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Motivating Middle Schoolers Around Climate Action

At the ripe old age of 9, Dylan Mahalingam formed a non-profit organization to engage children to help meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Through his Lil’MDGs website, on every social network you can imagine, and, recently, as an official Change Agent on, Dylan “leverages the power of the internet to educate, engage, inspire, and empower youth in all corners of the world to work together to meet the Millennium Development Goals.” And also to raise money for those in need. In just a few years, he’s rallied his networks to raise millions of dollars for tsunami and hurricane relief. Recently, the UN invited him to work on some timely climate change campaigns. Dylan took a few minutes between classes at Pinkerton High School in Derry, New Hampshire to talk with us about all his work.

Aren’t you supposed to be in class?

I’ve got a break right now.

So, what exactly is Lil’ MDGs?

We’re a non-profit, to the best of my knowledge, that is unique in the sense that we’re the only organization supporting the MDGs founded by youth.

A lot of us have heard of these MDGs, but what are they exactly?

The Millennium Development Goals were announced by the UN in 2000. They’re eight goals ranging from the eradication of extreme poverty to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS to achieving primary education for all, and so on. They’re all targeted to be completed by 2015.

That’s just five years away. How’s progress?

Some are further along than others. But, actually, climate change is becoming a serious factor and is making it a lot harder for a lot of developing countries to achieve the goals. Climate change can cause food scarcity, spread of diseases, can reduce access to drinking water, and other factors that will impede progress towards the MDGs. So lately we’ve started doing more work on climate.

Which is why we’re conducting this interview for the Planet section, of course. What sort of work are you doing?

Well locally, we started an initiative called “Green Your Lives” here at the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry, NH. Our main goal was to promote greener lifestyle choices that reduce energy costs and carbon emissions. We’re working to connect with other children’s groups in other schools. And we’ve gotten some EPA support and recognition for this. We also had six delegates from five different countries representing Lil’ MDGs at COP15 in Copenhagen to get youth voices heard by the decision makers.

No kidding! I was in Copenhagen too. You were there?

I couldn’t be. I was in Mexico at another meeting–a UN global forum on ICT [Information and Communications Technologies] and Development.

It was probably warmer there. You’ve done some other work on climate change, right?

Yes. I was invited by the UN last year to work on the UN Worldwide Campaign on Climate Change, Seal the Deal. I connected with groups of children in various countries around the world to hold peaceful assemblies for Seal the Deal. We held them in a few states in the US–in the Northeast, California, Maryland, New York– as well in a couple of other countries like India, the UK, Argentina, Thailand, Mexico, and South Korea. I also networked with children who attended the Tunza Children’s Climate Change Conference in South Korea last year, and we decided on a plan during a global townhall meeting that was held online in August 2009. I’m working with children from around the world on both of these, but they’re not directly connected to the MDG work itself. But since climate change is slowing progress towards the MDGs, it’s important to work on.

So if my math’s right, you were 9 years old when you started Lil’ MDGs. Most 9 year olds are running around playing tag or tossing the baseball. What was your motivation at the time?

On a trip to India [both of Dylan's parents have roots in India] when I was seven, I saw poverty first hand. I saw children working instead of being in school. I saw mothers without proper medical care, infants dying, children orphaned because of AIDS, lack of clean water. You name it. So when I came home I was really sad. I talked to my sister about it and she explained the MDGs to me. Soon I founded Lil’ MDGs to support them.

Is it tough to motivate other kids?

I find that children are naturally empathetic. When they hear this stuff is going on, they really want to help. But most children don’t know how bad the problems are. So we try to educate them while giving them something they can do to help.

And sometimes that “something” is raising money. How much have you raised?

We rallied youth to report around $780,000 for tsunami relief and then over $10 million for hurricane relief.

Incredible. That’s a lot of bake sales?

We have children engaged now from 40 states and 39 different countries. We hit up Facebook, Twitter, online forums, email, YouTube–we can do a really big online blast. After the hurricane [Katrina] we sent emails to various school districts, and they got involved. Now the other groups call us to find out how to help. We’re raising money right now for Haiti.

Lil’ MDGs is now an initiative of Jayme’s Fund. You can learn more on Dylan’s Changent’s page, or also check out the most impressive 14-year old’s resume you’ve ever seen on Dylan’s personal website.

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