Youth-Led Intersectional Environmentalism: Today, not Tomorrow

Kevin J. Patel is a 21-year-old climate justice activist and the founder of the youth-led environmental justice organization OneUpAction International. Patel initially launched OneUpAction in 2019 as an organization to amplify BIPOC voices and leadership. His goal was to empower communities to take local action. Today, the organization works tirelessly to fight for a regenerative future by providing resources and support to marginalized youth.

Following, Patel shares his hopes for immediate climate action in which young people are given the resources and agency to advocate for climate justice on their own terms.

Kevin J. Patel

I want to start off by talking about where our collective movements for climate and environmental justice should be. I begin with a quote from my good friend Leah Thomas, where she talks about intersectionality in environmentalism.

So what is intersectional environmentalism?

“This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet.”

Intersectional environmentalism is the framework in order to realize environmental justice.

We know all too well that the climate crisis is the single greatest issue of our time. We have only a few years left for our politicians and world leaders to act. These critical years will ultimately determine the future of our planet and the fate of our generation and generations to come. We are in the fight for the future of not just the planet but for all of humanity.

The climate crisis isn’t just about the future, it’s about our lives. It is about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the homes that have burnt down, and the people who have died. It is about those who are diagnosed with cancer and asthma. It is hard to see so many members of my community being disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. Seeing and hearing their voices is what intersectional environmentalism is all about. We must also not just see and hear these voices, but make sure they have the power and agency to make their own decisions.

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, I am intimately familiar with the effects of climate change. In middle school, I was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, a direct effect of growing up in a community plagued by air pollution and neglect. I notice that the place I call home is still being destroyed by the very thing that caused my health issues.

The State of California is known to be the most progressive state in America, yet we are still being affected by wildfires, droughts, and heat waves. Communities in which some of my friends and family members live are near oil refineries or being affected day in and day out by other injustices. It is not the affluent communities in Los Angeles or elsewhere in California that are being affected, it is the low-income communities of color.

When I say the affluent are not being affected, I mean they have the luxury to escape the injustices that plague communities of color. They have far more resources, wealth, privilege, and connections that allow them to escape wildfires and other climate-fueled disasters, whereas people of color, who are the working class, don’t have those privileges. They are trapped in the accelerating effects of the climate crisis.

Let us all remember that environmental injustice occurs within a racialized context. BIPOC communities are the most exposed to poor air and water quality. This isn’t random. This is a policy choice. We are the ones who are disproportionately impacted and have to suffer these injustices.

Today, the whole world faces daunting challenges, from persistent poverty to entrenched inequalities. Yet one key solution is just over the horizon. Countries and leaders can take action by empowering our youth to face these challenges upfront.

Now you might be asking yourself, aren’t we already giving young people a voice? And it’s true. I’m here, aren’t I? Or aren’t we already empowering young people to take action? I want you to keep those two questions in mind. Our leaders frequently bombard us from all angles of society with the axiom that young people of today are the leaders of tomorrow. But why not the leaders of today?

The irony lies in the fact that the youth are overlooked in the formation, implementation, and monitoring of exactly the key decisions that will ultimately affect us because we are seen as the leaders of tomorrow, not today.

From a politically correct perspective, youth are the leaders of tomorrow. The use of the word “tomorrow” in any context has a way of conducting complacency in promoting the importance of actions and decisions made today and shaping tomorrow.

According to well-known activist Malcolm X, the future belongs to those who are prepared for it today. Why must the youth wait until tomorrow to lead? What about today? When does tomorrow begin, and what does tomorrow look like? Let us ask ourselves those key questions, but let there be no misunderstanding: As often as the youth are reminded that they are the leaders of tomorrow, they must also be reminded of the fact that today is the tomorrow they were waiting for yesterday.

Calling the youth the leaders of tomorrow has brought about the mindset that they are incapable of making an impact or change in their communities today, because it is not their time. It has also caused them to sit back and criticize the governments or corporations we see as today’s leaders and who should be held responsible for all the present societal injustices in our communities. It has made young people look at the problems we face in our communities, believing that someone else, not us, will fix them. Being a leader tomorrow requires a vision today, and this vision today must be put to work to be implemented.

So let me go back to my main question: What does today look like? Young people being able to lead and implement climate solutions is something I find myself working on every single day at OneUpAction. We must find and fund young people who are not only taking action on climate through education, but also those who are implementing climate solutions in their communities.

We are all given a superpower, and that power can be used collectively: It’s our voices. Our voices are the most powerful tool at our disposal. We all have a voice to speak out against injustices. We only have to use our voices.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but we really don’t have time to waste. We need everyone to get involved in this fight, because that is the only way for us to solve these social inequities.

Watch a full video of Kevin J. Patel’s keynote at Bioneers 2022 here.

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