By Peter Martin
Environmental catastrophe does not discriminate among its victims— but our neglect to properly address climate change and how it will affect those most vulnerable will create overwhelming disparities. Over the last few decades, the issues caused by climate change have become more apparent and less deniable. For many concerned, threats to natural entities such as types of wildlife and picturesque landscapes are motivators to act and make changes. But it has become clear now, in 2021, that more people are victims of the climate emergency and related environmental issues than ever before.
The District of Columbia is no exception. Low-income neighborhoods predominantly populated by Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), mostly located in the southeastern portion of the city, have been and continue to be the ones suffering the most from environment-related issues within the city. Many of these neighborhoods (wards) are divided from the rest of the city by the Anacostia river, a crucial resource for DC. It serves as a source of employment, recreation, and as an immediate surrounding to their living space. However, the Anacostia River has not been swimmable, fishable, or usable without substantial health risks for much of its recent history. In another example, the energy utility, PEPCO, has a monopoly on power infrastructure, and their corporate hesitation regarding clean energy results in our continued reliance on fossil fuels and other non-renewables, with its related pollution hazards – especially for those downwind, i.e., the southeast wards.
Situations like these appears dire, but this does not mean that the people of the District are apathetic to the situation at hand. At the core of the people of DC’s fight against the climate emergency is the youth. To be specific, the youth within the context of the climate emergency tend be people in their teens and twenties who foresee the climate emergency as being a pressing and mainstream issue for the majority of their lives. In other words, young people from all backgrounds qualify as a vulnerable group, since they will be the ones to face climate change as it grows in severity. Is the fact that today’s youth are having to address the breaking point of a contemporary issue injustice in itself? Time will tell, but now for many, environmentalism is a gateway to activism and to intersectionality across the needs of environment and equity. So, as a result, environmentalism has developed into caring for not only the environment but for those within it.
Under the institutions and structures our government runs, change requires political and economic power. Young people, like any vulnerable group affected by climate change, are yet to gain the power to truly change these systems. However, young activists are leaders in the use of social media, and they are showing up like never before due to their increased ability to seek out other who sympathize with the same cause via social media. Today’s youth climate activists, unlike their predecessors, happen to be the savviest with the internet, social networks, and other tools that help people find others like-minded. Through passionate demonstrations and a strong online presence, they are able to create a chain reaction of involvement, helping other young people grow interested because they can see what others are contributing to the ongoing struggle to save the environment.
Further, these youth are continuously sharing their spotlight on social media and beyond with others who are vulnerable and who otherwise lack the tools to reach the masses. Upon observing the many social pages of youth environmental and environmental justice organizations, one can see that the youth are continuously rallying with one another for a common cause. This can be seen right now with the protests of #stopline3, an invasive pipeline project being constructed on indigenous land. This is why the continued effort of young people has not been limited to a specific fight to tackle any singular consequence of climate change — they are committed to fighting for equitable solutions that not only help the natural environment, but that also serve everyone who lives in it.
While there is an apparent core of young people rallying to the cause, this does not mean that its exclusive Gen Z. Adults of DC have sympathized with environmentalist causes throughout its extensive history. There are organizations like the Audubon Naturalist Society, which has facilitated community projects in DC since the end of the 19th century. It is also necessary to mention the large presence of non-profits that thrive off of community engagement. These include the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and organizations similar to Green Neighbors.
The youth-centered environmental movement may have been introduced to many by Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish climate activist, but it has been and is a call to arms by DC’s own young activists for some time as well. For example, in 2019 DC’s own Jerome Foster II was able to mobilize some of the country’s largest climate marches. He has inspired and been followed by others such as Kallan Benson, an initial coordinator for DC’s own participation in the Friday’s For Future movement. Preceding their work, there are the many organizations such as the Sunrise Movement’s DC hub and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), which showcase the contrast between hyperlocal groups and local chapters of broader organizations working on a national level.
The Sunrise Movement hub of DC especially models the role a national organization should have on a local scale. Not only does the hub stay active on all social medias, but they actually have members consistently working on projects, events, and organizing of all kinds. Founded to fight climate change, create jobs, and economic prosperity, they intersect many domains, including many social justice causes. The group comprises both locals and people relatively new to DC. The most active members appear to be people in their twenties, but people of younger ages make up much of its base and event attendance. Specific members include Naeem Alam and Jamieson Davids. Alam is a recent University of Maryland graduate, born and raised in the DC Metro region, who joined the organization because of its explicit intersectional activism; he has taken the role of hub coordinator. Davids, a Howard University Graduate and a Prince George County native, became inspired after visiting under-served neighborhoods in Detroit. He continuously inspires his peers to shape the hub into a more accurate representation of DC Youth. In February, the Sunrise Movement helped We Power DC and ONE DC, two justice organizations, to promote and hold a townhall meeting about energy justice.  In March, they teamed up with Kyanite Kitchen, a non-profit focused in providing healthy meals to those who need them, and held a drive to provide the city’s unhoused residents with food and clothing. These are just two examples out of the continuous lineup of events they share on their calendar.
As briefly mentioned before regarding the sewage contamination and pollution of the Anacostia River, exposure to the polluted water poses serious health risks. As climate change increases in its visible presence, water will become increasingly commodified, therefore water management of rivers like the Anacostia and others that border communities of color are in desperate need of help. Inspired to reclaim the river, the ECC has educated and empowered DC’s southeast wards. The ECC was founded by D.C.’s own young residents in 1992, and though not possessing a large social media presence, through youth outreach and educational programming, they long have encouraged generations of young people to conserve their direct surroundings and to find passions for conservation through community projects. One example includes the case of Rodney Stotts: one of the country’s few black falcon masters. At just nineteen years of age, Stotts was one of the first nine corps members of the ECC who literally jumped into the Anacostia to clean it up. Now at nearly 50 years old, Stotts still works with disadvantaged youth and continues growing their relationship with the environment.
Overall, the ECC and has pioneered local environmentalism within DC for 30 years. Although the ECC is overseen by a board of directors and advisory board, who no longer qualify as youth, the entirety of their programming is led by young people from the surrounding community in wards 6, 7, and 8. For example, their websites showcase videos detailing their eco-schools program, which pairs their high-school aged corps members paired with different local elementary school classes to complete projects. More recently they have continued their raptor watch program and have partnered with the Anacostia Riverkeeper to hold community fishing events on Friday nights.
As more and more people fall into the vulnerable category regarding climate change, these grassroots calls-to-action continue to amplify voices across youth, justice, and the environmental focused issues. This has been sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic.Through multiple national organizations with DC chapters and hyperlocal groups, these young people of DC are fueling change.
There is much hope around the leaders of the future, but it is by no means a fight exclusively for the future. Action is needed in this very moment from people of all ages. The climate emergency is not just a young person’s fight, it is a fight for all people. It is the responsibility of no single demographic, and those who possess compassion are needed to lessen the burden for those who potentially experience catastrophe. Where the youth have the skill to mobilize and connect through social media and other online mediums, those who no longer fit the ‘youth’ category help by having deeper connections with the communities and physical environments they inhabit. With their sympathy and collaboration, environmentalist agendas have a heightened capacity to reach their goals.
The reality is that climate change can only effectively be addressed through a cohesive and unified movement by people of all ages. The intersection of young people acting and the push for environmental justice should serve as inspiration for us all to follow and to see the climate emergency as an intersectional problem.