Meet seven young Rocky Mountain activists and athletes ages 26 and under who are working to build a better world.
Basecamp: Breckenridge, CO
connect at: @codycir
A talented graphic designer and professional skier, Codi Cirillo felt driven by his parents to make the world a better place from a very young age. “I had a tremendous amount of opportunity to do volunteer work growing up, from visiting soup kitchens in Denver every month, to doing trail conservation, even working overseas in Nepal with an organization called Shoulder to Shoulder,” Cirillo says. “I became passionate about paying it forward. I still try to embody that spirit in everything I do.”
Cirillo, who grew up in Breckenridge, is now an ambassador for Protect Our Winters (POW). Growing up in Summit County, he says, helped him realize how important natural places are… “to me, my friends, my family, my town. I can only hope to drive change and make the world a better place when I leave it, and to inspire others to act in the same regard,” he says. Through POW, he uses his skiing career as a platform to advocate for environmental legislation and teaching the next generation.
“I think being young provides an opportunity to learn and grow,” says Cirillo. “There are so many people my age and younger learning about politics, and becoming more and more passionate about the environment and other issues. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a part of the outdoor industry, so I look forward to continuing and helping efforts as I grow older.”
Cirillo likes to say that just because the world is what it is, it doesn’t have to stay that way. “Being young, comes with many opportunities,” he says. “We’re living in a time where people my age have become more and more passionate and knowledgeable about political, environmental and social issues we can change.”
Photo above: POW ambassador Codi Cerillo at the Climate March in Denver. Credit: Jake Black
Basecamp: Lakewood, Colorado
connect at: @HildaNucete
Conservation Colorado Latino Program Director Hilda Nucete may be just 24 years old, but the people she affects on a daily basis say her deep rooted commitment to social, environmental and racial justice issues make her one of the most important contemporary conservationists around.
“My passion and mission is bringing silenced community members to the table and making their voices matter. You have a voice in your community and it should be heard,” Nucete says.
Nucete grew up in an oil camp in Caracas, Venezuela. Due to political unrest in her country, she moved to Colorado in 2007 when she was 15. “My whole town had health issues from oil production,” she says. “At a young age I gained insight into who benefited from oil production and who suffered the consequences. We thought moving to a first-world country would give us a more dignified life, but not only did we suffer the same air quality that we had in Venezuela, I was unable to gain citizenship. My experience as an undocumented immigrant instigated my advocacy work. I got involved with communities of color, women’s reproductive rights, and Latino leadership. This led to my environmental work because when you are talking about an environmental problem, you are scratching the surface of whole range of social justice issues as well.”
Recently appointed to the Denver Office of Sustainability Advisory Council, Nucete’s ultimate goal is to make leadership in powerful organizations more inclusive. “As a young activist, I often feel like I am there to be the token brown Millennial, but I just grab that by the horns,” she says. “If you put me in a tokenized position, I am going to show you that was a mistake.”
Basecamp: Boulder, Colorado
connect at: @clare_gallagher_runs
Princeton grad, The North Face pro athlete and hardcore conservationist—Clare Gallagher seems to excel at everything. In 2016, she won the Leadville Trail 100, setting the second-fastest women’s time in the race’s 33-year history in her first attempt. But she would much rather talk about activism than time splits. “My conservation advocacy work consists of, first and foremost, simply talking about things other than running, such as climate change and protection of public lands. As a professional ultrarunner, even for The North Face, this isn’t the norm,” she says.
She’s the first non-winter-specific athlete ambassador for Winter Wildlands Alliance, and works with marine conservation groups in Australia and Thailand. She has also collected thousands of lightly used running shoes, working with One World Running to deliver them people in developing countries.
“Considering a lot of my worth as an athlete is based on social reach, being a politically active voice isn’t entirely risk free. But I will cease being a professional runner the day that I stop using my platform for more altruistic means,” says Gallagher. “I struggle with the selfishness it takes to be a good runner—so much time and energy is spent training—but I justify it by saying: If I can show one young aspiring trail runner that it’s cool to call your Senators about issues that matter to you, then I’m doing my job.”
Basecamp: Salt Lake City, Utah
connect at: @zeppelinzeerip
Zeppelin “Zepp” Zeerip grew up shredding the small hills around his hometown in Sparta, Michigan—before long he had gone pro. But the 25-year-old has a knack for artful storytelling that transcends his professional snowboarding career. In 2016, the prestigious SHIFT conference selected him to participate in its Emerging Leaders Program. He’s also a producer and partner at WZRD Media, where he co-produced “Far From Home,” a feature-length documentary about Ugandan snowboarder Brolin Mawejje. In 2015, the film showed at at the Boulder International Film Festival and Santa Barbara International Film Festival, among others.
“My current personal mission is to bring public lands into the spotlight in a way that brings people from both sides of the aisle together in a shared vision to protect cherished places,” says Zeerip, who now lives in Salt Lake City. “Public lands have become such a political issue that they’re dividing communities. I truly believe that both sides in this debate have more in common than they admit.”
Zeerip speaks out for public lands in WZRD Media’s upcoming film, “The Heist.” “In the summer of 2016 I recognized that the debate over public lands had reached a boiling point in Utah, and needed to be explored further. My inspiration stemmed from a sense of responsibility,” he explains. “We live in an era where our basic liberties are under threat from the Trump administration and not enough people are standing up. I felt obligated to do something, and I chose protecting public lands as the cause.”
When asked about the best part of being a Millennial, he says, “the variety of ways we can connect with each other. I’ve used Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and email through the making of this film. My generation has more opportunities to connect than any group before. Without a doubt, we have higher student debt and fewer job prospects, but we are creating our own industries and disrupting old ones by harnessing new technologies. The world is getting smaller, and as it does, the opportunities for connection become more and more frequent. My age has never affected my progress.”
Basecamp: White Salmon River, Washington
connect at: @brendanwellskayak
Say you aspire to be filmmaker, a conservationist, and a professional whitewater kayaker, not to mention an inspiration to the next generation. Aspiration, meet your match in Brendan Wells.
“Adults don’t get that our generation will have to make sacrifices they never even thought about teaching to their children. The world is changing rapidly, and for my generation’s kids to live anything like we do today, we must take dramatic actions to sustain the resources and wild places we hold most valuable,” says Wells. “The best thing about being young today is that we have a wealth of research and knowledge that can help guide us and our society in the right direction—if we let it.”
Whitewater kayaking keeps Wells intimately connected to the natural world. “I spent much of my life in, on and around rivers, with parents who are passionate about the outdoors. Kayaking led me into creating action and adventure films, which grew into documentaries aimed at protecting watersheds from environmental degradation,” he says. “My personal mission is to get the adventure sports and greater outdoor industry more engaged in their own communities in nationwide fights to protect the lands we love.”
Wells’ most notable efforts are videos he’s created through his production company Mountain Mind Collective. His two favorite projects are the two-part series on the Stikine and Sacred Headwaters in far northern British Columbia, and he’s currently working on a video for the U.S. Forest Service about stewardship and conservation of the White Salmon River. “With the recent removal of Condit Dam, work is still needed to help restore the White Salmon to its pre-dam state, which takes lots of work from many individuals.”
This winter, he begins production on his second full-length movie, “a mix of an adventure film, following skiers, whitewater kayakers and surfers around Alaska, as well as a story about the fight against politicians working to turn over federal public lands to state/private ownership in Alaska and elsewhere in the U.S.,” he says.
“Somewhere along the way, I switched my focus from a broad degree in Environmental Studies to film production and environmental activism, and that has set the tone for the rest of my life,” Wells says. “Often it seems we are overloaded with information, but I think that good writing and well-made videos are an important and productive way of sharing knowledge and ideas—and initiating people into action.”
Basecamp: Boulder, Colorado, and Monterrey, Mexico
connect at: @Tiffany_Hensley
Tiffany Hensley sees the future in those even younger than her. “We need to teach kids that the outdoors is a place where we can all connect, and that humanity is enough to share a connection with anyone,” she says.
The professional climber’s current passion project is an organization called Climbing Borders, which empowers at-risk youth through rock climbing and education in Mexico’s industrial capital of Monterrey. It includes an initiative to develop a model that can connect youth to the mountains in other underdeveloped parts of the world. “We’re collaborating with institutions and sponsors to grow our impact. While I’m operations director on site, my job is to make sure no one drops from the program, literally or figuratively.”
“When I describe my passion to someone in a crowded room like a brewery, I say I scare the shit out of kids on cliffs, and they love it. They get addicted to the highs of adventure instead of paint thinner,” she says.
“I share the outdoors with the most at-risk youth we can find and transform them through profound experiences in the mountains,” she explains. “What drives me is pushing beyond my limits in the mountains on the steepest rock climb, hike, bike ride, swimming in freezing cold alpine lakes…it’s a kind of kinetic meditation, and it leaves me more mindful, more chilled out. This started when I had emotionally intense situations in Mexico, when I found kids in the street homeless or drugged up. You don’t see these things usually, and it’s hard.”
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 47 percent of teens in Mexico drop out of high school before graduating, and almost one fourth live in extreme poverty. There are also more than 30,000 child soldiers in Mexico, many in overpopulated “poverty polygons.” They exist in large cities like Monterrey, which has 52 such polygons, rife with crime and unrecognized by the municipal government.
Hensley leaves us with one last thought:“I have this condition where I can’t get angry at anyone, ever. I believe we all want to be good people, so I have a kind of infinite patience,” she says.