As brilliant thinkers and leaders work to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity today, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has been making sure that young people are represented in moving toward a more equitable tomorrow. An influential and outspoken teenager, Martinez has been speaking to audiences about environmental justice and youth activism since he was 6. Presently, he is the youth director of Earth Guardians, a “tribe of young activists, artists, and musicians from across the globe stepping up as leaders to co-create the future we know is possible.”
Martinez’s new book, We Rise (Rodale Books, 2017), is an empowering call to activists—young and old—to fight to restore our planet. The following is an excerpt from the book’s prologue.
Attend the 2017 Bioneers Conference in October to see Xiuhtezcatl Martinez speak in person, and read to the end of this post to watch a video of his talk at a previous conference.
There are moments in our lives that help shape the way we see our world. They shift our perspectives and help us understand our immense potential to define our future. The first 17 years of my life have led me to believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel at all phased as I looked out into the audience of world leaders from more than 100 nations. I’d been given a stage at a pivotal moment in history, and I saw the world needed fresh perspectives if we wanted to make real progress on climate solutions. We’ve spent the last 20 years pointing the finger and passing off responsibility. We are in a place where we can’t afford to wait for others to solve this problem for us. We have all the tools we need…the only thing missing is the will to help us get there.
My name is Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced ‘Shoe-Tez-Caht’). I am 17 years old, and I’m doing everything I can to fight for change in a collapsing world. In 2015, I had just finished middle school, and the state of the climate was descending into chaos. That year, global temperatures were the hottest in recorded history, sea levels had reached an all-time high, and greenhouse gases had never been more present in our atmosphere. Climate scientists worldwide were alarmed by how much faster the ice caps were melting than previously projected.
In response, world leaders were preparing to meet in Paris for the most important conversation on climate in our history. This was the COP 21 United Nations Climate Change Conference, and we weren’t about to let our voices be excluded from this pivotal moment in history. In the climate movement, we talk a lot about tipping points, and we know that we’re running out of time to act before climate change becomes irreversible.
Earlier that year, on Earth Day, I was featured in a short film called Kid Warrior. This was a documentary telling the story of my life and my work as the Youth Director for Earth Guardians, a global movement working to empower the younger generation to use our voices and create positive solutions. The film was meant to inspire other young people to get involved, connect, and engage in climate action and other important social issues of our time. I also wanted to show the world that my story is more than just activism . . . that I’m just a regular kid chasing big dreams in a crazy world.
After the Kid Warrior short hit the Internet, e-mails from young people flooded Earth Guardians, asking how they could get involved and start Earth Guardian crews of their own. I was swamped with interviews, speaking invitations, and media opportunities. One of those invites came from Susan Alzner, head of the United Nations Non-Government Liaison Service and by far my favorite person working at the UN. She’s helping build bridges to connect the UN General Assembly and voices of the people, by identifying civil society attendees and speakers for high-level events, conferences, and summits. One of her topics of interest was climate change, and she got wind of Kid Warrior and the Earth Guardians movement, leading to me.
While I was kind of surprised that the UN heard about me through social media, it was pretty remarkable to get an invite to address the general assembly. My intention was to plant the seeds and lay the foundation of hope for the upcoming Paris climate change conference, while representing the many youth voices that won’t be heard by the UN. I was only the second nongovernment person to address the general assembly.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner was first. She addressed the United Nations in 2014. At the time, she was a 26-year-old woman from the Marshall Islands, a small island nation that sits about 6 feet above sea level and is already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels and severe storms have come extremely close to destroying these beautiful islands.
In her speech, Kathy indicated that, no matter how hard it might be, we have to solve the issue of climate change. In a truly emotional and beautiful moment, she recited a poem to her infant daughter, promising the little girl that she would do everything she could to protect her from rising seas. She entitled the poem “Dear Matefele Peinam,” and here are the first few verses:
dear matafele peinam,
you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles
you are bald as an egg and bald as the buddha
you are thunder thighs and lightning shrieks so excited for bananas, hugs and
our morning walks past the lagoon
dear matafele peinam,
i want to tell you about that lagoon that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging
against the sunrise
some men say that one day that lagoon will devour you
they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones
they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home
dear matafele peinam,
mommy promises you
will come and devour you
no greedy whale of a company
sharking through political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals no blindfolded
bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over the edge …
She concluded to a standing ovation, leaving many attendees in tears. The beauty of her poem is that it wasn’t just about facts and figures, it told a relatable story about a mother’s love for her child and an unwavering will to protect her in the face of big challenges. I knew I had big shoes to fill after learning about her speech and just how deeply she touched the world leaders in attendance. I was excited to be the second person and youngest ever to address the United Nations General Assembly. The voices of the people needed to be heard, and I was up for the challenge.
It seems like the majority of people are disconnected from what actually occurs at the UN. With more than 20 years of world leaders talking to each other about climate change, nothing had been solved. For the UN, climate change is topic of bureaucratic debate, whereas for many communities, it’s a life-or-death situation. I felt like I had the opportunity to offer my perspective from the front lines of watching climate change decimate our planet. Whether it was feeling the tremendous impact of fracking on the water and air in my hometown of Boulder, or traveling to North Dakota to stand in solidarity at Standing Rock, or protesting against the Keystone XL Pipeline, or visiting damaged rain forests, oceans, and glacier melting sites, I have learned about the impact of climate change one powerful experience at a time.
Looking back, I now know that that speech was the culmination of an incredible period of growth in my life. My voice had just dropped, I was sprouting up, and I was taking my fight to a much bigger stage. I usually don’t memorize speeches; most of the time, I just speak from the heart. But, this was no ordinary speech. The UN wanted me to write out every word I was going to say. I have always viewed the words on the page as more of a road map to the places I might go.
The night before I boarded the flight to New York, I finished a draft of the speech. My badass mom, Tamara Rose, came with me on this journey. She’s endlessly supportive and my partner in crime in this movement. She does a great job of keeping the pressure out of it, always looking out for my best interests. I know she is proud of me, but she doesn’t add any expectations to the moment. She did want me to memorize the speech while I was on the plane though. As we began our ascent into the clouds, I reviewed my speech a few times, but after about 30 minutes or so, I figured I should just relax. I fell asleep, and I didn’t wake up until the captain came over the intercom system, indicating our initial descent into New York City.
As we got off the plane, my friend Vanessa Black, who made Kid Warrior, and her camera crew were there to film my journey to the UN. Vanessa took us directly to Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and to this small suit tailor in the city. It was a pretty funky place. A tailor met me and started taking my measurements. That was the first time in my life that I had ever put on a suit. The tailor shuffled jackets on and off of me and fit me for a shirt and shoes to match my suit. To that point, most of my activism was very grass roots, community-driven, and localized for the most part. This was an entirely different kind of thing than I was used to.
I was both pretty tired and hungry at this point, and I wanted to enjoy some of NYC’s best eats. My mom was stressing a little that I didn’t have my speech memorized, and I could appreciate her concern, but I was just chilling, knowing that I was ready for the moment. I think my exact words to her were, “Mom, don’t worry. I got this.” I can only imagine how reassuring that might sound coming from a 15-year-old kid who had just put on his first button-down shirt that wasn’t plaid.
June 29, 2015, arrived. As we approached the front entrance to the UN, there was a ridiculous amount of security. We were issued a number of clearance badges, and were eventually connected with Susan Alzner, who greeted us and showed us around. We took our seats in the audience, and I remember sitting through a number of different speakers who took the stage before me. It wasn’t engaging at all—the room was lifeless. I tried to sit up straight, so as to not wrinkle my suit or mess up my long hair. I was a little nervous; this was bigger than anything I’d done before.
About 20 minutes before I was scheduled to speak, we were ushered to the side of the stage. We continued to wait, and I surveyed the room filled with chairs, each with a different little placard in front of it, designating the country represented by that seat. The room went silent, and I heard a UN representative start to introduce me. He wasn’t the first to mess up the pronunciation of my name. To his credit, he tried a couple of times, but it just wasn’t happening for him. As I approached the podium, I looked out into the audience. The atmosphere still felt stale and stuffy. I knew I needed to bring some life into the room.
I unrolled my written speech, took a deep breath, and started off with a prayer in my native language. As you can imagine, not everyone in the room spoke the same language, so there was a booth set up with translators repeating everything for the diplomats in various dialects. Because my prayer was in Nahuatl and it isn’t a spoken language, it totally threw everyone off. I could just imagine what the interpreters were saying. Probably something like, “What the hell is happening right now? Nobody recognizes this language.” The UN required strict preparation for its speakers, and, in the first 30 seconds, I was already breaking the rules and going off script. Classic.
It only took the audience a few moments to realize that a 15-yearold kid was standing in front of them. I had their attention now—all eyes were on me.
I left the written words behind and spoke what I needed to say from my heart. I used the speech as an outline to freestyle the content. Looking out at the audience and recognizing the importance of this moment, I knew I had an opportunity to say more than what was on the page. By the end, I was totally off- script, and I was flowing with it. It felt perfect. My friend Paul Basis tells me that the power in your words is in the space between them. I took my time so people could feel everything I said. By the time I said what I came there to say, I had gone 3 minutes over the time I was given.
Getting off the stage after you speak to a bunch of people in suits is always a strange feeling. I felt like I said what I Xiuhtezcatl at the United Nations wanted to. Besides, the people in that room weren’t the ones I was really speaking to. Speeches don’t change the world, movements do, but the words and the messages that come through can spark a flame to ignite a movement.
Following the speech I felt the tremendous potential of what this moment could be. While this felt like a powerful culmination of 10 years of passion and dedication, I knew it was just the beginning of a nextlevel journey—to fulfill the promise of my words would take many more years of hard work. So often people compromise themselves in order to accomplish their political objectives. The goal of my speech was to defy that. I don’t ever want to have to be something that I’m not to make a difference in the world. I gave that speech because I wanted to show the world that a kid with a passion and a voice could make a difference, regardless of who he is or where he comes from.
I was able to show up in a fully authentic way, in a place where such blunt honesty is rare. Whether or not my words sunk into the people in the room, my message would resonate to those frustrated by a bureaucracy that had failed to meet the needs of the people. In my speech, I told the audience: “Don’t be afraid to dream big.” The failure of global leaders to solve this crisis is direct result of their lack of imagination. If we want a sane climate policy, we the people have to push them beyond what they see as politically possible.
Sadly, the UN didn’t dream big enough with the Paris Climate Conference that followed my speech several months later. Their efforts fell short of the concrete actions needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions substantially. What progress was made in Paris many fear will be thwarted by a Trump administration, which says they plan to cancel the agreement.
For many of us, waking up on November 9th felt as if we were entering a national nightmare. But I’ve learned that big dreams often come from total nightmares. The UN was formed in response to the tragedies that occurred during World War II. So I can only imagine that we are primed and ready for something larger than previously imagined. I know that change occurs through each of us. It is the manifestation of our collective efforts. This book is a resource to transform a broken system and build a new one in its place. It will help to paint the picture, demonstrate the struggle, and then outline a solution.
We’re up against a lot, but together we’ve got this. Movements can begin with one idea, one spark of inspiration, and one action. They catch fire when we unite around them. Each of us has a part to play, no matter how small. The solutions we create in our communities are the foundation for something bigger than us all.
Every generation leaves a legacy. The tools to create one are in your hands. Think of this book as a map to help you find your way when you get lost. The ending remains unwritten, because the actions we take will shape the world that the next generation inherits. This book is for the frontline fighters, the people who won’t take no for an answer, and for those who believe in change and are seeking guidance to create it. This book is for the straight-A students, the high-school dropouts, the single moms, the rebels, the farmers, the architects, the healers, the poets, the entrepreneurs, the leaders, and those who have not yet found their voice. My faith lies in the amazing people I’ve met along this journey who won’t stop fighting for what we believe in. Another world is possible.
Together we can do this if we just put boots on the ground and pool our time and energy to heal the world one leaf on one tree in one forest in one city in one state in one country at a time. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but it can happen if we make the most of each day. Every little bit helps. Local efforts can create global waves. Throughout this book, you’ll find helpful conversations about the most important social issues of our time. At the end of the conversations, I will outline steps and resources you can take and use to join in and make a difference.
So keep this book by your side as you navigate the road ahead. Keep it in your backpack, near your bed stand, or in your hybrid. Write in it, highlight it, even rip out the pages and give them to your friends. Please pass it around, and share the guidance and suggestions in the pages ahead. I want you to love reading this book as much as I loved writing it. This is my way of spreading the word as quickly as possible. This book is just the beginning of the movement for change, but I know there are difference-making resources in the words to come. It means the world to me that I have the opportunity to outline my plan to save the Earth that has given so much to each of us. I am one of the many. And so are you. I look at you as my teammate and partner in this battle. We got this if we just work together.
So with that said, please dream big and read on.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from We Rise by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, published by Rodale Books, 2017.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez speaks at the 2016 Bioneers Conference: