The Fall of Paradise

Inspired by the California wildfires, activist wunderkind Alexandria Villaseñor took her climate anxiety and turned it into action

November 6, 2019

10:42 am

Earth Uprising is a multi-national nonprofit devoted to connecting youth climate activists from all over the world. Did we note that this organization was founded by a 13 year old girl?

But Alexandria Villaseñor is no ordinary adolescent. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, Villaseñor wanted to take action to fight the climate crisis, but wasn’t sure how to effectively be heard. She settled on an idea the power of which was in silent protest. That protest — manifest in a silent protest outside the UN on 1st Avenue in New York City every Friday since December, sometimes in brutal cold, sometimes in oppressive heat — has struck a chord with so many, globally, and made her a leader of the climate-youth set. We caught up with Villaseñor, now 14, as she prepares for the next set of global protests at the end of this month, starting on Black Friday.

EARTH’S CALL: How did you get the idea to protest in front of the UN every Friday?

Alexandria Villaseñor: What originally made me get the idea to take action was after visiting family back in Northern California last year when the Paradise Fire broke out. My family’s home was located in a town near Paradise. We had ended up receiving a lot of the smoke and, at one point, it was the worst air quality in the world.

Since the smoke was inflaming my asthma so much my family had to end my trip early and send me back to New York City. At that point, I was ill from the smoke, and very upset. I started researching wildfires and came across the connection between California’s wildfire season and climate change. That made me want to take action, but I didn’t know what to do. It was only after hearing Greta Thunberg speak at COP24 that I knew what to do, and it was then that I decided to go on strike. I then started my weekly school strike at the United Nations Headquarters on Dec. 14th, 2018. I took my climate anxiety and turned it into action!

EARTH’S CALL: Specifically, what are you actually protesting: is it political inaction? Is it non-eco-friendly business practices? Is it to call public attention to the crisis? Perhaps it is all of the above, but what is your specific, stated mission?

Alexandria Villaseñor: I’m protesting to get global climate action from all of our world leaders. I know that’s very big, and a lot of people tell me it’s too big and it won’t ever happen, but I don’t see this problem being solved in any other way. It is a global problem that doesn’t respect borders. The world needs to rethink sovereignty with regard to how each country’s fossil-fuel infrastructure impacts other countries. What is so symbolic about striking at the UN is that is where all of our world leaders come together to make big decisions. This is a global problem, so I am striking because I want to see global action taken now.

EARTH’S CALL: Did you initially get any resistance from your parents or from school officials?

Alexandria Villaseñor: I didn’t get any resistance from my parents at all. When I began my strike, my mom was doing her Master’s degree at Columbia University in Climate Science, so she understands how urgent climate change is. However, because she’s a scientist, she sees the climate crisis differently than I do. I was the one who pointed out to her the climate crisis will impact me and my generation the most, and that the young people are going to be the ones that really have to fix this problem. My mom has been at almost all of my strikes now. She helps me with every part of my activism and I wouldn’t be able to do what I have been doing without her help. Now she is working on her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at UC Davis and she’s even started a “Theories of Change in Climate Activism” research cluster to help me save the planet.

As far as school goes, well, I changed schools three times last year so I could keep doing my activism. I wasn’t in trouble at all, and actually, my teachers have all been really supportive of my activism and they have helped in every way they could. I just knew there would be problems in the future if I kept missing class. So first I went from public to private school, and then I finished the last bit of the school year doing independent study. This year I am also doing an independent-study program for the 8th grade and everyone I work with is always really supportive.

EARTH’S CALL: You must have had some difficult encounters with weather. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you had to overcome weather-wise?

Alexandria Villaseñor: Yes! I have been on strike in heatwaves, extreme humidity, windstorms, rainstorms, snowstorms, and I even went on strike in the polar vortex when it was -2 outside and the windchill made it -14 degrees! (That was my 8th week in front of the UN.)

To manage the weather, I have had misters and handheld fans in the heat, I zipped up in a sub-zero sleeping bag in the polar vortex, I’ve broken five umbrellas from wind and rain, I’ve ruined three pairs of boots, and there was something that bit me on my legs one time and I scratched all week. I think it says a lot to see young people out on the streets protesting every Friday, no matter what the weather is. No matter what weather we strike in, it will be no match for the crazy out-of-control Earth system we face in the future.

EARTH’S CALL: What about in terms of safety? Have there been concerns about you — just a 13-year-old girl when you started — being alone in this endeavor?

Alexandria Villaseñor: When it comes to safety, I have had to really keep that in mind. With my activism, I have been targeted by a lot of climate deniers. For example, because I’m a lead organizer in the U.S., I was put on Breitbart after the first-ever global climate strike that occured on March 15th. From that Breitbart article, I received a lot of death threats in the comments, and it really scared me and my parents. Now, my parents make sure that one of them, or another adult, is with me all the time when I strike. It’s really sad, because I’m not the only one targeted like this. I think that when adults and climate deniers attack the student strikers, it shows how much of an impact we are having. The strikers are only amplifying the science and that scares people who rely on our current fossil-fuel-driven world-economic model.

EARTH’S CALL: Are you encouraged by what you saw in the Global Climate Strikes, in which 7.6 million people participated?

Alexandria Villaseñor: I was extremely inspired by how many people protested in the Global Climate Strikes on September 20th and September 27th. For September 20th, I was a lead organizer for the climate strike that mobilized 315,000 people in New York City. While the turnout was encouraging, there still has not been sufficient action to protect the planet and future generations. The scientists say we are still on a catastrophic course because our global greenhouse-gas emissions are still rising. I know however, that we will not stop holding those in positions of power accountable. The next global climate strike will be on November 29th and Dec. 6th, and I know my own organization, Earth Uprising, is beginning to look past the climate strike movement, and see how we can escalate even more to bring about the action needed to save the planet.

EARTH’S CALL: You've had a very interesting year, including winning a Disruptor Award from the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, and meeting political leaders from all over the world. How are you putting this in perspective for someone who is 14?

Alexandria Villaseñor: Yeah, a lot has happened this year! Sure, I’ve won some awards, but awards don’t change the world. When I meet political leaders, celebrities, and other influencers, I realize that they’re just people like everyone else. It doesn’t matter who they are, the climate crisis affects them, too, and we all need to be in this together. I also don’t have a problem telling a world leader or any other high-profile person what I think about the climate crisis, or even how I see their role in the climate crisis. We are out of time and we have to speak truth to power — regardless of who our audience is.

I also think my age helps me with people in power, because sometimes I don’t know much about them. Like, I’ll be with my mom, and she’ll be like, “Do you know who that is?” and I’ll be like, “No?” and sometimes my not knowing is the best thing that could happen to my conversation with them.

Honestly, I don’t think us young people are talking to our world leaders enough and it’s one of my missions to do more of that in the future! At least until they start doing the right thing and saving the planet.

EARTH’S CALL: At least half the country already agrees with those of us who are waving red flags about the crisis. What are the biggest challenges that you see in convincing the rest of the country — the climate skeptics, the ones not interested in science-based facts?

Alexandria Villaseñor: Ummm, capitalism? Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the U.S. has sent more greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere than any other country in the world. That means we have also profited the most off of all those burnt fossil fuels. The biggest challenge is that the people who are making money off of climate change have managed to create huge misinformation campaigns with the public, and the people who follow those rich people — and the politicians the rich people have bought — believe them.

I don’t think people should be allowed to make money by ruining my future. As activists, we’re doing our best to reach people in denial with truth and facts, but really, the people who perpetrated this denial need to be held accountable and forced to tell the truth to all those skeptics they created. My non-profit, Earth Uprising International, has youth activists in some of the most climate-denying communities in the U.S, like southern Florida, Texas, and the Midwest. They tell me the most horrible stories about city council members who come out to their climate strikes and tell them climate change isn’t real. They tell me how their public classrooms teach “both sides” of the climate-change argument, like climate change is an opinion or something you can choose to just believe in or not. It’s terrible, and they shouldn’t be allowed to do these things, and we youth are working on changing that.

EARTH’S CALL: What are young people such as yourself saying that has had so much more impact than what adult allies have said to this point?

Alexandria Villaseñor: Well, first, I think young people are saying the things adults are secretly thinking, but they can’t say because society keeps them in check all the time. I know my parents can’t say some of the things that I say to people in power, because they’re worried about their careers and paying the bills and taking care of me. Also, I’m 14, and the science says that by the time I’m 30, climate change will really be a done deal. So I’m thinking about what kind of career am I going to even have then? Life will be so different.

I also think that, because young people haven’t been indoctrinated by society, that we see things differently. When I met with Chuck Schumer, he talked about how he doesn’t support the Green New Deal because it’s not politically possible from where he’s at. I told him it shouldn’t be about what is politically possible and this is about my future and the future of humanity. The youth understand that we either take action or the planet dies, and if that means we have to think outside of what’s politically possible, then that is what we have to do. After all the lobbying in Washington, D.C., I have done over the last year, I’m pretty convinced that our political system as it is cannot handle this problem. At protests, one of the main chants we use is “SYSTEM CHANGE NOT CLIMATE CHANGE.”

EARTH’S CALL: What are simple things that everyone can do to help advance the cause, and slow the devastating effects of the climate emergency?

Alexandria Villaseñor: The individual actions I recommend everyone do is to educate others about the climate crisis. After mobilizing students to join the global climate strikes, I realized a lot of students were not joining the strikes because they didn’t know why it was important. Once students were educated, then they felt empowered to take action! So, I recommend educating others in your community on what is happening to our planet. That, and join us in the protests if you can — it’s your future too.

EARTH’S CALL: Are you hopeful about the future?

Alexandria Villaseñor: I’m hopeful about the future because I belong to a generation of persistent young people who will not stop making our voices heard. September 20th was only the third of many mass mobilizations. As the climate crisis gets more urgent, you will see the mobilizations grow. You’ll also see the movements grow, and I’m sure there are climate movements that haven’t even been started yet. Humanity won’t die quietly, and we’ll fight back with our activism just as intensely as the warming accelerates the extreme events in our earth system.

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