Frustrated that adults weren’t doing enough to combat the climate crisis, the teen activist founded Zero Hour—a youth-led organization dedicated to radical social change.

Jamie Margolin isn’t old enough to vote, but that hasn’t stopped her from fighting for what she believes in. The Seattle high school student is rapidly becoming one of the world’s foremost youth climate activists, and founded youth climate organization Zero Hour when she was only 15 years old. 

Jamie became deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change on her life and the lives of other young people as she learned about environmental destruction resulting from increasing global temperatures, sea level rise, extreme weather, and more. Zero Hour began as a march called #ThisisZeroHour in 2017, when thousands of students in 25 cities worldwide protested adult inaction on climate change. Zero Hour has since become a movement that demands urgent action to address the issues climate change will cause for Jamie’s generation. 

Zero Hour differs from many other environmental organizations in that it is led by young people, many of whom are women of color. Zero Hour activists are focused on radical social change, not just environmental sustainability. They are highly organized, efficient, and bold;  Jamie’s efforts have been featured in Vice, the Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, and other publications.

Jamie hopes to continue her activism as an adult and would like eventually to run for office, where she would ensure that environmental issues are at the forefront of the national conversation. While youth activists like Jamie have become more visible in recent years—and some, such as teen environmental activist Greta Thunburg, have even been nominated for the Nobel Prize—youth have played an important role in every major social movement in American history, from gay rights to anti-Vietnam War efforts and the Civil Rights Movement. Jamie and teen activists in the environmental movement demonstrate that when adults aren’t taking care of a big problem, young people will step up as leaders. 

Boundless sat down with Jamie to discuss her interest in activism, her advice for other young women interested in social justice and politics, and her inspirations. 

Courtesy of Jamie Margolin.

What first inspired you to take action on climate change? 

I was born after 9/11, so not only has extensive airport security has always been a reality for me and the entirety of Gen Z, but so has the fact that life as we know it is coming to an end thanks to climate change and rapid environmental destruction.

I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard about climate change; there was never an ah-ha moment. As a young person, I am always asked and expected to plan for my future. How am I supposed to plan and care about my future when my leaders aren’t doing the same, and instead leaving my generation and all future generations with a planet that is inhospitable and impossible to sustain civilization?

So first, existential dread drew me to this issue. I learned about its impact through documentaries, news, online, and looking out my window at the subtle, yet, at the same time, not-so-subtle destruction of the Pacific Northwest and our natural lifesystems.

 

How did you first become introduced to activism?

I had a ton of injuries and was falling out of love with rhythmic gymnastics, the sport I was in before I [became] a full time activist outside of school. At gymnastics, I was the girl to go to [when] the younger girls wanted to know about current events and politics. I was more focused on [that] than actually practicing.

The first action I took as activist was joining the local campaign headquarters of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. My name had gotten on the local DNC’s email list, asking to come phone bank, so I dragged my parents and said, “Hey, I’m here, what can I do?”

I was the only Hispanic person [there], so I served as the unofficial Spanish speaker. A lady from Miami called and said she had experienced  voter intimidation. I was the one who had to deal with it, because I was the only one she was able to talk to. I got the information back to the right people and stopped this whole early voting shenanigans. I really earned the respect of the people in the office.

I was so excited for the change and progress to come. Then Trump got elected and everything fell apart. I went into a depression for two months. But then I was like, well, there’s this climate thing I’m passionate about, and I want to take action on that.

 

What role does intersectional activism play in your work?

It is impossible to tackle environmental justice without race, because what caused the climate crisis is the same colonialism and oppression that has held people of color down, and that has caused a lot of brutality. 

If you’re trying to tackle climate change without tackling race, that’s like trying to tackle police brutality without talking about race. The structure that led us here is the same structure that led to people of color being colonized.  If you try to tackle environmental issues without tackling racism …you’re just not really doing it. 

 

How do you integrate these values at Zero Hour? 

Zero Hour is led by young women of color and people of marginalized identities; within ourselves we are kind of immune to the racism that happens in other spaces in the environmental movement. The grassroots movement has been doing things that way forever; they are who I learned from. The mainstream movement is starting to catch on, but there’s still a long way to go. 

Courtesy of Jamie Margolin.

Why do you think youth-led activism is particularly important? 

For any movement to be successful, it has to be intergenerational. Having youth voices centered and included in activism is particularly important because we have a unique perspective and stake in many issues, such as climate change. If our voices are left out, crucial perspectives are missing.

We have some adult mentors that work with us at Zero Hour, and they have day jobs at mainstream environmental organizations. Those organizations can be helpful for our work, but a lot of the time they have the same latent issues and silencing that can happen in, say, corporate America. The nonprofit industrial complex has to shift. 

Zero Hour is completely volunteer-run, so we are well resourced, but we run ourselves in an ethical, equitable  way that prioritizes marginalized voices. The adults that work with us…work for bosses that are not as aware. 

 

What advice would you give to other young women who want to be involved in political or social activism?

Community organizing and movement building is the key to winning this fight. Every major social change that has ever happened was a result of sustained community organizing. Therefore, my advice is to find a local organization or community (such as the local Indigenous folks of your area) and see how you can support them and get involved. That’s how I started. I found the website of a local youth environmental organization (in my case, it was Plant-for-the-Planet), called the number on their website, and sat in on a meeting. 

If you don’t feel comfortable with mainstream, non-intersectional white environmental organizations—I certainly don’t, and that approach to climate change is not what’s going to solve this issue—find a POC-led organization or group in your area. 

Also, and this goes for more than just activism: girls, femmes, don’t apologize; don’t self-sabotage or let yourself feel like an impostor in powerful spaces. Society already shrinks you enough, so there’s no need to shrink yourself even more, or say “sorry” because you have nothing to be sorry for. I used to apologize for absolutely everything…if I was going up to someone powerful or important at an event I’d be like, “So sorry, I know you’re super busy, but can I talk to you about….”

Don’t do that. Never apologize for your existence; never apologize for your power or the work you do. 

Photo by Julian Meehan/Flickr.

Are there any leaders you look up to in the environmental sphere, or any books or other resources that have been particularly formative for your development as an activist? 

I look up to Jasilyn Charger and Tokata Iron Eyes, two amazing young women Indigenous leaders who led the fight at Standing Rock and are still fighting to protect their homelands. A documentary that has been very important in my development as an activist is AWAKE: A Dream From Standing Rock.

 

How do you think you have grown since you started your activism? 

I have grown so much, I don’t know how to start.  It’s like I was an unevolved Pokemon and now I have grown into a much more evolved form. Skill-wise, I have a whole new arsenal of tools in my belt. I am now writing a book called Youth To Power which comes out in 2020, outlining all those skills and lessons I’ve learned for all other young people who want to take action. I have grown and matured emotionally, learned how to be strong in the face of adversity, how to read people and manage them.


Casey O’Brien is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Bay Area. She covers sustainability, social justice and politics. Casey has bylines in both local and national publications; her work is available at https://caseyobrienwrites.com/