Shiva Rajbhandari is a senior at Boise High School in Boise, Idaho — but unlike most high school students, he’s also an elected official. In September 2022, he won a seat on the Boise School District Board of Trustees.
During his campaign, he promised to advocate for comprehensive climate change education in public schools and to push for the district to reduce carbon pollution. Yale Climate Connections spoke with Rajbhandari about his climate activism, his decision to run for the school board … and the time that Jane Fonda paid for him and his friends to take a college course about climate change.
Yale Climate Connections: When did you first become concerned about climate change?
Shiva Rajbhandari: I first learned about climate change in seventh grade — it was a two-week unit during Earth science. I was super lucky to live in a school district where climate change is part of our science standards, because at the time it was not part of the Idaho state science standards — and still it barely is.
At the end of the two weeks, I just remember feeling very isolated because at the time, it felt like a lot of world leaders were not talking about this, and it was not talked about in the media. Even though the majority of Americans support climate education and they support taking action on climate change, very few people are actually talking about climate change.
And so for about a year and a half, I kind of carried that burden with me. And I tried all the things that corporations are telling us we should do — I recycled more, I stopped eating red meat, I started thrifting my clothes, I stopped drinking milk. But in the long run, it felt like we were not going to rise to the challenge that this crisis presented.
But all that kind of changed in ninth grade during the September 2019 Global Climate Strike, when millions of students around the world protested to demand our elected leaders take action on climate change and protect our futures and our planet. And I just remember [hundreds] of my peers coming out to the Idaho capital that day, from all the schools in the area, to demand our elected leaders take action. And it turned this sense of isolation into a sense of empowerment — like, we really can do something if we use our collective voice.
After that strike, I got involved with the Extinction Rebellion, and I started Extinction Rebellion Youth Boise — working for a sustainable future on a livable planet, holding government and corporations accountable. We organized in our schools, we organized green clubs, we targeted Chase Bank — the No. 1 lender to fossil fuel initiatives.
What all of this taught me is that climate change is solved when we all act. When we all organize in our communities, we can really make a really big difference.
YCC: In 2021, you and some of your friends enrolled in a class at Boise State University. Can you tell me that story?
Rajbhandari: I met Boise State professor Dr. Jen Pierce organizing with Extinction Rebellion around the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020. And she talked so highly of this freshman-level class she taught. And I was like, I want to take that class.
I signed up to take this class, and eight of my friends ended up signing up as well. And so the nine of us were all just really excited to get the climate education that all students deserve. And then we got a bill from the university and the class was [close to] $1,200 per person. And we’re high school students. This is not money that we had.
So in this moment of desperation, I looked up Jane Fonda’s address.
I sent her a letter, and I didn’t really expect a response. But about two weeks later, I got this call from Georgia. And I normally would not pick up because I live in Idaho and that sounds like a spam call. But for some reason, I picked it up, and I hear on the other end of the line, “Hi. This is Jane Fonda. And I want to pay for you and your friends to take this climate change class.” And I had to sit down. I was star-struck.
Jane Fonda offered to pay for all of us to take this class as long as we delivered a petition to Congressman Simpson, who’s our representative, demanding that the U. S. divest from fossil fuels. We all got together at my house and wrote our climate stories to deliver to him as well. And then the first week of school, we went down to Simpson’s office, and we delivered this petition and we asked him to divest from fossil fuels.
And then about a week later, we started the climate change class. And I learned so much, like how climate change is affecting our water cycle and these very long cycles that I wasn’t aware existed; how climate change disproportionately affects marginalized communities, like my family in Nepal.
And I gained a sense of what we can do about it. Seeing over 100 students putting together these really great projects on how to address climate change in our community was just really inspiring.
My project was on climate education. The science says that in order to adequately prepare students to face the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, we need vertically and horizontally integrated climate education. Vertically integrated climate education means teaching climate change at age-appropriate levels in every grade. And horizontally integrated means [that] climate change doesn’t just apply to science, so we shouldn’t only be teaching it in science. Climate change has connections with English, with social studies, with history, with humanities.
I looked around, and I saw that there was not a lot of climate change-related math. I’m a math tutor, so I wrote math problems for 7th- through 12th-grade math that had to do with climate change.
Listen: Shiva Rajbhandari talks about his motivation for running for office.
YCC: Can you give an example?
Rajbhandari: They were like climate word problems. For example: “The Yale Program on Climate Communication surveyed a representative sample of 25,000 American adults about their opinions on global warming.* Eighteen thousand respondents said they believe global warming is happening. Based on this data, what is the estimated percentage of American adults who believe global warming is happening?” Seventy-two percent is the answer.
This kind of stuff is how you get students in STEM-focused on climate change. Just like how climate stories are [a] way to get students who are interested in English focused on climate change.
YCC: How did your interest in climate education move you to get involved in the local school board?
Rajbhandari: I was working with students across the district as a part of the Idaho Climate Justice League on a clean energy commitment and long-term sustainability plan for schools. This is something that’s been done in communities across the country and saved a ton of money because transitioning away from fossil fuels is one of the best investments you can make in your community.
And so for about two years, we were reaching out to our board members asking for meetings. We sent dozens of emails. We sent over 300 postcards. We delivered the largest petition our school district had ever received. We organized a city club forum on clean energy and schools. And it didn’t really feel like we got the engagement that we deserved from these elected officials.
I sent a letter to our school board president, just asking for meeting and detailing some of our efforts. And he didn’t respond immediately, but I know that he read this letter because about a week later, I was called into my principal’s office and reprimanded for reaching out to my elected officials.
And that, for me, highlighted two problems. It highlighted that our district didn’t see students as constituents. Students are the primary stakeholders in our education. And if we’re not able to shape what education looks like, that’s disempowering.
And then it also felt like our board just didn’t understand the value that students can bring to the table when we’re given a seat.
And so that was when I decided to run for the school board — because students belong in all places where decisions are being made. But in particular, we belong where decisions are being made on education. We deserve a seat on the school board. And that’s what kind of I set out to accomplish by running.
YCC: Now that you are a trustee, how are you working to make sure the students are heard?
Rajbhandari: What’s really inspiring to me, what really keeps me going, are the letters and the notes that I get from students across the district, which really started pouring in after the election.
There’s one girl who heard about my election in her English class in seventh grade. And she circulated this letter around her school of things that folks want to see changed in their school. And then she sent it to me. And that’s exactly what we need, right? We need students knowing that they can reach out to the board members, knowing that they are constituents of our board and that they should be involved in the decision-making process.
Climate change is not something that we’re talking about in schools to the extent that it needs to be. If schools are supposed to prepare us to be the leaders in the future, we need to know about the problems of today.
YCC: Looking forward, what do you hope to see throughout your time on the school board? What do you hope is the legacy of you getting involved and becoming a trustee?
Rajbhandari: I hope that my legacy is that students will now be included when it comes to decision-making in education. My election is not a fluke. I’m a product of the Boise School District and have teachers every day who tell me, “Your voice matters. You can make a difference.” And that’s something that they tell all of us. Any one of my peers is qualified to serve on the school board. And I hope that students will be included even after my trusteeship ends.
I want to make a big difference for our schools and show what students can bring to the table if we’re given a seat.
*Editor’s note: The Yale Program on Climate Communication is the publisher of this site.