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10.25.2019

SUSTAINUS’S YOUTH LEADERS DISCUSS CLIMATE JUSTICE (PT.2)

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 spoke with three NYC delegates of SustainUS.

Kulsum wears a Diesel hoody dress, Mindblown NYC bomber and Greats recycled sneakers.

Kulsum Rifa, 19

How did you first get involved with SustainUS–what prompted you to work with this organization? 

It was a very unusual hot summer night, I remember being late to the reunion party of Queens Teens. I was wearing a red maxi dress paired with a white hijab. It wasn’t the right outfit for that day, but it didn’t matter-I was feeling beautiful- I told myself, I am not very good at blending in with the crowd anyway. We were baking pretzels, when my mentor and friend for life, Cata Elisabeth told me about SustainUS. She knew I was very passionate about climate justice. I had a lot of fire in me, but my platform was limited. But that didn’t matter- every day I was to the best of my ability educating my close friends and family about the truth of climate change. To expand my knowledge, to have a platform, to have my voice heard, I applied for the SustainUS New York City Delegation to the UN Youth Climate Summit. I became part of the SustainUS family.

Everyone has their own climate story. Mine started long ago- I was born into a climate crisis. Bangladesh sits at the bottom of a delta. Bangladesh is more at risk from climate change than almost any other country. I have seen it all— houses, Bazaars, schools, people’s lives destroyed. Climate change has real consequences. It’s real people- actual people- humans like you, like me, like your loved ones who struggle. But It’s easy to forget that, even sometimes for me. Growing up in New York City has its own struggles but, for me, climate change wasn’t one. When you look outside, you may think to yourself, “everything looks fine, I don’t see climate change”. That is the root of the problem when it comes to the climate conversation. Unless you know someone personally from a frontline community, it may feel as if the consequences of climate change is someone else’s issue to deal with. This is similar to what we call in Psychology the bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility. Why stress about climate change, when NYC is stressful enough? The frontline communities are the first ones to experience the consequences of climate change, even though they have done the least to cause it. But there is little to no representation of our struggles. Recently, in the El Paso Manifesto, we saw climate action being weaponized as a form of anti-immigration white nationalism. We cannot let this happen. Climate action is the story of my community. Immigration is the story of my community. When I learned there is little representation of the struggle of the frontline communities like mine, I knew I had to join SustainUS. Many youths from frontline communities don’t have a platform, nor the resources to have their voices heard. Joining SustainUS gave me mine.

What aspect of SustainUS do you identify with most? 

At SustainUS, we prioritize diversity. One of my favorite activities we do is storytelling. It was our way of bonding and relationship building. From storytelling, I was able to get to know my fellow delegates better and become close friends. I believe in storytelling. From a psychological perspective, storytelling is the most effective way to deal with the climate crisis and to achieve climate justice. At the end of the day, we are all human. Through storytelling, we are able to recognize everyone’s unique struggle and feel the urgency in our bones. When we hear about others’ struggles enough, it is in our human nature to do something to our best ability to change the circumstances of the struggle. At SustainUS, we use storytelling as a strategy to have the voices of the black and brown community heard and change the narrative of the climate conversation.

Has working with the organization affected how you go about your day to day life? In what ways?

I am definitely more aware of what’s happening. I now pay more attention to the climate crisis. I am more informed and alert than ever. I am trying my best to be more eco-friendly. It has helped me realize the power and worth of my voice. Through SustainUS, I learned that for the first time in human history, we are entering the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a new geological period created from human-influenced planetary change. This gives me the shivers! Every day, I inform close friends and relatives here in New York City and back in Bangladesh about the Anthropocene and the climate crisis. Bangladesh has been adapting to the effects of the climate crises for decades. However, many are unaware of what’s happening, some don’t even  know the term “climate change.” Every day, I am telling my story, connecting our lived experiences to the changing climate around us, to the changing Anthropocene. Some of my friends are even starting to call me an eco-freak! But – I am totally fine with this title – it means they’re starting to listen.

For those who aren’t affiliated with SustainUS or other similar groups, how would you suggest they take environmental consciousness into their own hands?

The clock is ticking. Climate change is happening. I say to other young people – know your worth, know the power of your voice! I know it can be a bit overwhelming, very overwhelming actually, trying to keep up with the climate crisis. Even though I was given the opportunity to organize and to take action regarding climate through SustainUS, there were times when I was completely lost because  I don’t come from a background where I have been formally informed of climate change. I don’t have elders who are well informed regarding climate change teaching me. I am the one who has to inform them. My dad still doesn’t understand why I joined the Youth Climate Strike, or why I went to the UN Youth Climate Summit. When you are a person of color it is hard to get involved, especially when the narrative around climate change is often so white. It doesn’t have to be like this. The narrative has to change. I would say to my fellow youth, first try to inform yourself– consume as much information as you can and educate yourself on climate change, while also keeping in mind whose narrative is being told. Then, try changing little things in your life starting with becoming more eco-friendly, and moving on to informing your close friends and family of what is happening around the world. Use social media to inform people of the emergency. Lastly, build community. Because that’s what will get us through.

Swetha wears Bit of Denim Top, mindblown NYC bottom and Greats recycled sneakers.

Swetha Saseedhar, she/her 24 years old 

How did you first get involved with SustainUS–what prompted you to work with this organization? 

Gavi, the NYC delegation lead, and I were both in a fellowship that connects young people to New York City government. From her stories about SustainUS, I resonated with the unique work of bringing young people into spaces where we are not traditionally accepted or valued. As an immigrant, disrupting these inequitable spaces is something I’m very familiar with. 

Climate justice work has allowed me to connect my story of immigration to my vision of a just world. Tamil Nadu, the state in which I was born, has dealt with centuries of oppressive forces from British and French colonialism and the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Loans to a Hindu-nationalist government that propagates colorism and casteism. This history is reflected in the lack of climate resiliency infrastructure and the absence of political power that currently exists in our state. This summer, there was a water crisis where my grandmother lives when wells across the city dried up. While my grandmother is struggling to deal with these impacts of climate change on her own, there is the reality that she might soon have to leave the neighborhood she’s lived in for over 40 years and possibly the country where our ancestors built their livelihoods. Yet, Trump’s immigration policies make it increasingly difficult for her to move to the US to live with us, so we constantly fear for her wellbeing. Climate migration will continue to increase, and situations like this will be commonplace. 

While the place I call my motherland struggles with the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis and experiences a never-ending cycle of floods to droughts, the US, the place I call my home, continues to deny its historical responsibility for the suffering of my people. The exploitative legacy of the US is at the very root of the climate crisis. The same world powers and corporations that have politically and economically devastated my community in Tamil Nadu are the very entities that are responsible for the climate crisis. This has inspired and informed my role in the climate justice movement. 

I hope to continue to channel the power and love from my ancestors—who have fought these various oppressive forces for generations—into my climate justice work. 

What aspect of SustainUS do you identify with most? 

SustainUS is focused on advocating for just and equitable solutions to the climate crisis that have been deliberately absent from decision-making spaces like the UN. SustainUS equips us with the technical knowledge and the strategic power to disrupt these spaces, which were not built for young people of color. It has been moving to unapologetically bring our whole selves and our various identities into these spaces, which normally water down or deny our stories.

At the UN Youth Climate Summit in September, many of us were able to connect our personal stories to our actions by calling out the UN’s hypocrisy in giving a platform to fossil fuel corporations and shutting out frontline communities. These actions would not have been possible without the global solidarity we built with young people from Brazil to Korea to Alaska. SustainUS emphasizes the importance of building relationships over building mass because these strong relationships are how we build a movement in which we value each other. 

Has working with the organization affected how you go about your day to day life? In what ways?

Climate anxiety and disillusionment have been an overwhelming force in my life, as they have for many other young people. Working alongside the incredible people in my delegation has helped me find a home within myself and within the movement for justice. I’ve found the power to harness this anxiety and meditate on the importance of community building in fighting the powers that be. 

For those who aren’t affiliated with SustainUS or other similar groups, how would you suggest they take environmental consciousness into their own hands?

For people that might see the climate movement as a white space, I want to amplify the fact that communities of color that have been fighting for environmental and climate justice for decades possess the real solutions.

For youth of color specifically, find strength and power in your own story, and use that strength to call out the power structures that have caused the destruction of our communities. For centuries, our ancestors have been doing the work on which the climate movement is built— the work of decolonizing our spaces, the work of creating solutions uplift our communities, and the work of creating close-knit communities.  The people who created this crisis should not be in charge of finding solutions. It should be us, frontline communities and youth of color, who live through it every day. 

Lena wears & andagain top, Diesel bottoms, and Greats recycled sneakers.

Lena Greenberg, they/them, 23 years old

How did you first get involved with SustainUS–what prompted you to work with this organization? 

Before working with SustainUS as a part of the NYC Delegation, I’d crossed paths with its members through other climate organizing. I admire SustainUS’s intention to bring youth voices and members of civil society into highly policed and monitored spaces like the UN and the World Bank, and was excited for the opportunity to be a part of that work. 

My previous climate activism had centered around local fights. But after spending a few months in early 2019 traveling through Guatemala and Mexico, talking to farmers and urbanites about the negative impacts of US global trade agreements, I became curious about international climate policy. As part of the SustainUS NYC Delegation to the UN Youth Summit, I was able to dip my toe into this complicated world. 

As a young person of privilege, I see my role in this movement as one of channeling attention and resources to those who are systematically kept out of the global conversation about climate. When we organized around the UN Youth Climate Summit and events held by the greenwashing Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, we made news. While we leveraged our actions to bring media attention to corporate capture of climate policy, we did by redirecting the spotlight to those who could speak about this problem firsthand. This is the real work: putting our knowledge, attention, and power to work towards a truly just and equitable conversation about addressing the climate crisis. 

What aspect of SustainUS do you identify with most? 

The climate crisis is everyone’s crisis. At SustainUS, we spend time recognizing that we each have a climate story to tell. While we experience the impacts of this crisis differently depending on our identities and geographies, ultimately this is a crisis of home for everyone. We must call into question the choices we make and the systems that structure our lives—the very systems that caused this crisis 

SustainUS both lifts up frontline voices and calls in folks who may not be as explicitly or immediately impacted by the crisis. Building community across intersectional identities allows us to draw on our lived experience when demanding a global and just transition away from fossil fuels. So much of the climate movement is overwhelmed by this scarcity perspective, which influences the way we do this work: it seems focused on achieving a transition no matter what it takes. But at SustainUS, we do not want to compromise: if we are to move away from fossil fuels, we must do it with a strong justice lens and acknowledgment of this country’s historic responsibility in creating this crisis.

Has working with the organization affected how you go about your day to day life? In what ways?

Now that I have sat inside of the UN at an event, supposedly put on for youth, and watched officials shut down youth voices critical of the UN’s inaction on climate change, I have no illusions. It has never been so clear to me how specifically the systems of power that govern our planet are designed to keep some people rich and other people quiet. 

The climate crisis is just another symptom of a much larger problem: the belief that this planet and its people can be exploited in the interest of endless growth. It is capitalism—the quantification, categorization, and trade of resources and labor—that devalues democracy and ecosystem health and prioritizes corporate profits. 

Wherever I go, I bring with this analysis with me, keeping my eyes open for the many tentacles of this oppressive system. The better we understand how corporations and capitalism have corrupted our capacity to be in right relationship with each other and the planet, the better our chances are of changing course. 

 

For those who aren’t affiliated with SustainUS or other similar groups, how would you suggest they take environmental consciousness into their own hands?

Organize everywhere! Whoever you are, there is a struggle that needs your support. The most pressing 21st-century question is not of environmental consciousness, but of building deep solidarity in fights for justice at all scales. To change the world, we must recognize the intersections of our movements and struggles. True progress towards climate justice is impossible without solidarity with and support of movements for racial, economic, and gender justice. 

Rather than committing to stop using straws or drive less, recognize the ways in which these individual choices have been presented to us as consumers and citizens. Recognize the systems at play behind standard environmentally-conscious directives. There’s a fossil fuel industry that extracted natural gas to craft that straw. That same industry is paying off politicians with national and international platforms to write policy that favors their continued abuse of human rights and the planet. That same industry is contaminating aquifers that provide water for millions of people. That same industry is selling our future for today’s profit, no matter the greenwashing campaign they might put forth. 

Amidst the external work of organizing and recognizing oppressive systems for what they are, take time to do the internal work of imagining a new world. While we may exist under the heavy foot of global capitalism, we are free in our minds. It is our responsibility as the generation at this crossroads of crisis to imagine what a world free of fossil fuels and the oppression that occurs at the hands of that industry might look like. Write, read, discuss; build community through this radical visioning. 

CREDITS

PHOTOGRAPHER: Juliet Wolf 

PHOTO ASSISTANT: Kaia Miller 

PHOTO ASSISTANT: Karlhens Pompilus

STYLIST: Talia Bella 

STYLIST ASSISTANT: Angie Cabrera 

Special thanks to mindblown  + Greats + andagain Bit of Denim + Diesel.

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