My Seat at the Table

The Youth Climate Justice Summit was held virtually over two days in February, organized and led by Youth Environmental Activists (YEA!). 

I logged into the first virtual meeting of the day on February 23rd for the Youth Climate Justice Summit to meet with my team to walk through our plans with the legislators. I started my day with an idea of my capabilities and limitations. Being a queer Indigenous youth, San Luis Rey Payómkawichum and Tohono O’odham, I was raised to protect our world. All my life I’ve thought that we should all take responsibility for climate change. The world around us deserves to be cared for, protected. However, there was never a way I could raise my voice, to be heard, to be listened to. Although the Summit sadly wasn’t in person, it impacted me just as much as it would have if we all stood together in the Capitol.

Even spending my day at home, my schedule was filled entirely from the very start to the very end. I spent all day in workshops regarding the Line 3 oil pipeline as well as another about ethnic studies classes in schools.

At two o’clock I was able to meet with my senator, John Marty. I prepared all day, writing a script specifically lobbying against two bills that would fundamentally harm indigenous communities. For my first time ever speaking to someone like John Marty, I was to be the only one in the meeting other than my team leader, the Senator, and his assistant. To be honest, I was terrified; I never realized or noticed that the power I hold is important, I couldn’t wait to be offered a seat at the table to be listened to. I must force it. Because I deserve that spot. I spoke with clarity and precision and understanding. Stating specifically my story and how the Felony Free Speech and Guilty By Association bills drastically and negatively impact my community, the indigenous population.

Listening to the explanation of these bills, it becomes clear they both directly impact indigenous communities. Environmentally, these pipelines are extremely harmful to absolutely everyone, but when these pipelines enter indigenous communities, breaking treaties, and polluting, protesting is how we raise our voices. Because our land is sacred, it must be protected.

When fighting for Climate Justice in situations like the Line 3 pipeline, it is vital that people of color are given the chance to speak. There would be no environmental activism without BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). To exclude us, when we are so involved in the fight against climate change, is absolutely unacceptable. Bills like these silence our voices when we deserve to be front and center. To be an environmental activist is to decolonize.

It was refreshing to speak to a legislator who understood this. When I finished speaking, Senator Marty immediately agreed to vote against these bills. I thanked him for his time and ended our call. For the first time in my life I realized how powerful my voice is. These fights are not hopeless and we are not helpless, nor is our planet.

During the last meeting of the day, I was placed in a small group with Senator Mary Kunesh and I was utterly inspired. To speak face to face with one of the few indigenous politicians in the state was beyond incredible. We spent the entire meeting talking together. For one of the first times in my life, I saw myself and my community represented. Our group talked about everything from bills we are lobbying against to ones we support, to our opinions, thoughts, and feelings on everything from COVID, racism in the school system and our communities, and environmental justice. She spent her time giving us a place to be heard. Listening to our stories and our voices.

The 2021 Youth Climate Justice Summit gave me an opportunity to force my way to a seat at the table. It showed me that I, an Indigenous person, from the San Luis Rey Payómkawichum and Tohono O’odham tribes, can bring change to our world.

Lilliana Rice is a high school student and attended YEA!’s 2021 Youth Climate Justice Summit.

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