Interview with Dr Catherine Walker, on the ‘Young People at a Crossroads’ project.  

Dr Catherine Walker is a NUAcT Fellow at Newcastle University. Her ESRC project ‘Young People at a Crossroads’ was just ‘Highly Commended’ at the University of Manchester’s ‘Making a Difference’ Awards. Here we discuss the project.

Illustration produced by Maisy Summer for the ESRC-funded Young People at a Crossroads (YPAC) project. Copyright for the illustration is owned by Maisy Summer, copyright for the creative book research content is owned by University of Manchester.

Congratulations Catherine! Please tell us about this project – what were your objectives with this research? Who was involved?

Young People at a Crossroads (YPAC) was a research project hosted by the University of Manchester in partnership with the University of Melbourne, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. It explored how migrant-background young people and their families are learning and talking about climate change in Manchester and Melbourne, two ethnically diverse cities that pride themselves on having climate adaptation goals that exceed those of the UK and Australian national governments.

The main objective of the research was to learn how young people who had migrated internationally or grown up with at least one first-generation migrant parent were making sense of climate change and relating it to their family experience. We are often told that ‘humanity is at a crossroads’ in relation to climate change, yet this is not the only crossroads in young people’s lives. YPAC began from this intersection between personal and societal crossroads in relation to migration and climate change.

We also wanted to create an opportunity for young people to expand their research skills. Having been interviewed for the research, young people could then take part in interview training led by the adult researchers (myself and Dr Ellen van Holstein), interview a family member and write a reflection for the creative book (more of which below!).

Overall, 40 young people aged 14-18 took part in the research, although not all chose to do all research activities. We intentionally recruited young people from a wide range of backgrounds who didn’t see themselves as environmental activists to pluralise perspectives on climate change and climate justice beyond high profile activist voices. This also allowed us to think critically from young people and their parents’ experiences about which voices and knowledges are prioritised and which are marginalised in climate change education and adaptation planning.

What did the project find? Did anything surprise you?

Amidst talk of climate change anxiety and information fatigue, we were surprised by how emphatically young people who took part in this research said they wanted to learn about climate change in schools, and how much they brought questions about this into interviews with parents. At the same time, young people were clear they wanted changes in how climate change was taught –more stories behind the statistics, more opportunities for action (starting in the school space itself) and a more justice-focused approach overall.

Young people who took part in the research were proud of their cultural heritage and keen to make connections between things their parents shared, their own experiences in countries they had lived, and their knowledge and concerns about climate change. Parents were sometimes more critical about the governance of countries they had migrated from, or quick to point out limitations in resources that could complicate climate change adaptation.

Although climate justice wasn’t a very familiar term among the young people at the start of the research, many saw greater hope and potential for action in this term than in ‘climate change’. As a generation keenly aware that what will happen across their lifetimes is in many ways already determined by events set in train before they were born, ‘climate change’ seemed to offer only doom and despair. In contrast, young people interpreted climate justice as a process or agenda for action beginning from schools, homes and communities. As one young person put it:

“climate justice is inspiring people to actually take action and become passionate and empathize more with this issue, and everyone else who’s affected or not as severely affected. It’s like rousing everyone to actually do something.”

The project team have written a ‘Young People at a Crossroads’ creative book, which is beautifully illustrated! What is the aim of this book?

Thank you, the book was a collective effort and everyone who has been involved is really proud of it, so that’s great to hear! The book aims to support teachers and students by providing a hopeful, creative resource that showcases different ways that climate change has been and is being understood and experienced in a range of geographic locations (families that took part in the research had collectively lived across 34 different countries).

At the heart of the book are the young researcher reflections: eleven young people wrote creatively about their interviews with family members in a variety of communication styles. Framing these reflections are thematic summaries that together unpack the full title of the book: Young People at a Crossroads: Stories of Education, Action and Adaptation from around the World. These thematic summaries include quotes from all 40 young people who took part in the research.

The young researcher reflections are beautifully illustrated by the very talented illustrator and animator, Maisy Summer. Maisy also designed an incredible wraparound cover for the book, depicting a winding road replete with environmental challenges and opportunities, a reminder that just as migration journeys are never simple and linear, neither is the path to more inclusive and sustainable futures.

Two environmental educators were also key to making the book the fantastic resource that it is now. Kit Marie Rackley and Nerida Jolley have both been teachers in the UK and Australia respectively, and they now work to resource other teachers. Kit and Nerida helped me to put the book together in a way that makes it accessible and relatable to curriculum areas that teachers are or may be required to teach on in years to come. We also address the topic of climate anxiety head on in the book, including reflections and signposting resources to support sensitive and hopeful teaching. As Nerida has reflected on the book:

“I see it as casting a bright, hopeful, and colourful rainbow over the grey skies of climate breakdown and societal disconnect and divisions. It gives a voice to our young people from minority groups and provides educators with a meaningful resource for the climate crisis that their students can connect with.”

The book is free to download along with an Educators’ Guide and other resources. At the time of writing it has been downloaded more than 900 times!

What is next for the project?

We’re delighted that the creative book was Highly Commended by the Geography Association in their Publishers’ Awards, as well as in the University of Manchester Making a Difference awards. We hope that this further publicity means the book and other project resources will continue to be downloaded and used in classrooms and homes in the UK, Australia and beyond.

As an environmental social scientist, I’m also keen that the research makes a contribution to academic debates, particularly around the politics of environmental knowledge, young people and migrants’ environmental subjectivities, household responses to climate change and the emerging field of climate justice education. I’ve presented on these topics at conferences and events in the UK and Australia, and, together with Dr Ellen van Holstein, I have a number of book chapters and journal articles accepted for publication or under review. I’m also really excited that I am able to keep pursuing this research area in my new role (since February 2023) as a Newcastle University Academic Track Fellow, where the overarching theme of my five-year fellowship is Exploring, Enabling and Enacting Youth-led Climate Justice. So…watch this space!

Bio: Catherine Walker (she/her) is a UK-based social science researcher and Newcastle University Academic Track Fellow based in the Department of Geography. Catherine’s research interests span geography, politics and education and centre on diverse youth and environmental/climate education. She led the Young People at a Crossroads project from 2021-2023.

Catherine worked on this project with:

Nerida Jolley (she/her) lives and works on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people. Previously a passionate primary school teacher who at all opportunities nurtured a sense of wonder and awe of, and love and respect for, the natural world in her students; she now works at Environment Education Victoria managing the delivery of the Victoria State Government’s international award winning Resource Smart Schools (RSS) program to schools across two regions in the state. 

Kit Marie Rackley (they/she) is an award-winning ex high-school Geography teacher in the UK, an educational consultant and a passionate advocate of youth voice and empowerment, decolonising the curriculum, and inclusive and intersectional education. Much of their work revolves around framing the climate crisis as a school safeguarding issue. Kit Marie runs an educational resource blog at, and is host and producer of the Coffee & Geography podcast.

Maisy Summer (she/her) is a UK-based independent illustrator and animator who has worked for a wide range of clients. Maisy is passionate about using illustration to bring to life stories on the impacts of climate change in an approachable and playful manner. See more of Maisy’s work here.

Ellen van Holstein (she/her) is an urban geographer and Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and a former Research Associate on the YPAC research. Alongside other research interests, Ellen is passionate about participatory methods and working with community co-researchers.

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