Groundswell: Jamie Margolin on Shifting Culture

Environment, Latest
amie Margolin is a cofounder of the youth-led climate action group Zero Hour. She is the author of Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It and a student in film at New York University.

Jamie Margolin is a cofounder of the youth-led climate action group Zero Hour. She is the author of Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It and a student in film at New York University.

What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?

My role has been shifting as I’ve been growing up. I’ve been known for my whole public life as “the teenage climate activist.” That’s changing, because I’m 19, and I only have a few more months of teenage years. Since I was 15, I was a nonprofit leader and community organizer, led protests and was very much involved in the grassroots, nitty-gritty work. Zero Hour is a youth climate justice organization that is mobilizing as many people as possible to push governments to take urgent climate action. We have culture shift and education focuses—pushing for different laws, getting out the vote work, and advocating for specific bills. Then there’s the mobilization side of the organizing: these big events, rallies, marches and, protests to help galvanize and remind people what the movement is all about and keep the momentum going.  That’s really what Zero Hour does. It’s been around since 2017, and it’s still going strong.

But what I’m focusing on now is contributing to this movement as a storyteller, as an artist, as a filmmaker. I’m studying film at NYU. Before I was an activist, before people were reaching out to me for interviews, if you asked me to describe myself in one word, I’d say “storyteller.” I would just escape into these worlds, and I was just obsessed with fantasy and creativity. And now I want to tie that creativity in with my conviction, and create stories that really shift the culture regarding climate crisis and social justice. Culture shifts happen before shifts in government. And really, when you think about what controls people’s thoughts and values and emotions subconsciously—what is normalized, what is not normalized, what is okay, what isn’t—it’s media, art, film, television. Characters and stories mean something to people. We are evolutionarily, as humans, storytellers. People aren’t moved by facts, necessarily, though facts have to inform everything we do. But what actually moves people are stories.

What is one way the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?

The smog of Seattle that started in the summer of 2017 was absolutely horrendous. Even though I don’t have any respiratory illnesses, the air quality was so bad that I felt very sick and lethargic and I had awful migraines. My friends with asthma, respiratory illnesses and chronic issues were hospitalized. That’s not something that you expect in Seattle. When this happened, I was 15 and under the illusion that I lived in a safe bubble, that the Pacific Northwest is this green, beautiful, pristine place. But suddenly the air felt heavy, like I was breathing smoke. And that was a huge wake-up call for me. I was already involved in the climate justice movement, but that was a big push for me to take my action further and start Zero Hour.

Where have you found community, allies and connection in your work?

On July 21, 2018, in Washington DC, it was pouring rain. I’m talking about an absolute torrential downpour. Flash-flood-alerts-on-our-phones level of rain. And we had planned this whole march [the 2018 Youth Climate March in Washington, DC] for so long and part of me was really sad. Like, “Oh my God, it’s literally buckets of rain. Some of our signs were melting.” But we all just held it together and marched in the streets through the water in our rain ponchos, soaked to the bone. And we were just in it together. We were this little army. And that was really a moment of camaraderie. Chanting in the rain, trying to be overheard over the storm, it was honestly incredible.

What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition? 

Honestly it’s less the religious teachings and more of my cultural Jewish upbringing. The whole Jewish thing of “we’re the people of the Book” was very much true for my very nerdy, very Jewish father and myself. I was taught in synagogue and taught from my dad and my grandpa, who was also Jewish to question everything, investigate everything. Be educated, be inquisitive. That was the way I was raised.

What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?

My abuelita (grandmother) grew up living off the land as a campesina, a farm worker, in Colombia. She grew up living off the land and having a lot of wisdom and culture from taking care of the earth and the people around her. She grew up where she could climb a tree and get the fruit, with this understanding that no toxic pesticides are needed, those values of taking care of the earth and not being wasteful, of just appreciating nature. My grandma loves flowers, she loves birds.

She also has a lot of understanding about holistic medicine. Her name is Lucita, but we call her Dr. Lucy as a joke. If someone has a headache or something, she has all these remedies with different plants and teas and stuff that she makes, along with Vicks VapoRub, of course. It’s a saying within the Latin community that Vicks VapoRub is the cure to all ailments.

In the lead-up to COP26, what have you been doing and feeling?

I’m not going to COP26 this year, because I’m just taking time to really focus on my academics. But a lot of my peers and fellow activists are going to COP, and basically the main thing is that the fossil fuel industry should not have a say in what climate action looks like going forward. A lot of fossil fuel industries are responsible for funding and have a huge role in COP26 and meetings like this, and giving the polluters a voice in the exact problem that they cause compromises the whole thing. There’s this organization that my friends started, called Polluters Out, that does a lot of great work advocating for getting polluters out of COP.

What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?

Ever since I moved to New York City, the flooding has been horrendous. I got caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, and luckily I made it home safe. But I was in my dorm, and the school sent all students text alerts that there was a tornado warning. And I was like, a tornado warning in Manhattan? What is this?

How do you find meaning and hope as you navigate the climate crisis?

The way I find meaning and hope in my work is honestly through community and through reconnecting with what I’m actually fighting to protect. Sometimes I can get really cynical after years of this and just feel exhausted and tired, but then I go into nature or I hang out with people who know exactly what it’s like, and we bond, we heal. Going out into natural spaces, being with the ocean, with the trees, that sounds really cheesy and very environmentalisty of me, but it’s very true.

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