Like a lot of young activists, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about my generation’s responsibility to change the world. We’ve inherited a mess of a future and our current leaders have shown time and time again that they don’t have what it takes to fix it for us. But when I start sweating at the thought of the world’s future, I take a deep breath and look around and see other bold young people beside me. And I find hope. While politicians and scientists argue inconclusively during global negotiations on climate change, I find solace in the leadership and unity among young people across the world who aren’t sitting back and waiting, but are dedicating their lives to saving our communities.
Courtesy Shadia Fayne Wood
Last December I traveled to Cancun for my third UN climate change negotiations. The meeting seemed fairly important given that the decisions made there could make or break my generation’s future. Year after year I see young people like me travel to these global conferences, starry-eyed and ready to change the world in two weeks. And year after year I witness the same experience in those young people – an emotional rollercoaster that goes from romantic excitement to fierce determination to cynical disappointment.
The realities of global political negotiations are harsh and leave young people – especially those from poor, under-resourced communities – at an insurmountable disadvantage compared to the forces defending the status quo. We come here to fight for rights, for our “voice” to be heard. What we get is a world of suits and ties, closed-door meetings, corporate lobbying, and military police at every corner shutting down free speech. Not to mention my own country – the United States – cutting deals that are more corrupt, more profit-driven, and more disappointing with every conference.
Even the “youth caucus” – a place officially recognized by the UN for young people to engage in the negotiations – faces huge challenges. The caucus, known as YOUNGO, is dominated by privileged delegates from wealthy countries (the EU, Canada, Australia) who have the resources to prepare for the conference all year long. For young people from poor countries or poor communities in the US, the space is intimidating. Our voices are often left out of the conversations. Despite enjoying formal recognition, YOUNGO’s statements are only a whisper in a room full of yellers. The loudest and most recognized youth-led initiatives during the negotiations are usually the unofficial, guerrilla-style direct actions that happen on the streets or in the halls.
So what do we young people do about climate change? As a resilient, passionate group, many of us don’t see the UN’s dysfunctions as a defeat. During the 2009 talks in Copenhagen – the second UN talks that I attended – I took along two high school students to experience the negotiations themselves. When I asked one of them, Gier Hernandez, a Filipino-American student from San Francisco, what he concluded from the conference, his answer was: “This just shows us that we can’t wait for them to do anything – we have to take our future in our own hands and keep doing what we do.”
It was a proud moment for me. But more than anything, it was a beautiful reminder that we young people do have the solutions and we’re not afraid to live those solutions ourselves. In fact, right at this moment there is a powerful wave of youth-led programs across the US taking leadership and fighting climate change every day.
Last October, I had the honor of joining forces with other young organizers from low-income communities of color and Indigenous communities in the US – communities that are facing the most serious impacts of climate change. We developed a network called “Youth for Climate Justice.” Members came from Chicago, New York, Arizona, Oakland, and many other places that are pushing the boundaries of the fight for healthy communities.
From Chicago, we were joined by Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, or LVEJO. Youth from this group are fighting for cleaner, accessible public spaces in Little Village – a largely immigrant Latino community that lives in the midst of a sea of toxic industry, including a coal-fired power plant. LVEJO has its own community newsletter,
“El Cilantro,” which uses community outreach to organize youth and their families around environmental issues.
In Arizona, the Black Mesa Water Coalition has been organizing Indigenous communities facing the destructive consequences of coal mining for the past decade. Their youth-led campaign in 2009 helped pass historic green jobs legislation – the Navajo Green Economic Plan. The Navajo youth helped create an official body that will support environmental business development in the Navajo Nation.
In Oakland, the West Oakland Youth Standing Empowered team at Mandela Marketplace has developed its own small business that delivers produce to corner stores in the neighborhood. One of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bay Area, West Oakland residents suffer from high levels of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity due in part to lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s a challenging time to be a young activist dedicated to the future of one’s community. But the failure of the UN negotiations to come to a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the inability of young people to have a voice there, is not a reason for youth to admit defeat. Instead, it’s a call to be louder, more active, and more unified. As we continue to show up at the international arena, we also pledge to make the change with our own hands in our own communities. We will show the way ourselves, because our survival is not negotiable.
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