It’s a bright and chilly Friday and 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor has been sitting in 40-degree cold for two and a half hours. The seventh-grader has come to the United Nations in Manhattan every Friday for 11 weeks, including during the polar vortex that hit the city a month ago, to protest climate inaction, a vigil that has earned her an enormous amount of attention.
She had made her first TV appearance earlier in the morning at CBS News studios before heading into a special briefing with the UN about participating in the upcoming Climate Change Summit. Later, she was greeted at her regular picketing spot by more press, including VICE, New York’s WPIX 11, and a Belgian TV crew. By noon, National Geographic had shown up with her lunch in tow (a sandwich and hot cocoa). It’s a lot to take in, but the soft-spoken teenager has carried herself surprisingly well. She is visibly cold—dressed for TV rather than her usual thick ski attire—but continues to answer questions and take camera cues from the news crew cheerily. In between, she chats with supportive passersby about the climate crisis, acting as a gentle yet striking reminder of our declining planet.
Villasenor is part of a rising generation of climate change activists, many still too young to vote, who are taking the growing climate crisis into their own hands. In recent years teens have sued the federal government for failing to act on climate change, young activists have staged sit-ins to pressure both Democrats and Republicans on the issue, and 29-year-old lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the frontwoman for the ambitious Green New Deal proposal. The latest public-facing project from this movement is Youth Climate Strike US (YCSUS) a group devoted to organizing a national school walkout on March 15 in support of the Green New Deal and other climate change-combatting measures. Since its launch last month, YCSUS has recruited more than 300 local organizers involved in daily operations across 34 states. So far, it’s fundraised $9,000 through its GoFundMe account, website donations, and merchandise sales, which will go toward costs for permits and other equipment needed for the individual marches.
What’s most notable about YCSUS is its leadership—besides Villasenor, its cofounders are 16-year-old Isra Hirsi and 12-year-old Haven Coleman. They’re following in the footsteps of 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who began sitting in front of parliament to protest the Swedish government’s inaction on climate change in August. The movement has since spawned strikes by youth in nations including the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, and Australia, and will soon be followed by more in other countries.
Coleman, the youngest of the three YCSUS leaders, has been an activist for practically her entire life. Her first act of environmental advocacy came in third grade, when she spent three weeks raising funds for manatees after learning that they were endangered. She raised just enough to cover the $50 fee to adopt a half-tailed manatee named Cheese. In 2017, she went viral after video captured her inviting a Colorado Republican congressman to attend her class presentation about climate change during a town hall meeting. Since then, she’s staged weekly solo protests in front of government buildings and has partnered with Al Gore’s organization The Climate Reality Project, starring in videos and doing speaking engagements with the organization,including participating in Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.
In conversation, Coleman is both bubbly and sincere. “I'm impressed with myself from becoming just a wide-eyed little kid who was just passionate about a thing… to someone who is able to organize and get enough people to be like, hey, let's actually do something,” the young activist told VICE.
“When I first met [Haven Coleman], I had a feeling she was going to be something,” Climate Reality Chapter Campaigns Manager Katie Malzbender said. “She’s just one of the most persistent and justice-focused people I’ve ever met.”
Villasenor demonstrated similar take-charge traits from an early age. She would organize family holidays and methodically plan things out, providing detailed lists on what needs to be prepared to her parents, her mother, Kristin Hogue, told VICE.
“There was one time where she wanted to go on vacation and I received a letter essay—I think she was nine at the time—and it was like, ‘We haven’t gone anywhere this summer and this is why we need to go,’” Hogue said. “So there’s always been this organizing aspect of her personality. And not just wanting to organize herself, but everybody around her.”
The mother-daughter pair moved from California last year, but were in their home state visiting family during the worst of the wildfire season, which devastated entire states—the Camp Fire alone destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and killed 85 people in northern California. It was that fire, her mother told VICE, combined with news of the largely unfinished COP24 climate talks and Thunberg’s protest, that inspired Villasenor.
“I have always been very attached to the earth and wildlife. When I was little I would spend time at the river, the ocean and in the forest,” Villasenor said. “I was so upset watching so much of it burn.”
“We have all sorts of speakers and really prominent people in climate,” Hogue, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia, said. “If there’s a presentation on campus or something like that, she’s like, ‘Mom we have to go.'”
Isra Hirsi, who turned 16 in February, is the oldest of the eco trio. Unlike Coleman and Villasenor, Hirsi’s passion for climate justice didn’t come from an affinity for nature. As is the case for many immigrant youths, outdoor activities like skiing and hiking weren’t big in her Somali-American family. Her parents are more into politics: Her father, Ahmed Hirsi, is a senior policy aide for a Minneapolis City Council member, while Hirsi’s mother is history-making (and recently controversial) Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Hirsi remembers being brought to local forums and rallies as a child. Her earliest political memory is from first grade, when she was protesting at a local church over their exclusion of LGBTQ members. Since then, she’s become a prominent youth leader as chair of the Minnesota High School Democrats and led Minnesota’s student walkout for gun control last year. Her involvement in climate justice was triggered by the ominous report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that came out in October.
“My little sister is in first grade and she’s going to graduate high school in 2030, so to think that I get to have a childhood and she won’t even be able to reach adulthood [before things get worse]” Hirsi said over the phone. “I was like, wow, this is a really big issue that I need to think about.”
She joined the green coalition Minnesota Can’t Wait and helped roll out a proposal for the Minnesota Green New Deal, a localized adoption of the green proposal in Congress, sponsored by State Representative Frank Hornstein last month. (Her mother supports the national Green New Deal.)
“She knows her stuff really good and she has confidence, something that a lot of young girls of color might struggle with,” Hirsi’s father said of his eldest child. “She’s not afraid to speak her mind and say her opinions, and that’s beautiful to see that.” Like her mother, Hirsi has ambitions for public office. She keeps a crinkled sheet of paper with her checklist of goals on her bedroom wall, which include becoming a lawyer, running for mayor and, eventually, winning the presidency.
“I’ve had a set plan for myself since I was ten,” Hirsi admitted. “I’ve always had these insane dreams for myself… and I want to prove to everyone that I’m going to stick with them.”
Those dreams seem less insane given the intense outpouring of press coverage the three strike leaders have gotten. So far, they have been covered by the Washington Post, The Nation, Teen Vogue, Gothamist, NBC News, Euronews, Spiegel Online, Greenpeace, Sierra Club Magazine, High Country News, and the list goes on. In between TV appearances and press interviews, the three teenagers communicate frequently with each other and what they call “State Leads,” fellow teenagers from around the country, through Slack to keep an eye on the movement’s local operations.
The worldwide youth strike movement has garnered public support from scientists and labor unions through written statements. The three girls get plenty of support from their fellow students as well as parents and elected officials. That’s not to say they get universal praise: Coleman remembers one man drove past her solo protest and flipped her the finger, but the 12-year-old has developed a thick enough skin to laugh it off. She has more serious stuff to worry about.
“I’m not going to leave my future in the hands of people who aren’t doing anything,” Coleman said in our group chat. “We’re already seeing the effects [of climate change], you can see it everywhere. You might even see it in your backyard… We’re just trying to survive.”
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