This Teen Climate Activist Is Done With Adults Saying ‘Kids Will Save The World’
How’s your summer going?
Are you seeing friends and family? Taking weekend trips to hilly hiking spots and cute, small towns? Reading novels in the park, seeing art outdoors, going to the beach, drinking blush-colored cocktails on rooftops?
Here’s what Jamie Margolin is doing: answering emails, writing a book, getting on conference calls. She’ll be inside — trying to save the planet.
Did I mention she is 17 years old?
Margolin is the founder and co-executive director of Zero Hour, a climate activist group run by and for teenagers that is in the throes of preparing for a weekend of actions and seminars, in Miami, this July. She is one of several teens whose utter fed-up-ness with the world’s indifference to the climate crisis has given them a spotlight. If you think her activism is coming at the expense of a “normal” teenhood, you’re right. But if you want Margolin and other youth activists to be the torch-carrying, hope-inspiring absolution for your latent environmental guilt, you’re missing the point: They don’t want your attention. They need your action.
“When I talk to someone in power, and they say, ‘Oh, you kids are gonna save the world,’ that’s bullshit,” Margolin says. “My power is limited to making you do something, and I reached that, and now you’re gonna sit here and point fingers at me? Like, come on, man.”
This is classic Margolin. She flips between signifying “regular teenage girl” — her retail therapy is Lana Del Rey vinyl — and sounding like a veteran activist. (She told me she plans to spend the summer trying to “stay on top of” her inbox.) If she were fifty years older, she’d be the aunt with stories for days about getting hosed and arrested at Freedom Summer protests.
“It’s really important and refreshing for folks to just say it like it is,” said Kendall Mackey, a board member of the Power Shift Network, which advises and sponsors youth-led social justice movements. “The conversation around climate change over the last few decades has become about a layer of rhetoric that doesn’t cut through to the urgency of what’s going on. Jamie speaks directly because there’s no sugarcoating this.”
Margolin gets power and inspiration from her multifarious identity: She is a Jewish (from her dad), Hispanic (her mother is Colombian), gay woman. (“I check a lot of boxes,” she says.) She credits her father’s secular-Jewish-intellectual values, along with her mother’s status as an immigrant, as equal building blocks of her drive for justice. She lives with her family in Seattle and will start her senior year of high school in the fall.
Though Margolin has been an activist for years, the issue of climate change became all-consuming for her in September 2017. That month, Hurricane Maria — and the Trump administration’s slow response to it — devastated much of Puerto Rico, at the same time that wildfires from around the West had caused ash to rain down on Margolin’s hometown. (Margolin later sued Washington state over the poor air conditions, in a case that was dismissed pre-trial.)
Zero Hour had only just begun at that point. She got her peers’ attention in June 2017 with an Instagram post that suggested they unite to organize a youth march on Washington about climate change. The initial small cohort grew into a robust, organized network of ten directors leading project-specific teams that made good on that original post by leading a weekend of workshops and actions in D.C. last summer, including a march that drew hundreds of youths.
Since then she has gradually shifted her time, energy and focus from her studies to her activism with Zero Hour. In May, she had a different speaking engagement every weekend, twice taking cross-country trips to speak at conferences in New York and Montreal. That month, she was also studying for finals and sat for the SAT. Her score wasn’t that great, she said, so she’s retaking it in October.
Because she spent the school year traveling so much, her grades slipped, too — from straight As to just As and Bs.
“My mom wishes they were higher, that whole immigrant parent thing,” Margolin said. “I feel like I’m letting her down a little bit.”
Margolin is also writing a book, tentatively titled “Youth to Power,” essentially a handbook for young activists. It’s part tutorial — What is a press strategy? How do I write an op-ed? — and part memoir, tracing Margolin’s successes and struggles in juggling family obligations, schoolwork, activism and staying a mentally healthy teen. Her due date for her manuscript is July 1.
On a recent Wednesday, Margolin had essentially one goal: get enough done to go with her friends to see “Booksmart” — a movie about two success-obsessed high school senior girls out for a night of last-minute debauchery before their graduation. When we spoke by phone, she was returning home from visiting her therapist’s office by way of her favorite bubble tea joint, preparing for a long afternoon of responding to emails, sending invites for the Miami summit and reviewing her manuscript.
The routine has “become normal for me, so I forget that it’s not,” she added.
“Occasionally I enjoy hanging out with my friends, and seeing my family, and sleeping, and Netflix,” she said.
Out of sheer concern, I followed up later to see if she had made it to the movie. She had, thank God — and she loved it.
“Everyone is pretty lonely”
Over the last year, as the climate crisis has become a voting issue for more Americans, teenagers focused on the issue have been getting the world’s attention. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swede, has galvanized students from over 120 countries to skip their classes on Fridays — the Fridays for Future movement — in protest of environmental inaction.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of respect and recognition for what the youth stand for,” said Shyla Raghav, who oversees climate change advocacy strategy at Conservation International. “The extent to which that is then internalized and is reflected in real action remains to be seen.”
Zero Hour is a testament to teen tenacity: It is run by volunteers, who labor on their laptops from their dining room tables and bedrooms, coordinating over FaceTime with one another and with adult advisors on how to attract attention from politicians, organize actions and get a message to the world: “This is zero hour to act on climate change.” The cohort is like a group of far-flung siblings, Margolin said, who drive each other nuts even as they look forward to getting to hang out together in real life.
“Everyone is pretty lonely,” Margolin said. “We never really see each other.”
Zero Hour is preparing for a summit of keynotes, panels and workshops in Miami, over the weekend of July 12-14, featuring youth organizers involved in environmental issues across the country, from New Orleans, to South Dakota, to Flint. Marches in D.C. are well and good, Margolin said, but it’s equally important to teach organizing skills and create policy ideas.
“People think all kids can do is riot and yell in the street, they don’t have anything substantial to say, they can’t come up with any real solutions,” she said. “But we’re proving them wrong.”
“Screw it, I’m gonna say what I think”
Margolin isn’t shy about her ambitions — her Instagram bio reads “Future POTUS.”
Natalie Mebane, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club, says that she saw that potential in her immediately after meeting her for the first time, in January 2018.
“In about ten seconds, I knew she was gonna be president,” Mebane said. “She can recruit you with two sentences.”
Margolin quickly recruited Mebane to help organize their day of lobbying in D.C. last year: Twelve teams of 180 kids meeting with staff in 47 Senate offices, including several meetings with senators themselves, over eight hours.
Mebane said that in that first meeting, she told Margolin that whenever she decides to run, she’ll be her campaign manager and chief of staff. Then they took a selfie.
Margolin is a seasoned enough activist that she pulls no punches when talking about climate change, no matter who she’s talking to. She is at once warm and open about her personal life, fluent in climate policy and blunt in a way that evokes a teenaged Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s just not holding the kind of public office would require her to refrain from posting tweets like this:
When Cardi B said, “pu**y still wet like Florida” she was talking about how rising sea levels due to the climate crisis will submerge much of southern Florida and completely flood Miami.
— Jamie Margolin (@Jamie_Margolin) June 26, 2019
“The more I do this, and the more frustrated I get, and the more time is ticking and we have less time to act on climate change, the more I’m like screw it, I’m gonna say what I think,” she said.
In May, at C2 Montreal, the business innovation conference, she talked Zero Hour support with Spike Lee and Will.i.am (whose manager got a dressing down on Margolin’s Instagram after cutting their conversation short). After speaking on a panel in which she was the only woman, she wrote about it with characteristic fearlessness on social media.
“Making my voice the loudest on a stage full of older white men is something I’ve learned to do often,” she posted. “When they try to cut me off and mainsplain me I speak up louder and spill the facts on #climatejustice and the systems of oppression that caused the #climatecrisis.”
View this post on Instagram
This post is coming almost a month late, but I had the most amazing time speaking at the @c2montreal keynote panel. I was the only women on stage, the only young person, the only grassroots organizer, and the closest thing to having a person of color on the stage. Making my voice the loudest on a stage full of older white men is something I’ve learned to do often. When they try to cut me off and mainsplain me I speak up louder and spill the facts on #climatejustice and the systems of oppression that caused the #climatecrisis. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my #climatetour it’s that people everywhere are actually ready and relieved to hear the raw facts that @thisiszerohour talks about in our #GetToTheRoots campaign! Thank you again @c2montreal for the amazing opportunity and giving me a platform to speak to thousands, and for offsetting the carbon that it took me to get to Montreal! #YouthToPower #ThisIsZeroHour
Teenage climate activism shows no signs of slowing down. Recently, youth activists have slept overnight for two nights at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, protesting the DNC’s decision not to hold a debate specifically about climate change. The first two debates, to boot, were held in Miami, the city with the most amount of property at risk of flooding from rising sea levels in the country. After the DNC’s refusal, Zero Hour was one of several groups to co-launch a petition asking Congress to declare a national climate emergency.
But despite being a face of her generation’s fight for a better climate, Margolin doesn’t expect to conquer the legislative process, or convince the world’s largest polluters to cut their emissions.
“There’s this whole narrative of, ‘Kids are gonna save the world,’” Margolin said in a phone interview. “Which is wrong, because there’s only so much that’s within our power.”
“We have the moral high ground and the ability to shift the culture,” Margolin said. She paused as she paid for her bubble tea, apologizing for the interruption. She continued, “We can use that to influence those in power.”