I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohammad Ahmadi, a 17-year-old climate justice activist based in Chicago, IL. He is the co-founder and Communications Coordinator of Earth Uprising International, and co-founder and team member of Hinsdale for Black Lives Matter.
Identify three youth-organized environmental justices initiative in your city.
What is your earliest memory of getting involved in environmental justice?
I’ve been passionate about the environment, specifically since I was a kid. But my primary motivation was from when I visited Iran in 2014 and 2015. I saw lots of pollution, and I saw dust storms, droughts, desertification, and deforestation. I started to realize how the climate crisis will impact Iran and many other countries.
After that, I saw an opportunity on Instagram to become an ambassador for Illinois Youth Climate Strike. After that, I realized that the climate crisis isn’t just an environmental issue but intersects with all other issues: migration, human rights, agriculture, and everything. Climate justice and racial justice are interlinked. Before that, I just thought that the crisis was about saving the polar bears and recycling, which is important, but there’s a much larger problem.
That’s powerful. I think a lot of us when we were younger – maybe not your generation, but mine certainly – got that one-sided view of environmental justice. Every Earth Week, we would hear stuff about cutting the plastic around the six-packs of soda to save the sea turtles and, like, raking leaves.
Right. This is a human issue; we’re fighting for human life. Hundreds of millions of people are going to become climate refugees. And the most affected areas – the islands, developing countries, low-income communities – are going to be impacted the hardest. This is a fight for them.
How does this influence your activism now?
With Earth Uprising, I first got involved locally in the summer of 2019. Now, after being a part of the Illinois Youth Climate Strike, I started Earth Uprising Chicago. The first thing we did was organize strikes in front of the Chicago City Hall. We had different themes targeting different groups (the media, fossil fuel, etc). Our focus was to try to get Chicago to declare a climate emergency. We dropped off letters, hosted digital campaigns, partnered with other groups. And we were successful; in February 2020, the Chicago city council declared a climate emergency.
We thought that was important because, although the declaration is symbolic, it shows that you recognize that this is an emergency and that action is needed. Then, we met with politicians, and we talked about the national climate emergency declaration. That’s a lot of my local work with Earth Uprising. Internationally, I’m on the Earth Uprising team as Communications Coordinator, where our main job is to support our local organizers.
We have chapters all around the world – I think in about 20 countries. All of our chapters are focused on promoting climate education, bringing climate education into schools, and getting youth involved. We believe that when you’re educated about the climate crisis and its intersections with all these different issues, it will motivate you to take action. That’s how it happened for me. I was passionate about the environment first, but once I learned about the humanity at stake, I was motivated to get even more involved.
For the first presidential debates, we wanted to see a climate question, so we partnered with Move On and many other environmental groups to petition for it. Our petition got over 130,000 signatures – 200,000 total across all groups, and there was a climate question at the first presidential debate. So that was a success in our eyes.
Right now, we’re doing a partnership with Ecosia, the search engine, and we’re giving micro-grants to youth organizers who are starting climate projects in the U.S.
Very cool. You mentioned your work with Hinsdale for Black Lives Matter. Where do you see racial justice and environmental justice intersecting?
My work with Hinsdale for Black Lives Matter started last June after the death of George Floyd. I had gone to a protest in Chicago and, when I returned, felt the need to create something in my town. My town is 90% white and conservative, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. We started to plan our first local protest and got a ton of pushback from people worried that we’d spark looting and violence. Over 500 people showed up, and it sparked a conversation about racism in our community.
We partnered with local Black Lives Matter groups and organized a strike against environmental racism on September 25th, the global day of climate action. We had several demands, including comprehensive and intersectional climate education for our school districts and climate emergency declarations by our town, Hinsdale, and other local townships. State-wide, we demanded the Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act be passed, and nationally we demanded the passing of the Green New Deal and the Climate Equity Act.
What does Earth Day look like for your work this year?
This year we’re hosting our summit called Youth Speaks 2021. We’re partnering with Earth Day Network and two other groups: Education International and Hip Hop caucus. We’re doing three days of climate action on April 20th, 21st, and 22nd, which is Earth Day. The first day is the summit: we have eight sessions on freedom of protest migration, environmental justice, and education, etc. We were going to have youth from all around the world discussing those issues. We are also going to release a set of demands for the Biden administration to address.
So what have you learned most on this journey? Like what did you know stepping into this, as it seems like a very public role? There’s a lot of leadership involved. Maybe even a lot of management is involved. What have you learned that you didn’t know before through this work?
It takes a lot of effort to educate people and get them involved. In my area, it’s been extremely, extremely difficult to get more people involved. It takes a lot of effort and strategic collaboration to make it possible. You need to work together. You can’t just be one organization trying to do everything on your own. We’re constantly collaborating with other activists and organizations. We try to use each other’s strengths to amplify our messages and educate people together.
Yeah. What world are you hoping to leave behind for the generations that follow?
Well, I’m hoping to leave behind a world that is not ravaged by the climate crisis. So we avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius or two degrees of warming each year. I’m just trying to leave behind a more educated population. The youth is the next generation, so if we can educate them, they will demand change from the government faster when they’re older – whether it’s climate justice, racial justice, or anything else.
What is bringing you joy right now?
I think seeing all these activists using their skills and passions to make a change. And when you see that, it motivates me even more, to continue taking action. It also brings me joy when I see success, whether it’s a small achievement or a big achievement. That’s inspiring.
Yes! I know this work can be really draining on individuals. So how do you practice self-care?
It is, especially for youth activists. We’re also balancing school and other activities. So it’s very difficult. Both the mental stress and strain and just doing the work takes a lot of time. I try to balance things pretty well. There’s always so much more work to do, though. I wish I had more time to spend on local activism, especially with Hinsdale for Black Lives Matter.
One way of self-care is to cut back on something so you have time to focus on specific things. If I have ten different commitments, I can’t spend time on each of them. If I spend time on one thing, that’s probably more beneficial.
Taking breaks is important, too. We have to have good mental health; it’s necessary to keep our movements going. If we’re all burn out, then who’s going to do the work?
What does activism look like for you? How can you take a stand in your community?
Who are some of the inspiring leaders in your community? How can you help their work sustain?
How has your relationship to the Earth inspired your environmental justice work?