From the Ground Up: Meredith Adler shares what she learned leading Student Energy for 8 years
Starting out at one time as the sole full-time employee of the organization, Meredith has spent the past 8 years focused on building Student Energy – slowly at first and then very rapidly – to a 40+ person global organization as of the end of 2022.
Student Energy was initially founded by three young energy leaders in Calgary, Alberta (Kali Taylor, Janice Tran, and Sean Collins) and after two successful International Student Energy Summits and a burgeoning Energy Literacy Program, it soon became clear that there was an urgent need for Student Energy to develop into an organization that could serve youth around the world on a sustainable, ongoing basis. Initially tasked with developing Student Energy’s still-continuing Chapters program, Meredith soon became the Executive Director of Student Energy after the 2015 Student Energy Summit.
Meredith’s leadership has put youth at the forefront and gave youth perspectives a space and a platform. Her passion for young people in the energy transition sparked innovative ideas that turned into tangible formulas and solutions that Student Energy adopts to this day.
Student Energy now has 43 staff working from all across the world, spanning different continents and regions. Meredith led the creation of Student Energy’s Theory of Change, a document defining the organization’s end goals that uses backwards mapping to illustrate how the organization can create the conditions for the end goals to be realized.
Student Energy embraced growth by expanding the organization’s Programs Ecosystem. Beginning with SE Chapters, the organization now has the SE Fellowship, SE Career Training, SE Guided Projects, the International Student Energy Summit, and SevenGen. Through these programs, we have built a large network of alums who continue to stay connected with Student Energy and their fellow alums while working towards advancing the energy transition.
Student Energy also developed extensive Policy and Advocacy research projects, including the Global Youth Energy Outlook, the Energy Transition Skills Project, and the Youth Impact Framework, all of which are focusing on youth voices in the climate and energy space.
Meredith continues to encourage young people to fulfill their potential toward the energy transition. Her belief in young people is what inspires Student Energy to continue doing the real work for youth in the climate and energy world.
We interviewed Meredith to find out what she learned in the 8 years leading Student Energy from the ground up.
How has Student Energy evolved over the past eight years?
Student Energy has evolved so much in the last eight years, and in so many different ways. We’ve gone from me being the only staff person working in my living room to having 40 staff in eight different countries around the world. We have developed, implemented, and stuck to an incredible Theory of Change that focuses on both training and people for the future that we need and need them to deliver on. We have worked with the other actors in the energy system to make sure that young people are taken more seriously and engaged well.
In your time as the Executive Director [of Student Energy], what has changed in the energy and climate landscape?
So much has changed with the youth, energy, and climate landscape since. When I started in 2015, young people were not taken seriously. I was often told that ‘Well, they don’t vote and so they’re not going to be part of this.’ There is no critical thinking about where young people are coming from.
I think now young people are seen as such a force in the world, but it’s still something that people are often hesitant to engage with. That is one huge piece of landscape – people actually are starting to value young people and starting to recognize that young people are, in fact, the global majority. The global average age is under 30.
If we’re not engaging, working with, and designing for young people, we’re not going to make any climate progress. People are really starting to get that. And that’s so much thanks to the work that young climate activists have done, and also groups like Student Energy, who have followed up that activism with concrete, tangible formulas and solutions for how to really work with, train, and engage young people.
So it takes a village [to create this], and the whole ecosystem has been really important. But the world is fundamentally shifted in that way. The world is also fundamentally shifted on climate action. Everyone, no matter where you are in the world, now admits that climate change is real and needs to be acted upon. That wasn’t the case when I started.
There are still a lot more debates, so sometimes it can feel like there’s not enough progress. But it is vastly different and moving so much more in the right direction. I think that’s one thing I feel lucky about, is eight years has actually given me a lot to look back on, to actually see where young people have made insane amounts of progress in this world, whereas, in a day-in, day-out, six-month timeline, it doesn’t always feel that way.
What is one unexpected thing you learned while you were Executive Director [of Student Energy]?
One of the biggest and best surprises was that champions for your work and for you will come in such unexpected places and that the biggest thing that you can do as a leader is just to continually talk about your vision to as many people as you can to see who wants to be on the support team.
If you would have told me who my biggest mentors and supporters would be when I started out, I don’t think I ever would have believed you. Sometimes the people you feel should be on your team are nowhere to be found. But then you’ll find other people who really have no responsibility but are just passionate about young people and doing the right thing in the world. And they will be there for you and it will make all the difference. So the biggest, most lovely surprise has just been the amount of people who’ve come out of the woodwork to say that they believe in young people too, and that they want to make this happen.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really most proud of how our staff have developed in Student Energy. So many people started with Student Energy as their very first job, maybe as an assistant working 10 hours a week, and have grown into directing portfolios, having mentorship networks of their own, and running so many programs. In addition to our staff, the young people who work for us are incredibly inspiring and really are some of the biggest impact that we have.
The other thing I’m really proud of is how I think we really stood up for young people and what’s right to do in this space. To this day, all of our programs are designed and led by young people. That’s something that we haven’t changed. Despite becoming a multi-million dollar organization, we are still really true to what young people need to be successful in this space and aren’t directed necessarily by our funders or anything like that.
We set the agenda for what young people need, then we go out and find the supporters that make that happen. I think Student Energy has really proven how you can effectively work with young people in a way that other people didn’t see as possible because they weren’t really willing to listen to the young people that they were working to serve.
I’m so proud that we’ve maintained that throughout the years.
How many Student Energy Summits have you attended?
I’ve attended three in-person summits and one virtual summit.
What’s your favorite memory from SES (International Student Energy Summit)?
My favorite memory is at SES 2017 in Merida, Mexico. David Hochschild, the Chair of the California Energy Commission was on the dance floor at the gala, jumping up and down with all the delegates and exclaiming, “Man, this is like a climate hope wedding. It’s fun like a wedding, but it’s like a climate hope summit where everyone believes we could do this!”
And that’s the experience that I want everyone to have. It’s the rallying cry that we can do this.
What are you excited about for SES 2023?
I’m honestly so excited for the team. It is such an incredible experience to go through. So many of them will go from not really knowing how to do this to feeling confident with fundraising, communications, delegate recruitment, and so many core business skills. I can’t wait to see them evolve as every SES team has and really see what that will do for them in their careers.
What’s one piece of advice you have for the Student Energy youth network?
My biggest piece of advice for the youth network is don’t be paralyzed by choice. There are so many things that can happen in the world. There are so many opportunities, or sometimes, it can be so hard to find an opportunity. But what’s really crucial is that you keep moving forward, step by step, to make it happen. And so sometimes maybe the ideal job won’t appear. But it’s important to take what you can get in front of you and keep your values strong. Keep learning, growing, and building. Nothing is perfect and you won’t find perfect, but do what you can with what’s in front of you.
What’s one piece of advice you have for the Student Energy staff?
For the Student Energy staff, I just want to see everyone stick to it and dream really big. There’s so much you can do in each of your roles and so much that you can take hold of. It is such an incredible opportunity to have the platform of Student Energy, to have the internal support that we have, and to have the network and the opportunities that we have. So take a hold of all of that and be really clear about what you see as the need for yourself and for others. You are the target audience.
All the best things we have [at Student Energy] have come from SE staff who are willing to take a risk. And I would love to see people continue to do that.
What’s one thing you’re excited to do now that you’re no longer Executive Director [of Student Energy]?
I honestly am still very much looking forward to being the organization’s biggest cheerleader. But beyond that, definitely looking forward to a few more dog walks, ideally a little bit less travel. But I think also, my next mission is to really explore how we continue to develop and make effective teams in all other types of sectors.
I’m really excited to actually go in and do that and take some of the skills I’ve learned in Student Energy about how to build and scale organizations and transfer that to other places that need it as well. Finally, I will not be taking on pottery as suspected (laughs).
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