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'No Climate Justice Without Racial Justice': Inside the Youth Climate March

A conversation with 16-year-old Jamie Margolin, who is leading the Zero Hour march.
Jamie Margolin.

Jamie Margolin.

On July 21st, American children will descend on Washington, D.C., to demand action on climate change. Young people will march past Capitol Hill, calling on their leaders to renounce money from fossil fuels and pass legislation to ensure a livable future for the children of tomorrow.

They won't go past the White House, because their cause isn't about President Donald Trump, explains Jamie Margolin, the 16-year-old from Seattle who has orchestrated the movement. The march is not about changing the mind of the commander-in-chief, she says, but rather about creating conditions for lasting change.

"People here, they spend too much time on [Trump]. He's just a crazy man. There's just no point in trying to convince him of anything," Margolin says. "We're thinking more long-term. If we march past the White House, people will just mistake it as another anti-Trump protest, and that's not what we are. We're a march for climate justice, and we would be doing this regardless of who's president."

Margolin, eloquent and passionate, has long stood up for environmental causes in her own state of Washington, but this is her first step into the arena of national action. It would perhaps be fairer to call it a leap. Until two years ago, her main extracurricular preoccupation was rhythmic gymnastics, the ribbon-twirling sport that prioritizes elegance and precision. Back then, she tried not to think too much about climate change. It seemed too scary.

But then the 2016 election happened, and the urgency of confronting climate change became suddenly clear. Her first taste of community organizing was as an intern in Hillary Clinton's campaign office in Seattle, where she became the unofficial Spanish translator for the team, having been raised speaking Spanish by her Colombian immigrant mother.

When Clinton lost, Margolin realized that she couldn't ignore the climate crisis anymore and began working for local environmental organizations. She also became one of the 13 plaintiffs suing Washington State's government for not taking sufficient action to reduce emissions.

In 2017, after watching the hurricanes that swept Puerto Rico and the smoke from wildfires that blanketed some of her favorite places in Seattle, she posted on Instagram about an idea that she'd been mulling for a while: a youth climate march on Washington, D.C.

"If we have a #YouthMarchonWashington where young people flood the streets and demand climate solutions, and then do a #sitin and essentially temporarily 'take over' the congress and senate, demanding our leaders to protect our Earth 🌏 ... we can change the game in the #climatecrisis," she wrote, accompanied by a handwritten sign, a piece of A4 paper propped in a window.

Do it, one friend wrote back.

That was less than a year ago. Today, Margolin has a team of around 30 young people working on the campaign, plus five adult mentors. Between high school and homework, she has also become fluent in the language of permits and logistics, and developed a sharp vision of what politicians need to deliver. Margolin is determined to create a movement that not only addresses carbon emissions, but also racial and indigenous justice.

Her work has been endorsed by former Vice President Al Gore, and she's in regular contact with Emma Gonzalez, the young gun-control activist who rose to prominence following the Parkland shooting in Florida, whom she now considers a friend.

Margolin has seen the vitriol that Gonzalez received following her strong stance against the National Rifle Association. Is Margolin afraid that she could face similar taunts for taking on the fossil fuel industry? "We've already had some people who have trolled us and told us we are stupid, and we don't know what we're doing, but that doesn't bother us," she says. "If people start to lash out, it means you're getting across and they feel threatened by the power that you have."

It's good that she has a thick skin because she's not planning on going away. As well as July's march, she has planned a lobbying day on July 19th where marchers will present their demands to politicians, and has established an organization, Zero Hour, to continue the task after the march is complete. Beyond D.C., marches are taking places in other cities including Las Vegas, Seattle, and London.

Most of the organizers are between 16 and 18 years old, though some are as young as 13, and some are in their twenties. Throughout the last year of lobbying, logistics, and strategizing, the young people have been the ones calling the shots, Margolin says. These days she has little free time, and her Instagram posts frequently refer to the physical toll that combined activism and schoolwork have taken.

The marches on July 21st will feature youth speakers sharing their own experiences of climate change, as organizers work to elevate the voices of people who have been particularly marginalized in the past. Among others, her team includes a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as various young people who fought against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

"You can't just talk about carbon levels and ignore the people who are literally dying. Our movement is very rooted in the damage that's already been done and the communities that are already suffering. There is no climate justice without racial justice," Margolin says.

As the aftermath of the Parkland shooting illustrated, it can be all too easy to forget that determined and intelligent children are, nonetheless, still children. Margolin, consciously and unconsciously, won't let anyone forget that fact. She slips easily between the language of teenager ("Lol fml") and adult ("You don't have to pick between Black Lives Matter and climate justice; they intersect"). Life on this threshold may be exhausting, but it is where she wants to be. It is where she sees her future.

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.