For today’s analysis of environmental justice, I interviewed Jana Jandal Alrifai, an 18-year-old Arab-Canadian youth organizer with Climate Strike Canada and a co-founder of Fridays For Future Windsor-Essex. Her work inspired me for its clarity – that the only way we get through this is together.
What’s the earliest memory that you have of getting into this work?
I started doing this work around March of last year. It would go to calls and whatnot before then, but I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything until September this past year, which is when we hosted a teach-in about just recovery with Climate Strike Canada.
Tell me a little bit about putting that together. What was the process, and what were some of the biggest challenges that you experienced?
Oh, so many challenges. A big one is that we are all such busy people with such limited capacity. You have to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself, but you also have other people taking care of themselves. Then, try to match the output that you said that you would give. When I started our local group, I had to be sure that it sustained itself, which meant I had to leave some responsibilities to other people. That’s kind of what makes a community a community, because you all learn to juggle the same things together. So capacity is a challenge, and making sure that we all have capacity, which doesn’t often happen.
It doesn’t often happen. I love that you say that because I think people tend to sacrifice their well-being for this work.
Yeah. Giving all of yourself actually isn’t productive or impactful. In fact, they want you to not do good and not be caring of yourself. It’s an act of resistance to do so.
Absolutely. When I was preparing for this conversation, I came across an article where you talked about the relationship between sustainability and faith. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about that.
To me, the idea of sustainability comes from taking care of something that will take care of you. I’m a Muslim, and I’m also Arab. We have this general understanding that things are finite. Life is finite. So you have to make sure that you use it well. Not just in terms of, like, “I’m going to use this one chair until I really can’t.” It’s also “I’m going to take care of myself, and I’m going to use my finite time wisely”. That is both self-care and doing something worthwhile with your life. And that could look like anything: not just action, but anything that is worthwhile to you.
How has your idea of advocacy changed over time? How has your idea about showing up as a leader in the space evolved since you started last year?
For a very long time, I believed in being nice, diplomacy, and talking to people. But sometimes, talking just isn’t going to cut it because it can go in one ear and right out the other. The belief that there’s a “middle ground” is not accurate and doesn’t accomplish anything. So I’ve moved away from that idea into more tangible actions with concrete demands that go with it.
Love it. What are your plans for Earth Day this year?
Well, my local group is planning a little action for our municipality. Generally, a lot of people associate Earth Day with just individual action like, “I am going to take a walk instead of getting in the car,” which shouldn’t be what we focus on. We should recognize that the Earth is beautiful and that we should keep it that way, but we also need to protect it.
Individual action over time will not solve the crisis in any way, shape, or form. So I want to push the idea that this Earth day, what you will be doing is demanding action from your representatives and lawmakers. Because at the end of the day, we shouldn’t just celebrate. We should also fight.
Absolutely. What do you wish more people knew about the scope of the climate crisis?
Recovery and climate justice can’t just be practiced from a sustainability point of view, but by rebuilding the systems that have caused climate change to happen. We don’t just need to reverse climate change and the climate crisis. We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. We have to tackle environmental racism, that everyone is not equally impacted by climate change, and that BIPOC communities often have factories and machinery located in their neighborhoods, affecting their health. Their neighborhoods are more likely to flood. Economically, when things get more expensive, which they will because we are running out of the finite sources we’ve placed our economy upon, they will be the people most affected.
So climate justice is the most essential thing that we can do to help the climate and the climate crisis. This is not just an Earth issue. This is a systemic issue. This is an everything issue. In the global North, where I am located, we use a lot of carbon for our GDP, and we’re not people who are affected by it. That’s the Global South. Here, we are pushing for a just transition and a just recovery, which is an idea that originally came from labor unions but has been adapted into a framework that we could use to fix the climate crisis.
And in a similar vein, what do you hope Earth Day looks like for the next generation, you know, for the next group of people that are – you’re 18, right?
I am, yeah. *Laughs*.
So 18 years from now.
Well, let’s see if that happens. Let’s see if there are other 18-year-olds because by the rate things are going right now, I doubt that they will have an Earth – at least a beautiful one like we see today and that people before us have seen. I hope that whatever that day looks like, they’re talking about climate action but also realizing “look what we have saved.” I hope they have the chance to be more appreciative rather than feeling forced to go on the defense.
What advice do you have for people interested in getting involved in climate justice work?
I think there are two things that you need to think about. First: what you can do, what your talent is, what you have the ability to do. Are you an artist? Use your art! Are you a writer? Use your words. Are you a good speaker? Use that. Also, what organizations do you want to be involved in, and at what capacity? Because there are, you know, climate organizations that I wouldn’t be a part of because our values don’t match up. Not because their values are bad or my values are bad. They’re just not the same. So think about how your values fit in with organizations you want to get involved in.
It’s totally okay to show up to a strike instead of organizing the strike. It is okay to be a supporter rather than an organizer. But if you really want to get started, just do it. You can search for “climate justice” or “environmental justice” organizations in your city, like “climate justice Toronto”.
If there isn’t one nearby, message one group that you think is great and state that you want to help them. They’re all nice people and they’re willing to help you. I think it just takes the leap of faith. Trust that you have the ability to do what you want to do, and trust that there will be people that will help you.
I think a lot of people are afraid of doing the wrong thing, so they do nothing.
Yeah. To be fair, the world isn’t black and white, it’s, like, grey *laughs*. There are a lot of different spectrums, and you will never be a hundred percent, right. You will never do something a hundred percent wrong, either. There’s always that spot in between. Just keep that constant desire to change and be better. None of us started with infinite knowledge, and none of us will ever die with infinite knowledge. We just have to continue pursuing it. You did something wrong. Great. Go make it better.
Hmm. I love that. Thank you. What have you learned most on this journey?
I really like this idea of community and what it means. For a very long time, I associated the word community with things I’m born into, like my Muslim community, my Arab community, and the people I live around, but community is much more than that. When you say community building and Grassroots community organizers, it means that we will all help each other out because we all have something to gain out of this.
I’ve learned tactical things, too, like how to talk to the media, how to make an image ID, schedule meetings, make agendas, things like that. But it’s brought me more affinity and passion with the human experience and fighting for it to continue to survive. That’s the community. We’re in this together in different ways, but, at the end of the day, we find a way to work together with each other as organizers and as people, you know?
What is bringing you joy right now?
The community and mobilization that I have seen in many areas that are demanding justice, especially climate justice, has been giving me a lot of joy and hope. Looking at how much we have been able to accomplish and the community and friendships we have built while doing so have given me a lot of joy. Resistance is joy and joy is resistance.
Jana Jandal Alrifai is an 18-year-old Arab-Canadian youth organizer with Climate Strike Canada and a co-founder of Fridays For Future Windsor-Essex.
What does the word “community” mean to you?
How has the fear of “doing the wrong thing” influenced how you support the social justice movements you care about? What may be a more helpful emotion to lead from?