'Afro-indigenous, Afro-Latina, transgender': How this climate-change organizer's identities put him 'on the frontlines'

Kamilah Newton
·5-min read
Vic Barrett, an organizer with the Alliance for Climate Education. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)
Vic Barrett, an organizer with the Alliance for Climate Education. (Illustration by Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

In honor of Earth Day 2021, Yahoo Life is profiling some of the many advocates leading the charge to save the planet today: young BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) activists fighting for climate justice through an intersectional lens.

Vic Barrett, 22

A Democracy Organizer with the Alliance for Climate Education in the state of Wisconsin who began work in the climate activism sector at age 14 through collaborating with Global Kids, an organization that "educates, activates and inspires youth from underserved communities to take action on critical issues facing our world." 

What propelled you into this line of activism?

Definitely a realization of my own identities: Being Afro-indigenous, Afro-Latina, transgender and realizing that all of those things put me on the frontlines of the climate crisis — and not just that, but the frontlines of so many other issues. The one [issue] that I figured that I could do something about — and understood impacted not just people in the United States, but all over the world — was definitely climate change. Especially when considering my own heritage and where my own people are from, which is an area that's really susceptible to sea level rise on the coast of Honduras.

Why do you think the Earth’s coming demise is such an easy thing for people to remain in denial about?

People live in a state of cognitive dissonance and not really wanting to address the things that are hardest to address. I would say a similar question is: Why do we have a global pandemic going on in which some people never believed that they needed to wear masks? There's a lot of why's that we could be asking about the things people do. I think it just comes from a place of not wanting to address the hardest things to address and convincing yourself of anything to prevent having to address those things.

Why have you chosen organizing as your approach to activism?

I would say I chose to focus on activism and not just education, but storytelling too, because I've seen the ways in which it has benefited me in my journey and in showing people things that seem so obvious to me … lived experience is important. These are things that not everybody thinks about all the time, believe it or not, so I realized that I needed to get in this space where I could (as often as possible) communicate the nuance of not just climate change, but a whole bunch of issues. The more we talk about it, the more people understand.

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Speaking of understanding, what’s your trick when it comes to getting people to really hear your message and grasp the threat level?

My angle has been almost unintentional in some ways, just being a minority in the climate space. People are often intrigued to hear what my perspective is because of the fact that there aren't a lot of young, dark skinned Black people in the climate space, especially [back] when I started. [There] was definitely more white environmentalists and [with] that came a very specific way of approaching the issue, so I think that I just really try to speak from lived experience and try to be genuine in the way I come across. I'm not trying to give you a policy pitch or a campaign pitch. I'm just telling you what I see as the reality and what I see as the facts and what s lot of other people do too.

How is environmental activism intersectional and why should it be seen through that lens?

I would say one place where it can start is just [understanding] the word "environment." Sometimes it can very much be thought to mean nature, out in the trees [or] national parks, but people's environments are [just] what makes up where they are. [Some] people's environments in parts of the South Bronx [include] air that they can’t breathe in — [causing] a higher rate of asthma — and that has to do with the color of their skin and their class, so that's an intersectional issue. It's the fact that all of these issues build upon each other. If you're trying to not be brutalized by police and then also trying to raise your kids in an area where you have less access to food [or] resources, all those things intersect… If we're going to fix the environment, we need to fix everybody's environment.

Gen Z is in the position of having to now clean up the mess of previous generations. How do you manage any anger or resentment over being put in that position?

We're living at the cusp of a lot of the systems that people have relied on — and ignored faults in for so long — [and] all of those faults are coming to a head in our lifetimes. That's just reality. The IPC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is releasing reports that catastrophic climate change is happening in eight years. We had the largest protest against police brutality in U.S. history last summer [and] we're living in a global pandemic in which … the people who've always been the most vulnerable and the most screwed over are still the most vulnerable and the most screwed over.

We're just seeing in front of our faces all the time that all the things we thought were wrong with the system are wrong with the system — and we need to radically do something to change it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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