Indigenous peoples and people of color are disproportionately affected by our global climate crisis. But in the mainstream green movement and in the media, they are often forgotten or excluded. This is Tipping Point, a new VICE series that covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
The youth climate movement is supposedly focused on amplifying the voices of young people who care about climate change. Led by activist Greta Thunberg—who, like me, is a 16-year-old girl set on changing the world—hundreds of thousands will walk out of their classrooms this Friday and next to strike against climate change and make themselves heard.
Here’s the problem: the youth climate movement, at least in New York City, isn’t the most diverse. That’s bad, considering how the people who are being affected by climate change right now are marginalized communities.
I wasn’t always a climate activist, even though I’ve been hearing about climate change for most of my life. But I didn’t think of climate change affecting me personally until earlier this year. I was at the United Nations advocating for mental health rights when I came across the youth climate movement. I heard stories from experts and people who came from Small Island Developing States who explained how climate change’s negative impact on local economies had a toll on these people’s well-being. There was clearly a link between mental health and climate change. The stress they faced will be something everyone will soon face, experts said.
I want to do work on human rights, and I realized it’s hypocritical for me to prioritize certain human rights over others. So when I heard some representatives from the NYC chapter of Fridays for Future, Thunberg’s organization, speak, I was simultaneously moved and angry. How have I not heard of one of the largest youth climate organizations in the world?
When I joined the Fridays for Future NYC chapter, I thought there would be swaths of students from all backgrounds, but it turns out when I attended a meeting in downtown Manhattan, most of the members were white and middle class. When I looked around the room, I was expecting to see more Asian faces—I mean, the majority of the world is Asian—but I only saw one or two Asians besides myself.
The focus of the meeting was on the September strike and briefly touched on the future of low-income communities of color (who tend to live in the outer boroughs) who are already affected. Right now, the Bronx is facing a spike of asthma diagnoses because of increased pollution; Mott Haven, a neighborhood in the Bronx, is now nicknamed “Asthma Alley.” I don’t remember meeting anyone from the Bronx, Staten Island, or Queens at the meeting.
Certain individuals tended to dominate discussions. At one planning meeting, I remember a college student and a 20-something-year-old contributing the most to the discussion in a back and forth almost like there was no one else in the group. At another meeting, it seemed like some were trying to capitalize the strike. Everyone wanted big names to perform, like Jaden and Willow Smith. At this point, it doesn’t even feel like a strike.
Although it is great to have adult mentors in the organization process, it begins to feel less like a child-led movement about climate change. That doesn’t sit well with me. It’s everyone’s future. And climate change is primarily an equity issue. There needs to be an opportunity for the core committee to have one-on-one conversations with individuals who haven’t spoken much or are new to climate activism. We have to let others speak up.
The more privileged you are, the more likely you are able to even be an activist in this movement. With my learning disability (I have ADHD), I can't just skip school every Friday, like the organization wants us to. It’s a detriment to my mental health and grades.
By default, the nature of the strike also excludes people of color. A member of Extinction Rebellion spoke at a Fridays for Future meeting about minors volunteering themselves to get arrested. No person of color in their right mind would ever willingly get arrested, when the stakes include police brutality.
This isn’t an attack on any one individual or group. It’s representative of a larger issue within the community. Fridays for Future NYC has good intentions and won’t be able to solve every problem with one specific solution, nor is Thunberg responsible for how the group functions and organizes the United States.
Fridays for Future could reevaluate its outreach approach; social media is great for getting the word out, but it depends on who you follow. Physically going out to schools and community centers in the outer boroughs and focusing on education is incredibly persuasive.
A friend of mine who decided not to strike instead works with college students to create legislation ideas related to the environment. I, too, took matters into my own hands: I started the U.S. petition for Change.org in a campaign for climate action and have worked on state legislation surrounding climate education.
While I will be striking on Friday, I’m still trying to figure out something else I could do relating to climate activism that day. The strike is just one part of the youth climate movement. While diversity in the movement is increasing, climate change is an urgent issue with an even more urgent need for representation. We need to build an inclusive space for further work and activism. This is just the first step.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cynthia Leung is a 16-year-old activist from South Brooklyn.
Izzie Ramirez is a culture and activism reporter, specializing in climate migration.