how I became a radical climate activist
17-year-old Jamie Margolin tells i-D how she started an international climate movement, and in the process discovered her power as a queer Latina in Trump’s America.
Photography Jesse Gouveia
It’s always funny to me when people ask, “How did you become so passionate about climate change?” To me it's as if a ticking time bomb is about to go off, and I’m frantically trying to stop it from destroying everything in sight, and then someone calmly walks up to me as if an emergency situation is not unfolding before their eyes and asks me, “It’s so cool you’re trying to stop that time bomb, how did you become so passionate about it?”
But I guess what people mean by that is how I got started in this climate justice business. I was in second grade when I first tried to take climate action. I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard about this issue, it’s just always been a reality for me. It’s kind of like when you can’t pinpoint the first time you’ve heard of a celebrity like, say, Beyonce. You've kind of just always known she was there and a big deal. I grew up watching documentaries about the climate crisis and environmental destruction, which filled me with fear and dread for my future. I wanted to act, but I didn’t know how. No one teaches young people how to act on an issue they care about, so I had to try and figure out something myself. I remember during recess I made little “Green Club” pins and handed them out to students telling them, “Join me if you care about saving the earth”. But I didn’t exactly know what to do from there, so the whole initiative died out really quickly. I mention this failed attempt because taking action on climate has been something on the back of my mind almost my whole life.
"For most of my life I hid behind my ability to camouflage and ignore the problems around me because I was too scared and overwhelmed to confront them."
Fast forward to 2016. I was 14 years old, a freshman in high school, and as more and more horrifying facts and worldwide climate disasters came to my attention, I resorted to a less than ideal coping mechanism for dealing with the climate crisis -- cutting myself off from anything and everything having to do with climate. I was so petrified by this massive crisis that I just completely shut down and didn’t even attempt to take action. The impending destruction of life as we know it, the violence and corruption at the root of climate breakdown -- it was too much for me to bear, so I just didn’t. But the 2016 American presidential elections changed everything for me. After Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, I had had enough.
Since I was 11, my life had been completely engulfed in rhythmic gymnastics, but a concussion, a stress fracture, and some aching joints later, I was forced to stay home and listen to the news. The TV in my house is blasting news 24/7 -- current events and politics is the nonstop background noise of my household. I listened. To the presidential debates. To all the issues on the table. To what was at stake in the real world outside of my privileged, insulated life in west Seattle. I realised I couldn’t stick my head in a hole in the ground any longer.
My parents are not the kind of people to drag me into something and stage-parent me to success, (and I’m not the kind of person who would give into that anyway). I have always had a mind of my own. I dragged my parents to the first phone banking event at our local Democratic campaign office. That day I made the most calls out of anyone in the campaign office. After that, my parents stopped coming to the campaign office, but I went there after school every day I could. I worked my butt off and earned the respect of everyone in the office -- it was my first time being a part of something bigger than myself. Being the only Latina and fluent Spanish speaker in the office, I served as the unofficial Spanish translator, handling adult-level crises like a case of voter intimidation over the phone in Spanish when Spanish-only speakers called. I had finally found a place where I could channel all of that political passion into the real world. I felt like I was doing something useful for the earth and the climate, because Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were not climate deniers like the Republicans, and would address this issue with the seriousness it deserved (since then I have learned that’s not true, the Democratic Party and many of its elites are in bed with the fossil fuel industry and still participating in a form of climate denial by delaying action and screwing over my entire generation, but that’s a story for another day.) Anyway, no matter what my misled fantasies were, it didn’t matter because, as we know, Donald Trump and the Republicans took the 2016 election and I was crushed. This idea of safety and that someone in power would address climate change vanished.
The 2016 election shook little 14-year-old high school freshman me out of my privileged bubble. For most of my life, I hid behind my ability to camouflage and ignore the problems around me because I was too scared and overwhelmed to confront them. Even though I’m the daughter of a Colombian immigrant, I hid behind my light skin and never flaunted my Latina identity, blending in with the white kids and only speaking Spanish at home when I had to. Even though I’m gay, I hid in the closet behind my femininity and kept my distance from the LGBTQ movement to avoid harassment and discrimination, benefiting from people just assuming I was straight. And even though I’m a young person who is inheriting a climate destroyed world, I hid behind the fact that I lived in the safe haven of the west Seattle suburbs, mostly shielded from the effects of the climate crisis and fossil fuel extraction. Out of my fear of how the world would react to me, and how big the issue was, I had assimilated into the white, heteronormative, climate-delaying business of usual society. The 2016 election shook me right out of that.
Faced with a fascist climate denying administration, I could no longer hide. So I joined a local environmental group called Plant for The Planet Seattle and met my first climate mentor, Michael Foster, a climate activist who uses civil disobedience to draw urgent attention to the climate emergency. Through my work with Plant For The Planet I learned about the true extent of how bad the climate crisis was, I confronted local politicians, organised in my community, and climate work took over my life as I became a community organiser for climate justice outside of school. By the time summer vacation after my freshman year rolled around, I was a fully fledged radical activist who saw through the bullshit that had been fed to me all my life by politicians and industries, and wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.
"Doing that kind of radical climate justice work and finally seeing the systems of oppression that were at the root of all of it also pushed me to grow into my own power and identities."
The summer of 2017 before my sophomore year of high school was where it all culminated -- the hard work I had been doing in my Seattle community was not enough, and there was no mainstream global sense of urgency on the climate crisis. Climate exacerbated hurricane after hurricane, disaster after disaster, record heat wave after record heat wave, slammed countless parts of the world; and yet the response from the media and politicians was radio silence when it came to taking action. The United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement. For the first time, my sheltered Seattle suburb was hit by horrific smog due to wind blowing it down from Canada's climate-worsened wildfires, and for two weeks that summer the air quality was worse than the notoriously bad air quality of Beijing, China. I got sick and lethargic, and my friends with chronic illnesses had to go to the emergency room. Enough was enough.
I posted on my Instagram that I was going to organise the first youth climate march on Washington, and asked if people wanted to join me. Then 15-year-old Nadia Nazar, an internet friend of mine, responded saying she was in. We recruited several more young people to join our scrappy organising team, and the Zero Hour movement was born. We chose that name because #ThisIsZeroHour to act on climate change -- there is no more time, and we were not joining the climate movement to play around, we were sounding an emergency alarm. We decided we were going to march on Washington 21 July, 2018.
More and more youth joined the movement, and we became a hub for young women of colour who had never had a space they could lead before in the environmental movement. We connected with indigenous activists from Standing Rock and other youth from the frontlines of the climate crisis who were not born with the privilege of being able to ignore it, and created a list of demands for our leaders to address the systems of oppression that caused the climate crisis in the first place.
My work with Zero Hour got me completely out of that shell of hiding from the facts of the climate crisis because it was too scary to think about. And doing that kind of radical climate justice work and finally seeing the systems of oppression that were at the root of all of it also pushed me to grow into my own power and identity. A month before The Youth Climate March, I came out of the closet and started owning my queerness proudly and without shame. Around that same time I became more vocal, proud and unapologetic in my identity as a Colombian American and started weaving Latinx activism and liberation into my climate action work.
Zero Hour grew and grew into an international movement, and soon we had 25 chapters around the world who were also planning youth climate marches in their own communities. On 21 July 2018, the Zero Hour movement descended upon Capitol Hill and marched in a torrential rainstorm in DC for our lives, rights and futures. The day before, we had galvanised the community with a climate justice festival, and we delivered our demands of what we need in order to have a liveable future to 47 members of the senate. Our sister chapters marched along with us, and the Zero Hour movement -- that summer, an international movement of fed up youth demanding urgent action on climate -- was born.
Being at the forefront of the youth climate movement forced me not just to step into my own power as a youth organiser, activist, and public speaker -- but as the badass queer Latina that I was. Zero Hour changed my life forever. I have built up the courage and emotional strength to face the hard existential truth of the climate crisis on a daily basis, and in all aspects of my life I have been living bolder and louder. Whatever your privilege level is, for however long you’ve been hiding from yourself and the world, it’s never too late to join the movement.
We’ve got a ticking time bomb to deactivate.
If you want to become part of the Zero Hour movement you can email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.