SustainUS’s Youth Leaders Discuss Climate Justice

 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.

Gavi wears a Samantha Pleet Bodysuit, a Bit of Denim skirt, and Greats recycled sneakers.

Gavi Reiter, 24

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

I got involved with SustainUS after Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, by joining the fundraising team, to assure that there would be a US youth presence at the UN Climate Talks for years to come. I wanted to hold our country accountable and amplify stories from our communities at home and those abroad. As I got more involved with the organization, I learned so much about my own climate story. I went on to be a US Youth Delegate to the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York and the 24th UN Climate Talks in Poland.

While in Poland, I met many youths from around the world aiming to create a space of meaningful youth engagement at the UN Climate Summit coming up in September 2019 in New York City. Upon returning home to New York, I began meeting with members of the climate community here and asking, how our local fights connect to global climate politics, and, what does it mean for this global moment to be happening here in the financial and pollution capital of the world? I created the SustainUS NYC Delegation to the UN Youth Climate Summit to connect our local and global communities in the fight for global climate justice.

What aspect of SustainUS do you identify with most? 

At SustainUS, we know that climate justice must be globally just and anti-imperialist. Climate justice cannot just be about creating climate policy in the United States to benefit US Americans, but also must include holding Global North countries and corporations that have caused and worsened the climate crisis accountable for their harm. Climate change is not only a problem of the future; the crisis is currently being felt across the world in communities that did the least to cause it.

I grew up in a household that taught me to connect the water coming out of my faucet with the droughts my family was experiencing abroad in the Middle East, and to connect the energy consumed in my room with the pollution occurring in the post-industrial revolution communities I grew up around in New England. I was raised with the knowledge that our impacts at home in the United States have global implications.

SustainUS takes these realities of historic responsibility and adds in questions of our positionality because we know that those on the forefront of change are those on the forefront of the crisis, not Global North politicians or corporations with false solutions. We constantly ask, what does it mean for US Youth to go to these global climate events? What could it look like for US Youth to pivot our media attention towards the stories in the Global South that need to be heard? How can we show up to demand accountability from those historically responsible for the climate crisis, from Kicking Big Polluters out of the decision-making room to calling for climate reparations from governments like our own?

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

We are all learning. SustainUS operates in a delegation model, where young climate justice leaders are selected for particular delegations to train together in organizing, media, policy, and fundraising skills to be effective agents of change for the long haul. At the core, our delegations are not about campaign outcomes nor policy wins, but about the collective lessons, we gain through working to connect our local stories with experiences around the globe. Since working with SustainUS, I have grown more invested in personal leadership development and our organizing processes than our campaign outcomes. Organizing is about building the world we want to see through our relationships and fostering our communities. That’s how we are sustained for the long haul.

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

Question everything. Places like the United Nations were not created for those who make up SustainUS today. They were not created for young people, nor people of color, nor indigenous people, nor those who do not conform to a gender binary. They were not created for creatives, nor activists, nor those challenging the status quo. One of the strongest feelings our delegation collectively had at the Youth Climate Summit was we do not belong, and that we were invited into UN Headquarters primarily to serve the United Nations’ own reputation. Through digging into our own personal stories, storytelling, community building, and singing, we can demand that institutions be accountable to our communities, not corporations. We can demand true engagement, not opportunities for politicians to tokenize our identities. We can demand the world we need to build. And that is exactly what we did inside the UN Youth Climate Summit. Join us by questioning the institutions that are told will save us. Are they willing to listen to your voice?


Jamie wears Gentle Monster “Peggy” sunglasses, an andagain up-cycled sweater, mindblown recycled pants, and Greats recycled sneakers.

Jamie Wefald, 21

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

Someone who used to attend my college left school and ended up doing really rad organizing with SustainUS. I always admired the choice to shift their path and do really meaningful work outside of school. It was through hearing and witnessing their journey with SustainUS via social media that I started to follow their work and look up to the organization as a whole. 

It was also my desire to be in a transformative community that prompted me to connect with SustainUS, or allowed the SustainUS delegation application to find me… 

Months leading up to the delegation, while still at school, I was becoming very frustrated with a sense of complacency and stagnancy. Being a student for me often feels an act of conforming and supporting structures I actively do not believe in. I know my privilege allows me the opportunity to attend college. But, I also know that being a student isn’t enough for me to feel purposeful. So there are always mixed feelings about me being enrolled in school. We are all meant for more than four walls of a classroom. There’s a lot of theorizing about change at school, but rarely any intentional action. 

I find it difficult to exist fully within an institution that is founded on the same oppressive systems we must break down in order to create a better world. I was craving to be in a community in a meaningful way and participate in a deep kind of (un)learning I was not finding at school. As we entered summer, I came across the application to be on the New York delegation for the UN Youth Climate Summit in September. After following SustainUS and being a fan of their work I applied hoping this could be what I was seeking, it was everything and more.

What aspect of SustainUS do you identify with most? 

I really resonate with SustainUS’s focus on local to global scales of organization for climate justice. Prior to being involved with SustainUS I definitely felt overwhelmed as I attempted to conceptualize the global systems and structures that perpetuate this crisis. The process of learning and unlearning about local and global impacts definitely helped me clear space to digest the state of our world today.

We are fed this narrative that, on a local and individual level, changing our consumptive habits, using more reusable straws and bags is going to mitigate this crisis. It is not us as a collective humanity that is to blame, just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of all carbon emissions. Even if every single person on the planet changed their consumptive patterns, that still would not be merely enough. Unpacking the concepts we have about climate change on a local and global level is key to envisioning, creating and sustaining a world for all of us.

SustainUS encourages us to take into account our global positionality. The Global North has this perception that impacts of climate change are coming in 10+ years. Climate change is a real threat to communities all over the global south today! It is not a theoretical threat, it is a current one for Black and Brown communities, frontline communities and indigenous communities. Recognizing the privilege I have as a person born and living in the United States, it is my moral responsibility to contribute to justice given the country’s historical responsibility in causing climate change. 

I strongly believe that the vision, imagination, and creativity that exists on local levels in Black and Brown, frontline communities and indigenous communities is what will challenge the global systems of colonialism and capitalism that are the root of the climate crisis. 

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

My work with SustainUS has given me the energy and vision to tend my inner fire. This fire keeps me grounded and motivated to continue this work even after our presence at the United Nations. This work is bigger than me, or any individual and it is my intention to manage my individual life in the context of larger global visions we have for the future. 

One way I practice this is to try my best to be mindful of the inner dialogue I am having with myself. Systems meant to oppress us, thrive on the amplification of negative voices in our heads. It is an act of resistance to exist authentically, unapologetically, and with kindness for oneself. I use the uplifting energy I feel from this organizing to shift my attention away from the doubtful and insecure voices to the light and power in my being, which I know is of value for our collective future. 

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

Make more time for self! To sit with self. To simply be. So much of depression and anxiety is caused by capitalism. Small acts of self-care can be forms of active resistance against capitalism. Capitalism does not want us to feel fulfilled simply existing, it creates a system in which we believe we must always be moving or doing something to consider ourselves useful or successful. People raised in the Global North are conditioned to ignore the systemic injustices that perpetuate climate change. Creating space to intentionally think and feel outside of these structures is revolutionary. Appreciate your own energy, spend time with yourself as a way to nurture the power within you, power that can be used to transform our world. 

When uncomfortable feelings arise, do not turn a blind eye to them, sit with them and acknowledge their presence. Do not stop feeding your passions in the face of the fear you are not good enough. Trust in your own power! Step into that power, name it, claim it, see it and welcome it to walk with you in all the spaces you occupy- not just the ones that you feel comfortable in. Remember to tend your inner fire by finding ways to maintain, protect and share your joy, this will help propel you. 

Mayana wears a Phlemuns top, a Samantha Pleet skirt, and Converse shoes.

Mayana Nell Torres, 19

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

I got involved with SustainUs at the beginning of this summer. I became a member of the NYC Delegation going to the Youth Climate Summit. Finishing my first year of college, I was looking for opportunities to create more action with like-minded folks. I wanted to move from individual work such as volunteering and mindful thinking, working and planning actions. That’s when I found out about this amazing organization and all the work they have done. I applied, and upon becoming a member was able to take part in organizing actions, developing messaging, and helping to facilitate a workshop at the Youth Climate Summit.

What aspect of SustainUS do you identify with most? 

One big part of SustainUS is storytelling. SustainUs is a diverse group of youth who all have different experiences and upbringings. It’s so important that we don’t tokenize only one story because it wouldn’t be just and complete. As a person of color, joining SustainUS allowed me to use my voice at the table to advocate for the marginalized communities who are not the people that are heard. Black and Brown communities are not the ones being seen. SustainUS has a mission to change that. This is something that’s very close to my heart and my life. To let indigenous, global south and frontline communities all around the world lead the discussion. They’re the ones being affected by the implications of climate change right now.

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

In many ways, SustainUs has helped me realize the power of my voice. SustainUS has given me an opportunity to share my story and work with people from all around the world. Young people are standing with frontline communities all across the world to demand that we act now and that our voices are heard over those of the fossil fuel CEOs. As an Afro- Latina born and raised in Brooklyn New York, and being someone from the US, I understand the privilege of talking about the future. There are people around the world that had their futures ripped away from them. Their hopes and dreams destroyed. People who had no control over the circumstances that came their way.  SustainUS gave me a platform and space to bring up others and share voices and stories that are usually closed out of the conversation. 

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

Network! Build, listen to communities who have been working and dealing with the repercussions of climate change forever. One big thing I’ve learned is that the world doesn’t just need more leaders but more listeners. Another thing is to share your own story! Everyone’s story matters and is needed in this fight for human rights. Remember climate change isn’t just an earth injustice, but a human rights injustice. 




PHOTO ASSISTANT: Karlhens Pompilus

STYLIST: Talia Bella 


Special thanks to mindblown  + Greats + andagain + Bit of Denim + Samantha Pleet + Gentle Monster + Phlemuns + Converse.

Stay tuned to Milk for more climate crisis solutions.


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