Interview: Youth Activist, Z, on creating a more inclusive and accessible climate justice movement
Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Youth for Positive Change spoke to the writer and artist, Z, about the importance of overcoming ableism, inaccessibility and conflict in the climate justice movement.
YPC: First off, what (or who!) inspired you to get involved in activism?
Z: There is both a “what” and a “who:” Zero Hour, and Arielle Martinez Cohen. I joined Zero Hour about a year ago, and left shortly after that - it wasn’t the right place for me. But it was an important first step on my journey. It was my way into the climate justice movement. It was how I met Arielle. She had gotten my contact from the others at the organization, and invited me to table with her on behalf of Zero Hour at an event. We didn’t get many visitors that time, but because of that, we ended up talking for three hours straight, and became fast friends. She’s one of my closest friends today, and I wouldn’t be where I am in the movement now without her. She’s undeniably prolific, and extremely, genuinely kind.
YPC: How did that initial involvement in Zero Hour shape your current work?
Z: Being involved with Zero Hour taught me how to be a good organizer. I didn’t have the best of times there, for the simple reason that I just didn’t fit, but my short career with Zero Hour taught me patience, trust, forgiveness, and what it means to maintain socially professional behavior throughout complicated situations. Those lessons were invaluable to me.
YPC: Our generation is often (unfairly) described as “entitled” and “overly sensitive.” Do you feel as though these statements are reflective of Gen Z?
Z: I believe those in our generation can be extremely entitled, because that is a timeless character flaw that no age owns. We are no fundamentally different than those who have come before us, not in our biology, we are simply adapting to new language, new problems; new solutions. However, I do believe that we are more sensitive in our self-expression - I just don’t agree that sensitivity is an issue. Thinkers from Hannah Gadsby to Mary Heglar have detailed the benefits of feeling - of truly letting something hit you, metaphorically speaking, right through your body into your core. Of letting yourself love, and grieve, and become affected by “small things.” Sensitive people aren’t to be laughed at or pitied - there is strength in honoring emotion, and if Gen Z is more emotional, or at least more accepting of emotion, than those that came before, that means humanity is on the right track.
YPC: Have you ever found any difficulty in joining so-called “social justice movements” because of your age?
Z: No. Sorry for the short answer, but the honest truth is, no. I prefer to work with people my own age when it comes to organizing, so that particular debacle has never presented itself to me. That is a privilege.
YPC: What, in your opinion, is the biggest obstacle to the climate justice movement?
Z: Inaccessibility. I speak of ableism, and of emotional and geographical inaccessibility.
To include disabled people in activism means to both honor their limits, and to not underestimate disabled individuals or impose limits.
I’ve seen disabled activists and writers who do their work primarily online get accused of laziness, or of not caring enough, when the reality is, they simply do not have the energy to go “out in the field,” whether it be for a strike or march, a beach clean-up, or a sit-in protest an the office of a curmudgeonly climate crisis denier in a position of power. Primarily online work, whether it be writing, drawing, another form of art, or policy brainstorming, is necessary, and carries influence.
On the other hand, when I - a disabled individual myself - do go “out in the field,” I find that disabled people are treated by organizers as something to deal with, or people to placate, rather than individuals to honor, respect, and uplift (but please, do not ever literally lift me up). There might be a ramp going up to the stage at a strike or march, and the event might be in an ADA-compliant outdoor area, but disabled speakers, particularly physically disabled speakers, are rare. There might be one, or none. As a disabled organizer, I’ll likely be off to the side, huddled under the only shade on a hot day, delegated to being there. I mean, how effective would I be as a crowd marshal, for instance? It’s hard enough navigating thousands of people as an attendee. Most people aren’t even able to see me in my wheelchair.
Emotional inaccessibility is different. The climate justice movement is hardly welcoming. We are plagued by endless conflict. Prepared-for-the-end vs. naive-optimistic-and-happy-go-lucky. Indigenous people vs. white vegans. Turtles vs. disabled people. (Half-kidding with that last one.) As much as we are fighting for our future, we are fighting with each other, over the language we use, the angle we approach the crisis from, and how we feel about you...yes, you. Are you useful? Are you plant-based with your meals, or not? Are you perfect? Are you professional in a neurotypical way? Are you sensitive? Are you doing enough? Does what you do even matter?
It’s an onslaught of contradictions and doubts being fired right into your brain at point blank before you can even say hello.
YPC: Finally, are there any tips you would give to young people who want to get involved in activism?
Z: More than tips or tricks, I can offer some solace to you, and it is this. Love - Mary Heglar’s and my favorite weapon in this fight - yes, love, can shield you, and allow you growth, and help you carve out a space for yourself.
The light in your eyes, the lightness in your body, when you find your people. When you learn and relearn self-respect. Self-efficacy. When you become inspired. When you see the benefits of your work. When you humble yourself. When you reduce your fear, and reuse and recycle yourself. When you can see true progress.
That is love.
That is why we need everyone to join this fight. Because we need true progress, and it’s not true and deep without us all.
BIOGRAPHY: ZMKF, otherwise known as Z, is a nonbinary, disabled writer and artist, with an appreciation for science and nature. She is terrible at writing official-sounding bios in third person, but would like to assure you that, yes, she is pretty cool. She would now like to assure you that that was a joke. Z shares her work on her website, www.zmkf.me, as well as on Instagram and Twitter, at @zwillchangetheworld and @zwriterthinker, respectively.