When Jamie Margolin came out as lesbian to her parents two years ago, she was also in the process of coming out to the world as a powerful climate justice activist.
Margolin, then a 16-year-old sophomore at a Catholic high school living in Seattle, had co-founded the international youth climate justice coalition Zero Hour and was organizing the group’s first youth climate march on July 21, 2018.
That day, more than a year before the first global youth climate strike inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, thousands of youth and adult supporters marched across the world.
If not for the global Covid-19 pandemic, cities would have been similarly flooded with LGBTQ activists this past weekend, at the end of Pride Month. While many celebrations went virtual, the shift didn’t quell the activist fervor among young LGBTQ activists like Margolin, who says her experiences as a lesbian woman and a climate justice activist are deeply intertwined.
The linkage between LGBTQ Pride and climate activism has been further strengthened by the protests for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
In New York, thousands took to the streets and marched through Manhattan on Sunday in what was billed as a “Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality.”
The origins of Pride stem from the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which began after New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club, on Chrstopher Street in Greenwich Village and brutally clashed with patrons and residents.
As with Margolin, the intersection of personal identity and activism emerges as a defining characteristic among other young LGBTQ activists. While the connection may seem tenuous to some, the young activists say their focus on climate justice is a logical extension of their advocacy for sexual and gender rights.
Adwoa Addae, 22, an immigrant from Jamaica who previously served as the accountability co-coordinator of SustainUS, said she sees parallels between rigid gender norms and the unyielding extractive relationships between many corporations and natural resources. “In the fight for climate justice is a transformation of the psyche,” said Addae, “away from having power over something to caring and having power with something.”
Aletta Brady, 28, founder and executive director of Our Climate Voices, originally from Minneapolis, said there is a strong intersection between the two movements. Aletta highlighted that LGBTQ people, who are often disproportionately affected by climate disasters, are also “brilliant at resiliency and community-building,” including by creating networks of mutual aid and support.
Eryn Wise, 30, of the Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo tribes, has been working in New Mexico to create supportive spaces for LGBTQ Indigenous youth, who often live in “the margins of climate justice,” she said, as a result of being heavily marginalized and displaced.
Margolin, 18, who is Colombian-American, remembers what a “scary, vulnerable time” she experienced identifying openly as gay while also gaining public attention due to her climate activism. As a result, she said she doesn’t “feel the need to fake anything” when talking about her personal identity or the stark reality of climate change and injustice.
Since the 2018 march, Margolin has met with Green New Deal champion Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), testified before Congress alongside Thunberg, and published her first book, Youth to Power.
Margolin said her LGBTQ identity “makes me more of an empathetic person,” which shapes her climate organizing. “When you know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of hate, it makes you more open” and able to understand diverse perspectives, she said.
Margolin emphasized that LGBTQ youth have disproportionately high rates of homelessness, which make them “exposed to the elements,” whether in the form of extreme weather or natural disasters, which are intensified by climate change.
Margolin said she hopes the pandemic serves as a wake-up call to address the inequalities faced by communities more vulnerable to respiratory illness and changing weather patterns. It’s important to remember, she said, that like Covid-19, “climate change is an attack on our bodies.”
Reframing What Climate Urgency Means
Adwoa Addae still recalls visiting the small farm her grandparents spent decades cultivating in Portland Parish, Jamaica when she was younger. Seeing how changing climate patterns harmed her grandparents’ farm made a lasting impression. Farmers in Jamaica, she said, “live in a shadow” at the bottom of a global food chain that largely benefits consumers and profits corporations in Western developed nations.
In 2016, Addae left her home in Kingston, Jamaica and immigrated to the U.S., which she soon found rife with inequalities and danger for Black and brown and transgender people like herself in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election.
She realized that she “could go anywhere in the world” and still face the same prejudices. Known then as Phillip “P” Brown, Addae views her gender identity as integral to her commitment to climate justice.
As a freshman at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2017, Addae leaped into climate justice and community activism. The landfall of Hurricane Maria accelerated her political awakening, making her reflect on the danger posed to LGBTQ people, who often lack a robust support network.
After organizing around fossil fuel divestment in Boston during summer 2017, Addae found herself feeling disconnected from the communities she wanted to serve upon returning to campus. She dropped out of Clark in hopes of making more of a difference at ground-level.
By November 2018, she found herself speaking out as an organizer with the Sunrise Movement in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington, D.C., about the vulnerabilities faced by Black, brown, and Indigenous communities as a result of climate change and these communities’ stake in a Green New Deal.
As an organizer with several youth-led climate groups, Addae attended the 24th and 25th Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where she said she was frustrated by organizers’ lack of solidarity with communities of color.
Over time, Addae said, she became disillusioned by what she considered an overemphasis on the “urgency” of climate action, which she said led groups like Sunrise Movement to prioritize sensational public messaging and direct action over building relationships with and taking leadership from the communities of color on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
She challenged these climate activists to realize the narrative of climate justice they promote, including by thinking critically about how to create “communities at the local level that could transform what’s happening at the global level.” Addae stressed that a focus on policy change and “symbolic actions,” while valuable, didn’t actually improve living conditions for communities of color.
“For me, being a voice wasn’t as important as being accountable to those who couldn’t be in the room,” said Addae, who wants to “reframe what urgency means” by connecting the climate crisis to the historical disenfranchisement and displacement of people of color from their land.
Today, Addae is living at home in Florida, where she fundraises for the Raise Yuh Voice Drum Sanctuary for LGBTQ women and girls in Jamaica. The task feels particularly relevant to Addae during Pride month, which heightens questions about LGBTQ people’s security given the disproportionate rate at which they are victimized by hate crimes and violence, compounding their vulnerability to climate change.
The Power of Storytelling
Aletta Brady’s awakening to environmental injustice came in in 4th grade, as idling school buses in Minneapolis polluted the air with diesel emissions. Soon enough, Aletta began calling for change and was featured as a young activist in a segment on PBS’s DragonflyTV.
Today, Aletta helps lead Our Climate Voices to spark climate action through the power of storytelling. Aletta is also a writer, organizer, and member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO’s Youth Working Group, as well as a former Fullbright Research Fellow in Jordan.
“Storytelling is extremely powerful in both connecting us to one another and activating us, and creating a sense of hope,” said Aletta.
Focusing on facts and figures around the stark reality of climate change, Aletta said, can often cause people to feel overwhelmed and “shut down.” By contrast, stories serve as a “tool to talk about what’s happening in a way that is mobilizing and inspiring, rather than terrifying.”
Hearing each other’s stories with an open mind, Aletta believes, can allow them to learn from one another, and ultimately, empower them to drive change in their communities.
Aletta experienced this potential first-hand. After coming out to immediate family in 2015, Aletta became more open about identity, and as a result, more comfortable and present around people—which in turn, inspired others. “Possibly the biggest honor of my life is that by being really loud about who I am and unapologetic about who I am, it’s created room and permission for others to do the same,” said Aletta.
For Aletta, now living back home in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed, this Pride month has gained new meaning. Aletta noted that LGBTQ Black leaders have long spoken about the intersection of Black and LGBTQ liberation, which is heavily tied to climate issues.
A World That’s on Fire
Eryn Wise, of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Laguna Pueblo tribes, is a writer, a youth mentor and an organizer for climate justice and Indigenous rights. Though originally from the Laguna Pueblo territory near Albuquerque, New Mexico, she grew up in Minneapolis, where she was raised “on the water” anong the Ojibwe, Dakota, and Potawatomi people.
“You are in kinship with the land. You are in constant reciprocity with the living earth around you,” Wise said of what she learned growing up.
Wise, who does not consider herself American, contrasted this way of life with an “extractive” American culture that degrades the environment and seeks to erase the nation’s legacy of colonialism.
Today, Wise is the communications and digital director of Seeding Sovereignty, where she co-organizes the Indigenous Impact Rapid Response Initiative and mask drive to support Indigenous communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In her early 20s, Wise worked in marketing. Everything changed for her with the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, which sent three million gallons of polluted water into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado, “flowing through six states and along the borders of 12 Native American tribes,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
With Indigenous communities concerned about their drinking and agricultural water quality, Wise began raising money to supply them fresh water. She quit her job and, by August 2016, found herself at Standing Rock, where she joined protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. She stayed there until January 2017.
“If we don’t exist, who’s going to protect the waterways?” said Wise, noting how early U.S. colonists took advantage of Indigenous knowledge. “The entire Earth is in reciprocity, and if there’s an inequity in any part of the system, it’s gonna mess the whole thing up,” she said.
Today, in the time of Covid-19, Wise has returned home to New Mexico. There, she works with many LGBTQ and Indigenous youth, hoping to facilitate a “safe space for living and future ancestors” to be “courageous enough to show up as their full selves.”
Likening Pride to a “Queer New Year,” Wise views it as a time to set new goals for supporting her community and to feel gratitude for the ability to live as her queer Indigenous self, knowing that many who share these identities cannot do so.
Her dedication to young people seems to stem in part from such gratitude. Rather than “empowering” youth, Wise hopes to help them discover the power she believes they already possess, which at times may feel obscured by systemic injustices.
Kids, she said, referring to the climate crisis, are “graduating into a world that’s on fire.”