“Suzie Hicks the Climate Chick” freely admits to being inspired by “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” But their focus is exclusively on engaging kids about climate change - and connecting them with solutions. Hicks’ pilot episode of their kids’ show, “Suzie Hicks the Climate Chick,” is part of the Ecofilm Festival at the Hollywood Theater in Northeast Portland. The show won the festival’s Visionary Film Award, and they will be at the festival for a screening and workshop with kids. Suzie Hicks joins us in the studio to talk about the show and some best practices for engaging young kids about the most serious issue humanity faces.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end this week with “Suzie Hicks the Climate Chick.” That’s a loving riff on “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” Hicks is focused squarely on engaging kids with the issue of climate change and connecting them with solutions. Hicks’ Pilot episode is part of the Ecofilm Festival at Portland’s Hollywood Theater where it won the festival’s visionary film award. “Suzie Hicks the Climate Chick” will be screening this Sunday at 2:30 PM, followed by a Q and A and an interactive workshop for, as Hicks puts it, “kids of all ages.” Suzie Hicks, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Suzie Hicks: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Do you remember when you first became aware of climate change?
Hicks: Absolutely, I do. I’ve always had some kind of consciousness of it just because of my parents, but I was raised in the era of individual action. And so I thought if I recycled enough batteries, I could stop climate change by myself, but growing up, I realized that that wasn’t true. And so my mission here is to change the way that we talk about it with kids.
Miller: Did climate change hit you emotionally when you were growing up the way I think it does hit many people young and old now?
Hicks: Absolutely. It made me feel both really guilty–even though I was 10 and didn’t own anything that had to do with fossil fuels–but it also made me feel really alone that there was this massive problem and it felt like no one was doing anything about it.
Miller: Well, how did you end up, though, with this particular focus. I mean, why make a career now involved in communicating with kids about climate change? I can imagine somebody who experienced what you did and said, “well, I want to go into something totally different.”
Hicks: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I come from the entertainment world, I come from the TV, and film and theater world. But kids’ media has been an incredible intervention point for all sorts of different issues in the past. And it feels a little crazy to me that it hasn’t been an intervention point for climate yet because it feels like such an amazing way to both handle the science of it–the science inquiry and the curiosity of all the solutions that we have–but then also the giant social emotional learning aspect of it, of saying this is a really scary problem, but there are so many wonderful people doing something about it.
Miller: Let’s listen to a clip from the show. This is a scene when you’re talking with your sidekick, a puppet named Sprout:
Suzie Hicks the Climate Chick: The polar ice caps are melting which makes the ocean levels rise. Natural disasters are getting more intense.
Sprout: Animals are going extinct at a higher rate. Heat waves are getting more deadly. More people are getting sick from pollution and, and, and..
Suzie Hicks the Climate Chick: Whoa, whoa, whoa. It’s ok. It’s OK.
Man, this stuff can be really overwhelming. It can be super scary to think about all the ways that our world is changing and how that’s already affecting the people that live here. Here’s what I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s a cool little acronym called STOP.”
Miller: We stop that clip before you explain it on the show but you can do it now. What does, what does STOP stand for?
Hicks: Yeah. So STOP is a social-emotional strategy when you get a little bit overwhelmed, a little over-stimulated and it stands for stop which is the s so you stop what you’re doing, then you take a deep breath. So I’m gonna take a deep breath. Then you observe how you are feeling and checking in with your body and checking in with your mind and saying, OK, I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed, but I know that this isn’t a feeling that I’m going to have forever and then when you feel ready, you proceed. And so it’s just a quick check in with yourself to say “I’m actually really safe at this moment, even though I don’t feel like it.”
Miller: What kinds of questions do you get most often from young people you talk to?
Hicks: The number one question that I get is what can I do? Which is both a very awesome question and a complicated question because we have been trained by a lot of different communication that climate change is something that only one person can do something about and saying I can turn off the lights when I leave a room or I can take shorter showers. But really what I can do is also what we can do and thinking about how we can plug into a collective action is really important. So I love to tell kids that yes, they should be creating these really sustainable routines and habits, but at the same time, plugging into local advocacy movements and coalition building is also equally important.
Miller: How is the question “what can I do?” different from “what do I need to do and what’s on my shoulders?”
Hicks: That’s a great question. I think “what can I do?” leaves it up to a little bit more interpretation without the pressure of saying here are all of these beautiful opportunities that I can plug into the movement versus “what do I need to do?”
It is really hard for a kid to say “I don’t have a lot of power. I don’t have a lot of political will and my parents still tell me when to go to bed” and “what do I need to do to save the world?” feels like they have someone telling them what to do rather than what they actually need to do. So I like to push towards “what can I do?” instead of “what do I need to do?”
Miller: I guess, maybe part of what was behind that last question of mine is that I feel like I’ve heard, if not the exact words of this from climate-focused and often well-meaning adults, but a version of this following Greta Thunberg and following other impressive young climate activists. I’ve seen older people say stuff like, “I’m so glad you’re here, young people, because you’re gonna save us.” It’s almost like the subtext is or the text, not even the subtext is, “We messed up. Sorry, but you got this. K. Thanks. Bye.”
How do you talk to young people about what, what they can do without putting the burden on them to fix old people’s problems?
Hicks: Yeah, of course. The narrative totally is, “Oh, thank God you’re here. Now, I’m gonna step out and you handle all of this. Sorry, sorry. Yeah, our bad.” It needs to be an intergenerational movement. And so with all of the youth activists that I’ve worked with and when I was a youth activist, a lot of what we needed was solidarity with older folks. And so when we can put the limelight on the youth that are going to be experiencing climate, we also need to give them structural help to do that. Mentoring them in how to create direct actions, giving them the opportunities to really be a leader rather than just “youth-washing”–which is a word I heard a couple of days ago for the first time–and saying we put some kid with a microphone up to show that we care about the youth, but we’re not actually doing anything. And so when adults say “what do you need to be doing?” then the children can actually look back and say “you need to help me, too.”
Miller: What does the phrase “age appropriate” mean to you in the context of climate change? How do you figure out what to say to people at what ages, specifically in the context of an objectively terrifying crisis with a current trajectory that doesn’t look good?
Hicks: There are two buckets that we go into, which is the scientific inquiry and the social emotional impact. With science inquiry, we can look at what things that kids are learning in school already, but for even the little ones like preschool and kindergartners, how can we get them to connect with the natural world? So in science, we can say that I know at this level, a child knows what carbon dioxide is or at this level, I know that they are interested in the work of global warming.
But the real thing I want to dive into is the social emotional implications in that most people are like we can’t talk to kids about climate. It’s too scary and bad and horrible and there’s nothing good that’s happening and that’s not true. There are people all over the world that are engaged in science and engaged in climate solutions. So the ways that I’ve been able to communicate effectively by saying this is a big problem that we have and inherently, we are teaching you that you are a problem solver and that everyone is a problem solver. We do have this massive scary amorphous cloud lying ahead of us and above us, but you have the tools to grow into this movement of people that are already doing good.
Miller: But to go back to what you’re saying, and I imagine those adults who are saying we can’t talk to kids about this or at least show them the true horror because they’re not ready for it, that’s also to give them the benefit of a doubt. That’s also coming from a place of concern and potentially love. That’s not necessarily climate denial. Although there’s probably some of that as well. Don’t tell them this because it’s not true. But let’s skip that part for now.
I’m curious what your message is for, for parents or educators or other adults who interact with kids because not everyone’s going to see your shows, but kids are spending time with their caregivers every day. What would you tell those adults?
Hicks: I would tell them that kids already know about climate change. Kids are already being impacted by it every day. So climate change is happening to children and kids are also already hearing about it. They’re hearing catastrophic recounts of natural disasters on the news. They’re seeing things on social media and they’re hearing people talk about it. So it isn’t like not talking about it is sparing them all together because they are already experiencing it. But for caregivers and loved ones, you can find the tools to talk about it with them in a way that honors their fear and plugs into the local efforts that people are doing all over the world.
Miller: Where do you suggest a parent, say of an eight-year old, starts?
Hicks: That’s a great question. So there are a bunch of different resources. One of the things that I can recommend is a website called https://subjecttoclimate.org/. They have it broken down by age and grade level of different climate-related resources. I’m also working with the Climate Mental Health Network and they are creating a bunch of different tool kits all about how parents can talk to their kids about climate. And there is a really amazing resource called https://www.thisisplaneted.org/ from the Aspen Institute that talks a lot about climate education for youth with the knowledge that it is big and scary and gives parents the tools to honor the feelings that both they are having and their kids are having.
Miller: What can people expect after the film or what do you do in a workshop?
Hicks: Yeah. So going back to the question of what can I do? A lot of people can sometimes feel like they don’t have a voice because they’re not a climate scientist or they’re not an ocean kelp farmer. A lot of the work that I do both with kids and adults is finding your place in the movement and finding what’s going to bring you joy. So a lot of the workshops that I’ve been doing have been helping people tell their own climate stories and engaging with local climate activism. But then also I love to make collaborative art. The whole pilot was collaborative art. And so there will be a fun little collaborative art project that we are all going to work together on after the pilot shows.
Miller: What keeps you going and hopeful in this? Maybe the flip side of that question is the times when you would need someone to tell you to stop, like you told your puppet sprout.
Hicks: Since joining the climate movement in a really big way, I’ve become a little bit less freaked out all the time about climate because my community has changed. My community has changed from people not thinking about it at all to the people that are actively fighting for a better future every day. I was in London in January at the Natural History Museum with one of my colleagues and I love to tell this because he always talks about how people are like “no one is starting, we don’t even know where to start” and he goes, “we’ve already started, just getting on the bandwagon.” So when I’m feeling completely overwhelmed or like I have to buy something that has plastic in it or I take a flight and I’m feeling all individual actiony and guilty, I can remember that there are so many people that are working on this and the more that we talk about it, the more people that are going to get involved. And that’s what brings me comfort.
Miller: I want to go back to something you said at the beginning, which is that media for children has been really important for decades in helping children learn about stuff, but also process trauma and in various ways, but that you saw that there wasn’t some show that specifically focused on climate change with kids as an audience. Why do you think there wasn’t?
Hicks: Oh, that’s a great question. I do think that there is a lot of fear about talking to kids about climate. It hasn’t really been in popular media discourse for adults as well as kids. So it’s a media landscape over achingly devoid of climate content. But for kids’ media, less than 1% of it is shown on screen. I also think it’s coming. I think we are part of the paradigm shift in the media landscape that kids media is coming.
Miller: I could see something in your face, I couldn’t quite read. Is this just like that you know by being adjacent or in the industry, that there are shows on the way or more things that kids will be exposed to in the near future?
Hicks: Yeah, I’m lucky enough to be in the media world where I see the cogs turning and wheels moving. And I think in the past it has been an issue of funding but right now we’re seeing so much climate funding coming out. One project that I can highlight is the Good Energy Stories Project by Anna Jane Joyner that is a creative consultancy for media to talk about climate. So for shows that already exist that are nervous to talk about climate, their project helps them bring it into the story. Projects like that make me hopeful that there will be a bigger need for this kind of media and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Miller: I want to hear a little bit more from the pilot from the film festival. We’re going to hear the song at the end, it’s called “Lift Together.” It’s sung and written by Andy Leon.
Sometimes I wake up
with the weight of the world on my shoulders.
It feels so much scarier and heavier as I get older.
Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing to do,
no way to help,
not one clear clue.
I look at the sky,
all the smoke and the smog and the pollution.
There is hunger and pain
and not one way to find a solution.
When I feel all alone like I’m spiraling down,
lost in the mess of debris on the ground,
I take a deep breath.
I know good can be found.
I open my eyes and say
all around I see people helping people put back the broken pieces.
All around me are hands helping hands.
It’s so amazing how far love reaches.
Nothing’s too heavy if we lift together.
When I look around,
I feel so much better.
Miller: Suzie Hicks, what’s next for you?
Hicks: We are taking the pilot to a bunch of different film festivals right now and seeking funding to make a whole season.
Miller: Suzie Hicks, thanks very much for coming. Congratulations.
Hicks: Thank you so much for having me.
Miller: Suzie Hicks is the Climate Chick, a media maker and climate educator, and winner of the Hollywood Theater’s Visionary Film Award.
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