Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Environmental activists discuss collective youth power in Feinberg series

Activists stressed the importance of intersectionality and inclusion

On Monday, the University of Massachusetts hosted climate activists Varshini Prakash and Vanessa Nakate to give a lecture titled “Young People Fighting for Climate Justice.”  The event was this year’s Baldwin Lecture and was also part of the Feinberg Series, a bi-annual lecture series presented by the UMass History department.

Prakash, UMass class of 2015, is the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a national organization organizing around climate action. Nakate is a climate activist from Uganda and founder of Youth for Future Africa, which later became the Rise Up Movement.

In their talks, both speakers shed insight on their own climate activism journeys and highlighted the importance of collective youth power in the fight for climate justice.

“We need one voice, one platform and one action to change this world. It all starts with that one person, but then imagine all these voices all these platforms, all these actions, put together,” said Nakate.

Prakash added, “We have power if we get organized, if we are unapologetic in our vision and in our demands. We have power as young people if we can unify across difference.”

Nakate began her activism in January of 2018 by joining the Friday for Future movement and striking in front of the Parliament of Uganda every Friday. Intersectionality, inclusion and drawing attention to the effects of climate change in Africa have been some of the focal points of her activism.

 “One of the greatest challenges faced in the climate movement in my activism has been the feeling of being left out, the feeling of being cropped out,” said Nakate, speaking about a time that she was cropped out of a photo with fellow climate activists after attending a press conference in Davos.

“There is not climate justice without racial justice. erasing a photo of a climate activists from the global south means erasing the voices, the cries of all the victims who are being affected by the climate crisis right now,” she added.

Nakate noted that, though Africa as a continent is one of the least emitters of CO2 emissions, it is among the most affected by the climate crisis.

She spoke about seeing massive droughts leading to water scarcity, crops drying out, changes in weather patterns, and a rise in water levels on Lake Victoria that destroyed farms and contaminated water.

“What disaster haven’t I seen in my country, or in the African continent?” said Nakate.

Nakate also highlighted the way in which girls and women are disproportionately affected by climate change in Africa. In Uganda, she said, women have the responsibility of getting food and collecting water to provide for their families. Because of droughts, women often have to walk extra distances to collect food or water. She said that sometimes girls drop out of school to help their mothers or are forced into child marriages for money.

“We cannot run to save the planet without remembering the people who are suffering, right now. And if we are to see change, then the change needs to include everyone… Change can only come when there is justice for all of us,” she said.

Nakate continued, “Let us work towards a future that is a future that is healthy and future that is sustainable, a future that is equitable for all of us…. And if we want to achieve this, then we have to build people. We have to build communities. We have to build our countries.”

In her talk, Prakash shared similar sentiments of building collective power and acknowledging intersectionality.

During her time at UMass, Prakash came to be involved with the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student-led activist group calling on the University to stop their investments in fossil fuel corporations.

The campaign successfully got 5,000 young people to sign a petition calling for divestment, hosted marches and rallies and attended negotiations and meetings with administration.

From these meetings, Prakash described realizing that “As young people we cannot rely on those with power to make the changes that we needed out of the sheer goodness of their hearts, it was gonna be up to us up to ordinary kids, organizing, and turning individual, our individual strength into collective power and standing up to make it happen.”

At the culmination of the movement in 2016, over 1000 young people participated in a week-long sit-in at Whitmore administration building. One month later, the UMass Board of Trustees voted to make UMass the first major public university to divest from fossil fuels.

“It solidified in my brain something that I knew for so long and knew deep down in my heart – that we would be infinitely powerful if we can come together to make it happen,” said Prakash.

Despite this win in Amherst, Prakash added that she still realized that at a national scale “our movements weren’t growing at the speed and urgency of the crisis at hand.”

With a group of other activists, she described dreaming up a “new movement for young people around climate justice… rooted in addressing racial and economic justice as essential to the path to get the climate justice movement.”

In the spring of 2017, the Sunrise Movement was launched. Since then, Prakash says the organization has mobilized tens of thousands of youth to organize around climate justice in their community, have established hundreds of chapters nationwide and helped elect climate champions to office.

Yet, she said that these victories weren’t because someone woke up one day and decided to do the right things.

“It was because young people made a vision of the world for climate justice and moved it from a political impossibility to becoming politically inevitable, because we gave our power holders, no other choice,” she said.  “And that is just what I hope you take from this conversation if anything is. We need you in this fight. We need you to get activated.”

Panel moderator Toussaint Losier, an assistant professor in the Afro-American studies department, asked Nakate and Prakash about their focus on young activists during the Q&A portion of the event.

“The organizing the both of you all do sees young people as crucial political actors, and as folks who much more so than those who have come in earlier generation are at a point in their lives where they can make social change,” he said.

“Young people have just been a critical part of virtually every major social movement that has existed,” said Prakash. “What young people bring to the table – the passion, willingness to take risks, the lack of jadedness, the lack of cynicism, the real hope, the militant optimism like that comes from young people. There’s something about being young that just lends itself to that.”

The list of future Feinberg Series talks can be found here.

Irina Costache can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @irinaacostache.

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