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Citizen of the Week: Rehka Dhillon-Richardson

The University City resident has turned her passion for the environment into a local girls climate summit and two trips to the U.N.—all by the age of 17

The University City resident has turned her passion for the environment into a local girls climate summit and two trips to the U.N.—all by the age of 17

Rehka Dhillon-Richardson spent her youngest years in a small town near Vancouver, where a few steps to the right was the beach; there she explored tidepool eels, fish and coral. To the left, was a “mountain” called Soames Hill, where she spent her time hiking the trails and searching for slugs after a rainy day. It was there she learned an awe of nature.

Over the years, as she travelled back to Vancouver from Philadelphia, Dhillon-Richardson noticed something: The environment that she loved so dearly was changing in front of her, the result of rapid climate change. And she found that most people didn’t share the same respect and love for the environment that she did.

“When I got older, I started realizing in the world around me that things weren’t right,” says Dhillon-Richardson, who moved to University City so her mom could finish her Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn. “I wanted to do my best to protect [the environment] the best way I could.”

“I think one of the most crucial things I’ve learned so far in this entire journey is that there’s hope,” she says. “[Many people] are afraid. By having these experiences, you meet people who are very positive, and they’re positive about the future. There’s so many great people out there who are doing amazing work.”

Now 17, and a senior at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Dhillon-Richardson has turned that desire to protect the earth into an all-day Girls Climate Change Summit in Philadelphia, with over 100 students from 18 area middle and high schools. And she has twice travelled to Geneva to participate in the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Dhillon-Richardson’s environmental activism started between 7th and 8th grade, on her annual summer vacation in Vancouver, when she interned at the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental advocacy nonprofit. As part of her internship, she wrote a submission to the U.N. Convention contending that Canada was in violation of the international agreement because its environmental policies were allowing children to suffer the effects of climate change. (The United States has not signed on to the Convention, which declares civil, economic, health, social and cultural rights of children.)

Her letter was read by the Convention, and she was invited to go to Geneva to meet with delegates. She attended the Convention again last year, this time as a speaker on an expert panel about the impact of climate change on children, along with other young leaders and environmental activists. Her speech was about environmental degradation and its impacts on children (see video here).

“I think one of the most crucial things I’ve learned so far in this entire journey is that there’s hope,” she says. “[Many people] are afraid. By having these experiences, you meet people who are very positive, and they’re positive about the future. There’s so many great people out there who are doing amazing work.”

Dhillon-Richardson says the best part of her “humbling” trips to the U.N. was meeting different people from all over the world, like 18-year-old Brianna Fruean, an environmental activist from Samoa, with whom she has become friends.

Since the summer, Dhillon-Richardson has been learning nonstop about climate change to prepare for her third Climate Summit, to be held in April. The one-day conference, held at Springside, has four goals: To educate girls about climate change; encourage girls to participate in issues impacting the world; brainstorm ideas about climate justice; and establish a network of young, passionate climate leaders in Philadelphia. The day is jampacked with workshops by local organizations to discuss their work, and how they’re facing climate change, like the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Zoo.

Dhillon-Richardson conceived of the Climate Summit in 9th grade, after attending her first U.N. panel, and developed it through Springside’s Venture Incubator entrepreneurship program. The first year, in 2015, the summit drew 65 students from 12 schools. It has grown in size and scope every year since.

Citizen of the Week: Rehka Dhillon-Richardson, climate change summit

“I think that at last year’s summit, the workshops were more relevant and more focused,” Dhillon-Richardson said. “The quality of the workshops have really improved from the first year to the second.”

Although she’ll be off to college in the fall—she doesn’t yet know where—Dhillon-Richardson is setting her summit up to become a Philadelphia staple even without her. She’s recruiting a student team of Springside freshmen and sophomores to take over when she leaves. And she is creating a nonprofit called Girls for Climate Justice, to launch by the end of 2017, that will host the yearly summit. Girls for Climate Justice will also host News Action Network, a blog for her and “like-minded” students to have conversations about climate change. Eventually, Dhillon-Richardson plans for the nonprofit to provide grants and funding for students to create their own climate summits, throughout the country.

“I think one of the most crucial things I’ve learned so far in this entire journey is that there’s hope,” she says. “[Many people] are afraid, there’s a lot of negative press. By having these experiences, you meet people who are very positive, and they’re positive about the future. There’s so many great people out there who are doing amazing work.”

Photos by Sabina Louise Pierce

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