Overcoming Fear in a Community of Youth Leaders

Climate Reality Training
August 4, 2019

My name is Lia Harel. I am 18 years old, and I am from Minnetonka, Minnesota, a city about 20 minutes west of Minneapolis.

I am a youth climate activist, though this wasn’t always a key pillar of my identity. Growing up, I knew myself as an artist who sought to tell stories through photographs and ceramic sculptures. I knew myself as the daughter of immigrant parents who transformed our house into a microcosm of Israel within the heart of an American suburb. I knew myself as a recipient of love, safety, and comfort from teachers, mentors, and family.

Nonetheless, I also knew I was a fearful child. Yes, I was scared of spiders and was swept up in the hysteria that the world was going to end in 2012, but in the root of my psyche I feared a future of failure. This fear was what drove me to pursue success.

To me success meant academic perfection, so I stressed over every assignment in school and wasn’t satisfied until I got over 100%. Success also meant physical perfection, so I starved myself until I was nearly just bones and a rotting brain.

In my journey to build a prosperous future for myself, I let fear guide me, and it had led me astray.

In the long months of resuscitating my mental and physical health, I looked for something else to guide me. As I entered my sophomore year, I found it in the student leaders of my school’s Earth Club: a group of spunky high school seniors who laughed after every third sentence and who never looked down on a lowerclassman like me. As I kept coming back to the weekly Earth Club meetings, I grew close to them, building a friendship rooted in trust and compassion. Because of how welcomed they made me feel, I felt brave enough to take a step deeper into the environmental movement.

In the winter of 2016, they drove me to my first Youth Environmental Activists meeting in the Climate Generation office in Minneapolis.

I went in expecting to hear the typical monotonous murmur that we need to save the polar bears. Instead, I heard discussions ranging from climate justice to Indigenous land values to lobbying tactics to project ideas for school environmental clubs. The more I interacted with these youth, the more I learned about the interconnected impacts of climate change on all aspects of our society and how much our future was threatened.

But what stayed with me most was the people who were leading these discussions: the youth. And in these youth voices, I heard confidence that we could overcome the obstacles we faced; I saw in their eyes a flame of passion that we had the power to affect change; I felt the warmth of the room, the warmth of the energy of a community. I was a part of this community of youth activists.

In that moment I knew that I didn’t need fear to help me bring about a better future for myself.

I had a community to walk with me, and together we would be bringing about a better future for all.

From that point on, I wasn’t taking steps anymore; I was sprinting. I first started on a local level. With the help of iMatter, I decided to challenge my city of Minnetonka to be a stronger climate leader. I and two other students researched the city’s renewable energy, waste, emission reductions strategies, carbon removal efforts, and youth involvement in climate-related decisions.

We found that Minnetonka was already taking great steps at making our community more sustainable. All city buildings, street lights, and water systems will be fully powered by the sun later this summer. By moving to 100% solar, the city will save $13 million over 25 years.

However, we still have an opportunity to be more aggressive in our efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. On April 30th, 2018, we presented our findings to the City Council and asked them to commit to creating a climate action plan with the goals of reaching 100% renewable electricity community-wide by 2030 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions community-wide by 2040.

Given that the climate crisis was not a top priority for the city, it took us over a year to make progress towards developing an official proposal for the city to consider. However, along the way, we were not alone.

We were joined by faith leaders, business people, nonprofit workers, and community members who heard our calls for action and wanted to amplify them.

Together, we formed an intergenerational group called the Minnetonka Climate Initiative. We are still actively working, and we are confident that our coalition and the city can move our goals forward and make sure climate is no longer a secondary consideration.

During my action in Minnetonka, I met other young leaders who were also making significant changes in their communities. In the summer of 2018, we came together to apply our knowledge from working on local level campaigns to create a youth-led state-level campaign. We named it Minnesota Can’t Wait with the goal of being an umbrella coalition that brought together many climate campaigns behind one unifying message that “Minnesota Can’t Wait for bold climate action.” Our three-point platform included: 1) regulate greenhouse gas emissions, 2) stop the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state, and 3) pass the Minnesota Green New Deal Bill that we wrote and introduced during the 2019 legislative session.

Though our bill ultimately did not pass, there is still much to celebrate about this campaign, for we helped shift the climate conversation in the state government.

Over a hundred of us, students, packed a room during our meeting with Governor Walz, Lieutenant Governor Flanagan, and Commissioner Bishop on day 3 of their administration.

Through numerous press interviews, op-eds, and rallies, we made it clear that we can no longer afford to do what is politically possible. We need to do what’s necessary.

We testified at committee hearings to remind legislators that it’s not a Republican future or a Democrat future; it’s just our future.

My work didn’t stop just at the state level. During the 2019 graduation season, I helped create and lead the national Class of 0000 campaign. Across the country over 400 commencement speakers repeated the same speech in which we gave all 2020 political candidates a choice: have a plan to get to zero emissions or get zero of our votes.

In all of these efforts — from the local to state to national level — we brought credibility to youth voices. We made it clear that we are not simply bodies holding up signs.

We challenge political incompetence, we organize tactfully, and we help bring forward the solutions. Youth have power.

But as our power grew and numbers multiplied, we felt there was more and more at stake to lose if we failed. And the fear returned. We feared deadlines, so we overlooked crucial components of organizing such as diversity, inclusivity, and equity. We feared stagnation, so we overworked ourselves in the name of “progress.” We lost our sense of community, and with this, we lost our momentum.

It’s hard to admit that I helped bring about the tensions that ultimately tore apart some of the work I’ve treasured the most. I still carry with me a sense of guilt and shame.

In the weeks after, I took time to reflect on my experience both in my life as a whole and in my climate work.

I’ve come to the understanding that fear brings a goal into view, but it cannot bring it to fruition.

Yes, we have less than 11 years, and yes, the house is on fire. But we cannot have these thoughts be what motivates us to act. Our motivation must stem from the desire to build a more just and sustainable future together.

Together means that trust and relationships form the absolute foundation of a movement. Together means that we not only give underrepresented voices a seat at the table; we make space for them to speak, challenge, question, and lead. Together, as a community, we will not fail.

I am no longer a fearful child. Our future will be prosperous.

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