When more than 300,000 people filled the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March on September 21, one thing became clear: This is an issue that speaks to young people.
In many parts of the march, it seemed as if half of the people there were so-called millennials—young people born roughly between 1980 and 1998, who came of age in the early years of the 21st century.
“Young people are more concerned about climate change—but older generations love their children.”
The presence of so many young people at the march symbolizes their leadership in tackling the climate crisis. This is a generation that sees itself not only as having a vision for the future and the energy to implement it, but one that will bear the brunt of climate change’s effects.
Partly because of that, millennials have a lot to say about the role of older generations in the debate about climate and justice; some expressed a desire to see more experienced activists engage more deeply with the problem, while others showed real admiration for their elders. Others still observed the differences in the way that younger and older people approach social change.
The media has accused this generation of laziness, entitlement, and solipsism. But a report by the Pew Research Center also finds that it is more ethnically diverse, educated, tolerant, and optimistic than previous ones—despite an economic recession that has profoundly limited its options.
I spoke with dozens of my fellow millennials over the course of the weekend’s events, from a day of youth-led workshops to an “art-build” in a Brooklyn warehouse and a nonviolent civil disobedience at the New York Stock Exchange.
Here is some of what they said. Their statements have been lightly edited. All photos by the author.
Kenya Strickland, 22
Alexis Johnson, 21
Kamaria Kafele, 21
Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Florida
On the role of racial justice:
Strickland: This is a vital moment in time because the environment affects us all, and especially us because black and brown communities are greatly affected by environmental change.
So it’s important for us to be here so we can take this back to our community. To teach the people who aren’t here, to share with them our experience, and for them to see that there are people who are fighting for a change. We just have that responsibility as black college students to speak to our people and educate them about what’s going on.
Johnson: But this group came out of a university of thousands—and there’s only 23 of us here. It is important, but they don’t see it. So that’s why we’re here also: to show them that it’s an important cause, even for teenagers, adolescents, toddlers. Everyone.
On the role of older generations:
Johnson: Older generations, I’m not saying they gave up, but they expected us to take up the cause, to make the difference. I don’t want to categorize them all as a whole, but I feel like they almost don’t care anymore. And I may be wrong, but that’s how I feel.
Kamaria: I don’t like the disconnect between older generations and us—I feel like in order to make effective change, we all need to work together. Yeah, I guess you could say they dropped the ball on us, but it wasn’t intentional. They didn’t anticipate what’s happening now. We need to forget about a division between age. Most movements are started through youth, but everyone is important because we’re all living on the same earth.
Johnson: OK, but in some of those movements the older generation seems absent or quiet. We’re young, we’re brave, and I think they just kind of handed the torch. I wouldn’t say dropped the ball, I’d say handed they torch.
Oscar Ramirez, 29
On putting justice first:
I’ve been doing this kind of work for almost 10 years now. I’m all over the place: I’m doing labor stuff, I’m doing climate stuff, I do justice work too, and people actually pay me to organize direct actions. But my heart is always with the climate justice movement because that’s where I got started.
For me, no matter what I’m doing, it is first and foremost about justice: meaning anti-sexist, anti-oppression, anti-racist. Once we can weed out those horrible things, only then can we get to the parts of the issue that are more specific. We have to build a movement on top of a solid foundation.
It’s a slow process and we have to be patient. I feel like my role is to be welcoming to younger folks who want to do the work and give them a positive view that it actually matters to the movement.
On the role of older generations:
There’s a feeling that older folks have already messed up a lot of things and that we’re coming in to try to fix them. But I got started organizing with older folks and respecting the work they did.
I have tremendous respect for slightly older D.C. activists, like Nadine Bloch—she’s always on top of details—and Lisa Fithian, who I learned street tactics from. I just saw her get to the end of the march and she was still dancing and jumping. I wish I had that energy! They’re total role models for me.
Oona Beall, 34
Casey Romanick, 34
Ithaca, New York
On the role of older generations:
Romanick: In Ithaca, we find ourselves around a lot of older folks who are going to meetings day in and day out, strategizing and trying to figure out what to do next.
But the hard thing for us that is that they want to focus on legislation. “Let’s get this person into office, and they’re going to solve it for us.” That’s been really hard, actually. To find folks who aren’t focusing on that, who want to try other things that haven’t been tried and tried again.
On the role of democracy:
Beall: On one of our other signs, I included “direct democracy.” Because I want to live in a world where I’m an active part of the decisions that affect my life and the life of my community, and not just ask someone to do it for me.
I’ve talked about this to my mom, who was an activist and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement. She really believes that you can change the system because she saw the system change.
But I think it’s not the same anymore. Capitalism has continued to advance. We don’t live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy. And the faster we admit that, the faster we’ll be able to not only make the change ourselves, but make it right—and include everyone in that change.
Johanna “JJ” Jackson, 69
Kelly Ryan, 29
New York, New York
On a new friendship:
Ryan: We met three weeks ago.
Jackson: On the street! Three weeks ago! I was looking at clothes. She walked by, she said “I like your hair,” I said “Thank you,” then she came back and said, “Can I take your picture?” I said, “Of course!” Then we took some selfies.
Ryan: She was really approachable and I don’t know any “seasoned” people who have gray hair and a Mohawk who aren’t crazy.
On intergenerational cooperation:
Jackson: I’m an old girl who’s been at this for a long time, but it’s the young people who are going to make a difference. So I invited her and some other friends—I thought, this is a young person, and she’s opinionated. And I thought she’d want to be involved. It’s passing on the mantle, so to speak.
Ryan: I didn’t even know what it meant to have a “climate change march.” How do you change some naturally occurring thing? But coming here, I thought, maybe I could just learn and spread that knowledge after. Now, I get it in more in a holistic way. But at first I was probably just as ignorant as the next person.
Jackson: So this is what I’m saying: I being the older person, she being the younger person. She approached me and I responded. That’s what I mean—we’ve got to open up. And now we’re friends for life!
Gretchen Goldman, 30
On the role of scientists:
I was an undergrad in meteorology. I learned that climate change was by far the most pressing issue, that we needed minds to be thinking about how to solve that in different ways. But the real challenges are more on the policy side. That’s where the action is, and that’s where change needs to happen.
So I eventually got a job at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We work with scientists who want to do advocacy or policy in some way. We have a whole network of young scientists who are really passionate about this; we’re seeing more of them say, “I love science! But I really want to do something beyond that and influence policy.”
On generations of scientists:
Within scientific communities, I think younger scientists increasingly see this need to connect science to society. We need support for students who want to spend time doing communications-oriented activities. I know that’s an ongoing problem—that there’s this pressure to focus only on your science, and mentors aren’t necessarily supportive of outreach. I was really lucky to have one who was.
I’d like to see older generations support the overall cause and allow younger scientists to do this outreach work that’s so desperately needed.
Lee Stewart, 27
On becoming an activist:
It was when my baby nephew was born in July last year that I felt I should up my commitment. Nothing ever really pushed me to get out there until this, but I realized we can’t just want something to happen, we have to get out there and do it.
We’ve been talking a lot about strategy and tactics. Should we be promoting civil disobedience? Is our political system broken? Should we be operating inside the political system or outside of it?
On the role of older generations:
On the march, there does seem to be a generational divide. The younger people are the ones who are willing to talk about civil disobedience and are willing to challenge capitalism. Whereas the older people are kind of wary of it and they think it’s too radical. The young people on the march see civil disobedience as one of the only sane responses to the climate crisis.
We’ve grown up in the shadow of after September 11, in the midst of the financial upheaval, and we see what’s happening to the climate. And even though the youth really do care about this crisis and try to push for change, nothing is really happening because of the power that’s concentrated up at the top 1%. We recognize that unless we act, our future and our future families will not thrive.
I’ve seen that resonate with a few older people—and it makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel happy and inspired that we have people of all generations who understand this and are thinking that more drastic, extraordinary actions are necessary.
Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, 32
San Francisco, California
On communicating across generations:
Young people are more concerned and passionate about climate change than their parents. But older generations love their children and care about the future.
When a parent hears that their child is afraid for the future—for any reason, be it bullying, violence, drugs, or any of the many terrifying issues that young people face on a daily basis—they become concerned. And so when young people take the time to talk to their parents about the problems that are coming with climate change, these can be powerful conversations.
There’s a long history of history of success in movements due to one-to-one conversations: coming out in the gay rights movement, the “talk to your kids about sex” campaign.
That’s why we’re training young people on how to have “The Talk”; that is, how to talk to their parents about climate change. [The project is being created by a coalition of organizations including the Alliance for Climate Education, George Mason University, and a few other millennial-focused groups.].
People are afraid to talk about the issue because it’s so politicized and contentious, and they don’t want to bring tension into their homes. When we work with young people to be empowered with information, they feel more able to approach the conversation in a way that will allow it to be a loving one.
This way, there’s potential for an “aha!” moment for those elders, a chance to understand fully the weight of the problem and the need for action.
Nansi Singh, 28
Leif Cocq Rasmussen, 23
Vermont Law School, South Royalton, Vermont
On the role of student debt:
Singh: We’re going to Wall Street today because, if you get to the root cause of all this, it’s the economic system. There are layers of oppression, and it’s about uncovering all those things.
Rasmussen: One reason I think more young people aren’t here is that we’re all carrying student debt. And if we get arrested [at the #FloodWallStreet action]—for us, we’re going to a law school—that creates problems going to the bar. So we can’t afford to get arrested because it will ruin our future. A lot of students feel the same: If you create problems, the system’s going to throw the book at you.
On the role of older generations:
Rasmussen: “No man is an island.” That’s one of my favorite quotes. We need to rely on others. In a way, it’s good that the economy is sort of fading because it’s going to force us to be more reliant on each other and create that community.
My parents’ generation is very into isolating themselves, having their own little castle. But here’s the huge thing I’m seeing with the millennial generation: We help each other.
Kristin Moe is a writer, storyteller, and multimedia journalist. She is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has coordinated storytelling programs at The Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University.