Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
In January, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg once again hooked the world’s attention at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, when she told the world leaders present that she didn’t want their “hope” regarding rising world temperatures, but rather their “panic.”
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis,” she said. “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor has been striking from school every Friday for the past twelve weeks to demand action from the United Nations on climate change.
“If I don’t have a future, why go to school? Why go to school if we’re going to be too focused on running from disasters? Striking has to be the way,” Villasenor said to the Washington Post.
Villasenor, Thunberg and many other young women have been outspoken voices for climate justice. Will their efforts, which received viral attention, lead to substantive change? We meet students from the Washington region who are mobilizing for green jobs, environmentally-minded candidates and more.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Maddie Graham Climate activist
- Destiny Watford Community organizer, United Workers
- Lana Weidgenant Climate activist
MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo. Whether it was protesting the Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s, or students marching on The Mall to call for action on gun violence last spring, young people have always been drawn to activism. And, increasingly, climate justice is drawing the attention of young Washingtonians, with young women activists in particular leading the public conversation urging people to take action. So, what's drawn them to this cause, and who's listening?
MATT MCCLESKEYWe're going to hear from three young environmental activists at slightly different stages of life for the remainder of this hour. Joining us now, Maddie Graham, an environment activist from Silver Spring, Maryland. She's a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School, and she's here in studio with me. Thanks for being here.
MADDIE GRAHAMHi. Thanks for having me.
MCCLESKEYAlso, Lana Weidgenant is an organizer of the Youth Climate Strike on Washington and a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. She joins us on the phone. Thank you for joining us.
LANA WEIDGENANTHello. Thank you for having me.
MCCLESKEYAnd Destiny Watford is a community organizer with United Workers, the human rights organization based in Baltimore. Good afternoon, and thank you for being with us.
DESTINY WATFORDThank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
MCCLESKEYI'd like to start by asking you all what brought you into climate activism. Quickly, what person or issue or event inspired you to join the cause? And, Maddie, I'll begin with you.
GRAHAMSo, for me, it was really the IPCC report that came out in late 2018 that really brought me into it, because that IPCC report really stressed the urgency of the issue. And it gave us a very clear defined timeline, that at the end of that timeline 2030, I'll still be quite young. I'll still be in the middle of my life, and so will all of my friends. So, it was really something that stirred something within me, like we need to act right now.
MCCLESKEYThat deadline looming, from 2030. Lana Weidgenant, what brought you into climate activism?
WEIDGENANTI would say that two of my main identities as a Brazilian and a vegan brought me to climate activism, seeing the environmental impact from a country that holds the Amazon rainforests, and then also seeing the environmental impact of animal agriculture and food systems really brought me to this urgent issue.
MCCLESKEYAnd Destiny Watford, how about you? How'd you get involved?
WATFORDI grew up in a neighborhood that has high levels of lung cancer, respiratory disease, and folks suffering from asthma. So, I've seen a lot of my neighbors die because of the polluting industries that surround me. And I actually didn't get involved directly with environmental justice, but thinking about human rights and how many of our basic human rights are being violated on a daily basis, one of which being the right to breathe clean air.
MCCLESKEYIt definitely seems there's an intersectionality between climate issues and many others that folks are concerned about. Destiny, I read that you began fighting the construction of an incinerator that was near your high school when you were a high school student.
MCCLESKEYWhat challenges did you face, as a young activist?
WATFORDYeah, so, you're right. I got my start fighting, alongside my friends, the plan to build the nation's largest incinerator that was scheduled to be built less than a mile away from my high school in South Baltimore. And the -- sorry, what was your question?
MCCLESKEYI was just -- what were some of the challenges you faced as a young activist, and tell me a little bit more about that process.
WATFORDOh, boy. So, (clears throat) being, like, a young person in a community like Curtis Bay -- that's where I grew up -- that's been ignored, disinvested in for decades, one of the challenges was just that, like, just being born in that area. Because, like, my voice isn't one that was considered to be valid. It wasn't one that was respected, and we had to really fight for that, in making sure that we have a seat at the table, that our voices were heard, hence our name, Free Your Voice. And the other...
MCCLESKEY(overlapping) And how did you do that? How did you take that fight to the city or the state?
WATFORDI mean, we shared our story of what it was like growing up in an area where you're surrounded by polluting industries that are supported by the government and the institutions that are supposed to not only respect you, but also enlighten you, everything from our public school system that was supporting the incinerator at the time, to public libraries and art museums. Like, all of these structures are supposed to be supporting us and our development were actively participating in something that would put our lives on the line.
MCCLESKEYAnd you began when you were in high school. Maddie Graham, you're in high school now, and you've been championing the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act. What's the gist of that?
GRAHAMSo, the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act is a bill that's currently making its way through the Maryland General Assembly. And it'll basically act as kind of a Green New Deal, just for Maryland. It will increase Maryland's renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent renewables by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. And it will create new jobs in primarily the solar energy industry, but also the wind and other renewable energy industries. And it will prioritize communities that have been affected.
MCCLESKEYSo, a lot of things there that you're focusing on particularly in Maryland. And how did you particularly come to that issue?
GRAHAMYeah, so the issue of the Clean Energy Jobs Act?
GRAHAMSo, recently, the Maryland General Assembly start -- it convenes in January, but this isn't a new act. It has been -- they've been trying to pass it for a few years. So, I really thought this bill in particular is really what Maryland needs right now in order to increase the renewables that we're using and cut emissions. Because, last year in Maryland, we actually lost jobs in the renewable energy industry, and we should be gaining them, because it is a growing industry. And it should be a growing industry.
MCCLESKEYLana Weidgenant, climate justice is the term that's been used by many activists. Why is action on climate change being increasingly seen as less of a scientific issue and more of a social justice cause?
WEIDGENANTSo, I feel like especially for the DC Youth Climate Strike and the Global Climate Strike that I've been involved with. And with my co-organizers, we've really be emphasizing that climate change -- really, the intersectionality of the issue. I think that was a major discussion that we had even this week and yesterday, talking about how this is more than just a science issue.
WEIDGENANTOne of our organizers, I think, framed this really well. She was saying -- Anna Brooks is her name -- she was saying that climate change will make existing inequality worse and disproportionately affect people of color and of lower income. And it's really important for us to address racism and sexism and all of those other issues in order to really address climate change effectively. So, I think it's just something that's become very much more apparent in social movements, is really addressing all aspects, and addressing intersectionality, as well.
MCCLESKEYWell, Lana Weidgenant is an organizer of the Youth Climate Strike on Washington, also a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. Tell us a little more about the Youth Climate Strike.
WEIDGENANTOf course. So, the Youth Climate Strike is an international movement that was started by Greta Thunberg and has been spreading across the UK and Europe. And on March 15th, the United States will be participating in the Global Climate Strike, in which over 47 countries are participating. And there's information on our -- we have a website, a Twitter and Instagram. Our website is youthclimatestrikeus.org.
WEIDGENANTAnd from 12:00 to noon (sic) in the DC area, we will be at the Capitol Building, participating in this global climate strike to really address the urgency that we feel for the importance for climate action, and to take part in this international movement. And everyone is welcome. Although the movement is youth-centered and youth-led -- and we want to emphasize that -- everything who is passionate about this issue is welcome to join us that day.
MCCLESKEYYou mentioned Greta Thunberg. A lot of the galvanizing around climate justice has come from the work that young women are doing, you all included. We can hear a little bit now from Greta Thunberg. She's a 16-year-old Swedish activist who became famous for striking from school to protest an action on climate change.
GRETA THUNBERGAdults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope, but I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.
MCCLESKEYWell, Maddie Graham, Greta's the same age as you, 16. Some may think it's a bit of an extreme action for a teenager to just quit school and be an activist, instead. What do you think?
GRAHAMTo people who say that we're too young or that it's not something we should be doing, honestly, I agree. We are too young, but we don't have a choice. It's an issue that is already disproportionately affecting those that have done the lease to cause it, and it's going to continue to affect those that have done the least to cause it unless we do something about it right now. We don't have the time to wait until we grow up. We have to act right now, because it's our futures that are on the line.
MCCLESKEYLet's go to the phones now. We have several folks waiting on the line. I'd like to get to as many of you as I can. Lisa, calling from Mason Neck in Virginia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAHi, everybody. I'm so excited to hear the passion coming from this generation. And I was really interested in somehow getting two years of activism out of all of the youth, and somehow the government sponsoring it like the Peace Corp or like the military service, not that you would have to do it, but something that the citizens could be proud to spend two years of their time building structure that we need for this new environment. And my second thought is, I'm curious who -- everybody's interested in 2020. Is it Governor Inslee? Or I'm curious where their thoughts are, politically.
MCCLESKEYWell, there's absolutely a political aspect to the conversation around climate change. Today, folks seem more on the aspect of youth engagement, but we can certainly look at that, as well. First, Destiny Watford, I'd like to come to you, Lisa asking about volunteering or dedicating more time to the issue of climate change. You began when you were in high school. You're now in your early 20s.
MCCLESKEYWhat do you think about getting more youth involved in a volunteering sense?
WATFORDI think it's necessary. Like, one of the large steps that, like, I'm taking is, like, even though I'm young, taking on an mentorship role at high schools and middle schools in South Baltimore and talking to kids about the issues, and them actually taking ownership of them and coming to their own and becoming leaders. Not necessarily, like, you know, like, the phrase that I like to use a lot is “each one teach one.” So, like, I -- someone mentored to me when I was in high school, and, like, helped develop me into a leader. And I'm invested in this, and I will be for the rest of my life.
WATFORDAnd so it's like building up that leadership and that ownership and, like, recognizing that, like, these issues are ours, and we need to take them wholly and run with them and find solutions and fight for those solutions, because they exist. So, I think it's absolutely necessary, otherwise, it's -- like our -- the future that we want, that we dream about, that we hope for without youth isn't going to happen.
MCCLESKEYWell, in addition to doing the hard work of organizing, I'd like to just ask you quickly, all, are you keeping an eye on politics and how that relates to this overall conversation? Maddie Young (sic), you first.
GRAHAMAbsolutely, we're watching the politics. So, I organize with the Sunrise Movement, as well as Youth Climate Strike. And for us, especially because we are in such close proximity to DC, the politics are crucial. We have to build the political will to make change and to create a world that is willing to combat these issues. So, starting with legislative change is really the only way to do it.
MCCLESKEYAnd, Maddie, forgive me, I gave the incorrect last name for you. Maddie Graham, of course, is your last name. Lana Weidgenant, how about you? Are you keeping an eye on the politics?
WEIDGENANTI 100 percent agree with Maddie in that, of course, at the DC Youth Climate Strike, we have support and work with Sunrise Movement, and we give support to the Green New Deal, and we also keep an eye on what's happening legislatively and what's happening with politics. That's obviously a very important factor.
MCCLESKEYAnd Destiny Watford, you were looking very locally as you started out, in your particular neighborhood in Baltimore. Do you still follow local politics, or do you look more broadly, as well?
WATFORDYeah, of course. Like, we are actively, like, participating in politics and making policy changes. Like, we're working on the Clean Energy Jobs Act, and also changing city policy to support zero waste in the alternative.
MCCLESKEYLet's go now to a caller from your school, Maddie, at Montgomery Blair High School, in Maryland. Anna, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNA BROOKSHi. My name's Anna Brooks. I go to Blair High School. It's Maddie's high school. I'm also here with my friends, Abby, Leif (sounds like), Sarah, Lily, Jordan and some others. And to answer your question about what's most important for people to understand about climate change, I think an earlier caller said it before, but we want to stress, we think the older generation of the environmental movement has often framed this problem in terms of conservation. Like, we need to protect our natural spaces and we need to protect our polar bears, and that's what matters.
ANNA BROOKSAnd, of course, those things do matter, but as a younger movement we also need to stress that climate change touches every existing issue in the world already. Racism will only get worse when resources are more scarce when people compete for them. Sexism will only get worse and resources are more scarce when people compete for them. Every kind of economic inequality, every issue we're facing today is going to be made worse by changing climate, and that's why we care so much about this. I'm going to pass on to some of my friends, as they also want to answer this question.
MCCLESKEYYeah, let's hear from someone else, then I do want to get back to Maddie, Lana and Destiny. But, absolutely. Who else is there with you?
JORDANHi. My name is Jordan McAuliffe (sounds like). I also go to Blair. I work with Maddie in Sunrise. And I think one of the most important things for people to understand about climate change is that it's not a future issue anymore. It's a now issue. We're already seeing the fires and the floods and the hurricanes, and we're already seeing the impact that it's having on young people who are really losing hope, and even losing the will to live because their elected officials aren't doing anything.
JORDANSo, I think that it's important for young people to understand that we are powerful. At Blair, we can get to DC at a moment's notice. We can flood politicians' offices. We can make them hear our voices. So, we can't sit back anymore. We need to show everyone the power and the passion that we have, because the will of the people is the only thing that is going to get us the solutions that we need.
MCCLESKEYAnd we only have a couple of minutes left, so thank you both for those comments. And I want to ask each of you, Maddie Graham, Lana Weidgenant and Destiny Watford -- quickly, in the last couple of minutes we have -- as we're hearing this hour, it's such a big issue. Climate change is a big issue, in and of itself. Meanwhile, if you look at the intersectionality with everything else that it affects, how do you pick your part when you're looking at activism? How did you decide what next steps you were going to take? Destiny Watford, I know you began in your high school. Then how did you choose where to go from there?
WATFORDI mean, in our group, we were very focused on, like, human rights and, like, making a change in the neighborhood. And that sparked this citywide, statewide national involvement in, like, participating in the climate -- or in the movement for climate justice. But it all started in a very small room, with a handful of students saying, enough is enough. Like, we can't take this anymore.
MCCLESKEYAnd Lana Weidgenant, how did you decide what tack you were going to take when trying to look at this giant problem?
WEIDGENANTRight. For us, I believe it's very much been a part of joining the international movement and all of the amazing work that's already being done. So, for me, it was joining -- like, helping to organize the DC Youth Climate Strike and working with, as you just heard from Anna Brooks and Jordan McAuliffe and, of course, like, the national organizers Isra, Haven and Alexandria Villasenor from New York, and all of the amazing work that they're doing in the United States, as well as internationally, started by Greta Thunberg. So, just really looking at all of the amazing stuff that's already happening and great work being done by youth and being led by young women. And then just being -- taking that step to join in and help where you can.
MCCLESKEYAnd Maddie Graham, we heard from your friends. If anybody else who is listening now who wants to take part in trying to organize and work towards addressing climate change, what would you tell them, how to zero in on their piece of the puzzle?
GRAHAMSo, I would say get involved. And, for me, I found the Sunrise Movement. I found the Youth Climate Strike. I also work with a group called Youth Climate Summit USA. All of these groups were groups that were led by young people. They were intersectional groups. They were groups that acknowledged all of the intersectionalities of climate change. And I found that to be incredible. I think that you have to put yourself out there and do what you find to be rewarding and do what you think is going to make a difference. Because I certainly hope that everything I'm doing is going to make a difference.
MCCLESKEYMaddie Graham. She's a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland. We've also heard, in this segment, from Lana Weidgenant, an organizer of the Youth Climate Strike on Washington and a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University. And Destiny Watford, a community organizer with United Workers, a human rights organization in Baltimore, Maryland. Thank you all so much for being with us. I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi.
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