Vic Barrett on Suing The Government and Traveling the World
T he climate crisis cannot be ignored. Every Friday, Milk will be focusing on solutions and stories from the environment’s biggest supporters; through essays, photo stories, updates on the latest technologies, and tips to combat the climate crisis, we’ve got you covered. This week we speak with the 20-year-old activist Vic Barrett. Born in Upstate New York, Vic directly felt the effects of Hurricane Sandy when it hit, and given his cultural background, he decided to step up.
So, where did you grow up?
I grew up in upstate New York in the Hudson Valley, and then for high school, I moved down to Westchester and went to school in the West Village.
Could you talk more about your heritage? How has that fueled the fire within you to fight against the climate crisis?
I’m a first-generation American. My family comes from Honduras and is part of an African Ingienous tribe that settled there in the 19th century after being pushed from the Caribbean, and we’ve been there for 100 years. We’re coastal people so a lot of our culture and a lot of our economy is based on fishing and based on living on the coast. We’re already an endangered culture according to UNESCO, because of stolen land and lack of education of our languages.
So when I learned that climate change wasn’t just impacting my people disproportionately, but also that we didn’t contribute to the issue to the same extent that the United States did, and that it can lead to the end of the entire culture, that definitely tied into how my identity really influences why I do this work; it’s really about protecting land at the end of the day.
You were about 14 when you found out that climate change is a human rights issue, what was that like for you as such a young kid? Was there a moment of powerlessness? Or did you immediately want to take action?
Everything came together; I started learning about climate change and at first I wasn’t sure how people dealt with social justice issues and human rights issues, but after learning about the ways that it had impacted New York City during Hurricane Sandy and learning about who was on the front lines, not just in NYC, but learning about who was on the front lines all over the world, it was kind of just a realization that a lot of it was related to me in some way;whether they were black or indigenous.
I knew that there are people all over the world that look like me and that were suffering disproportionately. So it just kind of became an issue I didn’t know how to ignore.
Can you talk more about how Hurricane Sandy affected you personally?
I was still a little further upstate when Hurricane Sandy happened but I remember my school closing and not having electric heat for a good amount of time. Also, just being home with my mom and getting scared because I never really been, first-hand, in a natural disaster. Once I moved to Westchester, and I started working on climate justice issues in high school, in that first year, maybe a year after Hurricane Sandy happened, I found that I was working with a lot of black youth who would become my closest friends, and just seeing the way that it impacted them too, I realized that is a really pivotal example of how climate change is impacting particularly where I live.
Could you tell me more about Earth Guardians and how you got involved with them?
I got involved with Earth Guardians after meeting Xiuhtezcatl [Martinez] at the COP 21 in Paris. We started talking because we were both on the same lawsuit together, we’re both plaintiffs on this lawsuit along with 21 young people who are suing the US federal government, for violating our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by perpetuating and encouraging the global climate crisis. We bonded over being on that case together and being activists. He told me he was a youth activist for this nonprofit Earth Guardians, which is all about engaging with activists and giving them a space to not be isolated but to be working together in their communities to fight these issues; that’s when I got involved.
I have been reading all about you suing the government, it’s amazing, but what do you do when you’re not fighting the government? What are you working on right now that you’re really excited about?
When I’m not fighting the government, which has been what I’m doing lately because of the attention on the youth climate movement, I’ve been doing a lot of spokesperson work for the lawsuit and the climate movement.
In general, I’m just traveling a lot and speaking at different events; speaking at different schools, making different organizational partnerships. So that’s the reason I had to take off school for these past few months, and since September, I’ve only been home for like, six days in total!
But it’s been a lot of moving around, and getting the word out, and talking about climate justice. To me, the most important thing about fighting the climate crisis is paying attention to communities that have been at the front lines for such a long time. I’m working in developing a storytelling project that basically highlights on the tactics and experiences of young people on the front lines of their communities and looking at the solutions that they find and looking at the impacts that they’re facing and kind of documenting those stories to share to a wider audience. That’s what I’ve been in the midst of developing right now.
What’s your favorite place that you’ve traveled to so far?
I got to go to Costa Rica about two weeks ago to go to PreCOP25. It was amazing because it was a gathering of indigenous youth in Central and South America, and they brought me in from the United States.
Basically, they kind of built a coalition and alliance to see what we can exchange with each other and how we can help with each other’s voices, and what can be done to work together to kind of bridge the movement of young people in Central and South America with young people in the US. It was just a really awesome experience; One, I hadn’t been to Costa Rica, but two, it was just really great to meet the indigenous youth that were from all over from Peru, from the Amazon in Brazil and Ecuador, from Costa Rica, from Mexico. It was really great.
How did you find or develop your voice at such a young age? It must be so difficult representing people and having a firm voice when you are still just trying to grow up…
I think just doing this for so long, and remembering it’s not just about myself, but about how other people are experiencing this crisis. It’s all about implementing the things that I learn every day into what I do and what I share with people, and really just submitting the information that I think is important for most people.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
My biggest inspirations are definitely youth activists from the civil rights movement like John Lewis or Bobby Rush, who are currently US Congressmen. When they were young, they were in the streets fighting back against the systems of power that weren’t working for them.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Juliet Wolf
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Kaia Miller
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Karlhens Pompilus
STYLIST: Talia Bella
STYLIST ASSISTANT: Angie Cabrera
Special thanks to Diesel.
Stay tuned to Milk for more climate crisis solutions.