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Raising the Leaders of Tomorrow with Northern Michigan Climate Families | Features

Local group creates space to talk about big environmental issues with little kids
By Art Bukowski | June 22, 2024

As most parents of young children can attest, simply surviving from day to day and week to week can be a real grind.

Keeping kids safe, healthy, and entertained while managing busy schedules filled with sports and activities can be overwhelming, especially for working parents who also have a long list of non-kid responsibilities. This busy life leaves a relatively limited amount of brain space or energy for activism in any issue, let alone something as daunting as climate change or other major environmental issues.

Lauren Teichner and Jen Beuthin get it. As mothers of young children themselves, the Traverse City professionals know what it’s like to have no gas left in the tank. But they’re also constantly thinking about the world their children will inherit, and staying idle in the face of major environmental issues just didn’t seem like a viable option.

Last year, the pair founded Northern Michigan Climate Families, a group organized to “play, learn and protect the Earth.” The first goal is simple enough—create a program for education and action about climate change and other environmental matters that fits into the fragmented and volatile world of parenting.

“We wanted to allow parents of small kids who are concerned about climate change and other issues to come together in a community that understands each other’s anxieties for their kids’ futures, while also taking action themselves in bite-sized ways that fit with things like nap schedules,” Teichner says.

The second goal, however, is what really drives Teichner and Beuthin. They want to raise the next generation of environmental activists by involving children in the most engaging and inspiring ways possible, encouraging them to find—and use—their own voices in the process.

“We’re exposing our kids to activities, action, and information about environmental issues and stewardship in a way that is kid-friendly,” Teichner says. “We want to teach them to fight for something that they really care about.”

One Bite at a Time

Teichner, a Chicago-area native, is an environmental attorney who moved to Traverse City from Brooklyn a few years back seeking a better place to raise her children. Beuthin is from Southern California and now works as a consultant after several years in journalism and union management. Like Teichner, she recently moved here after seeking out a better place to raise her kids (and both women had friends or family in the area).

And while they’re in love with the Grand Traverse region, both Teichner and Beuthin are bringing important things from their former homes. It was in New York that Teichner was first exposed to Climate Families NYC, an (as of now) unconnected group that served as her inspiration to start a similar group here.

“I knew that bringing my own daughter to protests in Brooklyn when she was three was really informative for her. She knew what a protest was. She knew how to chant. She knew how to make signs,” Teichner says. “And she could see that she was part of a group that was trying to bring about change—she knew the power of her voice. It was empowering on many levels to connect with other families in that way.”

Northern Michigan Climate Families is less about protest and more about education and inspiration. They’ve had several meetups so far, including those geared toward food and farming (with tastings from local farms and visits from local farmers) and “play dates for the planet” that have focused on a variety of issues.

There’s always a focus on learning and “raising civic literacy” by letting fellow parents know how to make an impact, politically or otherwise.

“Is not just about taking action—it’s about understanding the landscape and then seeing your action make a difference,” Beuthin says. “And so even now, when we’re at a playdate, we’ll [talk about something] going through the state legislature and explain how the budget process works or let people know when they might want to engage.”

That’s not to rule out a protest or two in the future, but they’re starting slow from that standpoint.

“We’re really trying to read our group and figure out what the desires are of the parents that we’re getting to know, and if they want to be more political,” Teichner says. “I think eventually we’d like to create opportunities for all different types of impact. We might have one protest event where you can come if you feel comfortable, and we’ll try to make it as kid-friendly as possible with bubbles and chocolate and snacks.”

One thing’s for sure: The pattern of working within a kid-friendly schedule isn’t going away.

“We’re trying to be thoughtful about when we schedule events. So we’ll look at the school calendars and figure out half days where parents may be searching for something to do with their kids,” Teichner says. “And the next event in our series [a farmer’s market tour] is at 8:20 in the morning, when most parents are kind of ready to get out of the house.”

Right Where You Live

Ultimately, Teichner and Beuthin hope to impart upon other families that even though climate change and other environmental problems impact the entire planet, change can and needs to start in our own backyards.

“How do you make an impact in the world? These big, broad issues? You do it on a granular level where you live,” Beuthin says.

And where we live is the perfect place to cultivate change, Beuthin says. Our children eat from local farms, splash in the Great Lakes, and generally bask in the beauty of nature. “Our kids intersect with the environment in ways that not everybody experiences,” Beuthin says.

Hopefully, a dash of place with a pinch of passion will combine to make future leaders that can truly change the world, Beuthin and Teichner say.

“We want to raise leaders of tomorrow who don’t need to be handed a sheet of talking points to know what they’re going to say,” Beuthin says. “We want leaders of tomorrow who can remember what it felt like to take a bite of an apple from their neighbor down the road, or who felt their toes in the lake when they were little kids, or who know the sound of birds chirping in the spring.”

And as these children grow and learn within this framework of activism, their parents can connect, commiserate, and build hope for a better future.

“It’s really important for parents to find community around this issue, because there’s a real doom and gloom with all of it in the back of a lot of parents’ minds, and it’s a very lonely place to be when you’re worried about your kid’s future,” Teichner says. “I think there is a power to this group in talking openly about things that we’re all afraid of and then putting positive energy into efforts that may allow us to exert some control or bring about some change.”

Looking to get involved? Find them on Instagram at @nomiclimatefamilies.

Anna Harden

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