One Person Can Make a Difference

Jr. Ocean Guardians is a non-profit organization founded by 17-year-old, Shelby O’Neil in the California Central Coast (Jr. Ocean Guardians). This organization was created by O’Neil in 2017 for her Gold Award Project for Girl Scouts of the United States of America. Throughout the past two years, Jr. Ocean Guardians has created and developed a platform for youth education and a campaign for action.       

Jr. Ocean Guardians seeks to inspire the youth to protect the oceans. We currently live in a throw-away culture in which we do not consider how much trash we are producing. Sing-use plastics are a very large threat to our oceans. Apart form all other anthropogenic effects that the oceans are facing like sea level rise and ocean acidification, plastic pollution is a main contaminator of the world’s oceans. The Center of Biological Diversity describes this issue as “thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it.” Plastic can be useful and sometimes necessary for our daily life, but it is single-use plastic is the mayor threat. There are so many alternatives to items that will be used once and then thrown out. It is not just about that one water bottle or that one straw it is about those “8 million metric tons of plastic” that go into the oceans every year (Ocean Conservancy).  Jr. Ocean Guardians is inspiring youth and adult to use their voce and become changemakers.

The very first stage of Jr. Ocean Guardians was developing ocean education curriculum for elementary school students. O’Neil created an activity booklet to connect the future generations to the ocean and the environment. O’Neil uses this booklet to go into classrooms and have interactive presentations with the students around the central coast community. She has also developed a digital version of the booklet for classrooms that are not in the area to be able to have access to them. This booklet consists of different activities to both educate and inspire the students completing them. This booklet has become something very valuable that this organization provides because many of the schools that Jr. Ocean Guardians is reaching are schools in low income areas that do not have science teachers or curriculum set to teach students about the ocean, and even less, how to take care of it.

In company with the classroom education, Jr. Ocean Guardians have become the host of many beach cleanups around Monterey Bay. What is very unique about these cleanups is that they are by the youth for the youth. These events give the power to children and teens, who may otherwise feel like they cannot do anything about the current state of our oceans. Some of the beach cleanups Jr. Ocean Guardians has hosted have been in collaboration with other organizations like Save Our Shores.

The education and outreach that O’Neil is providing is creating a cycle of change with a positive feedback. She is staring with children at the individual level. This cycle is taking action to produce sustainable outcomes and change values. The action is education, the outcome is awareness and the value is ocean conservation. The more people value ocean conservation the more people will become educated and educate others and this cycle is able to be replicated continuously. These students are the future generation and having them be aware and want to have a more sustainable life is leading us to a more sustainable future.

The second aspect of Jr. Ocean Guardians is an action campaign that began November of 2017. The campaign “No Straw November” is a challenge that encourages people to pledge to not use plastic straws throughout the month of November. This challenge is bringing awareness to all the plastic straws that are being used once and then thrown away. The pledge was first spread locally, in the Monterey Bay area. However, this campaign has been able to reach out to many more places, “No Straw November not only has participants in all 50 states, but also in Canada, the UK, Scotland, France, Italy, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, India, The Grand Cayman Islands, Israel, Iran, and more” (Jr. Ocean Guardians). The organization has received over 9,000 online pledge this campaign is reducing the use of over 27 million single-use plastic straws and coffee stirrers per year.

No Straw November starts at an individual level, but it does not finish there. Since last year O’Neil has reached out to big companies and corporations to ask them if they would like to join the campaign and ditch single-use plastic straws. Jr. Ocean Guardians has received great feedback from this outreach, “businesses like Dignity Health, Farmer Brothers, and PG&E have eliminated straws from their operations which amounts to more than 4 million straws per year. Delta Airlines has found a solution to replace the plastic stir sticks”(Jr. Ocean Guardians). Additionally, in May of this year Alaska Airlines “became first airline to eliminate single-use plastic stir straws and citrus picks” by answering O’Neil’s call to action (Jr. Ocean Guardians).Apart from getting business to reduce their sing-use plastic, Jr. Ocean Guardians has received support from many celebrities and organizations that have helped this organization to reach more people. featured O’Neil’s effort in two articles in the last year. O’Neil also worked with the Leonardo DiCaprio foundation to promote No Straw November. O’Neil has now been the recipient of many awards and one that is most notable is the Paul Walker Foundation & Monterey Bay Aquarium Youth Leadership Award continuing the “Do Good” legacy of Paul Walker. Other awards include: Central Coast American Red Cross Environment Hero Award, Monterey Bay Aquarium Ocean Hero, Gloria Barron Prize for Young Hero and National Gold Award Recipient.

This campaign for action is based of different scales. There is the individual scale in which people pledge to complete the challenge, then there institutional in which business are pledging to eliminate plastic straws and with larger organizations supporting, the message of Jr. Ocean Guardians has been able to reach a national and international level. This campaign for action also demonstrates a change cycle with refusing plastic straws as the action, the outcome being less waste and the value being reconsidering the throw-away culture.

As time passes by Jr. Ocean Guardians grows more and more. This organization has been able to influence bottom-up and top-down governance. With people making individual actions that inspire movements to these movements inspiring more people. This organization has reached many levels of scale, but I believe that by reaching state legislation a threshold was crossed. In early September of this year, No Straw November SCR-139 passed both the California State Senate & Assembly. This resolution recognizes the month of November in California as No Straw November. This resolution was passed in collaboration with O’Neil’s request back in august of 2017. additionally, on September 20thof this year AB 1884 – Straws Upon Request was signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown. This now law had been proposed by California Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon and in April O’Neil was asked to provide a witness testimony on behalf of his Bill, AB 1884 – Straws Upon Request. This law does not make it illegal for restaurants to provide single-use straws, but it requires dine-in restaurants to offer straws only upon request. Now, No Straw November is not just a challenge that an organization put out, it is an action that the largest populated state in the United States officially recognizes and supports.

Many people believe that one person cannot make a difference, but Shelby O’Neil is proof that one person is making a difference. This 17-year-old found something that she could control and took actions about it. The fact that she is not old enough to vote, nevertheless be a policy marker did not matter to O’Neil. She maybe couldn’t vote but there is now a California State Legislation supporting her actions. One person can make a difference. O’Neil knew what she had to do, and nothing stopped her from pursuing a better environment. Maybe some will argue that one straw will not change anything but that is the problem with our society. We believe we are not the problem, we cannot change anything, and so we choose to do nothing about it. But it is people like Shelby O’Neil, that realize that our current actions are the last straw, that will lead us unto a sustainable future.