The Triumphs and Challenges of a Young Climate Activist

Earth Guardians of Canada at an Action. (Photo by Jan Mangan)

18-year-old Sierra Robinson is a climate activist who practices permaculture on her family’s homestead farm on Vancouver Island. She is also Regional Director for Earth Guardians of Canada and a plaintiff in a climate change lawsuit suing the Canadian Government. Sierra was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Bioneers Youth Education and Leadership Program Director.

ARTY: You have been organizing climate strikes on Vancouver Island.

SIERRA: My Earth Guardians crew is now being led by my amazing co-crew lead Katya. She and I have worked together to help our community plan a giant climate strike, which is on pause right now because of the virus. But we’re still striking weekly on Fridays online by posting pictures and rallying the community.

We worked with our mayor and elders in our community; we tried to include everybody in the planning and conversation. We hosted climate strikes to raise awareness of what’s happening with the climate movement and how it’s impacting our valley and the area around us. We’re encouraging people to start thinking about what their climate story is and how they’re impacted by climate change personally.

We also went to the Cowichan Valley Regional District and got them to declare a climate emergency. It was amazing to actually see things start to come out of our efforts.

ARTY:  What have you learned from organizing the strikes?

SIERRA: I learned that it’s not always easy to plan really big things like the strikes, but it’s such an amazing, beautiful feeling to be marching together with hundreds of people. We had like 500 people at one of them. It’s such a powerful feeling to be marching with that many people in a small community who care so strongly and who still show up after the initial strike. They show up for the conversations where we sit down and talk about what needs to change and how we’re going to tackle these issues. It helps an activist or person in general to feel a lot less alone when you know that there’s all these other people who care about the same issues you do and want a better future. The strikes are raising the sense of urgency in people around us.

Sierra Robinson (photo by Jeremy Koreski)

ARTY: As a young leader, what are your biggest challenges?

SIERRA: They vary depending on the month because there’s either crazy big fires or floods that are obviously affecting people in every age demographic. As a young person and an activist, these disasters can really take a toll on my mental health. It’s a learning curve to be careful not to burn yourself out and to remember to put self-care first while realizing that the planet is in a crisis.

When I’m envisioning a future that I want, it’s really hard to balance hope when statistics show that most of the ice caps are melting and the coral reefs will pretty much be gone in a couple of years. All of these crazy statistics are saying the opposite of the future we want. Balancing the reality of how dire the situation is and what you want to see in the world is a lot of weight on somebody’s shoulders especially when you are an activist and passionately care about making the world a better place for people and animals and everything around you.

It’s difficult when you feel a lot of people are working against you. A lot of corporations and industries that have tons of money are greedy and selfish and don’t care about the people or the environments they’re going to impact with their business deals.

There is a lot of online bullying that happens through Facebook, etc. I’ve kind of gotten to the point where it doesn’t bother me anymore, but at first that was something really difficult to navigate.

I’m trying to graduate this year and it’s difficult balancing climate activism and the things I care about with school, which is also important to me. But it feels less important when you’ve got all of these threats hanging over your head, and what might happen if you don’t do anything.

So, the biggest challenges are mental health and sometimes having my voice heard.Being young, people look at me and belittle me a little bit. They’ll be like, “You shouldn’t be worrying about climate change; you should be worried about trying to get a boyfriend.” I’ve actually had people say that to me.

ARTY: Is it your peers who say that?

SIERRA: Not my peers, it’s usually from older generations like my parents’ age. Many of my peers know and recognize that climate change is a big problem, but a lot of them are just really terrified and don’t know how to fix it, so they’re kind of immobilized. I think there’s this misconception that a lot of youth don’t care about climate change, but there doesn’t really feel like there are easy, direct ways that they can create changes. I think that’s more of what it is.

Sierra Robinson (center) with Vancouver Island Earth Guardian Crew

ARTY: What do young people need to help support their leadership?

SIERRA: Youth need more spaces to gather and meet and have these conversations. That’s why I love Bioneers so much. It gives a space for youth to sit down and have difficult conversations about the issues and how we can start to change things now. Sometimes, all it really takes is an inclusive space where people can just sit down, be heard, and get creative together. Youth need people to listen to them more and uplift our voices and support us in the work we do in whatever way they can.

ARTY: Has your experience at Bioneers had any other impact on you?

SIERRA: I’ve been to a lot of conferences where I sat down and listened to a boring lecture with maybe some interesting parts here and there. Usually it’s the same old white men standing in front of the room doing a very similar talk using a lot of numbers and talking about things that are really heavy. It doesn’t feel very connected or grounded. But Bioneers is this really beautiful, diverse, creative, artistic space. Some of the presentations start out with music and songs with people dancing and people singing.

The talks were by youth and elders and people in between, people with different gender identities and different cultural backgrounds. It was really a powerful thing to be able to see all the different perspectives together in a really united space. I knew the people there had similar goals and wanted more equality and safety and health for everyone around them. Of course, being able to hang out with other youth that were so passionate about things was a very beautiful experience.

ARTY: Do you have any advice for young people who are discouraged by the state of the world?

SIERRA: I’d say that I get them and I understand why they’re discouraged. It’s a lot to deal with, it seems like there’s a new issue every day, but try not to solely focus on how terrible and shitty things feel. Yes, there’s a lot going on and we need to acknowledge it and start to work on changing it. We need to start imagining what we do want the world to look like instead of what we don’t want. We can change that mindset to fighting for the future we want and for the beautiful things that we love. Let’s focus on where our passion and excitement and happiness are. Just start tackling the problems in the world, one at a time, through what we’re most passionate about and what our skills and interests are. 

 If we just do what we love in a way that’s better for the world that’s where we’ll start to see changes fast. People will be more connected and happy, and so many good things will come out of it. So, stay hopeful and don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s important.

ARTY: You embody all of that. I have some quotes that I want to read to you to get your free association impressions.

ARTY: This is from author Anais Nin, a Cuban/French author, whose writings were influential in the early feminist movement in the 1960s. She said, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

SIERRA: Wow. I think that is so absolutely true. A few years ago, when I was 13 or 14 years old, I was terrified of showing up as myself in the world. I was a farmer who loved running around and being crazy, but I was so worried sometimes to speak my mind. At times, I was really loud and outgoing, but I had a lot of people tell me that I was too loud. They were essentially them telling me that I was taking up too much space, being too colorful, too confident or independent.

 Women and people in general are put in boxes and given labels. How do you find the courage in yourself to be who you want to be and show up as who you really are?  Am I going to have the courage to really believe in this cause and myself? As soon as I tried doing that more – it was a process and is still a process – anytime I do have the courage to show up as myself, huge things start to change around me, more opportunities start to happen. I see the work that I’m doing become more effective. People are able to actually connect to me from an authentic place because all those walls of being fake are down. So, I love that.

ARTY: This is from the poet Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

SIERRA: Totally. In our movement or in anything that we do, there’s always going to be defeats, but they’re very different from failures. If you’re trying and you’re putting your work and your energy into it, and you care about it with an actual passion not just doing it to get good grades or whatever, no matter what defeats happen – because there will be lots of them – there’s lots of amazing victories to celebrate. It just brings us closer and closer to realizing more effective ways to make change and helps us recognize that we have more space for growth.

ARTY: This one is from Rosa Parks, “I’ve learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear. Knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

SIERRA: In our world, we don’t have a lot of time to be scared. We actually are on a timeline. It is the scariest deadline ever because we don’t know exactly when things will get to the point where it’s irreversible. When we’re talking about climate change or other things, I think that there’s always things we can do no matter what. We can reinvent the way we live by using permaculture or regenerative design work. We need to not be afraid of making people angry. We need to be compassionate and grounded in our work and be kind and intuitive. We need to listen to where other people are coming from and recognize that their cycles of violence are often because they have been hurt in their lives. But we also need to not take any more of the bullshit. We need to not be scared to do what we have to do, but to do it coming from a place of love.

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