The power of momentum: A young advocate’s reflection of the NYC March to End Fossil Fuels

The power of momentum: A young advocate’s reflection of the NYC March to End Fossil Fuels

Max Sano

Related Topics:
Climate, Energy, Justice

“No Justice, No Sleep” was one of the signature chants sung last week at the March to End all Fossil Fuels, but this line represents a subtle, yet frustrating, truth about youth-led climate action – making time for rest and reflection can feel cumbersome when trying to address the climate crisis.

How can you expect to chug along with your work, your relationships, and your hobbies when you see your community suffering? The summer began with New York City looking like a Martian wasteland due to forest fires in Canada and ended with mass flooding and torrential rainfall. This whiplash is exhausting to experience, especially when you are not seeing tangible steps to meet the moment. 

This emotional whiplash existed long before I called myself a climate activist. For me, gun violence impressed upon me the importance of grassroots mobilization. I remember the lockdown drills going back to when I was just 12 years old after the utterly tragic Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut during the holiday season in 2012. At the time I treated it like a fire drill rather than acknowledge that it was an abdication of responsibility by the adults in positions of power to take a more proactive approach to ending the violence.

Flash forward to the end of high school, this violence did not cease and it reached a boiling point my senior year. One of the first protests I remember attending was the National School Walkout on March 14th, 2018. After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland Florida a month earlier, thousands of high school students across the country banded together to take the streets demanding Congress and the Trump Administration do more. There are few moments in my life where I saw so much anger and fear blossomed into dignity and purpose.

Maximizing impact

The March To End Fossil Fuels arrived the same week as both NYC Climate Week and the United Nations General Assembly. The convening of global leaders came at the same time as youth climate advocates demanded ocean rights and called for climate justice in the food systems. These takeaways struck a chord with me as climate advocacy must embrace systems-level change to be considered both just and transformational.

The Nutrition and Food Studies Program at New York University and Food Tank hosted a series of discussions with industry leaders, youth advocates, former policymakers, artists, UN officials, and students. At “Food and Agriculture as a Solution to Climate Change,” I learned about the role that sustainable and nutritious food systems must play in climate action moving forward, including technological integration, human rights-centered policy, and political leadership.

Three young people smile and pose for a picture.
Standing alongside Liza Greene and Ian Smith at “Food & Agriculture as a Solution to Climate Change,” a collaborative event between New York University and Food Tank. (Courtesy of Ryan Rose Evanousky)

It was rewarding to see my classmates Sofia Jimenez Saborit and Sasha DuBose present their research and share the stage as visionaries for environmental justice in food systems. I also had the chance to officially meet Food Tank team members Ian Smith and Liza Greene in person for the first time. As a graduate student wrapping up my final semester and a former intern with Food Tank, the coalescence of my professional and academic experiences the past year helped me prepare for the March.

It was truly an honor to meet journalist Michael Pollan and watch an early screening of Food Inc. 2, a damning documentary that Pollan produced, that uncovers how broken the American food system is for consumers, farmers, and the planet. Storytelling is a balancing act of creativity and insight, narrative building to break down the consequences of our industrial food system, and contemplating more economically and ecologically sustainable pathways to sustain us as a society. 

A march by everyone, for everyone

Leading up to the day of the March these ideas of grassroots communities, structural barriers to action, feelings of inadequacy, and fears of political complacency swirled in my mind like the jet streams zooming across the world’s oceans. The extreme heat sweltering the world this summer compounded the mounting feeling in my core that government officials need to start acting like public servants.

That morning I was grateful to design posters with other young activists with Time For A Better Future, chatting about what brought us to New York. The irony of putting pen to recycled Amazon cardboard boxes did not escape us, but neither did our resolve to do more than make noise. We were primed to build on the success of NYU students’ successful divestment campaign, pushing institutions to be allies rather than obstacles to the movement.

People hold up colorful signs protesting the Willow Project at the March to End Fossil Fuels 2023.
Youth advocates organized by Fridays for Future, Sunrise Movement, and other youth-led climate groups prepare to march. (Max Sano)

Then there was the March itself. The crowds of parents, siblings, and children joined forces with activists, researchers, and students. It was less of a protest and more of an epic crossover event where excitement and comradery triumphed. Young climate leaders that I met in Miami earlier this year traveled across the country to stand in solidarity. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for the Biden Administration to stand by its commitments. Live music harped on both the hopelessness and silver linings of coming of age during the climate crisis.

I took this energy to the United Nations when, the very next day, I learned about the years-long campaign to declare universal ocean rights. It was a privilege to go from demonstrating in the streets to hearing from elected officials from Cabo Verde and Panama on their successful policies to codify marine biodiversity protections. Climate action means threading between the grassroots and working within existing power structures to make our voices heard. 

Creating lasting change

Grassroots and institutional advocacy play hand-in-hand. This realization would have felt quite absurd if I tried communicating with my high school self. If our voices matter so much to other students, then why are our calls not reverberating in public discourse beyond thinly veiled attempts to signal support without amounting to any concrete actions? 

In spite of this nagging anxiety that our chants fall on indifferent ears, young people in fact can play a pivotal impact in making change. 

On September 21st, the United States joined eighty-one nations and the European Union signed the High Seas Treaty, leading to the codification of ocean rights protections at the international level. Days after the March, the Biden Administration announced the creation of the American Climate Corps to train tens of thousands of young people in climate resilience and development jobs in the coming years. Action is following after years of rhetoric and pleading, and youth are just getting started. 

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