Gen-Z activists of environmental group, Fridays for Future Toronto, are challenging our current reality from an intersectional lens
In December 2018, Aliénor Rougeot went to her first climate strike, which she describes as “very grassroots.” After searching for a local climate strike to attend she found one, hosted by two moms. “They just organized a very small, like kids climate strike,” she remembers. Once Rougeot got there, she started chatting with the women who had organized the strike and said she wanted to help out and they were happy to oblige. “They literally were like, it’s yours. It’s your baby. Here’s the social media password, go for it. And so it happened very organically,” she says.
In a matter of seconds, Rougeout assumed the position of head co-ordinator of Fridays for Future Toronto, a branch of Fridays for Future, a worldwide environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO). The organization was founded by young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in August 2018, and has been growing ever since. As of February 2020, there have been over 10 million participants in Fridays for Future events.
Rougeot, 20, says her interest in the environment movement and her involvement with Fridays for Future stemmed from what she describes as a feeling of eco-anxiety. “I had this moment where I [felt] there was not enough activism.”
In 2017, the American Psychological Association defined eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental doom.” This issue specifically targets young people, because they are the current generation who will be faced with the repercussions of the lack of care towards the environment. This includes global warming, banning single use plastic and the Green New Deal, a climate proposal tackling climate change and economic inequality.
While young activists like Thunberg and Rougeot are working to combat the eco-anxiety there is still some uncertainty about the world’s environmental outcome. In a 2018 Gallup survey, 70 per cent of young Americans, aged 18-34, were worried about global warming.
Jeanne Maurer, an environmental and urban sustainability professor at Ryerson University, says she has noticed an increase in her students and other young people becoming more eco-conscious and wanting to tackle environmental and social equity issues. “[Young people] are worried no doubt, but they are also taking on a lot of the responsibility of doing something proactive about these huge issues,” she says.
Maurer acknowledges her role as a professor can be conflicting, because she is exposing students to the scariness of the environment, but knows it can enforce the necessary actions to create any change in their futures. “I strongly believe that students need to understand that there are urgent and necessary changes that must be made while at the same time hopefully offering them pathways to achieve positive change.”
As Maurer notices the growth in the youth’s involvement in environmental activism, she says they are in charge of their fate and this activism is the beginning of how they will advocate for their future. “More and more young people today are ready and willing to take on these social, economic and environmental challenges and want to develop practical and sustainable solutions to them,” she says. “[Young people] are looking for positive ways of fixing their futures so that they actually have a future.”
Three years ago, Rougeot and her family moved to Canada from the countryside of France. While living in France, Rougeot says she did a lot of human rights and refugee activism, but hadn’t dabbled in the environmental activism space. “I knew that I cared, but I didn’t see myself as an environmental activist,” she says. “It wasn’t until I met people that were not into [environmentalism], when I realized that I was an environmental activist.”
When Rougeot had the opportunity to attend Fridays for Future’s Toronto climate strike almost two years ago, she was already prepared from previous experience protesting and advocating for change. “I’m French, so I just love striking in the street for no reason,” she jokes. “I thought, this [strike] has to be a lead to somewhere.” As Rougeot became more involved with Fridays for Future, she recognized how important it was for her to have this space and share it with others, no matter the scope of the movement.
Fridays for Future Toronto has an intersectional lens on climate justice, and has eight demands, ranging from universal public services and infrastructure to a zero carbon economy, emphasizing the group’s main goal of a “livable future for all,” which Rougeot senses a lack of in Toronto. “Not enough seems to be happening, especially in Ontario where so much is at stake,” she says. Through the group’s intersectional demands, it has brought a sense of interconnectedness to the movement.
Since joining Fridays for Future three years ago, Rougeout has witnessed the evolution of the environmental movement and its meaning to her. “When I started hearing the new wave of environmentalism that’s coming from the youth, it resonated with me, although I didn’t know a lot of the things that were being pushed by the climate justice movement,” she explains. Rougeot says the group focuses on the intersection between human rights and environmental activism, aligned with what Rougeot grew up advocating for in France.
“I definitely didn’t think [Fridays for Future] would bring me to where I am now, but I’m really glad it did.”
Six months ago, Kendall Mar, 24, joined Fridays for Future as a union outreach organizer. Mar, had attended its events in the past, but didn’t know how she could get involved with the movement.
Ironically, Mar, who had recently followed Rougeot on Instagram, got a message from her asking if she wanted to come to the organization’s next meeting — which Mar eagerly accepted. Although she had no formal background in activism, she wanted to learn and gain experience. “Activism is just kind of learning as you go, and that’s what I did,” Mar says.
Before Mar was fully involved with the environmental movement, she was unsure about her role in the environmental sphere, but didn’t doubt its importance in her life. Mar studied psychology and says she found it challenging to intersect her two worlds of psychology and environmentalism, but after experiencing eco-anxiety first-hand she feels differently.
“[Eco-anxiety is] a mental health crisis too. A lot of us are having a hard time reconciling the fact that they will be affected by this crisis and figuring out how their futures will look, because it won’t look the same as their parents’ futures were when they were our age or their grandparents,” she explains. “The climate crisis really is intersectional, it affects everything else.”
Mar is hopeful about the future of the climate crisis even when it’s difficult to see instant results. She says she’s excited to continue the journey with her other group members, who have become a tight knit community. “I like that you have this group of people who understand the way you view this issue in a deeper way than other people might,” she says. “[Activism] is something that we feel like we have to do and it creates a group of people who you can talk to about this issue.”
Mar isn’t the only person who feels this way— 38 per cent of Americans feel moderately hopeful about our current climate crisis, according to a Yale University study.
Although her role in the movement has evolved overtime, Mar says young people don’t have to be at the forefront of the movement to evoke change. Fridays for Future offers different opportunities to get involved with the climate crisis. “If you’re not comfortable coming to the rallies, there’s an online presence that you can contribute to,” she says.
Whether it’s through lobbying about different environmental issues or doing community outreach, Mar says everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. “Getting involved shouldn’t really be intimidating because everyone wants you to be able to share your perspective,” she says.
With a full class schedule, Rougeot says she tries not to spread herself too thin and gives opportunities to other members of the team, which she says comes back to her eco-anxiety.
“[Eco-anxiety] comes in waves. There’s kind of two anxieties intertwined in a way because there’s the one that forces me to start and definitely keeps me going. And then there’s anxiety that comes from activism in a weird way, when you take on too much, and you put too much on your plate.”
With the recent shift to a virtual climate strike and for future Fridays for Future digital events, Rougeot admits the tasks between members need to be equitably delegated. “If other members have more time than me and my full course load, then I should just be really happy about [giving them more opportunities.]”
Rougeot gives herself a “pep talk,” and reminds herself of the greater purpose of activism. “If you actually do this for the movement and for the mission, then just recognize your own limits,” she explains. “But it’s not always that easy.” Neither is advocating for climate justice.