How she raised $2 million to help young people fight climate change

In the fourth episode of Changemakers we meet Kat Cadungog, who proves that enabling youth-led climate action is less about handouts and more about helping young people scale and amplify their work to succeed in the big leagues.

Youth have often been at the forefront of changing the social climate but receiving legitimacy and, more importantly, funding for their grassroots action is not often the case.

Kat Cadungog is trying to change that. The 27-year-old woman from Calgary, Alta., is the executive director at the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship and The Youth Harbour.

Both projects raise funds for youth-led climate movements. Cadungog is on a mission to help youth meaningfully make their big ideas into reality and has single handedly raised nearly $2 million to help support youth climate organizations.

“Youth are often at the forefront of changing minds, changing the political will and societal attitudes that we need to actually implement and deploy climate solutions," Cadungog said in an interview with The Weather Network. "So there's this mismatch between what we need in society, how it's being funded, and who they're funding in the pursuit of a climate resilient future.”

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Kat Cadungog giving a presentation at at Colorado Academy in Denver. (Submitted)

It all started with a Happy Meal

The Cadungog family came to Canada from the Philippines in 1995 with next to no money, hoping for a better life. Making their home in Calgary, Cadungog’s parents worked multiple jobs and often couldn’t even scrape together enough extra income to eat where her dad worked one of his first jobs: McDonald’s.

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“I can't imagine what a breaking point it was for my mother to say, ‘We don't even know if we can afford a Happy Meal. At this point, we don't even know where we're going to find the money to pay next month's rent," Cadungog said. “And, just that disparity between, the life that they lived before to what they were hoping … for children not being met right away.”

Eventually, her engineer father landed the job he had hoped for at an oilsands refinery. Bills were being paid; however, Cadungog developed a feeling that her family was now surviving by supporting an industry that was destroying the environment for future generations. Growing up seeing how tough it was for newcomers to have climate-conscious careers created Cudungog’s passion to help others

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Cadungog hiking in Moalboal in the Philippines. (Submitted)

An uphill battle

After university, Cadungog took on jobs working in social advocacy and was paired with climate-conscious youth trying to make a difference. But she saw that most big companies would not back their initiatives. The majority of youth had no say in the ecological policies being put into place, and that disconnect was even wider for youth in rural and Indigenous communities.

Cadungog said, “I was incredibly, incredibly frustrated because I just see this power among young people, this motivation, and just honestly competency. [Youth] are incredible at good governance and yet we choose not to fund this type of work. It seems like a mismatch. Everyone talks about protecting future generations, even protecting the future economy, we want to do this through young people. So we should empower them and get them engaged really early on.”

She dreamed of building a type of safety net offering funding and back-end support to get youth climate goals off the ground. However, it was an uphill battle getting big businesses and the world of governance on her side.

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Kat Cadungog hails from Calgary, Alta. (Submitted)

The Youth Harbour

After many failed attempts, Cadungog was able to line up a handful of funding backers and finally collect enough capital to make her dream project a reality and The Youth Harbour was born. It's a youth-for-youth climate support system providing grants and organizational help to young people across the country.

To date, Cadungog has fundraised nearly $2 million, helped approximately 50 youth-led climate organizations all across Canada and opened up shared workspaces in both Toronto and Vancouver. Her youth groups have created educational programs, helped drive sustainable clothing, and farming initiatives. She’s helped send Indigenous youth to international climate change conferences and has seen amazing ripple effects to prove the validity of her work.

The need to support youth climate action is greater than ever, according to Cadungog, and more groups are coming to her to access her support with a greater need for funding.

“2030 is coming up. We have to limit our warming to 1.5 C,” she explained about the goal behind the Paris Agreement to keep our world livable. “We need amazing radical action that young people are leading, we need the political will that young people are so great at cultivating, we need communities built on equity and trust and relationship building. If not now, when?”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kat Cadungog's surname.

Thumbnail image: Kat Cadungog has successfully started an organization that provdes funding for youth-led climate initiatives. (Submitted)