I was that kid who worried a lot. Getting older has intensified my anxiety. And becoming a mother? That only heightened my fears. Knowing the world has just over a decade to get climate change under control keeps me up at night.
I’m worried about my daughters’ future, and about the future of children everywhere. That’s why young activists, especially the girls and women from climate justice movements such as Zero Hour, Youth Strike 4 Climate and Fridays For Future, give me hope. I’ve spent the past six months interviewing teens who are speaking up and standing up for the planet.
They’re fearless and passionate, and every time we chat, they tell me about their mothers, the women who often serve as the biggest supporters and cheerleaders — and sometimes, the biggest worriers — in their lives.
Activism is a balancing act
A typical day for 17-year-old Jamie Margolin, founder and co-executive director of Zero Hour, begins at the crack of dawn with emailing, texting and posting on social media. During the school year, the Seattle teen does all of this before 7 a.m., during her morning carpool.
In between classes, Jamie says, “I get notifications like, ‘Hey Jamie, check your email. I think there may be a big problem. Can you look over the grant proposal before I send it?’”
On top of school, homework and limited socializing with friends, this is a full-time job.
“She’s very focused and very creative. I'm very proud of her,” says Jamie’s mom, Janeth, whom Jamie describes as “a Colombiana who has been through such a hard upbringing of poverty and trauma. She's the strongest person I know.”
Jamie’s bus ride home on weekdays, which takes between 90 minutes to two hours, “is when Zero Hour has our most important calls,” she says. These meeting include everything from strategizing to “heavy decision-making” about advocacy, fundraising, finance, partnerships, media and volunteers.
“All of this is going on through my headphones as I’m riding through downtown,” she says. “With the crisp air, the ocean, the mountains in the distance, my happy place is my bus commute, where I can look out the window at the Seattle landscape and be reminded of my why.”
In Denver, 13-year-old Haven Coleman, co-director of Youth Climate Strike US, says she too starts her mornings with email and social media.
“I have dyslexia and dysgraphia,” an impairment that makes writing difficult, Haven says. “So my mom helps me stay organized. She goes through my inbox, finds the most prevalent emails and reads the emails out loud to me.”
That's not all.
“I also drive her to weekly strikes and keep her sisters entertained or out of traffic at the strikes,” says Nicole, Haven’s mom, adding that she spends “an enormous amount of time stressed out trying to juggle our family life with managing the spontaneous trips, interviews and opportunities she has, and helping her talk through the very adult decisions she has to work though daily. We spend a lot of time dealing with the emotional trauma this work puts her through and managing everyday life as a gifted LGBT teen with learning disabilities.”
Hannah Testa, a 16-year-old in Cumming, Ga., and founder of Hannah4Change, an organization dedicated to fighting issues that affect the planet, describes her mom similarly:
‘Flexible’ doesn’t begin to describe these moms
From changing their own work and personal schedules to altering their diets, these mothers have adapted to support their daughters.
“I am her chaperone at all the conferences and summits where she speaks,” says Haven’s mom, Nicole. “I help her know who is important to talk to, how to approach them and remind her how to behave in all of these rooms filled with adults.”
“I am a preschool teacher and this year I reduced my hours to better support Hannah,” says Farida, Hannah’s mom.
When Hannah decided to become a vegan, her mom did away with meat altogether in their home. Nicole, too, became a vegetarian with alongside her daughter, Haven.
Atlanta teen Maya Penn, 19, is also a fixture in the world of eco-activism. Maya, who founded both the eco-friendly fashion line Maya’s Ideas and a nonprofit, Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet, says, “My mom has changed her schedule to work from home now so she can be there for me.”
When we spoke, Maya and her mom, Deidre, were traveling across the country together for an event. In Maya’s book, “You Got This!: Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World,” she writes about how nervous she was before her first TED talk (at age 13), and how her mom’s reminder to “do it afraid” helped her push through.
Working in tandem, but sometimes at odds
Every activist I spoke with addressed her mother’s worries.
“My whole Colombian family wishes I wasn’t so publicly open about being queer, and we get into fights about that,” Jamie says. “My mom is worried that I’m exposing myself to discrimination … I argue that I am trying to be the LGBT Latina role model for others, one I wish I had.”
“We are like two bulls,” says Jamie’s mom, Janeth, as I attempt to interview her in Spanish over the phone. “We both have strong personalities. But I did figure this out: she thinks about what I said and sometimes she even says, ‘oh my mother is right.’”
At the end of the day, Jamie recognizes that her mom’s support is invaluable. “I can do my activism,” she says, but acknowledges that she’s “kind of awful” at taking care of herself. “If she didn’t reheat dinner after I’m done with calls, and tell me it’s time to stop doing emails and go to bed, I probably would have fallen apart by now,” Jamie adds.
During her summer break, Jamie intends to wrap up writing her forthcoming book, “Youth To Power: The Ultimate Guide To Being a Young Activist,” due out in 2020. “I think the greatest sign of love she shows me is when I’m on a conference call that’s running late, she brings me some cut-up papaya. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is,” she says.
Interviewing these mothers and daughters made me teary more than once.
“Sometimes you find a little ray of hope, and then you run into giant pits of doom,” Haven adds, speaking of the roadblocks she encounters in her environmental efforts. “It can be really hard. We shouldn’t have to push adults to change. It’s like when we were toddlers, and adults would push us to use the toilet. It’s really stressful. My mom has been the biggest support helping me through all of this.”
Rachel Sarah is a San Francisco Bay area-based author who has written for The Lily and The Washington Post.