How a Northern Virginia teen is spreading the word around climate change with art

This is part of WTOP’s continuing coverage of people making a difference from our community authored by Stephanie Gaines-Bryant. Read more of that coverage.

Arielle Kouyoumdjian is the founder of the Changing Planet Justice Foundation. (Courtesy Arielle Kouyoumdjian)

From Europe to the Southwestern U.S., 2023 was likely the hottest year on record. When it comes to the changing planet, a Fairfax County, Virginia, teen wants kids to take action now.

Arielle Kouyoumdjian, 17, is founder of the Changing Planet Justice Foundation.

The 11th grader said it’s an organization that “gives a platform for kids all over the world to submit artwork, poetry [and] journalism about how climate change is impacting their community.”

She said seeking climate justice can look like an overwhelming task to some.

“I think kids should know that confronting climate change doesn’t have to entail things like setting Exxon straight or weeding out systemic racism at the corporate level when it comes to climate justice or solving indigenous land rights disputes,” Kouyoumdjian said.

There are bite-sized actionable steps that kids and adults alike can take to catalyze climate justice in their own communities, she said. When people think about climate change, they think about developing countries, but she said it’s happening right here.

Kouyoumdjian said in D.C., due to racism and discriminatory housing policies, such as redlining,  lower-income wards can face temperatures up to 20 degrees warmer than wealthier neighborhoods. Redlining is a discriminatory practice in which a mortgage lender denies loans or insurance providers restrict services to certain areas due to the racial characteristics of a neighborhood.

Before founding the nonprofit organization last summer, Kouyoumdjian started a podcast in 2019, focusing on how climate change affects national parks. It had been a dream of her to be a broadcaster. Then, she said the podcast became an investigation of how climate change disproportionately affects marginalized people around the globe. She began interviewing scientists and activists around the world.

Last spring she interviewed and befriended a Berber hiking guide during a three-day trek in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. She told WTOP the guide talked about how climate change had affected his community. In September 2023, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck the area, killing more than 2,946 people and injuring more than 5674, according to the latest figures. Kouyoumdjian said she hasn’t heard from her friend since the quake.

The organization is now partnering with the Del Ray Artisan Gallery in Alexandria for the
Vision of Resilience: Art for Climate Justice Exhibit, which will be displayed from Jan. 5-27.

Kouyoumdjian said she chose art because it bridges the gap between words and feelings. She also calls art, “the most powerful mediums for catalyzing climate justice.”

Kouyoumdjian, the daughter of Marc and Camille Kouyoumdjian, said her mother, who is an artist, will be will be co-curating the art exhibit with her.

Stephanie Gaines-Bryant

Stephanie Gaines-Bryant is an Anchor and Reporter for WTOP. Over the past 20 years, Stephanie has worked in several markets, including Baltimore, Washington, Houston and Charleston, holding positions ranging from newscaster to morning show co-host.

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