At just 18 years old, Jamie Margolin has risen to become a celebrated climate justice activist.
As co-founder of the youth-led climate organization Zero Hour, she helps elevate young, marginalized voices to raise awareness of and take action on climate justice.
Chances are, you’ve heard of the work Zero Hour’s done. It organized the 2018 Youth Climate March which brought hundreds of young people to the National Mall in Washington D.C. to demand action on climate change — and inspired . It was also one of the organizations behind the 2019 Global Climate Strike, the largest climate protest ever.
On top of that, Margolin has testified before Congress on her experience growing up amid the negative impacts of climate change. She even joined 12 other young people to sue her home state of Washington for contributing to climate change.
Given this work, it’s no surprise then that she’s been recognized by the BBC in its 2019 100 Most Influential Women roundup, as well as in Teen Vogue’s 21 under 21 Class of 2018 list.
But though she helped create an international movement from scratch, Margolin wishes she had a guide to lead her through the ups and downs of activism, especially when she first started organizing.
So Margolin wrote a book, Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It(which was released Tuesday and includes a foreword by Greta Thunberg), to help other activists and those in the making become successful organizers. In it, Margolin lays out the steps she took to successfully affect change on an issue she cares deeply about while also mobilizing young people around the world to do the same.
Despite its title, Margolin says this book is for people of any age.
“I wish I would have had [this book] when I was younger and I was trying to make a change,” says Margolin.
Here are six steps that can help advance your activism, as suggested by Margolin in her book and during a phone conversation with Mashable.
1. Don’t be intimidated
Initially, Margolin had no clue how to get involved in the climate change movement. So the then 14-year-old turned to Google. She searched for local youth environmental organizations and called one.
Margolin was intimidated when she attended her first meeting. She says she was surrounded by people her age or younger who had been involved in the climate movement for years. She felt inferior.
But she didn’t succumb to her insecurity. Instead, she got to work. Margolin decided she too could be an environmental activist and attended more meetings to learn about the environmental movement.
You can apply the same resolve, no matter where you are in your activism journey. Buckle down and commit to learning as much as you can about the issue you’re advocating for.
“Activism and change-making don’t have to be this elaborate, difficult thing that is unattainable,” says Margolin. She thinks many people don’t take an initial step, like googling groups in their area that care about the same issues they do, because they’re intimidated and think they need to be uniquely qualified to be an activist. But activism just takes a regular person doing the best they can, says Margolin.
“I found a community and became the activist I wanted to simply because I googled an organization, called the number, and took the plunge,” she says.
Similarly, there isn’t one true definition of an activist, she explains. You’re an activist if you start a black student union at your school to provide space for black youth to connect. If you have a blog to talk about overlooked societal issues that also makes you one, Margolin says. The point is, there’s no one prescribed way to be an activist.
“You can take action however works for you and your community,” she explains.
2. Find your “why”
Identify why you care about the issues you’re mobilizing behind. That’s the foundation of your activism, after all. To do so, Margolin suggests putting away any distractions like your phone and taking time to be alone with your thoughts until you emerge with your “why.” Though it doesn’t have to be a one-day process and you can take breaks.
“If it [your “why”] doesn’t come from a place of genuine caring then you’re not going to last because the work is so difficult, slow, and uphill,” says Margolin.
However, don’t confuse caring with expertise, she advises. You don’t need to be an expert on the cause you care deeply about. But, like Margolin, the more involved you become, the more you’ll gain knowledge to speak on the issues you’re passionate about.
Margolin’s “why” is simple. She wants to protect the land where she grew up. As she says, “the Pacific Northwest will forever own my heart.” Climate change threatens to obliterate its beauty, as it’s already changing the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem, killing salmon, and destroying forests, Margolin explains. “The beauty I’m seeing now is diluted as opposed to what it once was,” says Margolin.
If she hadn’t cemented this “why,” Margolin wouldn’t have become a climate justice activist or started Zero Hour. It fuels everything she does.
“Your why is something that will likely never change; it is what you are fighting for that you cannot live without,” Margolin says.
3. Be respectful of the people you advocate for
You can’t barge into the lives of the people you want to help, says Margolin. “That’s what missionaries did. You want to make sure that you don’t come from a place of saviors.”
Instead, form genuine relationships with the people you’re serving, she suggests. Regularly ask the community how they’re doing and what they want and need. It’s also not enough to tell them what organizing efforts you’re planning; you also have to ensure they’re comfortable with these plans, she says.
On top of that, you should avoid tokenism. Before Zero Hour held its Youth Climate Summit in 2019 in Miami, which trained over 350 people in climate justice activism, the organization asked Indigenous people to speak at the summit. But it made sure it wasn’t pulling in Indigenous voices just for the sake of checking off a box.
“We weren’t just like, ‘oh, here’s a Native person. Say something,'” says Margolin. “It’s all about seeing the human behind something.”
Instead, Margolin and her co-founders reached out to Indigenous people they already knew from their work and those who had participated in past Zero Hour events. This way, they avoided picking Indigenous people at random and with no forethought. During the event, Margolin says Zero Hour worked hard to build and maintain relationships with all Indigenous participants and made sure they attended to their needs during the summit. Building relationships and then collaborating helps you avoid the dehumanization that comes with tokenism because “you’re seeing the people for the value they have as individuals and not as a representative of their whole group,” she explains.
Still, Margolin warns against using these participants in a performative way to make you look less racist or get “woke points.”
To that end, Margolin suggests listening to people who are most impacted by the issues you’re fighting for and working together to put in place the solutions they suggest.
“No one knows what’s better for their community than the actual community affected,” says Margolin.
4. Communicate openly with the people you work with
You also need to respect your co-activists. You can’t do this work alone and you don’t want to risk alienating people fighting for the same cause. Open communication, on the other hand, can help avoid misunderstandings that can unravel your work.
Margolin and Zero Hour aren’t immune to miscommunication mishaps. Leaving issues unaddressed causes tension and contributes to disharmony. This is why Margolin stresses speaking up when something is wrong.
“I’ve had some long-building conflicts with people in my own organization, not because of anything malicious, but because people didn’t communicate their needs and what they thought I was doing wrong and so I didn’t know what I was doing wrong,” she says.
In the end, it boils down to acting from a place of humanity.
“How are you going to advocate for a more compassionate, fair, democratic, kind, and functional world if you are not fair, democratic, kind, and function within your own organization?” Margolin says.
5. Understand the tools at your disposal to fuel your activism
“I don’t think people understand the power they have with the phone at their fingertips,” says Margolin.
Use these tools to connect with fellow activists and get the attention of people in charge. Tweet at corporations to call out their malfeasance and utilize social media platforms to plug into a community that cares about the same issue you do, call or write to your elected officials to pressure them to take action, or submit an article to the media to inform your community and the world what you think.
Margolin used some of these tactics when she started as an activist. She used social media to connect with other fellow youth activists and grow Zero Hour, wrote to her local elected officials for the first time after the 2016 presidential election, and penned essays, blog posts, op-eds, and editorials. Though Margolin has been published by a number of prominent outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, she started by posting articles on the teen blogging platform Teen Ink. She also experienced a lot of rejection in the process and advises activists in the making to keep persevering.
Margolin credits a Teen Ink op-ed she wrote about climate change with connecting her with Nadia Nazar, who is now a Zero Hour co-founder. Nazar saw the op-ed and messaged her on Instagram to say she wanted to help make Margolin’s climate justice aspirations a reality.
Still, while she’s found success in using social media, she cautions against using it as the major engine of your activism.
Instead, she offers a litmus test: If social media were to disappear tomorrow, you’d be in trouble if it were the main crux of your activism. So use it to further your activism, not power it. Look to Zero Hour as an example: The majority of its work isn’t tweeting and posting pictures. Rather, Margolin and the other co-founders spend most of their time speaking to people on the phone and organizing events.
“A social media post might pressure someone to take action or raise awareness on a topic, but tweeting by itself does not stop a pipeline, change a law, or aid your community,” Margolin explains.
6. Know activism isn’t one size fits all
At the end of almost every chapter, Margolin includes an interview with an activist, such as LGBTQ rights activist Pidgeon Pagonis, immigration rights activist Prajal Jain, and mental health advocate Greisy Hernandez, who all employ different strategies to advance their causes. This isn’t accidental.
“Action looks different for different people,” explains Margolin.
With that in mind, you don’t have to start a youth-led movement like Margolin did, and you can take or leave what you want from her book. For example, you can boycott brands that don’t align with your personal values (such as those that test on animals) or speak up if your family members spew anti-immigration comments.
“I want people to really understand my way of doing things is not the end-all and be-all. It’s a guide to being a youth activist, but it’s not a template,” she says.
If you read Margolin’s book and you’re new to activism, Margolin suggests first doing what you’re comfortable with.
“Read the whole book. Sit with it. Think about it. And then take action based on what feels right and what feels accessible to you,” she says.