Indisputably, Greta Thunberg is an exemplary leader — inspiring thousands of students worldwide to walk out of class every Friday to protest climate disaster and bringing attention to the Global Climate Strikes last month, in which 4 million people participated. The 16-year-old Swedish founder of the Fridays for Future movement is passionate about spurring those in power to take drastic steps to save humanity’s future, even addressing Congress and the UN to demand accountability.
However, Thunberg never asked to be the messianic-like face for the climate movement. In fact, she told Congress, “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.” And by the media and public making her the center of youth-led climate activism, the work of many Indigenous, Black, and Brown youth activists is often erased or obscured.
Crediting and celebrating teens of color for their work isn’t about egos; it’s about making sure society at large is forced to reckon with the full scope of climate destruction. If we choose to see this movement only through white eyes, we will miss so much.
From the Native youth water protectors who put their bodies at risk at Standing Rock to the Kanaka Maoli youth defending their sacred land at Mauna Kea to the students speaking about environmental racism in Flint, Michigan, kids of color in the US have always fiercely led the climate movement. Young people of color intimately know the ways that military, industrial, imperialist, and colonialist endeavors have directly led to the current environmental degradation. Their perspectives are not just “interesting” or “diverse” — they are life-saving. Erasing their perspective is detrimental to the planet.
Vox spoke to a few of these US-based youth activists of color about why it’s important to center Black and Indigenous struggles for climate justice. This list is not extensive or exhaustive; there are many other Black and Brown teens leading the climate movement. But it’s a glimpse into some of the youth of color who are leading the climate movement in their communities — and who are motivated by the fierce need to protect the most vulnerable.
“Back in my family’s home country of Colombia, there is a huge fight going on to protect the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of our planet,” Margolin, who lives in Seattle, says. “Latin America is home to the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity, and because of this, there are also huge rates of murder and persecution of environmental activists in Latin America.”
In fact, hundreds of Colombian environmental activists — many of them Indigenous leaders protesting illegal mining — have been murdered in Colombia since 2016. In June, miners invaded a village in the northern state of Amapá and fatally stabbed the Indigenous leader Emrya Wajãp.
Margolin says that non-Latinx climate activists need to keep Latin America at the forefront of the climate movement and consider the many social problems that are caused by the climate crisis, including the immigrant detention camps at the border. “A lot of the immigration from Latin America to the US right now is caused by environmental reasons,” Margolin points out. Central American migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are fleeing a deadly cycle fueled by drought, which makes it nearly impossible for farmers to produce resources, and gang violence that’s exacerbated by those diminishing resources.
For Margolin, her culture and her family light the fire that keeps her focused and passionate about this work. “I fight not so much for myself but for my family back home in Colombia who are experiencing the effects of fracking, and for the activists back in Colombia who are putting everything on the line to protect the Amazon,” Margolin says.
Twelve-year-old Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny became an activist on behalf of her hometown of Flint, Michigan, when she wrote then-President Barack Obama in 2016, asking him to do something about the water crisis.
In Flint, mismanagement led to high levels of lead in the water. The crisis was then exacerbated when officials from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality ignored and minimized months of complaints from Flint residents about their water having an odor, being greatly discolored, and undrinkable.
State officials estimate that almost 9,000 children in Flint under the age of 6 were exposed to high levels of lead. These children, including Copeny, are at risk of developing serious, long-term developmental and health problems as a result.
“Flint is not unique,” Copeny tells Vox. “There are dozens of Flints across the country. Cases of environmental racism are on the rise and disproportionately affect communities of people of color and indigenous communities.”
Flint is nearly 54 percent Black, with more than 41 percent of its residents living below the poverty level, according to the US Census. Because of the racial and economic makeup of the city, others have been quick to point out that this was a prime example of environmental racism, where certain communities face disproportionate impacts of environmental issues like pollution or extreme weather.
Mari told Vox that the climate movement “need[s] to address issues of environmental racism because it is a huge part in the climate movement yet it is treated by most as a nonissue.”
Copeny continues to do the advocacy work she started four years ago, holding weekly water distribution events for thousands of Flint residents who otherwise would not have access to clean water. She’s also partnered with a filtration company to make a water filter that can provide the equivalent of 160 water bottles for every dollar donated.
Xiye Bastida, 17, was born and raised in San Pedro Tultepec, a town outside of Mexico City, where heavy rainfall and flooding were the norm. It gave her insight into how Indigenous communities are impacted by rising temperatures and environmental degradation.
Bastida, who’s Otomi-Toltec from Mexico and now based in New York, says she brings “Indigenous knowledge and cosmology” to the conversation in the climate movement. “We don’t call water a resource; we call it a sacred element,” she says. “The relationship we have with everything that Earth offers, it’s about reciprocity. That’s the only way we are going to learn how to shift our culture from an extraction culture to a balanced and harmonious culture with the land.”
Bastida skips school every Friday to protest at the United Nations as part of the Fridays for Future initiative founded by Thunberg. Bastida says it’s vitally necessary to keep Indigenous people at the forefront of the climate conversation.
“The first ones to get affected are Indigenous communities who are displaced because of infrastructure and disrespect of the land. It’s not just coming from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities being victims of pollution that the fossil fuel industry brings. It’s much deeper than that. Whose spaces are they choosing to contaminate and build infrastructure in the first place?”
Climate activist Isra Hirsi is the 16-year-old daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and is the co-executive director of the US Youth Climate Strike. Hirsi has worked tirelessly — all while facing harassment and security threats — to spur youth and adults to take radical action on climate.
The daughter of a Somali-American refugee, Hirsi feels strongly about making room for more Muslim and Black youth to be leaders in the climate movement. “Creating more space for those with marginalized identities in the climate space is necessary for inclusive solutions,” she tells Vox.
“Everyone should be able to see themselves in a movement like this, and if you don’t, then that’s reason to make this space more inclusive.”
Hirsi also recently told Essence that the climate movement can’t afford to ignore the impact capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism have had on the climate. “The climate crisis is such a massive issue that everything is impacted by it … everything is intertwined in some way,” Hirsi said. She points to Indigenous-led protests against the Minnesota oil pipeline, Line 3, where the struggle against colonialism and the denigration of Native people can’t be separated from the pressing environmental issues.
Kevin J. Patel
Kevin J. Patel, 18, is a climate activist and founder of the soon-to-launch One Up Action, a climate action organization poised to help youth become leaders. Growing up in a marginalized Los Angeles neighborhood, one of the most polluted cities in America, Patel was diagnosed with heart palpitations stemming from that pollution at age 14. It’s a common problem that will only get worse as the climate crisis increases human health risks, especially for young people.
“I recall spending most of my middle school years in and out of the hospital, with my parents always scared for my life,” Patel, who’s Indian American, tells Vox. “I now have to live with an irregular heartbeat for the rest of my life because of the things that I was eating and the chemicals and smog that I was taking in. I see a lot of students in the LA area also being affected with asthma and heart problems.”
Patel says that now that he’s graduated high school, he can still see the ways the climate crisis and environmental racism have ravaged his community. “[California is] still affected by wildfires, droughts, heatwaves … some of my friends and family members live near oil refineries. It’s not the communities of the rich and affluent in Los Angeles that are affected, it’s the low-income communities of color that are,” he says.
And outside of the US, Patel urges us to remember the other countries that are suffering. “The community right now in India is being affected by the climate crisis,” he says. “That’s why a lot of Indians are migrating to other places. Our family is known for farming, but in India you can’t farm with droughts and all this extreme weather happening. So my family came here for better opportunities.”
Elsa Mengistu, 18, is a human rights advocate and a climate organizer with This Is Zero Hour. A freshman at the historically Black college Howard University, Mengistu is committed to making a change on her university’s campus, like helping to organize the climate strike at the school on September 20. She’s taken the skills she’s learned at Zero Hour and used them to advocate for more environmentally responsible changes at Howard, like reducing plastic consumption and negotiating to provide Howard students with free public transportation and reduce their reliance on ride-sharing apps. And just last week, she and her colleagues accepted an award for their climate action, presented by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Born in Ethiopia, Mengistu moved to North Carolina at the age of 2. Both of her backgrounds, Mengistu says, have informed her understanding of how marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. “Those are parts of my identity that intersect with a lot of different existing oppressions.” Mengistu points out that she’s inspired by Ethiopia, which just broke a world record for planting the most trees in a single day.
“A lot of the countries and groups of people that are putting in a lot of climate work will disproportionately feel the effects of climate change,” Mengistu tells Vox. “And they’re not even the people that created this mess in the first place.”
Nadia Nazar is a 17-year-old Indian American artist and youth climate activist. As the co-founder, co-executive director, and art director of the This Is Zero Hour movement, Nazar uses her art to communicate a necessary message: we must take action. Nazar told Parentology Magazine, “[Art is] an easy way to get a message across, because people don’t like to listen to what others are saying. But if you look at a visual piece, hear music, or experience a piece of artwork, they contain symbols and messages that are universal to most people.”
“The climate crisis is the largest threat to every single person and living thing on this planet,” Nazar tells Vox. “We must make sure that we include everyone in our solutions because everyone needs to be uplifted. This movement led by Indigenous, frontline, and youth of color will win and achieve a livable planet for all,” she says.
For Nazar, climate action isn’t just about making personal changes, it’s about confronting the corrupt industries that are killing us. “The fossil fuel industry has pushed hate into the lives of the youth, so we are doing what we must and that is to persist with love,” Nazar says. “Together, the youth are shaking the systems that have supported the climate crisis, including racism, patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.”