Lil Milagro Henriquez Photo: Jessica Arroyo

When smoke from the Tubbs fire shrouded the Bay Area in the fall of 2017, Lil Milagro Henriquez choked on the poisoned air. “I couldn’t breathe,” recalls Henriquez, who then worked as Director of Organizing at a social justice school in East Oakland. But when she asked educators there what they were doing to prepare students for climate change, which drives extreme events like catastrophic wildfires, the answer was nothing.

“It felt so bizarre to me,” says Henriquez, who has a personal stake in the issue as the mother of two small children. After a fruitless search for a program to help youth grapple with climate change, she decided to create one herself. The need is great.

Climate anxiety is rampant among youth: in a 2021 University of Bath survey of 10,000 young people worldwide, three quarters said the future is frightening. Likewise, the 5th graders in Henriquez’s afterschool Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) club told her they were scared and that nobody was talking to them about climate change.

“It is scary but climate change is manageable if you’re prepared,” Henriquez says.

Henriquez sitting with Mycelium Youth Network founding educator Ben (left) and a student participating in the Science for Survival program. Photo: Annakai Hayakawa Geshlider

Henriquez asked her students if they would help build a youth climate readiness program, and they were so enthusiastic they agreed to give her their lunch and recess once a week. Inspired by a documentary showing that mushrooms are interconnected via a vast system of underground filaments called mycelia, the students decided to call themselves the Mycelium Youth Network. ” I saw the ways mushrooms talked to each other and shared resources and I thought, this is what I want young people to do for each other,” Henriquez says.

In the summer of 2018, Henriquez took the leap of leaving her job and applying for grants to formally establish the Mycelium Youth Network (MYN) as a nonprofit. Today MYN has grown to a staff of seven and offers three core programs. The Climate Resilient Schools program, which is aligned with state educational standards, weaves together ancestral traditions and modern science to connect academics with real-world climate solutions. For example, students learn how to read a Bay Area sea level rise mapping tool called Adapting to Rising Tides and then discuss regional policies to address sea level rise.

“I was at the Youth Climate Resilience Village that Mycelium Youth Network put on with Youth Vs. Apocalypse in January of 2019. Mycelium ran the Science for Survival section alongside other environmental justice organizations. Over 600 youth attended.” Photo: Lil Milagro Henriquez

Last year MYN added Gaming for Justice. Funded by the City of Oakland and designed by local artists, this a D&D-based adventure traces Oakland’s environmental history and current challenges. “D&D is a wonderful way to explore solutions,” says Henriquez, who first played the game in graduate school. MYN’s fantasy Oakland lets players protect their environment from villains like evil wizards bent on deforesting the land, fostering students’ sense of agency. “It’s our most popular program,” Henriquez says.

MYN’s third and newest strand is a Youth Leadership Council, which launched in January at Mission High School in San Francisco and at Metwest High School in Oakland with the support of the Coastal Conservancy. “It’s youth-led,” Henriquez says. “We want them to have a voice in their lives.” The Council will survey their peers to identify additional climate issues they want to cover, and MYN will then pair the Council with experts in the field to identify solutions.

Henriquez never expected to start an organization but she’s so glad she did. “Students we work with are less worried and more empowered,” she says. “Instead of feeling depressed, they start feeling hopeful for the future and that, for me, is really the point of education.”

For more information, visit Mycelium Youth Network and watch Lil Milagro Henriquez’s Tedx Talk.