By Kerry Steinhofer
This article is part of a series featuring Centre College’s 2018 John C. Young (JCY) Scholars. Centre’s JCY program, now in its 28th year, is designed to serve highly motivated seniors, allowing them to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing.
John C. Young Scholar (JCY) Brendan Holly ’18 (Sidney, Nebraska) has spent his senior year investigating the worldviews of youth environmental activists, how these worldviews developed and what this information may mean for the future of environmentalism for his project titled “What do We Want? Ideological Difference in the Environmental Movement.”
As part of Holly’s research, he chose three of the most active youth environmental activist organizations from across Kentucky and interviewed members of each group. The interviews consisted of questions revolving around what their worldview was, how it was developed and what the worldview might mean for the future of environmental activism.
“After doing some of these interviews, I transcribed and coded them for future analysis,” Holly explained. “I ended up finding that the worldviews of youth environmental activists were actually more homogeneous in what they emphasize than I expected: climate change, environmental injustice and the importance of activism in getting results.”
Holly spent more time thinking about this and realized that apart from his own experience and what some research suggests, organizational learning and identity are incredibly important in forming the politics and worldviews of first-time activists.
As an environmental studies and anthropology/sociology double major, Holly has been involved in environmental activism for the last three years at Centre, and he has taken classes where these topics have been discussed.
“The idea was to try and understand myself and my cohort, but I am especially interested in the future of environmental activism as our generation begins to have more influence in the national discourse,” he added. “The idea of a trajectory and systematic changes to a generation’s political views is intriguing to me, and I’m interested in that evolution. The research is intimately tied to my interests, extracurricular activities and ultimately my future as an environmentalist.”
Throughout the course of the project, Holly realized how difficult social science research can be. He said he’s used to choosing a theory or a perspective and writing something argumentative. However, with this project, he wanted to think differently than just taking a clear theory and applying it. Holly struggled with feeling like the work he produced adequately describes the research subjects, and he’s learned how important it is to continue writing and thinking, even if the ideas are only semi-formulated.
“I think that my biggest takeaway is how useful it is to persevere, even when you’re really frustrated or feeling uninspired,” he added. “I have a lot of self-confidence in my ability to chip away at a big project and keep working on something that is big and important.”
Holly’s faculty mentor Kaelyn Wiles, assistant professor of sociology, assisted him with his research. He said Wiles was invaluable in helping him clarify his ideas and getting them ready to present.
“Brendan is a highly motivated and independent researcher and has tackled a complicated project on the worldviews of youth environmentalists,” Wiles said. “At heart, Brendan is a social theorist and I’ve been impressed by his ability to contribute to complicated sociological theories using his own empirical observations.
“As we confront an unprecedented and escalating environmental crisis, Brendan’s conclusions are hopeful and show that youth environmentalists are envisioning more inclusive communities, are working together more than ever and are increasingly drawn towards activism,” she continued. “His work will help environmentalists of all ages to think about the most effective ways to mobilize resources, bring together diverse communities and direct future sustainability efforts.”
Holly received a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct ecology research in Indonesia next year. His future professional plans are not certain, but should he return to graduate school, he intends to study ecology/conservation biology.
“I will continue to be active in environmental politics in the communities I find myself in, and I will undoubtedly continue to ponder this research and the questions it has provoked,” he concluded. “I don’t think I will ever be done contextualizing my generation’s place within environmentalism or understanding the political implications and mutations of youth radicalism.”