Four Washington teen activists explain how 2019 became the year of youth climate action

In the Northwest and beyond, young people helped the climate movement go mainstream this year. Where should it go from here?

Sally talks to Icel in class

Liberty Bell seniors Sally Thornton-White, left, and Icel Sukovaty during their AP English class on April 18, 2019. On March 11 as a part of her senior project, Thornton-White organized a group of 11 students, including Sukovaty, to visit Olympia to talk to their state representatives about how their community is being impacted by climate change. The group provided personal testimony and advocated for five different pieces of legislation. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

If any year has been the year of youth climate activism, it’s been 2019: The year saw worldwide strikes for climate action, drawing millions of people. Young activists like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and Seattleite Jamie Margolin have appeared before governing bodies, including Congress and the United Nations, to angrily call out legislators for their inaction and to demand change. For young people, climate change rhetoric has shifted away from worries about distant melting ice to blunt conversations about the dramatic social and political upheaval required to stop the death and destruction that lies ahead.

While youth activists say that much more has to be done to spur the global mobilization needed to address climate change, they have commandeered the spotlight. National media outlets have followed each strike and, in December, Time magazine named Thunberg its Person of the Year.

Crosscut checked in with four young activists from Washington who’ve organized rallies and spoken up for the movement throughout the past 12 months to ask if that energy and momentum will continue into 2020. Each one aided in organizing strikes and marches, and some directly challenged legislators: Elyanna Calle, 17, decided to organize Olympia’s September climate strike after finding out that nobody else had planned one. Kimaya Mahajan, 15, helped organize Seattle’s September strike while attending weekly protests at city council chambers. Sally Thornton-White, 18, appeared before state legislators this year and shortly after  organized a march through Twisp in Okanogan County. And 18-year-old Margolin, founder of  Zero Hour, toured the country, spoke before Congress and wrote a book about youth activism. 

Each of them shares their journey into youth activism and explains why they’re determined to keep this year’s spark alive. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.   

When did climate activism really begin for you? 

Elyanna Calle, 17: My journey in activism started when I just turned 16, focusing on animal rights activism. I started to see what was happening with the strikes after I moved [to Washington] in February. I asked around because I heard about them from some of my activist friends, and I found out there was no one leading one in Olympia. So I just decided to take the lead on that. Ever since then, I’ve just been full force ahead. 

Jamie Margolin, 18: I had always been super worried about the climate crisis. But I didn't know how to take action, and no one tells young people how to. 

I was really involved in local Seattle climate justice events. I joined the youth versus government lawsuit that Our Children's Trust is waging against the Washington state government for their continued delaying and denying action. But even then, it felt like it wasn't enough. So when I was 15, around the summer of 2017, I began Zero Hour. 

Kimaya Mahajan, 15: It wasn't an overnight thing. It was very much throughout several months — everything has just shifted ginormously. I kind of had an awakening. A lot of young people that are aware about the climate crisis were undergoing this around the same time, which is that we all were aware of what climate change was, and we were aware of global warming and melting ice caps. That's just something that we learned at a very shallow level in elementary and middle school. But I guess that's the biggest thing for me: I have just learned and completely come to terms with what the climate crisis actually is.

Not just in terms of science, but through an understanding of human rights. And that's obviously been amazing and really important for me to understand as an organizer in that field. But it's also been hard to come to terms with that and understand what that means for my family and the global south, and my family in California, and people that I know personally in these front-line areas.

Sally Thornton-White, 18: I've always been interested in climate activism because I live in such a wonderful place; it's directly affecting many people [in the Methow Valley] in negative ways. I also think that the environment is one of the most important things in our world, and we need to protect it, waking people up and moving away from the capitalist, making-money, growth mindset to preserving the environment. 

Jamie Margolin
Jamie Margolin poses for photographers upon arrival at the European MTV Awards in Seville, Spain, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

How does the place where you live influence your activism? 

Calle: I feel that a lot of Olympia’s citizens assume that since we're a liberal city that everything is OK and that there's no work to be done. People become complacent. That's a problem: Even though people are generally accepting of climate activism, people feel like they don't need to show up because, "it's Olympia. What needs to be done? Everything's perfect." 

Margolin: Outside of [Seattle], people look at [it] and people look at Washington and they think, “Oh my God, they're perfect.” They're like, “the green state. The Emerald City. They've got it all covered. They're #ecofriendly, a bunch of hippies.” And seeing how greenwashed everything is up here versus the actual reality of the policy and the carbon emissions and that we are not in fact doing well at all, it kind of makes you think a bit more. Living up here, [I’m] part of the activist community that is so resilient, but also very tired because we've just been fighting and fighting.

Mahajan: My grandparents immigrated to the United States from India, and so I have a lot of family in Delhi, which is one of the most polluted cities in the world. My grandparents went to go visit family there just a couple of weeks ago, and they came back, and my grandma had the worst cough. She was sick and she was in bed awhile. It was clearly from the air pollution there. It's only going to grow and it's only going to get worse.

It's really incredible the force of our world, the power that weather and Mother Nature [have]. And the direct role that we as humankind are playing in killing each other, I find really shocking. But I think that slowly we're shifting the mindset of people, and they're really understanding how urgent this is, and that the climate crisis will affect them, too, even if it's not right now.

Thornton-White: Growing up in the Methow Valley, we see severe wildfires very regularly. We live in an area that’s being changed. It's definitely made me realize how much climate change can impact a community and scare people into action, because [wildfires] are quite terrifying. 

A person who lives in a city isn't necessarily going to see the reduced snowpack quite as much, or the wildfires, whereas we see it directly. And also, [the well-being of] our area often leads to the well-being of other areas, because we are the watershed for the whole Okanogan Valley. We're kind of the start of it all. And right now, we are in [a really dry] December. Pretty much no snow, no rain. Just cold and dry. The snow isn't accumulating in the mountains. Down on the valley floor, we have almost no snow. Things like that don't really affect us now, but in the summer everything could be drier and more prone to fire.

What changes have you seen in your own life alongside the growth of youth activism this past year?

Calle: You learn how to juggle having a part-time job, and being an A student, and having a social life, and then being involved in activism and organizing strikes. It was really difficult in the beginning. But it has been really amazing, too, and inspiring just to see how the community will rally around you.

I always had this lingering fear that no one cared, and no one was going to show up, that it was going to be me and a few friends. And I was just scared that it wasn't going to be big, and if people thought that young people were just irresponsible and not capable of that kind of thing that their assumptions would be validated if I didn't do well. But we definitely proved quite the opposite.

Margolin: It feels amazing, after being a veteran in this movement. I was an activist back in 2016 on climate when no one gave a crap. The school strike movement was nonexistent. Back then, I never thought it would grow to this proportion. It's like night and day to where we are now in terms of global awareness, in terms of amount of young people in this movement, in terms of the attention that the movement gets, in terms of political leaders and business leaders being forced to listen to us. That is pretty incredible.

With the hate and the pressure, I've just been trying to manage. A lot of it is just managing my time, and there's the pressure of college applications and things like that that is really hard for me. But I've just been doing the best I can and taking it one day at a time.

Mahajan: I've had to change a lot of aspects of my life. I stopped playing basketball, and I started focusing a lot more on this organizing work. I know school has kind of taken a back seat for me to the rest of this work. But I've also made a lot of new friends, and I've just developed a support system outside of my old communities of school and family. I’ve learned a lot about myself, too. 

Thornton-White: It's funny to realize how accessible it’s become to be involved in this kind of thing. You just kind of reach out and people are excited to hear from you, and it definitely inspired me to continue that type of activism, and just look for opportunities to become involved and then continue on to see what will happen, because it could end up being a really cool thing. There is a group of like 20 kids from my high school or so that are continuing to meet about climate action, lead protests in our school. I wish that happened more when I was in high school so I could have become involved. But thank God it's happening now.

Kimaya speaks at a protest
Kimaya Mahajan speaks during a climate strike rally in Seattle, on March 15, 2019. Mahajan helped to organize and emcee the event. (Jamie Rand)

Were there any moments from 2019 that stood out to you? 

Calle: On Sept. 20, I remember I was at the Capitol, running around and stressed. I wasn't really able to just take everything in. But I remember I was dealing with some problem, and I just hear this group of students. I look up and I see them marching in and chanting. It was a ton of kids. I don't even know how many — definitely over a hundred kids from Nova Middle School. It all just came to me in that moment that, "Wow, even if nothing else gets accomplished from this, you inspired all of these people. You gave them an opportunity to come and take action and that's going to affect them for the rest of their lives."

Margolin: The most memorable moment was the Youth Climate Summit in Miami, the true grassroots, genuine enthusiasm and work that was done. And I think my other would be testifying before Congress in September with Greta and Vic Barrett, and Benji Backer. That was an incredibly powerful moment, where I got to say everything I wanted to to the politicians that I usually just yell at through TV screens. I could actually say it to their faces.

Mahajan: It was Sept. 20, standing on the stage [at Seattle’s climate strike]. I was standing on the stage, and I just took a second to myself and looked at the crowd. There was nowhere you could look where there wasn't people.

To see that — the work of me, my friends, the adults that supported us, and every single other group who had worked so, so hard to pull this off — it all just came together. Something about bringing tens of thousands of people out on the streets of my city just really meant a lot to me, to know that despite all of the problems that Seattle has, somewhere 20,000 people found something that made them want to come out that day. 

Thornton-White: It's kind of a sad moment, but it was talking to our legislators [on Youth Lobby Day] and realizing that they honestly don't really know what's going on, and they don't know a lot about the bills that are being passed and why what they’re doing is impactful for our community. Like when we spoke to them about a lot of the bills, they had never even heard of them or were going to vote no, but then we told them what it was actually going to do, and they were like, "Oh, I didn't know that.”

With Time naming Greta Thunberg its Person of the Year, the youth climate movement has gone mainstream in terms of visibility and who the general public associates with it. What are your thoughts on that? 

Mahajan: When we found out that Greta Thunberg was the Time Person of the Year, I know it bothered a lot of youth climate activists. I think Greta is a powerful figure in the fact that she's brought a lot of needed attention to this crisis, but I disagree with a lot of her methods of activism, because I believe she's turned striking into the strategy. It's really a tactic. It's not the end goal.

Our end goal isn't to get a bunch of people out on the streets every few months. Our end goal is to achieve climate justice, and to reverse this crisis before it's too late. And so I think that while she has brought necessary attention to the crisis, she's not done a good enough job of using her privilege to uplift the voices of activists, young and old, that have been doing this work since decades before she was born. And I am specifically talking about Indigenous activists who have been trying to protect our Earth since before we even really knew what climate change was. It's something that's so overshadowed, because we don't represent Indigenous people in conversations about climate justice often enough. 

Calle: There's definitely a lack of representation in the climate movement. And climate action without representation is not justice. Greta obviously [is] a big inspiration to me, but there's a reason why the face of the movement is a white person. And that the Indigenous people that have been working for years and decades on this issue haven't been the face of the movement. 

There's institutional racism and that’s kind of an example of that — not undermining any of her accomplishments at all, because they're amazing. But like I said, there's a reason why she's white and she's not an Indigenous woman. I think people can misconstrue that as, "Oh, people aren't grateful for all that she's doing." But I think it needs to be reminded that we need representation. 

Margolin: The myth is that oh there are no Black and Brown people doing this. There are tons of amazing Indigenous young activists, Black young activists, activists on the front lines who are doing this work. But their names are not known in the media at all. It's just not being covered.

The kids from Standing Rock, of course, are still here and still active. The kids from the Amazon rainforest. The elders in the Amazon rain forest. The young activists in the global south. In Africa. In India. All of these places that people just kind of look over, but they're there. I think going forward, [we should be] actually lifting up the voices and covering the actions of Indigenous youth, front-line youth, Black and Brown youth, with the same enthusiasm that people are covering white activists from Europe.

Calle: It just kind of seems like everyone focuses on fossil fuels when, although that's a huge problem, animal agriculture is scientifically proven as a leading cause of climate change. I wish people would talk about that a lot more because even if we get rid of fossil fuels, we're still going to be at a carbon deficit from animal agriculture.

What do you think climate activists need to tackle next? 

Thornton-White: People in power aren't stepping up and taking on climate action as much as they should. I'm really hoping that in the next year we start winning elections. Winning elections is the most important thing right now.

Calle: I think something that's really important for any social justice movement that's been proven time and time again is the process of escalation and escalated action. That's definitely something that's in store for definitely Washington and around the world. Details are yet to be provided. There's still a big planning period on what's going to happen in the next few months.

Although strikes are a big action, we have to escalate things to the point where people don't stay complacent like, "Oh, they're doing strikes again." We need to escalate it so that people are paying attention. And people are listening more and more every time.

Margolin: The end goal is policy change. Physical protection of actual forests and environment. There's only so much one tactic and one type of mobilization can work before people get tired. So people need to learn how to go back to their communities and actually take that media traction and turn it into actual policy change — forests protected, things done, programs set, actual tangible change.

Mahajan: We've been striking for a year now, and we have not seen the change that we need. And a really important part of that is focusing on policy, and focusing on the legislation that we are demanding. And more importantly, how do we change the system so it will become sustainable, not just for the next 10 years, or for the next presidential term, but for as many generations as we can? It's just a matter of putting some sort of glue on what we have right now to make sure that we are able to have a livable feature in the years that it takes us to figure out how to create a system that will be able to sustain the planet for several generations.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.