Under a cloud of uncertainty made worse by the recent news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, two young RP team members got on a call with Matt Ellis-Ramírez, a young activist in the Sunrise Movement’s Chicago branch who helps run its BIPOC organizing school. With so many people reeling from the news and the collective sense of loss and anxiety that seems to grow every day, I think we were all a bit unsure of ourselves. But that was one of the reasons we started this blog series.
Young people generally are more aware of climate change, environmental justice, and intersectional activism than ever before. We are active and earnest and energetic, determined, angry, and afraid of the future. But we are also one of the greatest sources of hope for ourselves and for the world.
Because of that, we wanted to connect with other young activists and hear their stories. We need to value our own perspectives, amplify our own voices, and validate each other as activists. Then we can push older and more resourced people to take meaningful action. We can all bring activism into our circles and into whatever spaces we occupy each day. And we can learn so much about activism, organizing, and advocacy, just by listening to each other.
RP (Mia and Raina): Tell us about yourself and how you became an environmental activist.
Matt: I grew up spending summers at my grandparents’ house in Guatemala. They had a huge yard where they grew avocados, limes, coffee, literally everything that you could grow. I would always wake up in the morning and help my grandma pick out the coffee and avocados for breakfast. Growing up alongside my food and having nature around me really ingrained in me that protecting the environment is important and valuable.
So then, coming here to Chicago, it was really different because not a lot of people had access to [nature], people didn’t have that same connection. I felt like I had to sort of be a voice, be the Lorax of my elementary school. So for my whole life I’ve been doing this work. But when I was young I didn’t know what I was doing was organizing or activism.
RP: Tell us about your experiences as a young climate activist. What have you you’ve learned from teaching and inspiring other young people to become activists?
Matt: I think that most of us young folks grew up desensitized to the collapse of it all. Growing up, we were constantly aware of the world falling apart. Young people have only known a life within this collapse. So sometimes people don’t see the urgency.
But now I see a change in the way we have this conversation, which I think is really important. A lot of people aren’t focusing only on the idea that ‘we have to save our planet,’ I hear more, ‘hey, we have to protect, our marginalized communities and the planet is a big part of that.’ And I see this social justice aspect resonate more with Gen Z, because they have this sense of interconnectedness.
RP: Do you have advice that you would give to a young person who doesn’t feel like they can call themselves an activist? Or who just got interested in climate activism but has no idea where to start?
Matt: Yeah, totally. I think this was something that we really centered in the BIPOC organizing school. A lot of young people and especially people of color have this internalized imposter syndrome. And I think people can be doing activism their whole life and not feel like they’re doing enough. Because maybe they don’t fit that mold of what they think an organizer looks like.
I have ADHD. So for me, for the longest time, I said I am not organized enough to call myself an organizer. But I can get out and talk to people and connect. People have to understand that no matter what level of the activism hierarchy, you are just as influential as somebody who is, you know, out there with a megaphone at the front of the protest.
That’s what I would tell somebody. But also, if you don’t feel comfortable with that title, that’s totally okay. But just know that your work and the emotional energy that you’re putting is incredibly valuable.
RP: Yeah, definitely. I’ve talked about this with people with social anxiety, who are a little bit shy or on the quiet side. And they feel like, you know, they can’t claim that role or space. Because like you said, they’re not going to be out there with the megaphone. But there is such a need for people to bring activism into every space they occupy, whether that is a protest, or a classroom, any workspace, a dinner table..
RP: During the pandemic, and with the state of the world right now, it can all feel really overwhelming and scary. How do you find a middle ground between feeling hopeless and staying energized and active?
Matt: We’re seeing such a change in the way that young people see our politics and the democratic process in general. And I think for me, that’s where I find a lot of hope, even in this age of quarantine and cyberspace.
A lot of people have found ways to contextualize action in their life. And I think that’s what’s really keeping me grounded. Because also, I don’t have the option to not be grounded. Like, I know, it’s really easy to give up. But, you know, there’s so much we have already lost, but there’s still so much we can save.
And it’s amazing to see different collective like Gen Z for the Trees take on their own approach to making change. And making it happen themselves. So it’s amazing to hear that you all are doing that. It makes me super happy, makes my heart glow.
RP: Yes, for sure. Making these connections, listening to other young people, and seeing the countless ways that we are using our skills, experiences, identities, and energy to make real change, that’s the thing that gives me the most hope.
Matt: Yes. Me too. When I was younger, and trying to organize, I found myself feeling like was the only one doing it. And I think that to then have a community that makes me feel like people feel comfortable connecting and doing this work together, it makes me feel like, you know, I’m not the only one like, that this is worth it. Like we are making a difference.
There are youth activism groups emerging all around the country and world. They are organizing for environmental justice, for climate change action, for anti-racism, rights for marginalized people, for so many issues. And we’re showing up for each other more and more, making activism into what Matt called “umbrella activism:” an essentially intersectional commitment to show up for justice, no matter what that looks like.
If you’re are feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, inspired, impatient, angry, or energized, if you’re focusing on teaching yourself or others, going to protests, making activist art, writing an email, phonebanking, raising money, talking to your parents…
Know that you are not alone. There’s a lot of young people like Matt out there. We’re better when we talk to each other and when we assure each other that we can all bring activism into our daily lives and make every space and circle of people another place from which we can propagate justice and demand the right to build a better world.