Is it an oxymoron to tackle reality by imagining you’re on a quest in a made-up world, along with a cast of fantastical characters? To Lil Milagro Henriquez, the founder of a Northern California youth climate nonprofit, the two go hand in hand.
Growing up, Lil’s family didn’t discuss the hard realities of life. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador before Lil was born, leaving behind relatives who lived through the Salvadoran civil war. Lil wonders if her single working mother felt a sense of powerlessness that kept her from broaching difficult subjects. Or maybe it was related to the family’s Catholicism, because you were meant to work out your worries in quiet prayer.
Whatever the reason, Lil grew up anxious about things that went unspoken. So she often retreated to the refuge of her imagination, decompressing by playing video games and reading fantasy novels and comic books.
“I just loved being able to immerse myself in an entirely different world,” she says. Now an adult, the self-proclaimed stereotypical nerd still turns to daydreaming and role-playing to unwind after a day.
Only now, she’s also gotten professional about it. Inspired in part by her own experience using play to work through unspoken worries, Lil started Mycelium Youth Network, a nonprofit that helps kids face climate change with imagination, connection and, you guessed it, gaming.
The D&D game that sparked a movement
It was spring 2017 when Lil decided to start a Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, group at the school in Oakland where she worked. She’d always wanted to play the role-playing game, but when she was younger, her friends were “way too cool to play,” she says. “They were like organizers and activists. And they’re like ‘Dungeons and Dragons? No way.’ I’m like, ‘It’ll be fun!’”
So she turned to what she thought was a more promising audience: A group of fifth graders. A dozen or so expressed interest in the idea, so she applied for a grant to buy a D&D setup for each of them, and she got it.
From then on, for 45 minutes every Tuesday, the school’s equipment room transformed into a fantastical world, enlivened by the likes of dwarf fighters, elf rangers, gnome bards, and human sorcerers.
The games were fun, but the benefits ran deeper than that. Role-playing games allow kids to try on other versions of themselves, to act brave when in the real world they may feel overwhelmed, and to imagine novel ways through difficult moments — while working in collaboration with fellow players.
Lil says role-playing games are not about winning; they’re about how players interact in a world, engaging with others, and evolving their strategies together over time. They give kids a chance to explore and test boundaries, without the pressure of real life.
“Sometimes in this world, everything feels so fraught like, like ‘Are we going to make the right choices and connections?’ It’s so valuable to be able to go into a place where it feels safe to be able to test new ideas, knowing it’s OK to make mistakes as you go.”
But the real magic of role-playing games, says Lil, is they empower players to try on other ways of being themselves.
“There’s something beautiful about being able to go into another character and another way of being and seeing and then to see what is possible in those worlds as they’re happening,” Lil says. “That’s especially powerful for young people who are still really grappling with who they want to be and how they see themselves in the world.”
She recalls when a usually soft-spoken girl took on a larger-than-life role for a game. “She’s like, ‘I want to be like a seven-foot dragon with a sword.’ And every time she walked into that character, her voice and presence grew. I could even see her sit up straighter. It was amazing,” she says.
From fantasy to grounded climate connection
The group bonded over these sessions, and over time, they began to talk about life outside the game, too. It was fall 2017, the second year in a row that intense wildfires raged across the western U.S., blanketing the Bay Area in smoke for days on end. Lil still has vivid memories of students coming out of classrooms with nosebleeds.
Between plays, the kids began to share their feelings about the fires, and in turn, climate change — a subject they felt no one else was talking about. They voiced fear, anxiety, and deep frustration that the adults in their lives weren’t actively talking about climate change, let alone helping them prepare for it.
“The fact that no one was talking to them about it is what made it so scary,” Lil says. “When we don’t make space to talk about climate change, we don’t have community around it. We don’t find healing around it. We don’t support one another through it.”
She decided to find out how schools and organizations were actively preparing young people through climate adaptation and mitigation — an effort she felt differed from empowering youth activism.
“And nobody was,” she says. “It was wild to me that no one was preparing young people for climate change because we know what’s going to happen. The science has been clear for decades about what we’re experiencing. And youth are already experiencing all of it.”
It felt to Lil like adults were leaving kids alone with really difficult emotions. Without space to process along with education, how could kids begin to face the climate-challenged world they will inherit, let alone face it with any sense of confidence or hope?
She decided to start an organization dedicated to providing exactly that, without implying that adults have all the answers. Instead, the organization would show that adults are here to support the kids.
“It makes all the difference in the world for kids to feel supported in processing their feelings and then ideally releasing them and beginning to create solutions together.”
The fifth graders were on board. “I said ‘OK, but you will have to give up your lunch and recess once a week,’ and they’re like ‘Yes!’ Which is huge when you’re a fifth grader. I mean, lunch and recess time is everything.”
Mycelium Youth Network takes root
They began piloting a climate learning and prep program every week for the rest of the school year. “Students would come up and say, ‘Here’s an idea I’m thinking about,’ or ‘Here’s something I’m afraid of, what do you think?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know, but I will go figure out the answers.’”
Based on the kids’ early questions, Lil started to frame a structure that could help address them. Like if there’s a wildfire or an earthquake, what can students do to prepare? She says that the first year was a lot of experimentation of what climate-resilient education could be.
It took a few months for them to land on the right name for their group. For months, they brainstormed until one day, Lil’s husband asked her if she’d seen the new documentary about mushrooms on Netflix. She had not. That night, they sat down to a cinematic crash course in mycelium, the root-like structures that feed resources into plants and fungi through vast underground networks.
“What a beautiful metaphor,” she thought. “And how beautiful would it be to pull this as a lesson for how young people can connect, share resources, and support each other across communities, too?”
And so Mycelium Youth Network was born — after a resounding vote of confidence from the fifth graders, of course.
Growing a network where imagination reins
Since then, Mycelium Youth Network has made its way into several schools in and around Oakland, engaging students in upper elementary school through high school.
The organization unites Indigenous wisdom with a practical, hands-on STEAM curriculum focusing on climate resilience and mitigation. Program leaders and participating teachers support students in creating projects centered around local climate concerns like wildfires and drought.
But the program nearest to Lil’s heart is one to do with gaming.
In Gaming for Justice, kids take their preferred fantasy character, then work together to dream up and try out creative solutions in a climate-related Dungeons and Dragons game.
Many of these unique games play out over weeks and months. But some are bigger, one-off games. For example, “Death by a thousand breaths” was a live-action role-playing game where roughly 45 gamers from multiple East Bay schools came together to tackle a clean-air storyline.
The power of connection
The Mycelium Youth Network has grown far beyond Lil’s purview, thanks to highly engaged students as well as a core team of staff that’s grown quickly since the group formed. Looking ahead, they expect to release a new curriculum aligned with California standards in 2024. But already they’re actively fostering connection, big dreams, and a sense of contributing to a brighter climate future, together.
This sense of unity, to Lil, is one of the most meaningful outcomes. She says the kids express a range of takeaways about the network, but one thing she hears consistently is their shared desire to leave a positive legacy for future generations.
“The kids are never just thinking about climate change in terms of, ‘Oh my God, this is going to directly affect me.’ They’re like, ‘How do we help younger kids?’” she says. “People constantly tell young people that they’re so self-absorbed — but these students are actively thinking about younger students.
“It’s going to make me cry right now,” she says. “Because it feels like we’ve failed our students that they feel they have to take on this responsibility. But then it also makes me really proud that our program is helping them feel that sense of responsibility and wanting to support their community.”
By empowering students to connect and play with purpose, Lil Milagro Henriquez is helping equip the next generation with the emotional and intellectual tools it takes to face the future with creativity, courage — and a daring sense of hope.
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