. “It was a two-way education.” The collaborative approach changed many East Austin community members from supporters into volunteers.
These groundbreaking grassroots projects have catapulted Leclercq to the world stage. Recently, they spoke at the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference. “This is such hyper-local work,” Leclercq says, “but it also has international implications.”