City Climate Corner

Youth Episode - Albany, CA

Episode Summary

We interview 19-year-old Samantha Smithies about her role in climate action in Albany, CA. Hear about how she participated on, and then led, the city's Climate Action Committee.

Episode Notes

We interview 19-year-old Samantha Smithies about her role in climate action in Albany, CA. Hear about how she participated on, and then led, the city's Climate Action Committee.

For more information, check out episode 4 on Albany and funding climate action.


Episode Transcription


Larry Kraft  00:02

I'm Larry Kraft.

Abby Finis  00:04

And I'm Abby Finis. This is City Climate Corner, where we explore how small and midsize cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. 

Hey Larry.

Larry Kraft  00:17

Hey Abby.

Abby Finis  00:19

So today we have another one of our youth episodes. And we are speaking with Samantha Smithies of Albany, California. What did you think?

Larry Kraft  00:28

Oh, she's great. We spoke to her back in December of 2020. And I was just so impressed with how, in talking about some of the things that Albany is going through, the role that she played, and also her ability to describe the situation and the pros and cons of what they're doing. And not just the climate impacts, but the equity impacts as well.

Abby Finis  00:52

Yeah, I just really love how not only is this high school student super engaged in this pretty technical issue and city process, but also treated as a peer by council members and other folks who are involved in this effort. And that's just really, I think, a cool approach to city government and making sure that you're reaching out to the next generation and bringing them in and making them participants of our democracy.

Larry Kraft  01:24

Absolutely. And with Samantha it was not only bringing them in, but she then was in a leadership role on the environmental commission there. Which, after you talk to her, you're not at all surprised for that. And something else she points out that I think is true, is sometimes a young person will get a reaction like hey, it's great that you're here. And that's the impressive thing. But what you realize is that it's not just them being there, but it's how eloquent and how powerful they can be, as well.

Abby Finis  01:57

Great. Let's give it a listen.

Larry Kraft  01:59

Let's do it. 

Start of Interview

Larry Kraft  02:02

We're here with Samantha Smithies from Albany, California. Samantha, can you start out by telling us a bit about yourself?

Samantha Smithies  02:10

Yeah, of course. So my name is Samantha Smithies. I'm 18 years old, almost 19. And I'm currently a sophomore at UCLA. But my hometown is Albany. Where actually I'm currently right now. And I had been involved in the Albany Climate Action Committee while I was in high school for two years.

Larry Kraft  02:32

Why is climate change important to you?

Samantha Smithies  02:36

It sort of started fortunately, as awareness and understanding as a child. So being part of the earth and involved in nature was kind of always something that was really central to my childhood. So camping, hiking. I lived in Kansas, actually for quite a few years. And so we would go to the recycling center at Walmart, which is kind of funny, and sort our recycling. And then, when I was six, I made my own decision, without my family, to cut out red meat. And so there were all these like small personal changes that have been happening from such a young age. 

And then moving to Albany, I was kind of recognizing in high school that I wanted to be involved in government and policy in some way. And so the opportunity to be a student representative for the Albany Climate Action Committee, actually was almost an accident. So I didn't necessarily join in the beginning with the intent that, like, climate change is my highest priority. And something that I really want to tackle. It was more, I want to get involved. And then through joining, I began to realize there's this enormous existential crisis that is already affecting my life and will continue to affect my life and future generations. And it was almost like, I didn't feel like enough or anything was really happening. And of course, I grew to realize there's so much work being done and so many people involved. But it still really felt like it wasn't enough. And it almost felt like a problem to solve. I really love problem solving. 

It's this issue of how Is there something so big that will affect everyone, but yet, we can't all mobilize to take action. And it was really exciting to see kind of from the local level, what can be done, and that every action you take, especially institutionally matters, no matter what the scale is. And so now my interests have diverged a little more from just thinking about climate change as to how we keep the earth livable. But also to think about remedying the disparate effects of climate change on minority communities. And really, how can we look at the intersections between climate change and other enormous challenges facing the Earth like housing, migration, health, and kind of taking a different angle slightly?

Larry Kraft  04:34

Why do you believe it's important for young people to be involved in climate action efforts?

Samantha Smithies  04:39

So there's, of course, the first part, which is that we will face the brunt of the burden of climate change, and especially like our future generation. So I think the time lag that's kind of inevitable with climate change is more real for us, and it's harder to avoid. And then there's also the part where youth, of course, always bring in different perspectives. And I think, even with environmental justice, I think youth have kind of been a push for that more so than older generations. And then on the other side, like climate change is an action that is really possible to get involved with and there's so much room for growth. I think it's very accessible for youth. And then there's another part of science literacy. And it kind of is a social issue that also pushes science and science so often politicized and getting involved with climate action kind of combats that in a way, because you learn about science is a fact-based matter in a way and less about, like how it might be false.

Albany’s Climate Action Committee

Abby Finis  05:37

Can we go back to your involvement on the Climate Action Committee? And tell us a little bit more about that? You know, were you the only youth member? Was it something that came from the city or was it driven by youth?

Samantha Smithies  05:49

I was the only youth member. So I joined my, the fall of 2017. I'm trying to think of what year that was in high school, my junior year, and then continuing into the fall, right up until I left for college. So I was elected by the school board, technically. So there's one spot on the committee that's chosen by the school board. And I was with a group of everybody who is almost 30 to 40 years my senior. So I felt like a little kid in the room. But it wasn't so much that like I was treated as the youth representative, I was really given the chance to to be a real member of the committee. And so I started as the student representative. And then I was elected by the committee as the vice chair. So I sat second to Nick Peterson, who was the chair at the time. 

And then during my senior year of high school, I actually became the chair. And so I kind of had the opportunity to go from just being a sitting member and giving input to really leading the agenda, leading what we were doing and having the chance to fully kind of guide where we were going, which was really, really exciting. And then I also had the opportunity to sort of create focuses, so we had subcommittees and so I was more so involved with the community outreach aspects and kind of trying to build partnerships with the school because of course, as a high schooler, I had those connections. And then also thinking about active transportation. And so it was really an amazing experience, I think one of the benefits of being in a smaller city is the chance to get involved. And really in a real way, like, I felt that I had the opportunity, I did, to speak with City Council and see like bigger-level decisions being made. It was also a small part, but really exciting voting for the first time and knowing the candidates who are on the ballot, because I've talked to them. So that was just a wonderful feeling.

Abby Finis  07:39

It's really great. And, you know, it gives you a lot more experience just in how city government works and understanding those processes. Can you tell us more about what happened? What were some of the outcomes of your involvement on the committee?

Samantha Smithies  07:51

Yeah, so there were three really kind of large achievements that I was most excited about. So one part that we were working on for a long time, and will continue to be the main priority of the Climate Action Committee is the new 2020 to 2035 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. So that is our goal to reach net zero, it used to be by 2050. But they actually moved it down in December of last year to 2045, which is really exciting. And so that was focusing on three main objectives of eliminating the use of fossil fuels, promoting a carbon free economy. So looking at a full circular vision of how the economy could work alternatively. And then also building a resilient community, to climate disasters and other climate effects. And then the next really exciting achievement was the implementation of opt-out enrollment of all city accounts into 100%, carbon-free electricity through our community choice aggregation program, East Bay Community Energy. So all of a sudden, our emissions factor from electricity, basically went down to zero, the number of people who opted out was incredibly low. And it was really a wonderful thing to be able to know like, we did something that concretely lowered emissions, and we'd be able to see that in future years. 

Samantha Smithies  09:03

And then the last part that was really exciting, especially coming from kind of a community outreach angle was the rollout of an online portal called Carbon Free Albany. And so we worked with a company that's created these websites that help individuals take action and kind of track that in a gamified matter, and it allowed us to connect with community members and facilitate individual sustainable actions with a little bit more of incentives. And so that's sort of still being rolled out. It's always challenging to get people to a brand new site and to enroll and elect into something that they haven't heard of before. But over the two years that I was there, there was really so much done.

Abby Finis  09:43

Yeah, that's really great. How did the city officials, especially elected officials react to youth involvement in this effort?

Samantha Smithies  09:52

It was kind of mixed. I'd say the first reaction was always Wow, I'm impressed. This is really amazing. Of course that's wonderful to hear. But it can feel a little condescending. And I don't mean that in the way that they didn't respect me or that they didn't take what I was saying truthfully, it almost just felt like what I was saying was less important than how I was saying it. But there was definitely a responsiveness. And I'd also say that on the city staff level, absolutely, like 100%, every city staff member I met was treating me not as a high schooler, but as a real person involved. And that was a wonderful experience. And they helped me so much. As you know, I moved up kind of the ranks of the Climate Action Committee and growing into that chair role. And then the other part, I think, was that it almost felt when I would be presenting to city council, that maybe they would shy away from a little bit of like disagreements, which was actually really nice. So maybe there was even more like incentive to kind of say yes to it, because here was this high schooler presenting to you, and how could you say, like, no to a high school, it was almost what it felt like, but it was really wonderful. And I think Albany absolutely listens to youth and really incorporates them into their local government. And just the way that the committees are structured, there are other committees and commissions that have student representatives.

Utility Tax Ballot Measure

Larry Kraft  11:17

That's great. Young people, especially on many issues, but especially on this issue, have so much moral power, moral authority. You know, about the I guess, if you just voted, did you vote in Albany? 

Samantha Smithies  11:31

Yes, I did. 

Larry Kraft  11:33

Did you, you actually got to vote for this new ballot measure, right? The DD utility tax to create some funding for climate action work. What do you think about it? Did you have any involvement with it? You know, what are your thoughts? 

Samantha Smithies  11:49

Yeah, it was really exciting to see a ballot measure that actually talks about climate change and how to fund it. And so yeah, it was my first time voting. I did vote for it. And I wasn't directly involved about it. I was in all the email chains talking about how do we mobilize community support for this? When kind of the peak that was happening, I was partially still in LA, and still kind of not available to really get involved. But it's really exciting. I did vote yes for it. So I'm definitely a supporter of it. I think it's wonderful the way that it exempts low-income households, not only from the increase in the utilities' user tax but from existing. So there is that part of it's made more equitable. There are parts that I don't love about it, that didn't stop me from voting yes, on it. I think putting the revenue raised into a general fund, of course, makes sense because it means that there's not going to be a pool of money that can no longer be accessed, you know, it gives the city more flexibility, and they don't have to worry so much about how they distribute the money. But I also think that it just means that, and I trust the city officials and city staff to do this, but to make sure that the 1/3 that they plan to go towards implementing the climate action adaptation plan really happens. 

Samantha Smithies  13:04

And then the other part that I think is just a little tricky for me is the idea of implementing a utility user tax on water. And so of course, I understand why you want to incentivize lower water use. But I do think water is more so of a human right to me than gas and electricity. And of course, gas, electricity also are important. But just I think looking at what's happening on a national level, in Flint and thinking about putting fees on water is always kind of concerning for me. And our water district does, of course have options for people who can't afford to pay and customer assistance programs. And like I said, the utility user tax won't apply for those low-income households. But there are always the people who are on the margins who don't make that like, bracket but still feel the effects. And it's not a super high tax. But I do think it just creates a precedent for how we put fees on water. And then the other part, which is really interesting, is how it exempts for self generated energy. So it kind of provides an incentive for solar panels and heat pumps and individual action that happens, a small monetary incentive but still exciting. But then there also is a teeny bit of an equity issue there. Because generally the people who can afford to put solar panels and heat pumps don't have to worry as much about increases in their utility bills. 

Larry Kraft  14:27

Great answer, if you weren't involved in the advocacy for it, boy they missed you because that was great. And I'll also say, you know, you mentioned the Carbon Free Albany as an achievement when you were on the commission. I saw that and thought it was a great website and in fact, sent it to city staff where I'm on council as "Hey, you should take a look at this. This is a really cool tool." Hey, what are you studying now at UCLA? 

Samantha Smithies  14:53

Yeah, so I'm a public affairs major, which is a brand new major at UCLA that looks to make political Science a little bit more applicable and less theory-based. And it's really grounded in what the U.S. is doing and looking at policy on a wide range of issues and kind of looking at how to tackle the World's and more specifically, the U.S.'s biggest problems.

Abby Finis  15:16

As a political science major, I think I take offense to that.

Samantha Smithies  15:19

Yeah there's definitely a little bit of tension between the Political Science Department and the Public Affairs Department. 

Larry Kraft  15:28

Samantha, when do we get to vote for you?

Abby Finis  15:33

It's just, it's really inspiring, and it's great. And there's a lot of work to be done. And so we know that there's a lot of good people coming up.

End Credits

Abby Finis  15:43

We hope you enjoyed this episode of city climate corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you’re able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guest on our webpage, If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  16:07

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me Larry Kraft, edited by me. Music by...

Abby Finis  16:13

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Larry Kraft  16:16

Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.