The school year has just wrapped up for Kevin Short, which means he has more time to devote to activism. The high school student turned 17 last month — only one more year until he can vote, he says excitedly — but he’s already cut his teeth in advocacy through his work with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Among his priorities: ensuring the state starts to put people and the planet over the profits of coal companies that have long defined the region’s economy.

Short credits his mother, Linda, with his interest in activism. Though she’s not politically involved herself, she taught him to value empathy above all. When he became attuned to the problems around him, “the empathy that she taught me translated into political advocacy,” he says. His first foray into politics came through his work on LGBTQ+ issues. His family was supportive through and through when he came out as gay, but the issue is personal for him, especially as he lives in a conservative area of the state.

He grew more politically involved around the 2016 election, joining, and becoming president, of the Kentucky High School Democrats. From there, he turned his attention to inequality and systemic racism — “things that can be combated,” Short says, “but not if people keep turning a blind eye to them.”

The desire to shine a light on inequality brought Short to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. His mother drove him — “a literal driving force behind my activism,” he jokes — to a coffee meeting with an organizer that changed the course of his activism. It was that meeting, Short says, that made him decide to stay and fight for the future of Kentucky for the rest of his life, rather than moving away at the first opportunity.

Besides, his roots in Kentucky run deep. After joining Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, he learned that organizing with the group was a family affair. His grandfather worked with them in the 1990s to prevent strip mining of Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak. His other grandfather, a coal miner who got black lung on the job, had also acquainted him with the toll coal was taking on the state’s people. Short’s desire to turn Kentucky’s economy green is personal.

“Kentucky’s always been ‘coal country.’ That’s how they view us,” Short says. “I think it’s so imperative that people from Kentucky, from the coal areas, say ‘this is a dying industry, it’s not coming back, stop lying to us, and let’s work on a new transition.’”