"Building an Irresistible Movement": Youth Climate Justice Organizing
A Roundtable with Dani Michie, Yohanna Mehary, Yasmine Hassen, and Niklas Agarwal
In North America, millennials and gen Z have grown up facing an immediate climate crisis, and they often bring fresh grief, urgency, energy, and political analysis to established organizing strategies. They help shape the contemporary climate justice movement, naming capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy as the conditions under which climate catastrophe is inevitable. Although there are individual young activists, most notably Swedish climate striker Greta Thunberg, who have become the figureheads of a global movement pushing for climate action, thousands more youth are mobilizing for justice in their own communities. They fight for systemic change by drawing links between environmental destruction and mechanisms of power such as the colonization of Indigenous peoples and land, police brutality, and anti-Black racism.
Various youth climate justice groups have formed in Canada in the past several years. Climate Justice Toronto (CJTO) is one such group, and at just under two years old, it continues to develop its internal systems and analysis as it seeks to build solidarity with other groups, particularly those that share its mandate to push for systemic change. Founded by several youth activists who had attended the “PowerShift: Young and Rising” conference in February 2019, CJTO at first helped to form a coalition of groups organizing the Toronto site of the Global Strike for Climate Justice on September 27, 2019 and to campaign as part of 350 Canada’s Our Time initiative, urging candidates in the 2019 fall federal election to support a Canadian version of the Green New Deal. After the election, CJTO’s increased membership dedicated more energy toward supporting Indigenous land defenders and advocates for self-determination.
In the winter of 2020, the RCMP carried out another series of illegal, violent raids on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia. In response to calls from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, thousands of Indigenous peoples and settlers across the land organized sit-ins, blockades, and protests in solidarity with the land defenders blocking the construction of the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline. As Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs Freda Huson and Toghestiy discuss in a past interview with Upping the Anti, the CGL and other pipelines continue a legacy of environmentally and socially devastating industrial projects in the area, representing ongoing colonization through the collusion of government and industry. 1 In Tkaronto/Toronto, CJTO was among those groups supporting many local Indigenous-led actions, including the occupation of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett’s office and supporting the coordination of rail blockades, rallies, and round dances in the city.
In May 2020, members of CJTO joined Kate Atkinson to discuss the climate crisis, how their experiences and analyses have shaped their ongoing climate justice work, and how their approaches to organizing can inform broader movement work on Turtle Island (North America).
Dani Michie is a queer actor and creator who organizes with CJTO. Since September 2019, Dani has immersed herself in organizing, with a particular focus on Indigenous solidarity, land defence, and anti-oppression. Dani is passionate about creating an irresistible movement, and fostering an equitable and welcoming organizing space where everyone feels invited to work collectively toward a more just future.
ዮሃና መሃሪ (Yohanna Mehary) is a student and community organizer showing up for political ecology. As a Black, female, second-generation forcibly displanted African-settler on Turtle Island, she is committed to equitable and systemic transformative justice. As a student organizer, she has organized for the Black Students’ Association and the Caribbean Studies Students’ Union at the University of Toronto. Currently, she organizes with CJTO and Climate Justice Scarborough with a focus on land and food sovereignty. More recently, she has organized as a health advocate with Eritrean and Ethiopian community organizations.
Yasmine Hassen is a passionate organizer rooted in decolonial approaches to community engagement. She is interested in bridging the gaps and finding the intersections between diaspora(s), Black liberation, Indigenous sovereignty, and climate justice in pursuit of just futures. Beyond that, she is centring a practice of reflection, care, and emergence in the embodiment of her work. Yasmine lives as an uninvited guest in so-called Toronto/Tkaronto, on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Wendat Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
Niklas Agarwal is a settler community organizer in Tkaronto/Toronto. After graduating from school in Vancouver, he moved back to Toronto and helped co-found CJTO in May 2019. He comes to this work through growing up mixed-race in a rapidly gentrifying city on a warming earth and was radicalized through the Idle No More and youth climate justice movements.
How did you come to be involved in climate justice work, and were there particular issues, campaigns, or forms of mentorship that brought you into organizing?
Dani: I’m fairly new to organizing. I moved to Toronto a year ago to do physical theatre and devised theatre, which is a kind of decentralized creation. I found CJTO at the huge climate strike in September 2019. Then I went to a town hall right before the federal election, and they were promoting orientations. I had been looking for a place to put my political energy for a while. I just got lucky and stumbled into CJTO. The first project that I worked on was a fundraiser for the legal challenges to the Trans Mountain Pipeline. That was an exciting and fun first experience because we had a huge fundraiser and raised about $20,000. Then I got more involved with Wet’suwet’en solidarity organizing.
ዮሃና Yohanna: My parents are Tigrinya and were part of the first recent mass displacement of our people due to climate change (desertification and drought), war, poverty, and famine. Some might say one factor over another contributed to the displacement; however, in climate justice organizing, we understand that it is the combination of socio-political, economic, and environmental factors established through racial capitalism, colonialism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy. My political awareness regarding land, water, the environment, and Black and Indigenous sovereignty and liberation is shaped by my experience as a member of the forcibly displaced diaspora. Growing up in Toronto as a Black person, I’ve experienced how systemic oppression is tied to land or place in relation to food deserts and food apartheid, manufactured poverty and medical oppression, policing, criminalization and surveillance, and exposure to environmental hazards in racialized communities. 2
I found out about CJTO through Instagram, then attended a meeting and was interested in the group because of the emphasis on dismantling systemic oppression. At that meeting, CJTO organizers spoke about the Toxic Tour organized by the Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipelines group (ASAP), which I then attended. 3 Since then, I’ve been a member and continue to learn in this space with like-minded youth who want to “build an irresistible movement to confront the climate crisis by addressing its root causes: capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy.” 4
Yasmine: 5 I’ve had a liminal experience when it comes to diaspora and displacement. My baba immigrated from Ethiopia and my mother is first-generation from St. Kitts. I first heard the term “environmental racism” about two years ago; since then confronting environmental racism has consumed my thoughts and approaches to justice work. I became more radicalized as I started to learn about its connection to gentrification, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism through the help of my community mentors. Then I began to do grassroots organizing independently, working in the anti-poverty and anti-gentrification movement. I wanted to illuminate the connection between environmental racism and urban spaces, since environmental racism is often connected to the remote and rural, yet I witnessed it taking shape within city centres. I’ve experienced it, as have many Indigenous and Black folks. Through my anti-oppression work, I realized how necessary it is to explicitly name the climate crisis as being caused by white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism.
Niklas: The broader environmental movement has been something that I’ve always been passionate about, and my involvement started through a lot of changes to my individual behaviour. It still wasn’t really until high school that I became interested in climate justice. A radicalizing moment for me was when I went to the PowerShift conference in 2012, which was put on by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. One of the keynote speakers was Crystal Lameman from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in the Athabasca Region in Alberta. It was the first time I’d ever heard of downstream tar sands effects and the environmental racism of the tar sands industry. It shattered everything for me, and I realized that climate justice cannot exist without Indigenous sovereignty. I came back from that conference and then Idle No More blew up, and it was the first time I participated in Indigenous-led activism and ceremony. It was so powerful to be with so many people and be part of that movement. In May 2020, after moving back to Toronto, I helped co-found Climate Justice Toronto.
What experiences and values do you bring to this work, and how do they align with or differ from those in the broader environmental movement on Turtle Island, as you see it?
ዮሃና Yohanna: This question reminds me of my experience at the Global Climate Strike in September 2019, where I felt uncomfortable and unsafe as a person with marginalized identities. Due to the reputation of mainstream climate organizing as a Western, middle-class, white movement, it’s crucial for us, as radical climate organizers, to centre folks who are systematically marginalized if we actually care about solidarity and not performative activism, which is really covert oppression. An example of covert oppression within the mainstream environmental movement is the tokenism and erasure of BIPOC, presented as “diversity” in the movement by organizers. One of the places I’ve experienced this was at the Climate Strike, where multiple people asked me to be in their videos because I’m Black, then made dehumanizing and racist comparisons between animal rights activism and the Black liberation movement, echoing “All Lives Matter” sentiments. In instances of hypervisibility and tokenism in a mainstream space known for erasure, those with privilege must become accomplices who can acknowledge how gaslighting a space can be for those with marginalized identities and must organize to end the reinforcement of oppression in these “activist” spaces. We cannot change the world without a restorative and transformative justice lens to address the ongoing and historical harm caused by oppression that is reinforced by environmental and climate movements.
Yasmine: The idea that the climate crisis is something to fight in the future because it hasn’t happened yet is a Western and white perspective. So when it comes to the mainstream environmental movement, as Yohanna mentioned, it’s hard when these spaces have historically been white, for non-white folks, especially Black and Indigenous folks, to join. The dynamics in those organizing spaces are constantly erasing you, yet in the same breath, they claim that they’re fighting for you.
All those barriers can make it hard for Black, Indigenous, and racialized folks to get involved in the global climate movement. But it’s not like we’re not organizing: we are. Black Lives Matter (BLM) actions have everything to do with the climate crisis. When we talk about a future in which everyone can breathe and live free, that must include Black peoples. We cannot talk about climate justice without talking about Indigenous sovereignty, Black liberation, racial justice, migrant justice, disability justice, gender justice, queer justice, food justice. Many non-Black folks may not show up to a BLM action because they feel uncomfortable or think of the space as being “a little too radical, a little too violent.” But that inability to confront their internalized anti-Black racism and discomfort is a violent passivity in which they become complicit in demonizing the work of Black and Indigenous and racialized folks as if our anger isn’t worth yelling about. 6
Niklas: CJTO started about a year ago when around 10 folks who had been to PowerShift: Young and Rising in 2019 came together ad hoc and eventually created this group. And when we were sitting down and thinking about what we needed and wanted in Toronto, it was predicated on what we didn’t want to be. It came from a place of being fed up with the middle-class and white-led movement that was focused on single-use plastic bans, tote bags, and minimalist lifestyles. I think that a big failure of NGO-style organizing, such as that of the Sierra Club, Environmental Defence, and the David Suzuki Foundation, is looking at climate justice as a single-issue cause. And we really wanted to be able to look at climate change as a race issue, a labour issue, a capitalism issue. We also wanted to embrace our youth, to have fun, to dance and sing and be beautiful people! We wanted it to be exciting and attractive as well. We had seen with past groups that when organizing doesn’t centre joy or attempt to build a community with the people in the room, groups tend to fall apart or never grow beyond their small core. Moreover, political organizing can be an intimidating space, and to build power, we need as many people as possible organizing with us. A smile and a warm welcome is a key tool in movement building.
The values that I bring to my work are centred around my experience as a young mixed-race environmentalist. I’ve had my voice and the voices of my peers ignored and dismissed by environmental groups due to ageism and racism. Young people are never asked to be on panels, to be part of research projects, or to speak at events as “knowledge experts.” In the spring of 2019, some labour activists organized an event on the Green New Deal and the future of work. I asked the organizers if there were any young people on the panel and there weren’t. So an organizer then offered me a spot. It was a good experience, but it was odd being the only young and racialized person on a panel of old white men, and I wondered why I had to ask to be there.
As youth, we’re often putting forward progressive ideas and new forms of organizing and we’re ignored even though our generation will face the brunt of climate change, having grown up under horrible conditions that have enabled it, like austerity, the gig economy, and late-stage-capitalism. I think grassroots groups like CJTO are youth-focused for our own needs (for example, for safer spaces—we ask folks for their access needs and pronouns, and we have a community-care committee) and strategic organizing since young people have shaped public opinion throughout history. But we don’t see older generations as our enemy. We know that it is the older billionaires, elites, and political collaborators who have gotten us into this mess and are creating harm across all generations.
Dani: What drew me to CJTO was the analysis of the climate crisis as a symptom of various systems of oppression. As a white, upper-middle class, cis, able-bodied person, I think some of the white environmentalist organizing that I’ve seen is problematic in terms of not addressing power relations—for example, behind renewable energy industries. Whose labour will be exploited? Will it be extractive?
I appreciate that CJTO is trying to invite people into conversation and into this movement while not excluding people if they don’t understand why capitalism is a root cause of climate change. I think leftist organizing does a lot of damage to itself when we decide that we’re going to only take people in who have already come to the same conclusions we’ve come to. Class and access to education is a huge part of that. We’re not going to be successful unless we can engage in conversation with people, meet people where they’re at, try to educate them, and listen to them. Right now, we do this in more of an informal way, by practicing principles like “hard on the issue, soft on the person.” I’m thinking a lot about how we might use structure-based organizing to reach folks who aren’t “with” us already, to combat the echo-chamber problems on the Left. 7
How are decolonization, anti-racism, and solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty struggles embedded in your climate justice work? How does longstanding Indigenous activism influence the way you approach and frame issues?
Niklas: The need to be in alliance with Indigenous sovereignty struggles is very clear, but it can be tokenistic and superficial if it’s not done in a meaningful way. Organizing our group to be in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en struggle is what genuine solidarity looks like; for example, we occupied Carolyn Bennett’s office overnight because we know that Indigenous justice is climate justice. Understanding that climate change is predicated on the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Black and African people, globally and especially on Turtle Island, and framing our organizing that way, is work that we are still doing and always learning from. Now, orientations are the entry point for new CJTO members, and they explain our principles of climate justice and how we organize. They provide a space where folks can unpack the pillars of injustice since we know everyone is coming from different places. We also use an adaptive land acknowledgement that challenges people to learn about their own history of settlership and provides room for folks to apply complexity to ideas of (forced) migration, which is important for people whose parents are newcomers to Canada.
Yasmine: It is incredibly important to be grounded in community. The community I am situated in has nurtured me and aided in my growth and (un)learning. Black peoples must examine the nuances of how we became situated on Turtle Island. For many Black folks, our presence here is not by choice but is instead due to the violent history of the transatlantic slave trade. For other Black folks, our positionality must be understood through our immigrant, refugee, and/or newcomer status. It is important to interrogate our identities and how one can occupy a marginalized identity while also being a settler here. It is in these nuances and intersections that we can begin to build coalitions and liberate not only our peoples, but all peoples. I hold the words of Maya Angelou that “the truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody’s free” in tandem with Dr. Eve Tuck and Dr. K. Wayne Yang’s notion that decolonization is not a metaphor. 8
In my organizing, I centre listening and learning from Indigenous land defenders along with the queer and trans Black folks on the frontline. If you’re a settler in Canada, there’s so much to unlearn because everything we’ve been taught has been through a deeply settler-colonial education system. An example of this came up at a Wet’suwet’en solidarity action in Ottawa in February 2020. We started at 7am and it went into the evening. I remember hearing settlers and white folks complaining about how they were tired throughout even though they were supposed to be showing up in solidarity. That upset me because this was an action in solidarity against colonial violence. It was led by Indigenous youth holding space and leading chants and songs; they had to be “on,” all while being surveilled with an imminent threat of violence from the police. Maybe folks think, “it’s good enough we’re here, we’re doing the work.” However, it’s important to be mindful of how you show up or show solidarity, otherwise, it’s performative.
Dani: My analysis of decolonization, anti-racism, and solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty was very theoretical until recently, and Wet’suwet’en actions gave me opportunities to ground my analysis and to engage with organizing that was Indigenous-led. We did around one action each week, through late January and into the beginning of March 2020. It was a big learning experience for CJTO in general, and for myself, to learn how we as a young, relatively new organization, and how I as a white settler can show up, participate, and be helpful without taking over the narrative and perpetuating white saviourism.
We were so new to doing actions and direct actions. We had certain ideas about how we wanted things to go, how we were going to plan, and what we were going to do, and those considerations were for the sake of us trying to be organized and wanting to be safe. Some of the Wet’suwet’en actions were big learning curves for me: how do you make a plan that is adaptable so that you can take the lead from the people who are, and should be, leading? The actions as a whole didn’t change because we were following blueprints from the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. But what changed were the details of what happened in the space. For example, my purpose in that space was not to speak, and I could use my white privilege to put myself between police or security and Indigenous activists. For this specific action, it was clearly outlined for white organizers and non-Indigenous folks that we were there to keep Indigenous youth safe so they could speak for themselves and practice ceremony. In addition, as a group, CJTO not only learned how to offer resources and knowledge such as safety preparations or chants and our social media platforms, but also to take the lead from Indigenous organizers in the space and not to assume that those resources would be used unless they truly supported the work.
ዮሃና Yohanna: I believe the most powerful ways for me to show up are by recognizing my privilege and oppression and acknowledging how these dynamics shape my perception and influence the ways I participate in anti-oppressive, decolonial, anti-racist organizing. The best way to build our movement is to actively listen to marginalized voices and to create networks of mutual aid while also respecting self-determination and inclusive, yet identity-based, spaces for these communities. I organize with the Caribbean Studies Students’ Union (CARSSU) at the University of Toronto, where we collaborated with 1919 Magazine, CJTO, York United Black Students’ Alliance, and the Caribbean Solidarity Network to organize a month-long book drive for people who are incarcerated. We distributed the books we collected amongst different groups working on rehabilitation, or directly to the prisons. The focus of the event was centring Black and Indigenous peoples who are disproportionately criminalized. Through this action, we were able to have discussions and raise awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline. We talked about the relationship between racial trauma, grief, and policing. Within a month, we collected thousands of books and built relationships with similar groups. It is important to recognize the labour of Black students behind this book drive and the desire for self-determination, anti-oppressive organizing, and alliance- and solidarity-building.
Through that alliance-building, we were connected with Black youth and CJTO organizer, Cheyenne Sundance, who runs a food justice urban farm and educational programming. 9 CARSSU, 1919 Magazine, and Sundance Harvest then collaborated on a teach-in called Reimagining Community: Black Earth, where Cheyenne taught Black students and youth about the history of Black and Indigenous solidarity in the land- and food-sovereignty movement. Describing the bonds between people on the outside and people who are incarcerated, Angela Davis puts it this way: “Solidarity has to involve egalitarian relationships and a commitment to break down the hierarchies that almost inevitably begin to assert themselves into relationships.” 10 These intra-community experiences and alliances highlight the importance of centring self-determination and the voices of marginalized communities as they shape their own narratives while engaging in mutual aid and solidarity.
What tactics have been most effective in recent, youth-led grassroots climate justice organizing, and why do you think they were effective? What moments have invited reflection and a change in approach? What lessons can other movements take from current youth-led climate justice organizing?
Yasmine: I think youth-led movements are important because young people will finally feel like their voices will be heard. But this idea of “youth-led,” echoing the “girlboss” trope, has been co-opted by neoliberalism, which takes up and prioritizes shiny new “identities,” like youth. It’s really important to engage with older generations and movement elders; otherwise, there will be so much knowledge loss. As we see in many Indigenous and Black organizing spaces, there are established, ongoing intergenerational conversations about historical truths, movement sustainability, tactics, wisdoms/knowledges, and learnings. If I want to bring my parents into this movement, I have to be able to communicate with them well, and hear them too. We need to reimagine movement spaces as a relay, in which one generation passes on their knowledge so that the next generation can pick up the fight for liberation from where they left off. And we must expect some bumps, but this is not a linear race, nor is it one in which we cannot run alongside the ones who passed the baton. I’m thinking about how to hold ourselves accountable as we age so that we can still engage in this movement work for liberation and be in conversation across the generations.
ዮሃና Yohanna: Creating a culture of care and no disposability, like Dani said earlier, is leading CJTO to this space where we’re intentionally changing for the better. Some meetings ago, we spoke about burnout in organizing, and one of the things that we agreed on was that having a fluid community is reflective of the internal system of a supportive community. We recognize that the movement cannot rely on an individual, and in order to build, we must trade the individual for the collective. A suggestion other groups can take from CJTO is to work on a strategic plan for a culture of care, accountability, and transparency. That strategic plan includes having clear action plans, deadlines, timelines, role descriptions, a rotation of roles, trainings, reading groups, evaluation systems, a decision-making system, and a conflict mediation or restorative justice plan. In CJTO, we’re currently working through a transformative stage of restructuring internally where we’re talking about an anti-oppressive internal structure to allow for more trust and continual growth together.
Audre Lorde told us that “Revolution is not a one-time event,” 11 and I reflect on this quote with a question posed by Angela Davis, who asked the audience at Israeli Apartheid Week 2020 at the University of Toronto: “how do we make the movement a lifetime of struggle and collective joy?” 12 I find my joy through the inspiration I get from my peers when we centre our shared values to reimagine our futures as the lifelong journey of justice for all.
Dani: One of CJTO’s tactics is a strong social media presence, which has helped engage with youth and in getting information out quickly. We are, however, trying to find ways to reach people who aren’t on social media, the people most affected by this crisis.
We engage in solidarity work with other struggles to connect them to climate justice. People engaged with our work can see the value in us talking about prison abolition and violence against BIPOC by the carceral state. We organized an abolition week on social media in response to the recent police killings of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada. Our posts connected abolition and climate justice to help people reach an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial view of environmental work.
Organizers and CJTO will benefit from not being afraid to be as radical internally as we are externally. If we’re trying to build on a movement, we have to be brave with ourselves, creating a culture where we can be abolitionists and practice transformative justice internally, so that when we come up against conflict, we’re not perpetuating these damaging systems. It’s one thing to believe in transformative justice and another thing to put it into practice when harm has been caused. We made a big mistake in not building a conflict resolution process into our structure, and as a result, we have lost some people because we didn’t have a way of mitigating harm. This is something we are actively working to address, but it’s a lot harder to add after you’ve grown your organization so much. As Yohanna alluded to, the culture has to be built on trust and respect for each other. If you respect and trust each other, then you will be able to be radical, challenge each other, and stay accountable to each other.
Niklas: Because of our radical politics and tactics, we get push-back quite often from other mainstream environmental groups: “You’re too radical. We need to appeal to everyone and work within the system to push climate action forward.” I think that there are elements of truth to that. As we outlined before, thinking about people who haven’t had access to the same “political education” that we have, but who are still dedicated to the same principles, is important. We need to be bold in our principles and bring other people onto our side. Something that CJTO has reflected on is that we cannot sacrifice the needs and safety of our members, for example around anti-Black racism, in our movement and our organizing. A lot of credit to Yas and Yohanna in this roundtable, and other people in our movement, who have had to be really vocal to make these concerns heard and to make sure that we are actually centring the voices that we’re trying to centre and that we’re creating a world that doesn’t leave anyone behind. We’re always going to be faced with pushback to reform. One of the things I love about being a youth-led organization is that we are absolutely finished with incrementalism and that we know that we need broad systemic change for our future. *