In December, TFK Kid Reporter Ninis Twumasi presented the TIME Earth Award at an event in New York City. It was given to the 16 plaintiffs who sued Montana for violating their right to a clean environment. Before the event, Ninis spoke with two of them, Claire Vlases and Sariel Sandoval. Read part of their conversation.
1. Why did you decide to participate in this trial?
Vlases: I care a lot about the land and my home state, and want to do everything I can to protect it. I was 16 or 17 when I joined the lawsuit.
Sandoval: I’m an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. I’m also Navajo. I thought it was a good opportunity to hold the state of Montana accountable for its actions and what it’s doing, not just to my people, but to everyone in Montana.
2. How long have you been working on environmental causes?
Vlases: I grew up on a small farm in Montana, helping grow vegetables, raising livestock, stuff like that. But I really got into environmental work in middle school. In seventh grade, I raised about $120,000 for solar panels on my school.
3. Were you worried people wouldn’t take you seriously because of your age?
Vlases: Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean our rights are any less valuable than someone else’s.
Sandoval: There were some of those kinds of doubts. But with all the other plaintiffs and our stories, it felt like they couldn’t really not listen to us.
4. What was going through your mind during the trial?
Sandoval: Hearing your peers talk about their experience, you feel their emotion. The state of Montana hadn’t really done anything in terms of protecting our rights, and this is the consequence.
5. During the case, was there a time when you felt hopeless?
Vlases: It was scary to be in the courtroom and a little nerve-racking to hear the other side present arguments. But I just kept believing that what I said, and what the other plaintiffs had to say, was the truth.
6. How did you feel when you found out you’d won?
Sandoval: I felt super happy. I don’t know how to put it in any other words. It was a great day, that day.
7. The attorney general’s office appealed the result. What are your thoughts?
Vlases: I think that’s just the way the legal system works. It’s kind of a bummer that they’re continuing to use taxpayer dollars to fight a losing battle about the rights of children, but such is life.
8. What impact do you hope this trial will have on the next generation?
Vlases: Hopefully, it’s a guide or an inspiration for younger generations to take action, just like we did.