Why young people of color are leading the fight to save planet Earth

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·5 min read
Youth activists on the frontlines of climate-change justice include, clockwise from top left: Kevin Patel, Amy Quichiz, Wanjiku
Youth activists on the frontlines of climate-change justice include, clockwise from top left: Kevin Patel, Amy Quichiz, Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru, Xiye Bastida, Vic Barrett and Nyaruout Nguany. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

As we head into Earth Day 2021 — the 51st anniversary of the worldwide environmental movement, on April 22— one of the best ways to find motivation and inspiration in the fight to save our planet might be to look toward those who are leading the charge: a diverse array of youth activists who understand that the only way to see and advocate for climate-justice issues is through an intersectional lens.

That means "taking account the dimensions of gender, socioeconomic class and race that all ultimately influence how one relates to and experiences the effects of climate change," explains Aalayna Green, 22, co-environmental education director for Black Girl Environmentalist, a "supportive community of Black girls, women and nonbinary environmentalists." Understanding those dimensions, Green tells Yahoo Life, "ensures that any climate change activism isn't going to be automatically catered to one type of person in society."

Historically, the environmental movement has been a very white one — at least on its face, due in part to a "long-running perception that people of color don't care about the environment, or don't have the skills and academic backgrounds for these jobs," environmentalist Dorceta Taylor, a Yale School for the Environment professor, said in a 2014 interview. That perception "has been debunked for just as long," according to Taylor, whose landmark 2014 report “The State of Diversity in Environmental Institutions: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies,” and a more recent update, called for action on the issue. (See just a tiny sampling of pioneering BIPOC environmental activists in the interactive XR, below.)

Just this week, Taylor and a slew of other environmental experts and a diverse array of young activists came together for the fourth annual New Horizons in Conservation Conference, presented by Yale, to discuss the status of equity and inclusion within the field of conservation. "The media tends to focus attention on climate activism on young white activists in the U.S. and Europe," Taylor tells Yahoo Life vie email, but the conference "demonstrates that young students of color are engaged in climate activism and are interested in being a part of the solution… Many speakers drove the point home that the climate movement, conservation, and the broader environmental movement cannot be successful if white leaders, policymakers, practitioners do not collaborate with communities and activists of color."

The event has served to highlight the new force of activists, expanding the understanding of who is affected by climate change and who is actively fighting against it.

"I think BIPOC youth, and youth in general, are leading the movement now," says James Mumm, an environmental organizer since 1990 and now the national campaign director for Greenpeace, which just released a new report, "Fossil Fuel Racism," elucidating how fossil fuels disproportionately harm Black, brown, indigenous and poor communities. "I don’t think that was necessarily true before," Mumm tells Yahoo Life, "although not because there weren't Black or indigenous POC youth involved in local fights, but because there was a huge separation between mainstream organizations and the local efforts."

He adds, "We live in a white supremacist society, and organizations mirror the society they’re in. Hopefully, now we're mirroring the changes that are happening in society." That would make sense, he says, when taking into account today's biggest issues and who they most affect.

"When you look at the current existential crises for humanity, you have racial injustice, inequality — with some making billions throughout the pandemic while many are struggling to just have enough food — and climate change," Mumm says. "And we have BIPOC youth often at the intersection of all three…so they can speak to all of it in a way that others couldn’t speak to it in the past." And just being young, he adds, is an asset for these activists. "They feel invincible, and you need that to go against Trump or Bezos or Chevron, Exxon, and go, 'OK, they have a lot of power, but we’re going to outlast and outthink them. We can do it.'"

To mark Earth Day this year, Yahoo Life is amplifying those voices by profiling just a handful of the ever-growing force of bright young activists who are approaching climate justice from an intersectional perspective. In our series of profiles, you'll meet Wanjiku "Wawa" Gatheru, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Kevin Patel, founder and executive director of One Up Action; Amy Quichiz, founder of Veggie Mijas; Nyaruout Nguany, co-founder of Maine Environmental Changemakers Network; Vic Barrett, a campaigner with Alliance for Climate Education; and Xiya Bastida, founder of Re-Earth.

"I think the youth movement is the most inclusive and diverse it has been," Batista, 18, told Yahoo Life about Gen Z's approach to climate-justice activism. "Re-Earth Initiative, for example, has activists in over 15 times zones, we translate our information to over six different languages. Our board includes people from almost every continent and we operate in a non-hierarchical way that actually listens to the whole body when it comes to what we're going to do… In our own youth organizations, we're modeling the world we want to see."

Find all of Yahoo Life’s Earth Day 2020 profiles here.

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