From strikes to block parties: Sustainabiliteens on recentring community in climate activism

Climate activists of all ages gathered in front of Vancouver Art Gallery on September 23. They huddled close and listened attentively as an activist elder named Finch shared a song: ”Save the sky for eagles. Save the water for salmon. Save the forest for bears. Let us all live in peace.”

He encouraged the crowd to sing in response, so dozens of voices echoed throughout the plaza, repeating his demands for justice. For the first time in years, I felt like the climate movement was united under a shared vision – one defined not only by struggle, but also by a carefully and deliberately constructed joy.

Behind this was Sustainabiliteens, a group of high school students from across the Lower Mainland, whose membership overlaps considerably with the UBC climate justice community.

Shifting away from striking

Sustainabiliteens is known for its 2019 climate strike that drew over 100,000 people into the streets of Vancouver. Following the strike, the group drew in new members, including myself — we planned actions, reached out to community members for support and educated ourselves and those around us on the climate crisis.

However, although the strike generated publicity and inspired further action, it came at a cost. The student climate movement has increasingly become defined by the idea of sacrifice: of missing school and foregoing free time, all to fight for a liveable future that seems to grow increasingly unlikely despite our efforts.

Striking as a labour tactic only works when workers strike until their demands are met. For most students, that level of sacrifice is not feasible or inspiring.

A post on the Sustainabiliteens Instagram page states that striking can “often feel very obligation-based and problem-centered, perhaps almost a little intimidating.”

Creating an environment where people can also experience joy and connection is absolutely necessary, especially as an organization that is geared towards youth who may not have any prior experience in activism.

These ideas inspired the organization’s most recent action, a block party event that took place on the annual Global Day of Action. It started with a march from Coal Harbour Park to the Vancouver Art Gallery, where the space was set up for speeches, workshops and performances by emerging BIPOC musicians Daniyourdarling and Zainab.

A just transition

Sustainable businesses and climate advocacy organizations — including West Coast Environmental Law and the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice — educated attendees on their respective initiatives, all of which aligned with the theme of the event: “a just transition.”

To high school students and lead organizers Zoha Faisal and Amber Leung, a just transition means prioritizing workers who are currently working in fossil fuel industries by “reinvesting that money into green energy, so these people who are being exploited by fossil fuel companies are able to transition smoothly” into greener fields of work.

This year’s block party was an effort to regain momentum as a movement, as well as an opportunity to not only emphasize the climate justice work that still needs to be done, but also to celebrate everything that has already been accomplished.

It proved that Sustainabiliteens is capable of stepping away from the narrative of climate strikes as the only form of youth protest in order to try something different.

“One of the main ways that we’ve evolved is that we've also incorporated our hope, our joy, our cultures, our traditions, our optimism, and our love into this work,” explained Faisal. When she spoke to me, she had just delivered a personal account on how her Arabic name symbolizes hope and new beginnings for her family, and how this inspired her approach to social justice.

Rebuilding solidarity after social distancing

As I spoke to this new group of climate activists, I couldn’t help but think back on what Sustainabiliteens was like just a couple of years prior.

Given that it was the peak of the pandemic, we were restricted to holding online meetings. Though I worked closely with so many people, to this day, I have only met a handful of them. All of the actions we did manage to plan were small, since we were working under public health protocols.

What never changed was the fact that our messaging was always firm and often critical; we had to make sure that people did not forget about the climate crisis at a time when so many other issues were flooding the news.

We tried our best to stay motivated, but how could we effectively advocate for our planet when we couldn’t even step foot outside and engage with our communities directly?

All larger-scale events came to a halt, including the solidarity that large events produce. We were losing an integral element of being activists.

Since this structure did not turn out to be sustainable, Sustainabiliteens gradually eased back into organizing events as a collective. This opportunity to regroup and discuss prompted much-needed reflection on their values and how these are put into practice.

Interjecting intersectionality

First-year Global Resource Systems student Naomi Leung, a former Sustainabiliteen and current Climate Justice UBC member, said that “the biggest shift from 2019 was really focusing on making our movement intersectional and making it more accessible, definitely by centering more people of colour on our leadership team. I think we've definitely done a lot of internal learning on what sustainable organizing looks like.”

When youth organizers of colour — who are often of the demographics most heavily impacted by the climate crisis — are not heard or appreciated, it is detrimental to the entire group.

As a completely youth-led project that received very little external support, Faisal and Leung said planning this event was exhausting, but their passion for the work that they were doing kept them motivated.

In the upcoming weeks, Sustainabiliteens members will be focusing on endorsing candidates in the October 15 municipal elections.

While having climate champions involved in political decision-making is important, Naomi Leung reiterated how it is crucial that climate activists and their supporters keep pushing, because “everyone's needed and essential in climate organizing — in organizing for collective liberation — and it's never too late to join.”

A previous version of this article misstated that Finch was an Indigenous elder sharing a song from the Wet'suwet'en First Nation. He is actually East Asian, and The Ubyssey misunderstood his singing of a Wet'suwet'en song as a claim to Wet'suwet'en heritage. The Ubyssey regrets this error.