by Emily Cassel –
As the cofounder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike and the daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Isra Hirsi is grappling with harassment, safety threats, tokenization, and privilege on a national scale years before she’s even allowed to vote.
“I don’t remember a time in which I didn’t hear the rhetoric of climate change as a kid,” says 16-year-old Isra Hirsi. “That’s become my generation’s life. Seeing how little time we have and how this continues to manifest itself into a bigger issue, more people are realizing that we need to protect our own futures.”
Hirsi is the cofounder and executive director of U.S. Youth Climate Strike, our nation’s branch of a global youth-led climate movement. The organization works in policy (think Green New Deal), advocacy (like a series of workshops held this summer to educate communities about climate change), and action (walk-outs, sit-ins, and strikes like the September 20 march that brought an estimated 4 million people out into the streets around the world).
Hirsi is notable not only for her age—she co-founded U.S. Youth Climate Strike at age 15—but for her explicit focus on intersectionality within the climate justice movement, which still tends to focus on people with privilege. “I think it’s appealing to more white or privileged folks because they have access to things like camping or hiking and they feel connected to nature,” she explains. As a young, black, Muslim woman, she’s often felt tokenized or talked over—especially troubling given that, statistically speaking, those are the very people climate change disproportionately harms.
“We don’t talk a lot about how the crisis impacts black, brown, indigenous, and low-income communities,” she says. It’s a problem in Minnesota like it is everywhere: You’ll see increased asthma rates in north Minneapolis, where incomes are lower and air pollution is worse, while pipelines rip through the state’s indigenous land.
“When we talk about the climate crisis and we don’t talk about these communities that are being affected, we create this circle of it becoming a white issue, or an issue that doesn’t care about black and brown bodies,” she continues. “And that allows for solutions that don’t care about black and brown bodies.”
Luckily, more and more people are hearing her. She often tweets about the importance of intersectionality to her nearly 30,000 followers (when she’s not roasting her mom, Ilhan Omar, for not knowing how to hit the woah). Her work was the subject of a May AJ+ video that’s been viewed 350,000 times on Twitter alone, and in September Vice published a lengthy, in-depth profile about her work. A guy you may have heard of named Barack Obama has tweeted at her, recognizing her as one of the “young people leading the fight” to save the planet.
Seeing 4 million people marching in what’s being called the largest climate protest ever? Hirsi says it’s inspiring. She’s happy to see young people taking action and realizing this stuff matters.
“But obviously, it’s not enough,” she says. “There’s so much work that still needs to be done. We’re still at the beginning, and I have a really strong feeling that nobody’s going to stop it anytime soon, until we see the action that is necessary.”
Are you a student inspired by the Youth Climate Strike movement or an adult who wants to support the strikes? Get involved, visit www.youthclimatestrikeus.org/strikes.