Activists Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez and Rosario Dawson connect over the voices of youth activism, now more integral than ever.
At the young age of 13 Xiuhtezcatl (Shu-Tez-Caht) Roske-Martinez received the 2013 United States Community Service Award from President Barack Obama. Two years later, he joined 20 other young people from across the U.S. in a lawsuit against the federal government. A landmark action, the case, “Juliana et al. v. United States et al.,” argued that the administration has been denying our constitutional right to life, liberty, and property by ignoring climate change and even—in effect—worsening it. “We are standing here to fight and protect everything that we love—from our land to our waters to the mountains to the rivers and forests,” Roske-Martinez said at the time. “This is the moment where we decide what kind of legacy we are going to leave behind for future generations.”
Roske-Martinez speaks, writes, and even raps about climate change, an issue the Native American has been committed to for nearly half his life on Earth. He has traveled across the globe, addressing all from the Rio+20 United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro to the intergovernmental organization’s general assembly in New York on youth-led movements and the power of resistance. His book “We Rise,” released in the fall of 2017, tackles fossil fuel extraction, environmental racism, and a blueprint for taking action.
When she was 15, Rosario Dawson was street cast in Larry Clark’s controversial coming-of-age film “Kids.” The recognition New York-born actress gained from starring in a range of Hollywood blockbusters, like Men in Black II, to indie sleepers, such as Krystal—would grant her a platform as a political activist. In 2004, the actress was arrested for protesting George W. Bush’s presidential reelection. Last spring, she was handcuffed at Democracy Spring’s non-violent sit-in in Washington, D.C. The two connected from across the country about the power of youth’s resolve and why their voices are vital now more than ever.
Joshua Glass—Xiuhtezcatl cites watching “The 11th Hour” (Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental documentary), at the age of six as an activator of change. What do you make of the power of the youth perspective?
Rosario Dawson—When the youth get older, they get distracted by the other things that we are told to be distracted by; we lose that focus. So it’s always encouraging and amazing how, without being told about what came before them, they still have this connection to the Earth, to what’s important, and to what is right in front of their eyes. I’ve had the pleasure to chat with you, Xiuhtezcatl, a few times, and to see you speak, and I look at your work and see how all-encompassing the environment is in everything you do and all that you communicate to people when you have the opportunity to do so. It’s so beautiful. It reminds me of the passion and dedication that young people can bring to the conversation, which we so often need to be reminded of. That’s why you’re closer to the source, in that sense. You do it with such leadership and beauty and talent and fun, and that’s what this generation really needs. You have been called into leadership and you’re owning it.
Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez—You’re too sweet, Rosario.
Rosario—You do it with music, you do it with style. You’re not afraid to push the boundaries of where activism can live, what it can look like, and how it can be communicated. I think you’re helping to break down barriers for a lot of people who don’t want to deal with the challenge of bringing an issue to a space notoriously known for being against it. It’s about rising to the challenge and transforming, rather than avoiding it.
Xiuhtezcatl—That’s the critical piece that our generation will bring: a breaking down of the walls of what it means to create change. Desegregating the world of activism from what it has traditionally been to what it can be.
Joshua—Do you think you are doing this out of consciousness?
Rosario—It comes from a personal place. You put yourself out there and you rise to the calling. The information and the background and the history comes along with it, but oftentimes it is generated in that moment. A lot of people do find activism and these different things through education and through connections with other people, but I feel like that’s not the case with you, Xiuhtezcatl. It’s from where you grew up, from your environment, and you being raised in that space. In a way, that allowed you to have critical thinking, and it supports you and your ideas and your expression.
Xiuhtezcatl—It was very innate. With my dad being indigenous, a lot of the teaching that came from him made it [clear] that it was a part of our identity as indigenous people to protect the Earth. Rather than a calling to be an activist, it was just who we were. That’s who our ancestors were. We knew we would be honoring them and future generations by preserving our ways of life, preserving nature, and preserving the land that we will pass on to our children. It’s always been that way. That innate sense of protection for what we love, for what we know as sacred.
Rosario—Unfortunately, a lot of people from where I come from in this concrete jungle are going to these aquariums and zoos—which are all very controversial for very good reasons—but those are the only access points for a lot of kids and a lot of people in general. Millions upon millions of people have been cut off, not by any choice of their own, but because of the environment that was built up around them for many years. What does that do to people when they are cut off from that innate connection to nature? You had that from your father, you had that from your ancestry, and all of us technically have that as well. We’ve just been cut off from it. What can we create for our children in the future that will connect them back to nature if it’s not zoos and it’s not aquariums and all those sorts of things?
Xiuhtezcatl—You have to have an outlet that plugs you back into the Earth. We live in an interesting world where the future of our society and our planet will be a balance between old wisdom and technology and innovation. We need to look at the power of Virtual Reality, and how that can give access for young people to see animals not just in a cage, but surrounding them in a wild environment. Using technology to bring people back to nature is a really interesting concept. We have to help people fall in love with the world, because we protect what we love. We fight for what we love.
Joshua—Traditional guards, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have transformed dramatically under the current administration. What other groups should we look to for information or activation?
Xiuhtezcatl—The greatest power that I’ve seen is in local grassroots movements, which have taken power all over the world. When the source and the inspiration of fighting for change comes from protecting your community, it is so much more real. Even in the world of big nonprofit environmental organizations, it can get really convoluted with a lot of different purposes and messages and the squabbling over funding. The most important thing is to chase what you are passionate about. If you’re passionate about the oceans or music or poetry or art, science, chemistry, architecture—whatever it is—create change through that method. Rather than going out of your way to be an activist—which a lot of people are not going to want to do—bring activism into what you do. Rosario, you do it beautifully. You have so much power but you still stand for what you believe in and you don’t allow yourself to have two separate worlds. You are such a powerfully authentic person when it comes to always fighting for what you believe in. Maybe you didn’t grow up as a traditional grassroots activist, but now that you have this massive platform in which you can share your voice with the world, you are using it in the best possible way.
Rosario—It comes from growing up in a squat in New York and suffering from a lack of access to healthy foods, having to depend on those local communities that are doing community gardens and farmers markets in order to get food that otherwise doesn’t exist around you. Seeing how important it was to sustain it and fight for it and grow it, because a lot of kids don’t even recognize what food is anymore, because what they’ve been eating is so processed. Having access to these community gardens was a little oasis in the concrete. You could be under a weeping willow tree and you could see birds and insects and all these things that otherwise are erased from your environment. It’s so powerful. I met this woman recently, who does these crazy parties where they use this technology that gets attached to the plants and converts their energy into music. She was tripping out about how incredible it was that we’ve gotten to this point in technology that is now bringing us back to nature. All of these people were just so blown away that nature had a sound. It had a heartbeat that could be registered with technology. So people were dancing to the music of the heartbeat of the plants. Those are the types of things that end up being catalysts for really big change. It’s because people experimented and were curious. That curiosity drives everything that we do.
Xiuhtezcatl—One of the most powerful things that we can cultivate is our sense of community worldwide. If you’re doing it with family, if you’re doing it with people you love and you’re surrounding yourself with good people who are fighting the same fight, it becomes so much easier.
“‘Wake the fuck up, right now!’ This is Mother Earth saying you have long overslept the alarms that we have been sending.”
Rosario—People are paying attention to the environment, which they have never done before. We’ve got major earthquakes, hurricanes, and we’re looking at satellite images of islands that were green but are now brown. Does that discourage or mobilize you more? Are you feeling a sense of urgency, or were you expecting all of these things and you’re now seeing it?
Xiuhtezcatl—It’s really tough. Part of the sad thing is that a lot of people aren’t going to act until the water reaches their doorstep. There is such a wake-up call with these storms, these hurricanes, these fires across the West. Earthquakes in Mexico, floods across Southern Asia. There is such a statement to the world saying, “Wake the fuck up, right now!” This is Mother Earth saying you have long overslept the alarms that we have been sending. That the wake-up calls have come again and again and again: the glacial melt has reached an all-time high, sea levels rise every single year, we are getting more intense storms, more people are dying. The perspective at which we view issues is still a left and right issue. In the U.S. particularly, it’s conservatives and liberals on either end of the spectrum, whether they believe in climate change or think it’s a priority for us. Politicians don’t give a damn about the environment. We have to see the economic crisis that this is going to put us in. Things are worse now than they have ever been. The same way that we have to channel the directionless anger of Donald Trump’s election, we have to channel the sadness, the despair, and the devastation. People are looking at what they’re televising and broadcasting, which is the crisis: the people that are dying, the homes that are being washed away. No one is talking about solutions, no one is talking about being prepared for the next one. No one is talking about what it looks like to reverse this crisis. No one is talking about what is causing it. So for me, it is about how we unite people around creating action. How do we mobilize our communities, how do we organize, get engaged, get involved? How do we understand that these problems are results of systems of oppressions like patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism? How do we break that down and understand the deeper meanings of the issues, so that we can understand how to tackle them? From a community level, from a level of lobbying and politicians, and getting involved in our streets and our courts.
Rosario—Having worked in the advocacy, activism, and philanthropy space for a couple of decades, I’ve seen people who have brought forth everything from D.A.C.A. and beyond—people that have put in so much effort—see it be almost completely reversed in a really short period of time. Years and years of work fighting on, as you said, not a conservative or liberal, right or left issue, because they’ve had to fight both sides in order to get the incremental change that they’ve been able to achieve. Then to watch it be systematically taken down, and the erasure of all the work that it took to get there. Those walls that you’ve hit are coming at a really different place in your life than people who have been doing this for 40 years, seeing decades of work being thrown aside. What do you say to them?
Xiuhtezcatl—It’s so hard to not get discouraged. Getting disconnected and angry about these things makes it so easy. Becoming apathetic and disconnected from it is such a common thing among people that have been involved for so long. But now you see the water levels rising, you see things changing, and people are starting to wake up a little bit. To the people that have been in it, to the people that have been watching, paying attention, fighting, marching, speaking, resisting: Regardless of how long it takes, losing hope is not an option. Disengaging and unplugging once you’ve been plugged in is not an option that we have. We cannot afford to allow the people that have been involved to disconnect because of how bad things are. Our hope is that, if we continue to fight and struggle and mobilize, if we get creative and change our tactics, things will get better. Things will turn out in our favor. It’s so much bigger than us. We are selfish to think that it’s just about us and our survival, because generations will inherit this planet and are depending on actions that we take and the lives that we live and the way that we respond to this crisis today. Losing hope is not a luxury that we have. We cannot afford it.