Mahajan (left) and Charlemagne (right) speak at the keynote event, "It's Our Future: Reimagining Environmental Justice." Photo by Jo Tabacek

Youth climate activists speak at symposium

The 16th Annual Ray Warren Symposium titled “Beyond Resistance: Race and Revolutionary Struggle” started Wednesday, Nov. 13 and ends today, Nov. 15. The symposium features speakers and panels, an art show and various workshops surrounding race and activism.

Seventeen-year-old Feliquan Charlemagne and fifteen-year-old Kimaya Mahajan spoke at the symposium’s first keynote event on Wednesday. Charlemagne is the executive director for the U.S. Climate Strike, and Mahajan is the co-director of the Washington Climate Strike. Sixteen-year-old Isra Hirsi, a co-founder and partnerships director for the U.S. Climate Strike and daughter of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, was originally scheduled to attend, but was unable to come. Mahajan stepped up in her place.

Charlemagne, Mahajan and other youth activists helped organize the Global Climate Strikes. The first Global Youth Climate Strike on March 15 was held in 2,000 cities within 100 countries. There were an estimated four million participants at the Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike, making it the largest climate protest in history. 

In an interview with The Pioneer Log before the keynote event, Charlemagne and Mahajan spoke on their personal journeys as climate activists. Charlemagne explained how climate change has impacted him directly.

A 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency states, “The waters around the U.S. Virgin Islands have warmed by nearly two degrees since 1901, and sea level has been rising by about an inch every ten years.” 

“I was born on an island called St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and this island is being destabilized,” Charlemagne said. “Due to climate change, people like me and people all over the world are literally migrating from the places that they live because it’s becoming unsustainable for them to even live there.”

Mahajan got involved with the climate strike movement when it came to North America in March. She spoke on how, throughout her time as an activist, she has learned how climate justice is a very intersectional issue.

“As I learned more and more about what the climate movement was, I began to see how directly it tied into issues of social justice, including … racism, classism, indigenous rights and climate migration,” Mahajan said. “All of these different issues that I had been working on previously (culminate) into this one grand issue of climate justice.”

Mahajan also spoke on how systemic oppression, as a root cause, has led to our current climate crisis.

“The very systems that our world was founded on throughout centuries of history have been what caused the climate crisis,” Mahajan said. “And we think about things like capitalism, the idea that everything, even Mother Earth can be bought and sold for someone’s profit, which is totally atrocious … and colonialism, the idea that people can come into someone’s land and take everything that is sacred and native to their land. I think all of these different systems of oppression have caused the climate crisis.”

Similarly, Charlemagne hoped his presentation will spark a greater understanding of climate change being a universal issue.

“I want people to understand why (climate change) matters to them, and why it’s not just some abstract, out-there thing,” Charlemagne said. “And I think that is honestly one of the greatest challenges of the climate movement, making sure that everyday people understand why this is their issue too, not just my issue or Kimaya’s issue, but quite literally everyone’s issue.”

Ray Warren Symposium co-chair Arunima Singh Jamwal ’21 spoke on their reflections after the keynote.

“What I walked away from it having learned was, it shows when you are an activist and you’re a warrior for your communities and when your work is for the people, and not for money, not for fame and not for redemption,” Singh Jamwal said.

Emma Hay ’20 attended the keynote and was impressed that Charlemagne and Mahajan, for being so young, have such a vast understanding of the complex issue of climate justice.

“It was really incredible to hear youth talking about the intersections of environmental injustice and climate change, because this is a new topic that I have been learning about in college,” Hay said. “I was never introduced to it in high school, let alone mobilizing millions of students around the world. So I’m just so in awe of seeing youth with the capability of doing that and that they’re prioritizing the intersectionality of this issue.”

The symposium closes tonight with Race Monologues, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Agnes Flanagan Chapel.

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