Illustration of a podium with a white speaker at the forefront and people of colour in the background.
I feel tired when my stories are used for inspiration, but I‘m not wanted in the room for negotiations. Illustration by Hunter French

Why I Quit Being a Climate Activist

The climate movement is overwhelmingly white. So I walked away.
February 6, 2020, 3:37pm
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan battered Southeast Asia, killing 6,300 people in the Philippines alone. The three-storey surge rolled over parts of the city of Tacloban, hitting my family’s neighbourhood the hardest. Schools that were designated storm shelters entombed those taking refuge from the rising waters. My aunt, like many women in the Philippines—a country made up of 7,000 islands—can’t swim. She, my uncle, and cousin were missing or presumed dead.

We only found out they survived after three grief-ridden days, from a family member who had made his way through the ravaged province with the military. Their home and the fish farm they depended on for their livelihood were devastated, and they still haven’t fully recovered.

As a climate activist in Berlin, I felt required to tell my Filipino family’s experience during speeches and rallies because this form of “storytelling” was the only thing that would move a mostly white European audience to an emotional response of climate urgency—even though it was exhausting telling the story, especially since any mention of hurricanes in the news gives me anxiety.

I would hear “great speech,” “so emotional when your voice cracked.”

But after a while I realized I would only be called upon when climate organizations needed an inspiring story or a “diverse” voice, contacts for a campaign, or to participate in a workshop for “fun” when everyone else on the (all-white) project was getting paid.

Whenever I would question the whiteness of these spaces and how strategies didn’t take race into account, I would be met with uncomfortable silences. The last time, at a nationwide movement-building workshop last April, I was asked, “Well then, why are you even here?”

So I decided not to be there anymore. After four years of helping organize direct actions, speeches, workshops, and countless video calls, I started hiding and declining requests. I was burned out.

Karin Louise Hermes

Karin Louise Hermes in Sibaltan (El Nido) on Palawan in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of author

I felt guilty—like I was letting my people down. But I also felt let down by the lack of support when I had gone to the streets. I stopped talking to people who didn’t relate, including friends who were telling me to come join them now that the marches were becoming more popular. I was also in bed sick a lot. I stayed at home from climate marches telling people my knee was injured and kept to myself, needing to regain all the energy I had put into organizing.

Even being present doesn’t always mean being seen or heard. Last week Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate found herself cropped from a picture and dialogue as the only African on a youth panel in the Davos World Economic Forum. She said the erasure “showed how we are valued.”

Many other climate activists of colour have described similar experiences of tokenism. Māori and disability rights campaigner Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu iwi from Te Waipounamu) found that as an Indigenous person at the UN climate conferences, organizers would suggest showing support and “passing the mic,” but the same people would be the ones taking up space in negotiations and speaking to the media.

At the same time, because I am Filipino-German and look ethnically ambiguous, it’s hard for me to emphasize the urgency or danger of climate activism as a Filipina—I am German too after all. Similar to what Colombian American climate activist Jamie Margolin said, my presence “toed a line between inclusion and exclusion.”

When I voiced my exasperation on Twitter, Jefferson Estela, a 21-year-old activist with Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines, replied, “People are expecting us to do so many things, but when we ask for support no one hears us. White activists can protest whenever they want because they have homes, jobs, a huge amount of freedom of expression. BELIEVE ME, WE WANT TO DO BIG THINGS, but what's stopping us? A future and life that is at risk.”

Climate activism in Germany is mainstream thanks to the longevity and popularity of the German Green Party, which was formed in 1980. But generally the German climate movement is a white space, where there is little awareness of global inequality in the climate crisis.

Sometimes it’s the seemingly little things, like climate action meaning “die-ins,” lynching reenactments, or dancing in the street to disrupt public transport.

Sometimes it’s being asked time and again what whiteness, capitalism, and inequality have to do with climate change.

Other times it’s more major, like how activists here promote veganism as the single biggest way to reduce their carbon footprint, but ignore how people have been killed after protesting against the sourcing of plant-based foods like palm oil on Indigenous lands.

The movement’s failure to address these inequalities is ultimately why I found myself needing to walk away.

In recent years, the Philippines has had the highest number of environmental defenders murdered, where arrests and disappearances have been attributed to combating “communist insurgency.” Targeted groups include the Filipino research NGO I volunteered with during the UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany, and the Filipino women's collective Gabriela, which I also worked with in Berlin before I stepped back.

Anti-racism and anti-capitalism need to be made part of organizing. If “Green” policies fail to consider anti-racism and migrant rights, how is any person of colour supposed to feel voting for them or organizing in the same spaces?

Fortunately, there is now a growing BIPOC Environmental & Climate Justice Collective in Berlin, where we share these experiences of being silenced or tokenized and work together on how to link anti-racism and inequality in climate justice.

As Sherwood-O’Regan said, “As we grow and climate change becomes a harsher reality, privileged activists need to learn to de-centre themselves and meaningfully support Indigenous, disabled, queer, global south, POC, and other marginalized people who are on the frontlines of climate change.”

We need to feel respected and feel valued in our climate activism. Until the rest of the movement understands that our stories may also provide solutions, I am sharing my activism on my own terms.

Karin Louise Hermes has lived in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Hawai‘i, and the Philippines. She is currently a PhD Candidate in American Studies based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter.

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