A 19-year-old youth advocate from Bangor has been named a National Geographic Young Explorer, an honor bestowed on 24 young environmentalists for their work on conservation, food insecurity, pollution and water access around the globe.
Soon, Amara Ifeji will meet virtually with honorees from New Zealand, Indonesia, Ireland, Nigeria and 11 other countries – all between 17 and 25 – who have already distinguished themselves with world-shaping contributions to environmental education and protection. Ifeji serves as a mentor to numerous young environmentalists across Maine, in addition to doing her own work in environmental science and policy.
“I don’t think I’ve fully processed it yet,” Ifeji said of the Young Explorers award, which was announced last week. “My goodness. I have no words. I’m the type of person who’s usually never lost for words, but right now I am. I’m just so grateful for all the opportunities that have allowed me explore my passions and bring me to where I am today.”
The award comes with a grant of variable size – it was between $2,000 and $5,000 in 2018 – to support the recipient’s own projects. This year’s dollar amounts haven’t been announced yet, but Ifeji plans to put whatever money she gets toward her work supporting young environmentalists through her employer, the Maine Environmental Educational Association.
Ifeji grew up in eastern Maine as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, an experience that showed her how racial justice and the environment are connected. In an interview Sunday, she said that her family members, who came to the United States in 2004, sometimes had trouble affording such outdoor amenities as snow gear. Ifeji’s mother sometimes restricted her access to nature, out of concern for a young Black girl’s safety outdoors in rural Maine.
Through her work with a slew of Maine-based environmental education organizations, Ifeji hopes to make sure those factors are less of a barrier for other young people hoping to learn about, love and protect Maine’s natural treasures.
“If someone has a connection to the outdoors and grew up playing outdoors, they’re going to stick with that connection and they’re not going to let the environment be exploited,” Ifeji said Sunday.
Ifeji’s rise in environmental activism began during her junior year at Bangor High School, when, at 16, she joined the Maine Environmental Changemakers Network, a youth leadership program organized by the Maine Environmental Education Association.
There, she met Olivia Griset, the organization’s executive director, who worked with Ifeji to promote youth environmental leadership around the state. Last year, impressed with Ifeji’s dynamism and strength of character, Griset nominated her for a 2020 Source Award — which Ifeji won, becoming that year’s Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation Healthy Food Champion.
“When doors open for her, even a crack,” Griset said of Ifeji, “she just busts them open with her work ethic and her brilliance.”
Around the same time she found MEEA, Ifeji was earning recognition for her scientific accomplishments. Inspired, in part, by the discovery of lead in four Bangor High drinking fountains in 2016, Ifeji began studying the use fungi and plants to remove heavy metals from water.
Her science project won her first place in its category and third place overall at the Maine State Science Fair. The prize was a $2,000 scholarship and a trip to Arizona for the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, where she placed first in plant sciences and also won best in category and another $8,000 for college.
These days, Ifeji serves as MEEA’s grassroots development coordinator, a staff position that supports youth environmentalists around the state.
The work of MEEA focuses more on bringing together young environmentalists and connecting them to resources than directly on helping to execute their plans, Griset said. Griset described the organization’s thought process as, “Hey, you’re an isolated high school kid in Skowhegan. How do you meet kids in Bangor who are doing this, or across Aroostook County? How do we bring them together, and how do we help teach them to make their project a reality?”
Those kids may be working toward a plastic bag pickup program, expanded solar power at their schools, or even a spot on a nonprofit board. Whatever it may be, Ifeji finds a way to link those young activists with each other and the education they need to grow.
In addition to working in her field, Ifeji also is a college student. Now in her first year at Northeastern University, Ifeji plans to major in politics, philosophy and economics with a concentration with energy and environmental policy.
If that major sounds broad, it’s not a coincidence. Griset called Ifeji “a systems thinker”: someone who finds connections between her passions, much as Ifeji did with environmentalism and racial justice.
Indeed, Ifeji juggles a mind-boggling number of projects, among them her work for the Nature Based Education Consortium, where she serves on the steering committee and is working to gather stories of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) encounters with the outdoors. There’s also JustME for JustUS, a new initiative under the umbrella of MEEA’s “changemakers” program that supports youth civic engagement and activism concerning climate justice.
And somehow, Ifeji says, she’s still finding time to explore Boston and binge “Breaking Bad.”
Beyond the direct effects of her work, Ifeji serves as an inspiration to other young people interested in environmentalism and racial justice – especially young Black women, Griset said. Already, Ifeji is a regular speaker at K-12 schools and some colleges, engagements that show her listeners the extent of what’s possible.
“I think there’s really nothing more hopeful and motivating (than) to hear her speak and to hear her ideas,” Griset said.
At her young age, Ifeji is convinced she’s already found her calling. And despite her now-international reach, it’ll likely call her back to Maine, where her interests in the natural world and racial justice intersect, she says.
“This is the work I want to dedicate my life to,” she said.
National Geographic’s Young Explorers programming is just getting started, so Ifeji has yet to make the kinds of unexpected connections that may spawn new ideas.
Some of her 2020 classmates include:
• Fionn Ferreira, a 20-year-old from Ireland who developed a method to extract micro-plastics from water. His “ferrofluid,” a combination of oil and magnetite powder (a kind of iron ore), won him $50,000 at the 2019 Google Science Fair.
• Josefa Tauli, a 25-year-old from the Philippines who serves on the steering committee of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network, a youth delegation to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Tauli works to help youth participate in global biodiversity policy, and as a graduate student, she researches biodiversity conservation in the Philippines’ Cordillera, its central mountain range and her home region.
• Mercy Njobvu, a 22-year-old from Zambia who works with the Zambian Carnivore Project, helping to immobilize large animals for field studies. She began studying veterinary medicine after seeing the harm caused by poaching in her country.