Don’t underestimate 17-year-old climate change activist Jamie Saraí Margolin — and don’t call her ‘sweetie’
The founder of the student-led Zero Hour movement writes about her activism, the discrimination she experiences and why youth are going to save us from the climate crisis.
Ever since I can remember, climate change has loomed over me and every life decision I make. As of writing this article, I am 17. My life, and that of my entire generation, is full of "ifs.” If climate change hasn’t completely destroyed society as we know it. If that part of the world isn’t uninhabitable by the time I’m an adult. If the coral reefs are still there. We had no power in creating the systems that are destroying our world and futures — and yet we are and will be paying the biggest price for the older generations’ recklessness.
So at 14 years old, I began organizing in my hometown of Seattle in the beautiful Pacific Northwest U.S. for climate justice. I worked my butt off along with fellow youth activists for a year doing lobbying campaigns for local initiatives, testifying for local climate action bills, speaking at protests and rallies, and educating youth at nearby schools on the climate crisis — but nothing was happening. No one was really paying attention to our cries for help.
That’s when I came up with the idea for a massive youth climate march and international movement, the seeds of what now has become Zero Hour. I realized that a national day of youth-led mass action would be the ideal platform to ensure that elected officials and adults would hear our voices loud and clear.
In the summer of 2017, I started gathering friends to make the idea a reality. Nadia Nazar, the amazingly talented artist who illustrated this article, along with Madelaine Tew and Zanagee Artis, friends from a summer program at Princeton University, joined me. By the end of the summer, young activists from across the country had joined the team and the Zero Hour movement was starting to take shape. We spent the next year working to organize a historic weekend of youth climate action — we had so many conference calls, we probably spent more time that year on calls than we did sleeping. Our Google Drive was crammed hundreds of planning documents, spreadsheets and graphic designs. Whenever we went out in public, we had to make sure we were armed with flyers to spread the word about our movement.
On July 19, 2018, over 100 students went to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to deliver our demands and the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge to our elected officials. We asked officials to divest the government from all fossil fuel interests and to stop accepting donations from corporations that destroy the planet and our environment — read more about our platform and principles! Thousands of youth in 25 cities around the world held marches for a safe and livable future. In the main march in Washington, D.C., youth braved a rainstorm to explain why #ThisIsZeroHour to act on climate change through passionate speeches and songs at the rally.
What started as a handful of students became this international movement. Because our work was featured in outlets like CNN, Motherjones and The New York Times, we were able to turn youth climate activism from something no one talked about into something fairly mainstream. Celebrities like Chadwick Boseman, Alyssa Milano, Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson supported us on social media. A quote I love reads, “If you don’t like the news, become the news.” And that’s exactly what Zero Hour did.
I am especially proud of building a movement that is run by women of color. It provides a safe place for girls like me to lead. If you are a young person of color organizer who’s looking for a place where you can be a leader in the climate movement, Zero Hour would be happy to be your home.
I’m not going to lie — there have been several times when I felt underestimated because I am a teenage mixed-race hispanic girl. One time, I took a day off of school to lobby with other youth activists for common sense climate policy in my state capitol of Olympia. I spent the day in a hearing room surrounded by old white fossil fuel executives who were saying there is no proof that fossil fuels are damaging the environment. I went up after the hearing to confront them about how what they said was a lie and one of the men squeezed my shoulder and said, “Sweetie, don’t worry yourself so much about this ‘environment’ thing, because we corporations are actually the ones who do the most for the environment. We got it covered. Just focus on school.”
Yep. Unironically. To my face.
I can’t even count the amount of speeches and events I’ve been at where old white men feel entitled to get in my space and touch and grab me (without me giving consent or even knowing their names) and give me “advice,” which usually comes as an angry tirade about how everything I said about was wrong and how social justice has nothing to do with the environment. And then of course when I’m on panels, men interrupt me and “correct” me. If I got money every time someone mansplained to me in a professional environment, I think I could pay for college.
I see my fair share of trolls online too. An article came out about me in a right wing blog in which they said I should worry less about the environment and more about getting a boyfriend — which is so funny because I don’t even swing that way, but that’s heteronormativity and sexism for you. In the article they also criticized how I was a “dumb teenage girl” who “didn’t smile enough,” which is a classic. I get a kick out of stupid obvious sexism about me to be honest.
So listen up ladies and femmes: it’s so important for the younger generations — especially Generation Z — to speak out on climate change even if some adults underestimate you. A recent, terrifying climate report from the U.N. stated that as of 2018, there are only 12 years left to limit the climate catastrophe. Talk about it being #ZeroHour to act on climate! In 12 years, I’ll only be 28! My life will just be beginning when the world is ending and that goes for millions of youth all around the world.
We must speak out because it is our lives that are on the line. It is our future and there is nothing more powerful that youth saying that will not lay down and accept this fate that is being laid out for us by the powerful among our parents’ generations. Youth don’t have any hidden agendas. We’re not organizing or speaking out for money. It’s not our job. We’re not required to take action by anyone. We are doing it because our lives depend on it. That’s truly powerful and that’s what makes people listen and finally create change.
My advice for you all who are looking to support this movement but don’t know where to start is find a local community organization and attend a few meetings. Community organizing and movement building is the key to winning this fight and that’s how I started. I found the website of a local youth environmental organization (Plant-for-the-Planet), called the number on their website and sat in on a meeting. If you don’t feel comfortable with mainstream non-intersectional white environmental organizations — I certainly don’t, and that approach is not going to solve this issue — find a people-of-color led organization or group in your area.
You know what I truly believe is going to save us from the climate crisis? All of us youth speaking out and creating solutions in our own communities. If only a handful of youth that started the #ThisIsZeroHour movement can have the impact that we had, imagine what millions of us can do! So young people, what are you waiting for? We’ve got work to do!
Through Assembly, Malala Fund is helping girls around the world share their stories. Subscribe to receive our newsletter and learn about the next generation of leaders.
About the author
Jamie Saraí Margolin is a 17-year-old writer, activist, organizer, rebel and high schooler. Jamie’s identity as a queer mixed-race latina and daughter of a Colombian immigrant and an Ashkenazi Jew influences her activism and passion to fight for those who are marginalised.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Nadia Nazar uses art to bring awareness about environmental issues and animal rights. She is currently the Co-Executive Director and Art Director of Zero Hour.