Meet the New Climate Heroes: Faces of the Frontline

This post is cross-posted from Yes! Magazine on October 25, 2013. The original by Kristin Moe can be found here.

Not all of these young people focus directly on climate change in their work. But it tends to take a prominent position in their worldview, which sees issues of race, class, labor, and environment as inextricably connected.

From October 18 to 21, about seven thousand young people gathered in Pittsburgh for Power Shift, a four-day conference for young environmental and social activists. While most were members of campus environmental organizations, a few were activists working on social and environmental justice issues in the places they call home—fighting King Coal in Appalachia, growing gardens in Detroit, and lobbying for racial justice in Florida. For these youth, the fight is urgent and immediate.

I carved out some time from the frenzied activity of the conference to talk with some of them. Most articulated a radically holistic view of environmental justice that differentiates them from past generations of activists. In their experience, the environment is connected to labor, to race and class and immigration and education. It is impossible to see one without looking at the whole.

As the intersections between issues become more evident, so do the connections between regions and movements. This is the future of the climate justice movement.

Aurora Conley (and son Misko, age 17 months)

Age: 29

Hometown: Odanah, Wisconsin

Leaders on Great Lakes Commons
Leaders on Great Lakes Commons

In their migration story, the Ojibwe were told to move east until they found "the food that grows on water."

"That was wild rice," says Conley, and they found it on the shores of Lake Superior. "And that's where we stayed."

The latest threat to that land, and the cultural heritage embedded within it, comes from an industrial project that has been proposed a few miles from her reservation. It is a mine for taconite, a low-grade form of iron ore. At 22 miles long, Conley says, it will be the largest open pit ore mine in the world. The company is hoping to begin extraction in 2015.

Conley worries for Misko and his three-year-old foster brother. "What is this community going to look like? How old am I going to live to be? Is fifty a high hope? Fifty-five? Will we be able to fish? Will we be able to swim? Will wild rice even be part of our diet anymore?"

The tribe has a history of unified opposition to extraction projects, and Conley is on its Eco-Defense Committee. She has been representing her tribe and speaking on behalf of indigenous rights for years. And while she worries for her children, she says, they are also what spur her to keep defending her homeland.

Alex and Daniel Mullins

Ages: 8 and 11

Hometown: Berea, Kentucky (originally from Clintwood, Virginia)

Kid Climate Heroes on Great Lakes Commons
Kid Climate Heroes on Great Lakes Commons

The Mullinses have only lived in Kentucky for a short while, but in Clintwood, they go back 10 generations. Daniel can tell you about his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and his great-great-grandfather, all the way down to the one who founded Clintwood in 1829. He and Alex will tell you about living in the house their great-grandparents built, their coal mining heritage, their family's freshwater spring, and the path that the water travels to reach the Gulf Coast.

And they'll also tell a crowd of cheering supporters—at the top of their lungs—exactly why the coal industry must be stopped. Which is what happened when Alex and Daniel grabbed the megaphone at a rally in Pittsburgh on October 21 outside the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Their parents, Nick and Rustina, decided to leave Clintwood because they didn't feel safe raising their children in a place so tainted by coal mining. "The mountain I grew up on is gone," Nick says. "The trees aren't the same—there's no trees. The water's not the same. The water's poisoned."

Nick and Rustina are both studying full-time at Berea College, but have been involved with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, speaking out against mountaintop removal mining.

Nick looks on at Alex and Daniel as they horse around underfoot, making faces and laughing. He's silent for a long time.

"We can't stop fighting," he says finally. "We have to keep going. Because if we don't, they dang sure ain't gonna have anything left."

Yudith Nieto

Age: 24

Hometown: Houston, Texas

Yudith on Great Lakes Commons
Yudith on Great Lakes Commons

Nieto lives in Manchester, a neighborhood in east Houston, right over the fence from the refineries that are expected to process 90 percent of the tar sands from the Keystone XL pipeline. Manchester residents don't need the extra pollution: A 2010 EPA study documented eight different carcinogens in the neighborhood's air. People there always seem to be sick; they describe chronic headaches, nosebleeds, sore throats, and red sores on their skin that take months to heal.

Nieto knows that, as a Manchester native, she's in a position to start to organize this community. She understands what it's like, and her neighbors are more inclined to trust her than an outsider. So that's how she spends her time. Organizing. Building relationships. Building trust.

She hopes that trust will also build between "frontline communities" like hers—the low-income neighborhoods most affected by environmental degradation—and larger environmental NGOs. It's often a tense relationship.

"The frontline communities are experts in this struggle," she told a crowd of several thousand on Oct. 18th. "So we need to listen to them. They need to be our leaders."

Jamii Tata

Age: 26

Hometown: Detroit, Michigan

Jamii Tata looks at Detroit through two lenses. Through one, he sees urban blight—abandoned lots, violence, and poverty. Through the other, he sees opportunity—those same lots turned into community gardens, the energy of youth channeled into self-expression. As a spoken-word poet and teacher, he works with Detroit youth to encourage literacy and to develop their creative voices. As a community organizer and advocate for food justice, he believes urban farms are a way to address intersecting issues of environmental degradation, lack of access to healthy food, and political disenfranchisement.

From one of Tata's poems, entitled "Woodson, 1933, Pg 3":

Truth is we're troops

Marching with hope in our boots

& Hammers in our hands

Building bridges

That we can pass down to the kids

So that they can live, live, live

One way to build those bridges, for Tata, is by creating community gardens that address a neighborhood's immediate need for food. But in growing food, he says, you also grow something less tangible: "knowing your neighbor, and having something you can take pride in."

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