A youth-led climate movement

The youth-led climate justice organization Minnesota Can't Wait packed the Capitol for the Feb. 11 launch of the Minnesota Green New Deal campaign. Photo by Mira Klein

Urgent and unabashedly progressive climate politics have come to Minnesota — or at least they’ve finally made it into the chambers of the Minnesota State Capitol.

Just a few days after the outline for a federal Green New Deal was unveiled on the national stage, spearheaded by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA)and the star power of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), on Feb. 11 a broad coalition of climate justice organizers led by the youth of Minnesota Can’t Wait launched their own Minnesotan version. Sponsored by Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL), the Minnesota Green New Deal is the first state-based legislative effort to take on the grand vision a Green New Deal platform proposes: nothing short of a complete reimagining of the entire economic, social and political system.

Minnesota Can’t Wait is a statewide climate justice organization driven by and amplifying the voices of high school organizers. These youth activists — and some even younger counterparts — have led everything from bill-writing to social media engagement to organizational outreach. When the bill was officially launched through an afternoon of chanting, speeches and banners in the Capitol rotunda, these youth organizers were clearly running the show.

But it would be misguided to think the students stand alone.

To watch the launch of the Minnesota Green New Deal unfold is to witness some expert coalition-building. The forces behind the bill — with the youth of MN Can’t Wait always at the helm — are a complex and interconnected network of national environmental organizations, high school activists, boundary-pushing scientists, grassroots collectives and local political leaders.

At every turn these coalition partners, particularly those from larger, more institutionalized organizations, have actively followed the leadership of youth organizers. It’s apparent in the way the text of the MN Green New Deal came to fruition.

During Environmental Initiative’s legislative preview back in January, Hornstein reflected on one of the first meetings with MN Can’t Wait that focused on the content of the bill. He suggested the bill could call for entirely renewable energy by 2045, a goal closely aligned with an existing 100 percent renewable energy bill making its way through the state legislature.

“They looked at me they said, ‘2045? Are you kidding? We have to do that by 2030. That’s what the science is telling us!'” Hornstein recalled.

2030 is the benchmark that made it into the bill.

Gabriel Kaplan, a sophomore at St. Louis Park High School and an activist with MN Can’t Wait, was at that meeting.

“He made it very clear that he will follow the student lead,” Kaplan said. “He doesn’t talk over us.”

They also appreciated the muffins Hornstein contributed to sugar-boost their early-morning policy discussion, he added.

According to Kaplan, MN Can’t Wait activists see a statewide bill as complementary and not a replacement for similar national efforts. The Minnesota proposal calls for “acting as a model for other states and the Federal Government to bring about additional Green New Deal legislation.”

And national Green New Deal supporters are taking note. This includes Ocasio-Cortez, who, as Kaplan pointed out, retweeted a post from MN Can’t Wait to her 3 million-plus followers.

That type of exposure has contributed to an explosion of youth interest and participation in MN Can’t Wait over the past few months. Back in August, the number of active members hovered around 10; six months later there are dozens of students directly involved in MN Can’t Wait’s day-to-day organizing and an even larger network of youth supporters through schools and social media.

As a result, the youth have had to overhaul their internal infrastructure in order to make room for swelling interest. This is a flexibility rarely exhibited by more institutional non-profit organizations, a nimbleness that is emboldened by leaders who are not constrained by bureaucratic process.

“We’ve worked a lot on making sure conversations, positions, and teams were open to everyone,” said Henri Nguyen, a junior at Southwest High School.

This flexibility also reflects MN Can’t Wait’s commitment to an inclusive process, exhibiting a sophisticated understanding of institutional oppression and intersectional organizing tactics. Tonio Alarcon-Borges, another youth organizer and a senior at the School of Environmental Studies, reiterated the importance of making sure to use this public platform to be as inclusive as possible.

“Even within our meetings, we are passing the microphone around,” he said.

And importantly, this intersectional approach is featured front and center in the text of the bill itself, stating that “the Plan for a Minnesota Green New Deal shall recognize that a statewide, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to address poverty and inequity in Minnesota and make prosperity, wealth, and economic security accessible to everyone participating in the transformation.” This includes, among other priorities, creating a public bank, protecting tribal sovereignty, enforcing labor regulations and taking leadership from front-line communities who have been disproportionately affected by climate change and fossil fuel infrastructure.

To Sarah Goodspeed, the Youth and Policy Manager with Climate Generation, the bill’s commitment to understanding climate crisis within the context of power and privilege is a function of the youth-led nature of this effort.

“We see in the younger generation that they have a stronger intuition around what intersectional organizing looks like,” Goodspeed said. “[They] have been really explicit about centering the voices most vulnerable to climate change.”

As of the bill’s launch, Hornstein was backed by at least four other state representatives who have signaled their support. But much like its national counterpart, a Minnesota Green New Deal has a long road ahead before becoming reality. Addressing the crowd with words from Frederick Douglas, Hornstein said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

As the crowd dissipated from the Capitol rotunda, Alarcon-Borges was still riding high on a wave of positive energy.

“I am very hyped,” he said. “I’m at 200 percent.”

  • JanetteNoelle

    Indeed, there’s no time for continued small and gradual steps in the face of rapidly-accelerating global warming, climate change and social injustice of all kinds. Support ambitious Green New Deals everywhere including ours now being proposed in Minnesota. The world’s Sustainable Development Goals are to be met by 2030, and so should Green New Deal goals! Time is of the essence right now to protect everyone and everything we love and to build the fair and sustainable world we all deserve to live and thrive upon, including our fellow living species and future generations. We know extreme weather cripples work efforts and imperils the functioning of societies so we need to do as much work this coming decade as we can before even more debilitating events harm our possible progress. We are in nothing less than an emergency situation and existential crisis. Let’s do EVERYTHING we can now.

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