At nine years old, Iris Fen Gillingham won a Scottish Blackface sheep in an essay contest and became inspired to raise her own flock on her family's farm in Livingston Manor, New York. She credits her mother, a fiber artist who kept baby lambs around their home, for her fondness of the fluffy animals. Today, Gillingham's affinity for both wildlife and nature has led her to become a climate change activist at 17 years old, working towards a future where kids "will have the opportunity to just be kids and enjoy the beauty and abundance that the earth has [to offer]," she tells Broadly.
Gillingham describes her first personal experience feeling the effects of climate change at age six, when a 500 year flood—a flood which has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any given year—destroyed her family's farm in upstate New York. "It washed away our greenhouses, all of our topsoil, and my family was forced to stop farming for a living," she says. Before the flood, the Gillinghams had been growing produce for themselves and their town for 10 years. This, and two other floods that hit the family's home within five years, made continuing to farm for themselves and their town impossible.
Since the floods, Gillingham and her family have moved to a higher elevation on the edge of New York's Capscale Mountains. It was there that she was homeschooled for the bulk of her childhood, a decision which came from her parents' belief that there is much to learn in the natural world and that those lessons are key to living a balanced life. Eventually, she says she was "directing [her] own education and able to identify what [her] passions were and follow them."
Gillingham started college at age 16, and between organizing protests, leading environmentalism workshops, traveling as a youth spokesperson, and worrying about fracking in her hometown, she found it nearly impossible to "just be a kid." Though she was raised and homeschooled on an off-grid farm where her family heated their own water and grew 75 percent of their produce, she believes that few kids—including herself— have that opportunity today.
If I wasn't hopeful for the future, I don't know what I'd be fighting for.
In the past few years, Gillingham has made recruiting and elevating young people's voices in the climate change conversation her biggest priority. "I was going to these meetings with a bunch of local organizers and leaders who were fighting fracking," she recalls, "and they were saying that they were doing this for their children and grandchildren, but none of their children or grandchildren were there."
Gillingham is involved with the nonprofit Earth Guardians, which focuses on youth environmental awareness and action. There, she serves on the RYSE (Rising Youth for a Sustainable Earth) Youth Council. Through the organization she's led workshops on ageism, artivism, raising youth voices, and hearing personal stories. Artivism, she says, is "using art and our passions to create the changes we want in the world." In 2014, she starred in a touring play on climate change which featured a "solar brick road," which allowed her to meet people around the country with similar interests. This has become one of her favorite parts about being an outspoken, politically active teen. "There are a lot of opportunities to meet amazing and inspiring people from all around the world [through activism]," she says.
Besides calling the current state of our country "pretty saddening," Gillingham kept her answers to my questions free of pessimism. Even after I ask her how she stays hopeful in the face of our current administration's stance on climate change (that it doesn't exist), she says, "If I wasn't hopeful for the future, I don't know what I'd be fighting for."