Sabrin Zahid just wanted to get out of orchestra.
The 17-year-old is a high school junior in Somerville, Mass. She was running out of time to opt out of her orchestra class, and her only option was to switch to AP environmental science.
“Before I’d taken that class, I knew climate change was happening but I didn’t really care about it,” Zahid says. But when she started the course, she adds, something clicked.
She completed two months worth of make up assignments in just one month. She became active in climate action efforts and went one month with zero waste. Within three months, she was approached by a grassroots organizer to lead the youth climate strike in Boston.
She jumped at the opportunity.
And soon, for Zahid, being a part of the movement became about something much bigger: She was able to finally tie in all her other social justice concerns, and find a community along the way.
Meanwhile in New Jersey, 18-year-old Sana Shaikh was starting a group within the U.S. Youth Climate Strike movement for Muslim activists to share and connect about their experiences.
“Muslim voices are often overlooked or silenced, even in youth movements, so I wanted to create a Muslim caucus as a space for us to be heard,” says Shaikh, who is from Whippany, N.J.
Mariam Jallow, national director of internal affairs of U.S. Youth Climate Strike, says the space helps highlight the leadership roles Muslims have been playing in American society, which have largely been undermined in the last two decades.
“Especially [in] post-9/11 America, there’s been an exclusive behavior toward Muslim communities,” says Jallow, a high school junior in Portland, Ore.
The group’s first challenge came in January, just days after the caucus was founded. The date of the 2020 Youth Climate Strike was announced — April 24 — the first full day of Ramadan. (The strike has since been moved online due to the coronavirus.)
For those who fast, the first few days can be especially grueling as they transition overnight from a regular diet to abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sundown. The decision frustrated many, who felt that a movement otherwise known for being intersectional didn’t take into account the participation of such a large population.
“If you overstep you’re too Muslim, but if you don’t say enough you’re not Muslim enough.” says Sabreen Tuku, an activist based in Seattle, of the challenges of navigating multiple identities while working for social justice.
Shaikh says without the group, she may have been bothered by the date but wouldn’t have felt empowered enough to push back.
“We were able to see this is a problem for all of us and that none of us were alone. And it’s very valid,” she says.
The group is about 25 people — with all but one member either identifying as a woman or gender non-binary. That’s noteworthy, its members say, because Muslim women are disproportionately affected by Islamophobia.
Sidrah Ahmad, who in 2018 launched a tool kit for Muslim women who have experienced Islamophobia, says it’s no surprise that Muslim women and non-binary people are leading the caucus given they grew up in a time of rampant anti-Muslim and anti-black sentiment, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressive structures.
“In this context, Muslim women and non-binary people build political consciousness and activist skills out of necessity — it is about survival in the face of being under attack,” she says.
Layla, who is a leader in the climate movement and asked that their name not be used, says having to navigate their black, genderqueer and Muslim identity has layers.
“Being Muslim, I have to worry about a strike during Ramadan; being black, I have to worry about microaggressions against me because of my skin; being genderqueer is [about] going into the space not knowing whether people will listen to you,” they said.
Layla says in order to navigate the layers of their identity, they start small steps. For example, at the meetings they lead, everyone begins by sharing their pronouns.
Confronting identity in spaces that are usually dominated by white, cisgendered people can be exhausting, and the activists says it’s important that they take time to be normal teenagers, too.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, Tuku, the activist from Seattle, gave an online speech for the local women’s march about the foundation of America being “built on the backs of black and brown indigenous women.”
It was a long day for her. But school was canceled the next day because of coronavirus, so she was ready for her favorite activities: sleeping in and drinking Ethiopian coffee with her grandmother.