Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate was famously cut out of an AP photo taken with her White colleagues at Davos. In this excerpt from A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, she explains the importance of visibility and real participation for advocates from the Global South, where the climate crisis is a daily reality.
The need for greater climate justice representation among African activists and my wish to attract more of my peers to the movement pushed me to found Youth for Future. This became the Rise Up Movement, which launched its social media platform in January 2020. Rise Up is organized in Uganda by Evelyn Acham, Davis Reuben Sekamwa, Edwin Namakanga, Isaac Ssentumbwe, Nyombi Morris, Joshua Omonuk, my cousin Isabella, who joined me at the first strike, and my sisters Clare and Joan. It also serves as an umbrella group for climate activists in Uganda and across Africa.
Rise Up recognizes that communication and coordination are essential. “We need to work together as Africans, because if we don’t step up and we continue to see ourselves as ‘backstage,’ then we’re not going to succeed,” is how Adenike Oladosu puts it. “We can’t wait for money to step into this room for climate justice. Youth need to step up and step in, and demand a secure future.”
Even before my experience of being cropped out of the photo at Davos, I’d noticed the lack of visibility or presence in the global climate movement of people from Africa. But the photo-cropping made me even more determined to support and spotlight African activism, as well as young people throughout the Global South: mainly, but not solely, women. It was clear to me many more of us needed to make ourselves visible and speak out so leaders would have to listen to us, whether they were in the Global North or South. It seemed to me that too many leaders were in environments where they were sheltered from the effects of their decision-making. Those of us who had no ability to escape the climate crisis, because it was on our doorstep, had to haunt them: to force them to understand that the consequences of their decisions weren’t abstract or insignificant, but in real time and in real life were harming someone, somewhere.
Everyone saying that I should position myself in the middle is wrong!— Vanessa Nakate (@vanessa_vash) January 25, 2020
Does an African activist have to stand in the middle just because of fear of being cropped out?
It shouldn’t be like this! pic.twitter.com/PR544GIv7g
The photo-cropping experience also made it crucial that the national and international media move beyond the chosen handful of climate activists they’d usually featured. I and other African and Global South activists wanted them to recognize and include perspectives, stories, and solutions offered by thousands of other young people who could explain their and their nations’ climate reality on any platform, at any time. For these activists the climate crisis wasn’t a theory; it was part of their daily lives in their communities and countries.
For Evelyn, visibility was essential. As she told me, “I see mostly white activists, from Europe and the US. In Africa, you only hear from a few.” The Global North has to widen the frame. As she sees it:
The international community can show support by joining hands with us and amplifying the work that we are doing. We need our work to be shared, talked about, and supported. This can empower people who are already fighting for their environment and give them platforms to speak and opportunities to learn more and get more educated about climate change. Because people listen so much to the international community. It has a lot of power.
Evelyn foresees positive outcomes if there is genuine solidarity in the global climate movement:
The international community can also give us a chance to join their groups, and learn more from them, because I believe they have solutions that we also want to learn. But they need to know us … they need to listen to us, too, and the solutions we have to offer. Such an orientation comes from knowing and appreciating that everyone has something to say, and not to look down on people from Africa or any of the other continents. They need to value the solutions we give, because they could cause change. We are facing the impacts; we can see what’s happening; we’re experiencing them.
Providing more visibility and bigger stages for Africans, young or old, is not merely about educating the media on who should be (kept) in a photograph. It’s also not about bringing a few of us to a conference and allowing us to speak on a panel. Nor is it about only featuring those who are already popular on social media platforms or have a large audience. That is essentially cosmetic diversity. “Many people are behind the scenes working hard,” as Kaossara Sani says. “Maybe people think, ‘Hey, she is just the only climate activist from Togo,’ but we have people. They may not be on social media. But I can say that they are inspiring me.”
Now, I recognize how valuable it is to have role models who can inspire you and keep you positive: I looked up to Greta Thunberg and others, and I still do; and I hope I fulfill that role for some people. I understand that the media picks individuals rather than mass movements to focus their readers’ or viewers’ attention: I’ve benefited from that. I realize that the media tracks who receives more “clicks” or “likes,” and that algorithms and editors amplify those preferences in order to sell more advertising. And I’m also aware that organizers promote specific activists at certain events or meetings because they believe the media will come if those activists are present. I’ve been the beneficiary of those realities too.
We all want to feel welcomed and appreciated by our peers. I can testify how important it’s been to feel seen in the climate justice movement. But no movement—especially one in which the survival of the planet is at stake—can rely on a handful of “rock stars” or “heroes.” Nor should it. We need people of all ages and races, with the widest possible range of skills, from every socioeconomic background, and from everywhere on Earth to become involved. Just as there isn’t just one activist, or “correct” way to be an activist, so limiting the climate movement to one age group or one form of protest or one part of the globe is to reduce the scope of the potential and power of our collective energy, skills, and voices—and to underestimate the urgent challenges we face.
However, even more than a year after I was cropped out of the photo at Davos, it’s hard to escape marginalization. In March 2021, the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue invited Brianna Fruean from Samoa and me to speak at their virtual conference. Brianna and I were promised five minutes each to make our remarks. In the weeks before the conference, organizers cut our allotted time to four minutes, and then to three and a half. They also insisted on seeing the text of our speeches and repeatedly instructed us not to “name or shame” leaders who’d be taking part.
It’s astonishing that institutions want us to be represented so they can claim the virtues of inclusion and diversity, and then determine what we can say, how we can say it, and for how long we can speak, cropping our time to the bare minimum lest we offend anyone. Who should be offended? The leaders who’ve ignored the crisis or the climate activists who are censored when they speak on behalf of those millions of people whose only offense is to suffer, starve, and die because of the climate emergency: an emergency made worse by the inaction of those leaders’ countries?
When I spoke, I went off script. I used my 210 seconds to call the organizers out:
It is the leaders who have failed us so far—not the young people. It is the leaders who have ignored the scientists and the science. It is the leaders who time and time again have failed to treat the climate crisis like a crisis. This is not “naming and shaming.” This is telling the truth. Why are you so afraid of hearing the truth?
Excerpt from A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate, published by HarperCollins (2021) appears with permission of the publisher.
Vanessa Nakate is founder of the Rise Up climate movement and the Vash Green Schools Project, which aims to install solar panels on all of Uganda's 24,000 schools. She has spearheaded the Save Congo Rainforest campaign. The United Nations named her a Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals in 2020, and Time Magazine named her to its Time100 Next list in 2021.