"Poverty is the most important environmental issue, but the answer to all problems is love." That's quite a statement, and perhaps one that could come only from the unjaded mind of an 18-year-old.
Illai Kenney is a senior at Jonesboro High School, on the outskirts of Greater Atlanta. At 12 she co-founded the Georgia chapter of Kids Against Pollution (KAP), gathering her recruits from an afterschool activity center. She had to weather a lot of early skepticism, she says. "Some kids asked me if I was trying to be white." But she persisted, figuring that no one had ever taken the time to talk to them about learning to love the natural world. When Kenney was 13 her work was honored with the Brower Award for young activists, named after David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth.
In 2004 a Boston-based group called Corporate Accountability International (CAI) put out a call for young people in the Atlanta area to join a campaign against the Coca-Cola Company, whose headquarters are in the city. The issue was Coke's behavior in the Indian state of Kerala, where it stood accused of depriving poor farmers of water by sinking deep wells to supply its local bottling plant. The state government had recently ordered Coca-Cola to suspend operations, and CAI hoped to make the ban permanent.
Having bought shares in Coca-Cola, CAI was entitled to attend shareholder meetings, and Kenney joined a 10-person youth delegation to the 2005 annual meeting. She was given two minutes at the microphone. Her question: "How are you gonna handle the loss of funds from young people not buying Coke when they realize what Coke is doing to poor farmers?"
The Kerala ban is now under review by India's supreme court, and Kenney is thinking about college. Her long-term goal? To study law so that she can continue to fight environmental abuses by big corporations.
-- Matthew Cardinale