This is my tenth year as a climate activist—I just turned 22. Raised on a farm in Maine, there is one word that best describes my journey: evolution. My 12-year-old knees trembled when I first spoke in public. I was the epitome of introversion. I avoided rallies because they scared me. Now, I’ll gladly lead a rally. I’ll chant, if I believe in a cause. I’ll speak in front of anyone at any time. I’ll participate in direct action, if I think it’s necessary. Purpose gave me a voice.
Back at the beginning, I didn’t know that this kind of evolution was possible. I didn’t have role models who had traveled these roads. In the hopes of providing some guidance to other young climate activists, a decade seems like a good time to take stock of the lessons that I’ve learned.
My career as an activist began when I joined a campaign to protect a place I dearly love, Maine’s North Woods, from aggressive corporate development. I did research, testified at public hearings, wrote letters to newspapers and public officials and worked with local environmental organizations—all to protect my home.
When I entered high school, I was surprised that there was no environmental club, so I started the Climate Action Club (CAC). We began with small projects—letter-writing campaigns, recycling batteries, energy audits on classrooms. Eventually we launched the largest reusable bag campaign in the state, became the first school to install solar panels as a result of a student initiative and without government subsidies, won national and international awards and galvanized a movement in our school and community. We were even featured on the Sundance Channel. I learned that one person and one group of passionate committed individuals can build a powerful movement. This is when I started First Here, Then Everywhere, a website that aims to connect youth activists and spread the message of youth empowerment.
During the summer of 2012, I discovered the frightening power of the fossil fuel industry. That’s when I co-founded Divest Harvard (DH), a student-run campaign calling on Harvard to divest from fossil fuel companies. We join hundreds of divestment campaigns worldwide in a movement that aims to open political space for climate legislation by stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry.
Divest Harvard, just like the CAC, began with a small group of people in a room trying to figure out how to launch a campaign. Within three months, we had over 3,000 students in support of divestment, and we were featured in news outlets around the world. Now, as we enter our third year of campaigning, Divest Harvard is continuing to build momentum with almost 70,000 people who have publicly declared their support. It is yet another example of First Here, Then Everywhere.
I have distilled eight lessons from my first decade as an activist. The first four relate to effective strategies in the climate movement. The last four reflect my personal growth as an activist.
1) Adopt an “all of the above” climate strategy. The climate movement is unique for many reasons—one of which is that the potential audience is greater than that of any previous social movement. Therefore, the strategies and tactics used to engage people must be as diverse as people themselves. I strive to provide inclusive, varied and individualized avenues for engagement in campaigns.
2) Because climate change is urgent, it means that we need to be thoughtful—not reactive. I’ve been in a lot of situations where there is a dire sense of urgency to act because climate change is so pressing—even if the action is risky, ill-timed or counterproductive. Yes, climate change is urgent, and yes, we need to act quickly. But this urgency requires us to act strategically and thoughtfully because there isn’t time to fix major mistakes and cause mass alienation. We have one opportunity to build a climate movement, and the window for action is drawing to a close. So let’s make sure that we are thoughtful about our campaigns and do things right the first time.