To all the naysayers: proof that Eugene millennials care about peace and the environment!

Millennials often get a bad rap, from accusations of narcissism to claims that Generation Y is nothing but a collection of technology-addicted moochers. Two Eugene high school students subverted those stereotypes this month by winning Greenfield Peace Writing Scholarship awards for their commentary on how young people can make a difference. The peace writing contest, sponsored by Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, inspired Oregon high school students to think about their impact on the future by answering the question, “What can young people do to create a more healthy, just and peaceful world?”

Sashka Warner, a 17-year-old senior at South Eugene High School, won first place for his impeccably researched essay, “Be the Change You Wish to See.” In his essay, Warner uses specific examples of ways in which young people have made a difference, describing how eighth grader Alec Loorz launched the Sea Level Awareness Project and installed tall poles in coastal areas to show the eventual impact of sea level rise.

“By taking similar large-scale youth-dominated actions,” Warner writes, “and perhaps combining with other activists across the globe, young people can take definitive action to make the world a better place.”

Warner says it can be overwhelming to think about the environmental and social turmoil in the world, but as he learns more about solutions  to counteract the damage, he feels hopeful and finds ways to connect with other youth who care about the same issues. “It’s really important to remember that everyone can make a difference,” he says.

Warner says he will use his $1,000 scholarship money toward pursuing a degree next school year at the University of British Columbia, where he plans to study issues related to sustainability and natural resources conservation.

The third place prize went to 17-year-old Thomas Meinzen, a junior at North Eugene High School (NEHS). His poem likens the current state of the world to a battlefield, with a growing tree representing young people and their ability to initiate change. “But there is hope,” he writes. “A light that refuses to cease/ A new generation dawns/ on the possibility of peace.”

Meinzen says that he chose to write a poem for the contest because he was worried about going over the word limit, and he thought the schematics of a poem would help him condense his thoughts. He says the tree analogy resonates with him partly due to the natural beauty of Eugene. “For me, a connection with nature is a really important part of my life. We’re lucky in Eugene to have lots of trees, and it’s amazing especially during this time of year that something so dead can spring with such life.”

Meinzen helped start an ecology club at NEHS, where he and around 30 other students clean up trash, grow food in the school garden and talk about how to make NEHS more sustainable. “Focus small,” he says. “If you try and solve everything at once you’ll get overwhelmed, but make sure you do something every day, and it’s a good starting point as people grow up to become more involved in the bigger picture.”

The scholarship awards ceremony will take place 6:30-8pm Friday, April 25, at the Billy Frank Conference Center, 721 N.W. 9th Ave., in Portland. Click here to read the winning entries.

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