- Interview by
- Liza Featherstone
Inspired by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish sixteen-year-old activist, young people worldwide have been going on strike from school each Friday to call attention to the climate crisis and demand that their governments take action. In the United States, the movement was slower to grow, but this spring it has attracted widespread participation. Isra Hirsi is a co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike — and, incidentally, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s daughter. She spoke with Jacobin’s Liza Featherstone about the strikes, her famous mom, and the obstacles to organizing young people in a country as punitive as the US.
What were the major highlights of the May 3 youth climate strike? What stood out about it?
I thought it was powerful. In Minnesota, we didn’t have any elected officials slotted to speak. And then we were there at the Capitol and a whole bunch came that were authoring green-friendly bills: renewable energy, and the Minnesota Green New Deal. And they came to show up and speak or at least support. And I thought that was really cool.
How about the rest of the country? Was it bigger than last time?
May 3 was not as big as March 15, but it was definitely powerful to see so many people staying engaged. Also, even if we were in smaller numbers, people were a lot more engaged and interested in being there.
Yes, here in New York, there was a spontaneous direct action on the Brooklyn Bridge, which is more serious, even though the gathering was much bigger last time.
The more you do events that are super similar, people want to go bigger, and that requires patience and energy. The people who came out on May 3 were people who want to continue that spike. It helps weed out the people who are just doing it for the Instagram posts.
Although those people were lovely, too — I probably met some of them when I reported on March 15. Can you talk about how you came to climate activism?
I joined my high school Green Team a year and a half ago, when I first went to high school. I hadn’t been involved in climate justice. I didn’t know it was such a big deal. I was still learning, but I joined to dip my foot in. From there I ended up getting more involved. I joined my city’s I Matter team — it’s an organization that focuses on young people, high school, middle school students doing city climate resolutions, or working towards a green state. So with I Matter, I helped get 100 percent renewable energy or electricity in my city, by I think, 2040.
And then from there I ended up joining a statewide green group called Minnesota Can’t Wait. We were able to create the first Green New Deal statewide. It’s almost exactly the same [as AOC’s national Green New Deal]. So that was really cool.
It was just recently put into the state legislature, and has been sent to committee.
Youth climate strikes started first in other countries. What are you learning from activists abroad to make this your own?
Definitely Europe is a lot more radical than the United States. And the response to the strikes is less aggressive. A lot of people here don’t go on [school] strike because it’s hard to not get in trouble.
Our government is worse, if I’m being honest. And we have a lot of people in our group that live in red areas, who are uncomfortable telling their parents and teachers [about the climate strike]. The cultural shifts are a lot harder. Climate change is just super controversial here, while countries like the UK have called it a national emergency. We’re mobilizing here on this issue that people don’t even think is real. And so we’re coming to hurdles trying to talk to these legislators, state senators, and United States congresspeople.
It’s a very slow pace, but with politics changing and 2020 [approaching], it’s been a lot easier to talk to people again. These presidential candidates, especially the bigger ones, are talking about how this is a problem. People are realizing we have to do something today.
When you say our politics is changing, can you talk a little more about what you mean by that?
With the presidential candidates talking about these things, you know? They’re trying to be likable.
It seems one of the huge obstacles on this issue is that if you don’t tell the truth about climate change and what we’re facing, people don’t take it seriously enough. But if you do, people can get overwhelmed and feel it’s hopeless. And I wonder, especially organizing young people — it’s hard enough emotionally to deal with your life as a young person. How do you deal with this? With the emotional challenges of getting people to face climate change and take action? The issue is so depressing; it’s not surprising to me that people engage in a lot of denial about it.
I would say that young people have become more and more resilient. You look at the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s rights movement, and some many movements before, and young people at that time were so resilient. And I think that is similar to what I have seen in today’s youth. Even if their parents don’t support them and their grandparents don’t support them, their school says they’re going to get suspended for it, because of what the movement is, people are going to keep going. And I think that’s powerful. People do expect young people to give up or go down. But young people realize this is everything.
And that’s one of the cool things about working with people around my age: we’ll just keep going.
You mentioned that, in contrast with organizing in Europe, it’s a lot harder here not to get in trouble. And you just now mentioned school suspensions. Can you talk a little bit about how some schools are retaliating against young people for the strikes, and how you can confront that?
People are scared. They don’t want to miss a test or an assignment. Also, in the United States we have really aggressive truancy laws. So if I were to strike every single Friday [as Greta Thunberg and many schoolchildren in Europe have been doing], to not go to school every Friday, in like four weeks, I’d probably get a letter home saying that my parents need to take me to school. It does say a lot about how it works here rather than in other places. I even wonder how people [in Europe] can strike every Friday, even the first few periods. It sounds so crazy! I’ve even gotten letters home for going to Lobby Days, three times a month or something. And I can’t imagine striking every Friday.
You have a pretty political background! I don’t know if you looked at Jacobin’s website, but we’ve run a number of articles on your very courageous mom. Have you always been interested in politics and social justice? How has your mom’s work influenced you?
I would say that I grew up a very radical child. I just have always wanted to change the world. When I was in first grade, I went to my first protest, against this church that was discriminating against queer people, barring a gay couple from even entering the church. At the time I was living in Fargo, North Dakota. I went to that protest, and we picketed outside the church for a few hours. That was my first time stepping into the world of activism and from there …
And did your mom bring you to that protest?
I think so. Yeah. I’m pretty sure. Living in a very, very political household, even as a kid before she’s in office, I would say both my parents have definitely influenced me. But I do know today, even the past few years, the work that I do — everybody assumes that they’re intertwined. I got invited to speak somewhere yesterday, and [my mother] came with me to New York. And it was definitely the talk of the talk: “Oh, Isra is influenced by her mother.” Which I would say is definitely true, but our work is very separate. We don’t talk about it a lot, [even though] she’s working on green bills and supports the Green New Deal.
Maybe you’re influencing her now. Do you think the activism you do is informing some of her commitments as a congresswoman?
Not necessarily. Our beliefs do align. So the things that I believe in are definitely the things that she believes in already. Without our even having a conversation about it. But I do think that the climate strikes and youth advocating for climate policy are definitely something she didn’t know about before. Just like me. I didn’t realize it was a thing until January.
The Right has been inflaming violent threats against your mom for speaking out. Has that affected your family’s daily life? What do you personally do to stay safe?
I live in a very liberal town. Everybody there really supports my mother in the work that she does. In person I get people telling me they want her to stay strong, rather than wishing death upon her. So, I definitely keep living my own life, taking the bus, walking places. It’s been very similar to before she became such a big thing.
Although, when she’s here, we have to be careful about places that are really, really big, like a mall.
Not too long ago, most people’s idea of being eco-conscious was maybe to try not to use plastic bags. What do you think has helped so many people to understand that we need much bigger solutions?
I do think that people doing things in their everyday lives is helpful, but it doesn’t create the drastic change we need, and not everyone’s going to do it. For example, going vegan: while it’s ethical and a good idea, isn’t going to completely change the meat industry. And so I think rather than focusing on the individual, I think it’s more important to focus on the corporations and industries that are doing these things to us. Me taking a flight, while that is bad for the environment, doesn’t do as much as a whole company changing the way that they fly.
So, are you planning for another school strike?
Yeah, the next school strike will be sometime in September. And we are advocating for a climate debate. We have this petition with MoveOn, and a lot of our state organizers are going to these presidential events, calling on them to join. Hopefully it happens this fall/winter.
And the candidates that have signed onto the climate debate?
Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Julian Castro, Tim Ryan, Jay Inslee, Mike Gravel, Seth Moulton, Tim Bennett. Pete said “maybe.” Beto O’Rourke said, “Yes, but I need to know more about it” — so also like a maybe. And Kristen Gillibrand. She was the latest one to say yes. [Elizabeth Warren said yes last week.]
And then we also are working towards a type of advocacy boot camp to happen across the country. In all the states we have organizers to educate people on our demands, and on what it means to fight for something like this. And also, training them to become better organizers and better leaders.