McLean native Sophia Kianni reveled this summer in sampling plant-based dishes with friends at Arlington’s True Food Kitchen.
It might not seem so remarkable, but to Kianni, a 20-year-old Stanford University student whose time commitments include being the youngest member on the U.N. secretary-general’s first Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, the youngest adviser to the American Lung Association’s Stand Up For Clean Air initiative, and the executive director of Climate Cardinals, a nonprofit she founded in 2020, finding time to enjoy a bowl of ancient grains is luxurious.
“I’m tasked with providing U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres feedback on his climate strategy,” Kianni says of her U.N. position. “We host consultations with young people and then aggregate those findings into reports, which we then publish on the U.N. website [and] internally distribute with the climate action team.”
With this position’s term ending in December, a reflective Kianni, who graduated in 2020 from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, says she’s enjoyed working with Guterres’ media team to craft important messaging.
“We’ve had him talking about the need for Indigenous voices in this fight, and generally just having a better lens on climate justice,” she adds.
The U.N. position also gave Kianni the chance to co-chair last year’s Youth4Climate conference in Italy, where climate action proposals were presented to officials representing more than 40 countries, including John Kerry, the first U.S. special presidential envoy for climate.
“Being able to convene forums like that, as well as the consultations that we’ve held, I think is a really amazing proprietary way that we’ve been able to integrate young people’s priorities and voices into the U.N.’s decision-making,” says Kianni, whose activism began to grow organically following a trip eight years ago to Iran.
The poor air quality there shocked her, but not as much as her Iranian relatives’ lack of knowledge when it came to pollution.
“I realized there was a lack of literature available in Farsi, which is Iran’s native language, and so I worked to translate climate resources with my mom,” Kianni says.
It took a week to finish, but in reality, the work had just begun. Back at home, Kianni began volunteering with grassroots climate organizations, eventually striving during her senior year to expand upon what she started in Iran.
The result of those efforts is Climate Cardinals, “an international youth-led nonprofit working to make the climate movement more accessible to those who don’t speak English,” according to its website.
Since its 2020 inception, Climate Cardinals has had 8,000 volunteers in more than 40 countries translate half a million words into 100-plus languages. Most translated documents come from organizations the nonprofit partners with. For instance, Climate Cardinals worked with the Italian government to translate a report aggregating young people’s climate action priorities.
“Telling my 12-year-old self, who was doing this because she wanted to teach her relatives about something, that it has turned into a … nonprofit would honestly be unfathomable,” Kianni says.
The nonprofit may be the achievement Kianni is most proud of, but it’s just one of many. Kianni also hosts The New Climate Podcast, which examines the intersection of environmentalism and fashion; she is a public speaker with a TED Talk under her belt; she has been awarded as the 2020 National Geographic Young Explorer, the youngest Woman to Watch in 2021 by Buzzfeed, and one of last year’s 21 under 21 by Teen Vogue.
After spending her first year of college at Indiana University, Kianni’s first semester at Stanford, where her major is science, technology and society, resulted in a 4.04 GPA.
No matter her extensive list of accolades, she’s not yet sure what post-college life has in store.
“I really have loved the work I have done so far,” she says, “but I’m realizing I am only 20, and there’s so much more to learn.”
This story originally ran in our September issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.