Though it has been over a year since the first global Youth Climate Strike, the issues raised by organizations and activists within the youth climate movement are as urgent as ever.
To learn about the ongoing work of youth climate activists, Eraced sat down with Maryland teen Iris Zhan, founder of Sunrise Movement Howard County and co-founder of Fridays for Future Digital, to chat about environmentalism, intersectionality, and strategies to maintain energy towards affecting lasting change.
A 24-minute listen:
Interview transcript edited and shortened for clarity
IRIS: Hello everyone my name is Iris Zhan, I use she her pronouns I’m 16. I’m a high school junior from Columbia, Maryland and … I co-founded an international movement called Fridays for Future Digital. I do a lot of work in the Fridays for Future digital team.
I also founded Sunrise Movement Howard County which is a local hub of the sunrise movement. I also do some national work with the Sunrise Movement, and I do some work with Mock COP26 which is a recreation of COP26, [the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], the way that it should be!
DIANE: Thank you for that. Do you mind telling us a little about your background and how you came to working at Sunrise?
I: So initially I found out about Sunrise from … Zero Hour, which is an amazing youth-led climate organization focused on systems of oppression, intersectionality, and the climate crisis. I found out about Sunrise Movement through there and really got drawn to the vision of the Green New Deal … Before that I had some local organizing experience and that gave me the skills to start Sunrise Movement Howard County.
And with Fridays for Future digital, a friend and I wanted to be a part of the Fridays for Future movement but it was mostly centered around physically school striking and we couldn’t do that. We wanted find another way to participate, so we created the concept of digital striking.
Now our movement has advanced and evolved beyond digital striking to full on digital campaigns focused on making real impact and giving a voice to those who don’t in the movement.
D: Can you dive a little bit deeper and tell me about your work with Fridays for Future and Mock COP and how those two things are different?
I: So with FFF Digital we’ve been able to create this international movement of people continuing to take the movement into digital spaces, especially with the way the our lives have evolved with the pandemic.
One good example is our Escazú campaign, it’s basically about this Latin American and Caribbean treaty that protects environmental defenders and ensures human rights and democracy.
Through digital actions and partnerships and campaigns, we were able to get more countries to ratify that agreement by our deadline, which is a really big victory. We’ve worked on other past campaigns as well to create this really great online community to give everyone hope through this pandemic.
I’ve recently started working more with Mock COP and basically the idea is that the way that international climate talks have worked in the past is that they’re always centered around the traditionally privileged old white man and they are sponsored by big fossil fuel corporations.
We’re trying to change the game with how international talks work by creating a mock version of COP and by really making sure that MAPAP, Most Affected People And Places, is centered.
The people who are planning the next COP are the ones from the really privileged Western countries and that really needs to change.
D: It seems like Fridays for Future and Mock COP are really on an international scale and Sunrise is more of a localized hub. Can you talk about how these projects intersect with each other and how you balance these three things?
I: So I guess the way that they intersect with each other is that what FFF Digital and Mock COP try to do is that even though we’re international we try to work closely with local groups to amplify and uplift what local groups. Local groups drive our campaigns for FFF Digital.
D: You already touched on this a little, but could you talk a little about how intersectional activism is really important and how your work relates to that?
I: That’s a good segue into talking about how the most affected people and places are really under-represented in the climate movement and climate decisions. That’s why intersectionality is really imported because of the fact that most privileged people are overrepresented in the movement.
Centering people in the most affected areas and places drives the urgency of this because for MAPAP, it’s not a future thing. They are facing these climate disasters right now. Centering that will really drive our progress in creating a better future.
D: Spinning off of that, I was thinking of mainstream white environmentalism and the serious shortcomings of that, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how white environmentalism falls short.
I: I think one brief example I can bring up is something personal to me in regard to FFF Digital because myself and [our] other co-founder, we’re both non-white. We’re both Chinese American. So FFF Digital has existed since April 2019, we were really small. We were this fringe movement, but we slowly grew, we got our social media page.
Then when everybody started trying to figure out what to do during the lockdown in March that’s when we really blew up thanks to Greta being like “digital strike!” and “climate strike online!” and that really gave us the international attention that we’d been waiting for the whole time … But something that happened in the beginning was that there were so many articles about Greta, it made it seem like she created this thing.
It was really great when people stood by us and acknowledged us like, “Hey these people of color already created something, don’t take over something they’ve already done. Just shed light on these really important issues.”
[Another example is] when environmentalists will hyper focus on just the environmental side and not focus on the social side but they’re both really interconnected. There is a lack of education because of ignorance, a lot of white environmentalists will not address indigenous issues and that’s why FFF Digital did an entire defend the defenders campaign, which was centered on indigenous people and environmental defenders.
D: You are so right, it goes so deep and that’s something I think about all the time. There’s this other narrative being pushed that white environmentalism is not that big of a deal even if it is co-opting something that BIPOC people have been doing since the beginning of time … So, we have this laundry list of problems, and I was wondering how do you think we can address environmentalism in a more holistic way? In a way that is better for everyone?
I: So, one is the intersectional approach that we keep on discussing.
First of all, having the least privileged people [as] the most frontline people really being in charge of decision making and really actually their voices being mattered. I think there’s a good shift happening, but it’s not happening fast enough and it’s still not mainstream enough
The Green New Deal is a great vision for how to do things in a holistic manner because it’s not just environment, not just purely about the preservation of nature, which is really really important in preserving our general humanity. It also tackles some intersectional issues like with making sure that indigenous sovereignty is prioritized and making sure other people of color and prioritized and the most vulnerable people in society are generally more prioritized … because the climate crisis will hit them the worst.
As well as the Red New Deal which is this indigenous vision of tackling the climate crisis that centers much much more on indigenous liberation.
And the Blue New Deal which is very much centered on the ocean.
Combining the three of them will be the ideal world.
D: Yes, best case scenario is that we get it all. So, you were talking about how Sunrise focuses mostly on the Green New Deal; do you have any stories or experiences or projects you’re currently working on that you’re really passionate about?
I: So, I haven’t been working as much on the local level with my Sunrise Hub as much as I was in the past but something that we have been working on is getting certain elected officials into office who will support our visions and just working with other hubs on that as well.
Pushing on the local and state level to make strides in not just the Green New Deal but also other issues that we care a lot about like police brutality, which Sunrise has taken a big stand and put a lot of effort into tackling that. So that’s something that we’ve been working on a lot and really pushing Sunrise’s vision for how we’re gonna go from now into the election and after the election. A bunch of big plans.
D: I really think that working with local and municipal to state level elections is so important, can you speak on the importance of focusing on this local level of elections and politicians?
I: The local level is really where the big changes can happen. Not like big changes where the fossil industry just finally decides to do the right thing, but local elections is where you see the direct impacts. Even though they might seem small in the grand scheme of system change but a part of system change is starting on the local level and pushing things in the right direction and being examples for other municipalities.
I know in my state there are certain counties that are better than others and that really pushes others to be better and some states are better than others and so working towards that change can build that pressure across the country. To really organize a community is really important in creating change.
D: Sometimes I feel like it’s easy to be discouraged by the grand scheme of things. It was really encouraging to hear emphasizing the importance of grassroots ground up movements and recognizing the power in that sort of thing. This last question is mostly for me, but I was wondering how do you motivate yourself and what or who inspires you to carry on the work?
I: I definitely have to give credit to FFF Digital because it has some of the best people. We have just some of the best people on our team, they’re my best friends in the whole world even though we’re all from different countries.
It’s great because we’ve been able to create this supportive team of people and that we’re more than just team members we’re like a family. Just the community that we’ve created really motivates us and really keeps the passion going even with the way that the world is. I think that with the successes that we’ve had it motivates us to keep going and in regard to people that inspire me I definitely have to say all my activist friends. Literally every activist that I know and have met inspires me.
I think that when you’re really connected with other activists it keeps you going because it lets you know that you’re not alone and that things can happen, things can change, because you’re in it with other people. Greta Thunberg is definitely an inspiration. So is Jamie Margolin who really got me into the climate movement. Especially the activists in MAPAP just because they risk so much to fight against the worst of the climate crisis.
There’s a lot of inspiration all around we just have to hold on to that and keep going.
D: Thank you for that. I loved to hear your words. Is there anything else that you wanted to share?
I: Just that, get involved with the climate movement.
We have a long way to go. We have so much that we need to do and a lot in the world is happening that may not seem in our favor, but we are all working really really hard because we care so much.
We know that we have to keep fighting because we cannot let more people and animals and ecosystems be affected by this. I think it’s really worth it to get involved, there’s a lot to be gained from that experience.
Last updated 10/28/20