Youth climate-change organizer on why saving planet Earth 'is not only Gen Z's fight'

Kevin Patel, founder of One Up Action. (Illustration: Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Kevin Patel, founder of One Up Action. (Illustration: Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In honor of Earth Day 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many advocates leading the charge to save the planet today: young BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) activists fighting for climate justice through an intersectional lens.

Kevin Patel, 20

Founder and executive director of One Up Action, which has a mission of "empowering and supporting leaders with the resources needed to really take climate action within their communities," through donations and the support of National Geographic.

Your organization offers three distinct programs. Can you break them down for us?

The Youth Climate Commission program is basically getting young people involved [and teaching them how to be proactive] in local government — having young people's voices not only heard but also being able to have their solutions implemented within their communities. The first-ever youth climate commission is actually established here in L.A. County, which is also the first-ever in the world… and we really wanted to make sure that we're able to bring this to other young people all around the world…

Through Action Chapters — about 35 around the world, mainly in African countries, we work with them to start taking actions, whether it’s saving a rain forest or planting trees, without dictating the mission and just providing support. And we just launched our Youth Innovators Program, which is a more domestic version of that and basically helping young BIPOC activists implement nature-based solutions within their community through financial or other support.

What prompted you to get into this type of work?

Starting when I was about 10 years old, I was [involved] in food apartheid and really talking to my peers about food deserts and food prisons, because I live in South Central Los Angeles, and that is a food prison — so-termed by [garden activist] Ron Finley, another L.A. advocate on food justice… In sixth grade, I was actually directly impacted by the climate crisis: I got heart palpitations and an irregular heartbeat due to the smog. And that's when I was like, you know, enough is enough. It's not just my community that's being affected. And if I don't speak out against these injustices, who will?

Why does climate-justice work need to be intersectional?

Intersectionality is such an important thing. It's a holistic understanding. It's a framework of why everything is interconnected. You can't say that environmentalism is not connected to women's rights — of course it is. You can't say that Black Lives Matter without environmentalism. Why is that interconnected? Because when you look at who's disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, it's the Black, indigenous, people of color that are more affected, both in practice and in policy. We have to make sure that we're connecting all of these issues because otherwise, we're never going to fix the root cause… Where does the climate crisis stem from? How is it being perpetrated? It's being perpetrated by the system of oppression, just like how all of these inequalities, injustices, justices and disparities are being perpetrated by the same systems of oppression.

I use my [Indian-American] identity and my experience to really make that connection… and to say that we can't have a movement if it's going to be led by white and white-passing people. We need to make sure that we're bringing in many more BIPOC voices who are creating their own seats at the table, making sure that they have the decision-making power on behalf of their communities.

How do you convince people to heed the threats of climate change?

Whenever I perceive that someone that doesn't believe in climate change, or doesn't believe in, you know, these inequalities and injustices and disparities, I try to reason with them because…I think people have faced misinformation and disinformation, and you could say [the climate deniers] don't matter… but I think it's better to reason with them and make them understand our point of view. Because a lot of them feel that they've been left out of the conversation. But we don't have another planet. We're not going to be able to live on Mars. We must take care of it and we should take care of the people that are living on it as well.

How do you manage your anger or resentment toward older generations who have left Gen Z in the position of cleaning up the mess?

You know, I have no anger against older generations. I think one of the things is that this fight is not only Gen Z's fight. I think this is an intergenerational fight. I think if you are the one that causes the problem, then you should be the one that fixes it up. So, I will say that this fight is not only an intersectional one, but this is an intergenerational one. And we must bring in older generations and younger generations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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