Young, Black and Green: Meet Some Gen Z Environmentalists of Color
Photo Credit: Blavity
Since the Youth Climate Strike events in September, there has been a lot of discussion about Gen Z’s role in fighting climate change and in holding older generations accountable for their actions in exacerbating the climate crisis. Media coverage, which mainly focuses on young white activists, has obscured much of the work of young Black environmentalists who have contributed to Gen Z’s climate activist wing. This overlooked pioneering energy that activists of color bring to the climate crisis is often a reflection of the immediacy and prevalence of environmental racism. To highlight some people who exemplify the work being done to fight environmental racism and the looming climate crisis, Blavity: Politics spoke with four young, Black environmental activists.
Zeena Abdulkarim (18) and Andrea Manning (19) are team organizers with Zero Hour National and are the co-executive directors for Zero Hour Georgia, a team of young activists fighting for a livable planet for all. Their work in Georgia was instrumental in the success of the Atlanta Youth Climate Strike. Mari Copeny (12), otherwise known as “Little Miss Flint,” is a water purity activist from Flint, Michigan. During the Flint water crisis, Copeny was instrumental in prompting wider media coverage of the disaster after she personally sent a letter to President Obama urging him to begin federal intervention in the city. Juwaria Jama (15) is a Minnesotan environmental activist who has been an influential voice for environmental justice causes in North Minneapolis. She’s currently the co-state lead for the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike.
What originally brought you to environmental activism?
Manning: I got involved in climate activism my senior year of high school through Zero Hour. For me, it was realizing that the effects of climate change existed outside of this bubble of animal advocacy and veganism—both of which I think are cool—but I needed a deeper connection between what was going on and my life.
Abdulkarim: I have been involved in climate activism for the majority of my life. I remember one day at school when I was living in Saudi Arabia, we had an Earth Day event, which was when the climate crisis was first brought to my attention. It was then that deep-rooted fear for my life was instilled within me because I knew that I was probably going to die far earlier than I was meant to if world leaders did not take the necessary precautions against the climate crisis in a timely measure.
Jama: January of this year, I got involved with environmental and climate justice-related youth groups. Through them, I met Isra Hirsi, the executive director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and got more involved with Minnesota-based organizing. I became the co-state lead of the Minnesota Climate Strike in the spring, and since then, I've been doing a lot more state-based work while trying to venture this on the local level, as well.
What kind of environmental activism work have you been doing recently?
Copeny: I have been using my platform to remind the world about the water issues not only in Flint but in communities across the country (and the world). [I have also been] able to partner with one of the top scientists in the country in water and get my own state-of-the-art water filter that will bring back normalcy to communities faced with the water crisis.
Abdulkarim: For the past couple of months, I've been co-organizing the Atlanta Youth Climate Strike among my team of youth activists. We've been doing lots of the logistical work that comes with organizing events like these, (the "whos, whats, whens, wheres and whys," permits, partnerships, etc.), as well as lots of community outreach and making sure people know this event is happening!
Jama: Our September 20th strike organizing began in July. And after three long months of organizing meetings, workshops, potlucks, art builds and more, the day finally happened. In the twin cities alone, we had over 8,000 climate strikers, with a total of 10,000 statewide.
Given the work you’ve been doing, are you surprised by the lack of coverage of your work and work by other young people of color?
Copeny: Sadly, the media isn’t doing a great job at covering communities that are dealing with water issues. They are doing so bad, in fact, even the residents of those affected communities are sometimes unaware there is even an issue. Environmental racism is another aspect of environmental justice that I have been working on, bringing more attention to it and trying to make people realize it needs to be addressed just as urgently as climate change.
Manning: [I’ve noticed] the ways in which the media picks up stories surrounding activism from young, white activists versus young, Black and Brown activists. I’ve kept notice of the ways the Black Parkland kids got little to no media attention and the ways that Black and Brown climate activists have failed to garner the same media attention as white youth activists in the same area.
Abdulkarim: I can definitely say that the work I am doing has been equated to lesser than of my white peers. And not just me, POC youth activists from all over the globe. Take the work of Greta Thunberg, for instance. The media attention she has been granted for the attention she has brought to the media regarding the climate crisis is no different than the activism indigenous communities and women of color have been preaching about for decades—long before she was even brought into the picture. And not even for the purpose of being labeled “an activist,” simply in the name of respect and preservation of our earth. This is not to say the climate movement is ungrateful or doesn’t support the work of Greta Thunberg; this is to say that we will not stand to have the voices of Black and Brown environmentalists left behind in this movement when it is us who will face the effects of the climate crisis most heavily.
Have you had any issues working with other environmental advocates?
Copeny: Being a kid working in a space that is supposed to be for grown-ups is always difficult. People love to tell the kids doing the work that we need to stay in a child's place and that we are not capable of being educated about the issues at hand and are unable to hold our own opinion.
Abdulkarim: I have definitely experienced prejudice from older organizers and individuals in this movement. I'm not exactly sure from which aspect of my being it stems from, maybe being a Black girl, being a young woman, being outspoken and confident; I can’t exactly determine from which. Nevertheless, these experiences of people assuming I am not experienced or not qualified to do the work I’m doing does not hinder my motivation, my intent or the mission I’m fighting for.
Jama: As a young Black teen from North Minneapolis, climate change isn’t talked about much, if it all. So many times, low-income and communities of color are left out of the subject. There is not only a lack of education but a lack of recognition that issues like this have and will continue to disproportionately affect those same communities. I’ve sometimes felt out of touch connecting with older folks. But as I’ve begun to learn more and more about the work I’m doing surrounding environmental and climate justice, it’s a lot easier to speak and build excitement. More adults are becoming extremely impressed and inspired by youth, so it’s been nice to see that shift.
What would you tell other young Black people about environmental justice?
Manning: This is more than an environmental issue! This is a race issue, a class issue, a disability issue, an immigration issue. This is a multifaceted crisis that doesn’t just affect the sea turtles and the polar bears; it affects all of us. We are most affected; we are at the front lines.
Abdulkarim: I would say that it’s important for youth of color, and primarily Black youth, to get involved in this movement, so that world leaders are capable of adhering to the insight of the most vulnerable individuals in this crisis and taking action upon our demands.
Jama: It’s not your fault. Many times, we are left out of these conversations and don’t realize how much this is affecting our community, but it's right here, right now. From a Black youth to you, the climate justice movement doesn’t portray us much; they ignore our stories, erase our history, and yet, all of this is and will still affect us. Climate change isn’t a myth; it’s scientific, and it’s important that you stand up for yourself and your community.
What should we expect next?
Jama: A message we’ve been spreading to those at our last strike was that this is just the beginning. More specifically in Minnesota, our team is working on different projects to help sway legislation on green energy and climate change initiatives and working with other groups to increase our base.
Abdulkarim: Expect more. Until our government takes the action that we demand, we won’t stop until we see the action we've been begging for to save our lives. We will not stop until we get what we what. Gen Z is entitled to the right to live.