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We Won’t Win the Climate Fight Without Youth Leadership

Climate activist Jamie Margolin says her guide for youth activism, “Youth to Power,” has much to offer adults, too.

Youth climate strike organizers, including Jamie Margolin (left), stand during a panel held at The New York Society for Ethical Culture on September 23, 2019.

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Jamie Margolin, 18, youth climate lawsuit litigant and founder of youth-led climate activist group Zero Hour, gets a lot done.

By noon on a typical day in school, as Margolin chronicles in her guide for youth activists, Youth to Power, she has already posted on Zero Hour and her own social media, responded to DMs and emails, done her homework, gone to classes, fielded messages that say, “Call me, our debit card isn’t letting us book the venue,” or “BIG PROBLEM, I think we might have upset a congress member, we need to do damage control on this ASAP,” and still squeezed in some time to hang out with friends. But, as she’s learned, compartmentalization is hugely important for her mental health — so she treats herself to not taking any calls at the 40 minutes she gets for lunch.

Youth to Power is a guide for youth activism, but adults have a lot to learn from it, too. Margolin walks her readers through the steps of becoming an activist, from finding your purpose to learning how to organize to creating a school-work-life balance out of it all. It’s the book that Margolin says she wishes she had when she was first starting out.

Margolin is one leader in a growing movement of youth activists fighting for climate action, a movement that’s gained not only attention but also political power in the past few years. The youth-led Sunrise Movement made waves with Green New Deal protests in 2018; Margolin has testified in court and on Capitol Hill; Greta Thunberg testified at the UN Climate Summit last year and Time magazine named her 2019 person of the year; and as many of them reach voting age, they even have the potential to swing elections.

Youth activists, Margolin argues, have the moral high ground as activists, which is part of what makes their voices so effective. “No one can point a finger back at us and say, ‘You’re corrupt too!’ because we’re just kids trying to create a better world,” she writes.

Margolin, who recently graduated high school and is headed to college later this year, recently spoke with Truthout about who she hopes Truth to Power helps, how she balances her climate activism and her creative life, and what she plans on doing — and writing — next.

Sharon Zhang: What are you going to be studying when you head to college this year?

Jamie Margolin: I’m going to be majoring in film and television.

I really want to create the representation that I always wished that I had. Growing up as a young Hispanic lesbian, there’s not a lot of people like me. I would be watching television, and I’d be watching shows, and I could never relate. And it wasn’t until recently when I saw the true power of representation and seeing people like me on TV [that] I really understood what it meant to be represented and the value that that had.

Before I’m an activist, I’m a writer. Ever since I was six, I was writing stories, coming up with stories. I’ve always been a creative storyteller. And lately, I’ve devoted my entire existence to fighting the climate crisis and it gets really exhausting — giving up who you are as a person for a cause — and I lost that balance. I lost the balance of who I was as a person and I just lost myself to the cause.

I was planning to study political science, a field which people would expect me to do, but something that I don’t actually want to do. That was the plan for a long time — “Oh, you know, Jamie she’s going to go into political science because that’s just, you know, who she is, blah blah blah.” But I really don’t like studying that. I’m a very political person, but I am already living out political science.

Who do you hope reads this book?

I really hope that all those people who just are wondering how to take action but don’t know how read the book, because I feel like this is going to answer a lot of their questions. It’s going to give them a lot of the tools that they clearly need and that they’ve clearly wanted for a long time. And so those are the people who I most want to read the book.

And then, also, I know it’s “youth to power,” but it actually works for people of all ages. So, I really want adults who want to know how they can better support youth activism in a productive way — I want them to read the book as well. I also want people who consider themselves non-political or don’t think of themselves as political activists to read the book; a lot of people stay away from politics and activism … (a) because that’s a privilege that they have, but (b) because they just are too scared and they don’t know how to get involved. I really urge them to read this book because I think it clarifies a lot in it and it gives a lot of “how to” get involved. It just answers a lot of questions.

And people who are already activists, and just want new perspectives, new knowledge, more information — this book is for them, too. It isn’t a jargon-y book. There’s not a lot of complex language or theories because I wanted to make it accessible for anyone.

For Youth to Power, you interviewed friends and fellow activists. What did you learn from them?

Doing research for this book gave me such an even bigger appreciation for the work that is done. When you’re in the climate movement, you’re kind of in that silo. I interviewed people of all different movements for this book and it took me out of that silo and made me understand and appreciate — I always knew and appreciated the work that people outside of my movement did — but it just gave me an insight into their world and made me realize how we’re all fighting for the same things even if we’re in different causes. I was just not even just learning about their movements, but also just learning things that they do in their lives that are just really good things to do for any activist. I was just learning a lot.

What would you say to people who are on the fence about becoming involved or becoming an activist?

Being apolitical is a huge privilege. The chances are, if you’re not politically involved, it’s because you have many privileged identities that make it so you have the ability to be not political. Like with what we’re seeing right now with what’s happening with George Floyd — white people have the privilege to choose whether to be involved in those conversations.…

I would encourage people who are like, “Oh, I’m not really a political person,” to think of the privilege that that comes from, and acknowledge that many people don’t have the choice whether to be political or not; they have to be. You should be using whatever privilege you have if you don’t find yourself affected by any systems of oppression in your own life, then use your privilege to speak up for those who — not speak up for because you don’t want to take their place in any way — but use your privilege to be a voice to speak up and uplift their voices. Silence in the face of injustice is siding with the oppressor.

There’s really no room for anyone’s silence, and this book really gives you the tools that you need — well, not the tools, physically, because it’s a book — but it gives you enough ideas and inspirations and people’s insights to give you some semblance of an idea of what to do. So, I feel like there’s not really an excuse. I’m not saying that everyone needs to go out and work for an organization. I’m just saying that those with privilege need to be doing everything that they can.

How has the global pandemic affected your perspective on activism?

This reminded me how little control I have. It’s really showed me that the world is actually not in my control. Because I think organizers, we kind of have a warped sense of like, “Okay, if I do this, then this is going to happen,” because that’s just who we are as organizers, I feel. We build things, we work on things. This has kind of reminded me that it is actually out of my control, so I just have to do my best to roll with the punches and be the best activist that I can be, considering everything.

I feel like my new state of existence has just been rolling with punches. That’s all I’ve been able to do — is just adapt, adapt, adapt. I haven’t really been in a space to like create anything. You try to take a day to just create and then you see all these horrible things happening in the world, so you’re just doing rapid response. Right now, with what’s happening, I’ve just been doing rapid response to that. And it’s just — how do you even create in a world that just is asking you to constantly respond to disaster, you know?

Do you anticipate making films and telling stories about the climate?

No. It could tie into it, maybe. My climate activism will always exist but that would be separate from the creative career I want to pursue. I’m not going to film school to make climate documentaries; I’m going to film school to bring badass feminist stories to life. Really, the purpose of me going to film school is more to (a) just be creative and create art that I feel needs to exist, and (b) advocate for another cause that I deeply care about, which is LGBT rights and representation. The themes I would be covering would be a lot more around that.

How do you feel like your storytelling and climate activism inform each other?

My passion and having a reason for doing things outside of simply fighting against an existential crisis inform the way I fight for climate action, because I’m not fighting for climate action because it’s a hobby that I took up, because it’s an identity that I found. I’m fighting for it because I want to create a world in which I and others can pursue our own individual dreams and live happily, and be able to be creative, and live our lives, and do whatever we want without having this impending ecological disaster.

The reason why I want to get into this is because media create culture, and then culture creates politics, and then politics creates laws. It’s not like I’m not being an activist by going into Hollywood. That is activism because, oh my god, does Hollywood need a makeover.

I guess I’d be subconsciously weaving all of those messages that I’m learning and fighting for in my activism in my creative life. But I think my activism and politics inform who I am because your activism and politics are an extension of who you are. That will show up in any work that I create.

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