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Generation O: The Millennial Movement to Save the Ocean

The key to mobilizing youth is to give them the autonomy to follow their own path to protect the ocean, says Daniela Fernandez, founder of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Daniela Fernandez attends W.E. Day Chicago in 2016.Jeff Schear/Getty Images/AFP

Daniela Fernandez turned 23 years old in January and this spring she graduated from Georgetown University, but she has already been a chief executive of Sustainable Oceans Alliance (SOA) for four years.

Fernandez, who took a degree in government and economics, says that she is passionate about protecting the world’s oceans, and making sure that her own generation, millennials, are informed and involved in marine issues. So in her freshman year, Fernandez founded SOA, an organization that, according to its website statement, empowers millennials “to become leaders in preserving the health and sustainability of our oceans.” Groups can create their own, mostly autonomous, SOA chapters. Now with around 30 chapters in universities around the country, SOA members work with top marine researchers, advocates and world leaders.

Oceans Deeply spoke with Fernandez about why she started SOA, and how she is engaging millennials to help solve some of the biggest ocean issues.

Oceans Deeply: What made you want to get millennials involved with ocean issues?

Daniela Fernandez: Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was a trigger for me that made me realize that the environment was something that I just had to dedicate myself to, whether it was becoming more educated, or just understanding a little bit about the climate.

So, I went to Georgetown with the hope of getting involved in policy and politics, and I found myself invited to a meeting at the U.N. my first semester. And it was fascinating. I knew nothing about oceans back then. All I knew was what the general person knows about the ocean – they’re beautiful, they’re vast and who knows what’s happening to them? I found myself at a U.N. meeting around ocean sustainability that was led by Palau.

Throughout this meeting, I was, first of all, the youngest person in this room. I was surrounded by world leaders and ambassadors and NGO executives. I didn’t find any other students around me. My takeaway was that there was no social media, or no media, really, bringing the information that I was learning, to the general public. To me that was a huge, huge gap of information that was occurring. I actually went up to the ambassador of Palau afterwards and I asked him, “How are you getting the word out?” and he really didn’t have a good answer. They really didn’t spend their efforts on educating the public, but rather, they’re just talking with the constituents that are already in that environment.

My [other] takeaway was that the ocean was dying, and it was terrifying for me to hear about how we’re going to have more plastic than fish [by weight in the ocean] by 2050. How, most fish stocks will have decayed. You know, all the doom-and-gloom statistics – although those are the ones that get people’s attention. It just made it so real for me – so tangible – that I became worried that my generation wasn’t being informed about the problems.

So, with those three takeaways in mind, on the train back [to Georgetown] I had this idea of, how can I create a platform where I can bring together all of these amazing heads of state and all of these leaders with their expertise and knowledge, to meet with students – to a place like Georgetown, where they can meet with students and talk about these problems and just bridge that gap of awareness that was so blatant, in my face at that U.N. meeting.

My generation is the one that is going to inherit all of these problems, and it is up to us to not only understand this situation, but also to think about how can we implement solutions through our respective careers.

Oceans Deeply: The term “millennial” can come with a lot of connotations, such as lazy, or disconnected, or disruptive. How do these perceptions of millennials affect your work?

Fernandez: I love that question, because those negative connotations are misunderstood and misinterpreted depending on who is applying them. I think that older generations apply them freely because they just don’t understand how millennials work. So, my response to that would be, no, millennials are not lazy or disconnected – we’re the complete opposite. We’re very connected, we’re very ambitious, we’re very action-oriented. I think that why those negative characteristics have been applied to us is simply out of misunderstanding, and they haven’t really figured out how to deal with millennials in the workplace and as social creatures.

Our message, unlike every other nonprofit in the ocean world, is not “save the ocean by solving plastic,” or “save the ocean by this-or-that.” We don’t dictate a specific goal. What we tell people is, “how do you want to help the ocean in your own way?” And that is very attractive to millennials, because they are never really given the opportunity by other organizations to follow their own interests or to follow their own experience and skill set, and utilize it to its full potential.

What we do, is we tell them that no matter what career you’re in, whether it’s design, whether it’s technology science, healthcare, you can still apply those interests into helping the ocean. It is just a different train of thought in that we tell them “you start your own project and we’ll highlight you. We’ll give you a platform to showcase that to the world,” instead of telling them “we’re all going to work on this specific piece of legislation, and that is what you have to do for the ocean.”

Oceans Deeply: Are there issues that millennials seem to get the most interested or involved in?

Fernandez: It really varies by community, since we have chapters all over the U.S. Our chapter in Florida, for example, is really interested in planting corals. Our chapter in Peru is really focused on marine protected areas. Our chapter at the University of Ohio is pretty interested in printing curriculum, because as a land-locked university there’s not a lot of marine programs.

So, we have seen them really take on whatever interest they have in their local communities, and whatever students are interested in, but we definitely have seen support being rallied around major pieces of legislation. For example we were able to [gather] signatures to support the passage of the United Nation’s ocean [Sustainable Development Goal 14]. That was something where, we reached out to all of our chapters, all of our millennials, and said, “The U.N. is deciding whether to pass the ocean SDG. This is something that we need, please raise your voice. Sign this petition, write these comments out,” and we were able to mobilize them and present that petition at the U.N. before the vote took place.

Oceans Deeply: And do you think that that made a significant difference in how the U.N. voted?

Fernandez: I think that it made a significant difference in letting countries realize that millennials were paying attention, that young people were getting informed, they were getting engaged and having a voice in the conversation. The conversation that we had with all of these heads of state – they said, “we have never heard youth from our counties ask us to do this. It has always been lobbying groups, or NGOs.” I think that was refreshing, and I think that it also signaled to them that young people were paying attention, which most of them didn’t really think was the case.

Oceans Deeply: What are the next steps for you and for SOA?

Fernandez: I am currently the CEO of SOA, and I will be running it for the next couple of years, just making sure that it is well established. That it is its own entity. Down the line, I would love to stay on as chair and bring someone on to run it full-time.

Personally, my goal is to create an investment fund for ocean projects. My background is actually in finance and economics – that’s where I did all of my internships. So, I would love to stay in the oceans world and make it more of like, “how can we fund the ocean,” and use my experience, and mechanisms in finance to move money, move the markets, into helping to sustain the ocean.

This version corrects an earlier version of the story in which it was reported that Sustainable Oceans Alliance had collected 50,000 signatures to support the passage of the United Nation’s ocean Sustainable Development Goal 14. In fact, SOA was unable to track these signatures and did not have an official count of how many it collected.

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