Some of the issues that matter most to Sylvie are climate change and environmental concerns. She started working for change when she was young, organizing a group of neighborhood kids to pick up trash. In 7th and 8th grades, Sylvie did a science project on composting and food waste in her school cafeteria. She learned how wasteful the school was (six tons of food and compostable trays), and how we all contribute to it.
She also organized a group of middle school students to develop a better recycling program. It was a good effort, but ultimately it failed to change the culture—kids just didn’t change their habits. Reflecting back, Sylvie is glad she tried, but learned how difficult it is to make change happen.
One thing Sylvie would change in her high school would be to get the school to compost and recycle. She would love to see people really take advantage of the opportunity to be sustainable. She is also concerned about food justice. Through writing a research paper on food security in Ethiopia, she learned how possible it is to feed people if the right systems are put in place.
When thinking about the source of her passion, she shared how her parents have instilled a high value on sustainability. Sylvie also named her Gramp’s work of restoring prairies as a primary motivation for what she does.
Sylvie also talked about the importance of race and class in thinking about social justice, acknowledging her own privilege. She is a member of Students for the Future, which recently created a survey about classroom climates at East. The goal was to inform teachers about how students are feeling about the culture of the school and to improve places where students don’t feel welcome. As a part of that project, Sylvie wrote an article for the school paper noting that it’s important to acknowledge that there are differences among students, and not to assume all students have the same experiences — not all students fit the East High upper middle class stereotype.
Sylvie believes that one of the most important starting places in this work is simply noticing differences and talking about them. She reflects on the sadness of seeing the divisions around race, and wishes that differences were acknowledged more and talked about in school. “We aren’t comfortable talking about it, so we don’t know how to change it.”
Last year, Sylvie participated in the Conservation Corps, maintaining trails and removing invasive species. At first, as she was helping clear ATV trails and cutting down trees, it seemed counter to what she wanted to do, but then she realized the importance of getting people outside. “People can’t appreciate the earth without being outside.” The month in the CC helped Sylvie feel more grounded. It was a month without cell phones and there were few distractions, so she could reflect on the things that are most important. During that time, Sylvie thought about how long Minnesota has been the home of native people, and how much white settlers have changed it.
For Sylvie, faith comes down to belief, when people have a higher goal and find support in each other, or the world, or God. “It’s powerful when you have a feeling that things have a point, when you have a motivation to make changes.” Perhaps most important for Sylvie is that we have faith that things can be changed, that there is good in the world. “It would be easy just to focus on yourself and self-happiness if we didn’t have a community like Peace where people want to work together to help each other and the rest of our community.”
One of Sylvie’s inspirations is John Green, an online blogger and author of The Fault in Our Stars. He created a video, Deserving, that helped Sylvie get perspective on her life. In response to those who say he “deserves” success, John replied: “I don’t deserve this—I don’t deserve anything. I have received this success largely because of my privilege. And when you start to think you deserve the good things, you can believe that some people deserve the bad things.” Another quote that inspires Sylvie is from Dumbledore in Harry Potter: “It is our choices that show who we truly are far more than our abilities.” As Sylvie graduates from high school, she will continue to make choices that work towards creating a more just and sustainable world.
Interviewed by Nathan Holst ~ Edited by Pamela Mittlefehldt