Climate Activism’s Next Generation

At 19, Riley Stevenson has already built working organizations

By Amy Rawn

Riley Stevenson has been busy.

At the age of 19, she has accrued considerable experience working as a climate activist on the Maine coast. Her affiliations include: founder and executive director of the Coastal Youth Climate Coalition, fellow for Maine’s Environmental Education Association, outreach director for Maine Youth Climate Strikes, president of her school’s climate action club, and intern for Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office—an impressive resumé.

But beyond that list, what emerges in conversation with Stevenson is an activist who has been deeply shaped by place. Having moved from New Jersey to Waldoboro with her family at age ten, the pristine and rugged Midcoast coastline was an inspiring new home for a curious middle schooler. A lover of the outdoors and self-described cold-water person, her admiration for her new environment would grow over time into a keen sense of responsibility to contribute to the preservation of this special place.

Stevenson first got her feet wet as a ninth grader participating in a weekend-long program in Lincolnville through the Maine Environmental Change Makers organization. It was her mother’s idea.

“My mom has pointed me towards almost all of my best opportunities,” she says.

It was there that she first became acquainted with the power of organizing and the role of community in shaping our world. She came back feeling empowered to get involved in her own community, and it was not long before she became fully immersed in the work.

“It was such a transformative weekend for me,” she remembers. 

After gaining experience working with a state-wide organization, Stevenson felt pulled to make a difference closer to home. This marked the inception of the organization she founded, the Coastal Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC) in December of 2019.

For Stevenson, it was an opportunity to connect young people from Midcoast and Downeast schools who shared similar climate-related challenges. As with any new venture, it took some time to get off the ground.

She describes the early stages of building this group as “emailing into the void,” by reaching out to students at schools along the Midcoast to drum up enthusiasm. After the first three meetings, they had only one participant, but that didn’t last long.

As the pandemic picked up speed in early 2020 and the Zoom malaise had yet to set in, Stevenson saw fellow students looking for connection and eager to participate. Through steady effort, the group expanded. At its height, it had 50 members from multiple schools.

The coalition worked to share knowledge about the climate crisis with other students and hosted lively discussions on articles and books. Their meetings also served as a way to share how to successfully implement climate-related projects in their own schools and communities.

When asked about her proudest accomplishment with the coalition, Stevenson doesn’t hesitate with an answer: Creating a space where people felt comfortable, could pursue their interests, and find community, especially during a challenging time. Another win, she remembers, was a fellow student who joined the group relatively new to climate issues but who has since gone on to major in environmental studies in college.

When Stevenson isn’t working on climate issues, she is often outside hiking, skating, and cold-water swimming. “Being outside allows me to reset and take a break from Zoom calls and thinking about the problems we face, and instead appreciate the reason I do it all,” she says.

For Stevenson, the Coastal Youth Climate Coalition was also an opportunity to bring more young people into the fold, especially those from diverse backgrounds that don’t match the stereotypical environmental mold. Part of this effort was the development of her film project, Changing Seas, which highlighted local young fishermen and women, their experiences with the climate crisis, and how those experiences inform their decision-making.

Recognizing a split between environmentalists and those who work on the water—both in her community and at her own high school—Stevenson saw an opportunity to find common ground. The preservation of the coastal environment and its resources in the face of climate change was a shared interest and she seized an opportunity to shine a light on some of the young people who make their living on the water and their valuable contributions to the protection of its resources.

“That outlook has shaped my activism,” she said, the enthusiasm she brings to the work emerging. “How do we bring more people in?”

Throughout her time with the Coastal Youth Climate Coalition she focused on the most effective ways to engage with students, considering how much time they could reasonably commit, and opportunities to use their strengths and accomplish meaningful goals. Burnout and climate anxiety can often creep in, so cultivating an engaged and hopeful community was not just a perk, but essential to the sustainability of both local initiatives and the larger climate movement. 

Stevenson recognizes the role that community building plays in successful climate organizing and ultimately the ability to create system-wide change. “CYCC did not solve the world’s climate issue, but it felt really meaningful and it gave me a lot of hope in what felt like kind of a hopeless time. That’s important too,” she says.

Identifying the importance of balance in deterring burnout and acting on some sage advice from a fellow climate activist that “climate can’t be your only hobby,” Stevenson decided to press pause after graduating high school and take a gap year before attending Brown University in the fall of 2022. She’s had the chance to work in Chellie Pingree’s office, spend time off grid in Patagonia, and in her hometown of Waldoboro, where we connected virtually on Zoom—a Maine state flag pinned behind her on her wall.

Before we logged off, Stevenson explained her love of cold water in more depth. She emphatically describes the sense of peace and stillness she finds from the practice of getting into it, overriding what seems like an inevitable reaction to run from discomfort. For her, it has become a way to destress and connect with the landscapes she loves, plunging below the surface of the deep, cold waters of the Gulf of Maine—fully immersed. 


Amy Rawn works at the Island Institute as a Marketing Specialist.