Voices of the Youth Climate Justice Movement

Photograph of three youth activists

by Emmanuel-Sathya Gray, Edited by Aaron S. Baker & Jessica S. Saucedo

This piece originally published in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Spring 2022 Volume 55 Number 2. All TCP columns are available online, at

In their late twenties—an age bracket that most would consider “youth”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a spokesperson; Cesar Chavez was employed as an organizer; Russell Means participated in the Alcatraz takeover; and Dr. Angela Davis stood trial. Even younger, from SNCC Freedom Riders to Vietnam war protesters, the turn of the century dawned with images of young adults, college students, and recent graduates as fresh archetypes for movement action, presumably due to their biographical availability, time, interest, and networks (McAdam, 1986; Schussman & Soule, 2005).

These were the youth of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. Many decades later, in the early 2000s, I had begun organizing with college students, except at that time I was the age of thirteen, and in those days, I do not remember crossing paths with others my age in activist circles. Fast-forward almost twenty years, and I find myself listening in on a hefty group of young activists, whose mean age for first involvement in activism was 15 years old, and all of whom shared seasoned experiences with organizing, protesting, leading, and dreaming with their peer cohort. With almost half being under the age of 18 years and about three quarters identifying as women, this group of youth activists represents new, even younger visibility in modern social movements, specifically in the youth climate justice movement (Lorenzini et al., 2021).

Climate Justice represents a human-centered movement which combines climate activism with human justice issues (Kanbur & Shue, 2019; Mary Robinson Foundation, n.d.). The term activist can be defined as a person who is purposefully participating and learning within a social movement, rather than incidentally (Hall, 2009; Kluttz & Walter, 2018). A reality that climate justice activists mobilize around is that the greatest impacts of climate change tend to fall on those with the least responsibility for historical carbon dioxide emissions, and this is already happening (Eckstein et al., 2017; Harmeling, 2010; Hickel, 2020; Otto et al., 2017; Shue, 2013). Of the groups most vulnerable to climate change and its physical, social, and psychological impacts, children rank among the highest, being both more acutely affected, as well as living longer and further into an  increasingly unstable future (UNICEF, 2015, 2021). In fact, there may be no greater threat to children and their futures than climate change (Human Rights Council, 2017; UNICEF, 2015, 2021). In light of inadequate climate action taken on the part of adults, many youths have begun to feel that they need to stand up for their own futures (Thunberg et al., 2019; Zero Hour, n.d.). Very few studies look to these incredible members of the youth climate justice movement to understand what motivates their engagement and how they overcome challenges as they fight for a better future.

Key questions yet to be addressed in the literature on youth climate justice activism are how youths view and categorize success (Grosse, 2019) as well as how they experience and deal with challenges (e.g., burnout and frustration; Grosse & Mark, 2020; Nairn, 2019; Thew et al., 2021; Yona et al., 2020). Learning more about how youth activists consider successes and challenges would assist researchers and the climate justice movement to more precisely target aid to the critical efforts of youth activists. Furthermore, given the importance of intersectionality to youth activists in the climate justice movement, a framework adopted by numerous activists (Artis, 2019; Carlson, 2019; Grosse, 2019; Uplift, n.d.), understanding these aspects (i.e., successes and challenges) in the context of intersecting identities, and uplifting voices from the Global South may prove salient to movement efforts (Grosse & Mark, 2020; Walker, 2020).

Following Hayward & Roy (2019), “global south” is taken as a social designation, as opposed to geographical region. Here the Global South is indicative of “politically, environmentally, and economically vulnerable communities that include socioeconomically underprivileged communities in rich nation contexts” (p. 158), whereas the Global North “may include highly privileged communities in poor nation contexts” (p. 158). Beshara (2021) specifies, in the context of the Americas (including Turtle Island, also known as North America), that “the Global South signifies outsiders within—that is, decolonial subcultures theoretically grounded in the liberation Global North theology (i.e., and the descendants other of non-European Indigenous,Black, and Brown peoples who were colonized, enslaved, and/or over-exploited since 1492)” (p. 17).

In pursuance of a master’s thesis at the University of Cincinnati, I chose to explore questions regarding youth climate justice successes and challenges, posing them within an intersectional framework. I, along with fellow graduate and undergraduate students in the Collaborative Sustainability Lab, conducted in-depth interviews with young climate justice activists and are in the process of analyzing these using thematic analysis to draw out themes from their shared perspectives and experiences. The larger project, initiated by Dr. Carlie Trott, has been a collaborative effort. With support from a student research grant from the Society of Community Research and Action (SCRA), youth were purposively recruited with messaging directed towards BIPOC, POC, and LGBTQ+ identifying activists. Original estimates of involvement aimed for around 20-25 youth; however, during the months in which we recruited participants, no one who met the eligibility criteria of identifying as a youth climate justice activist between 15 and 25 years old was turned away. Overall, this study has recruited a large cohort of 34 youth, where around two-thirds identify as LGBTQ+, and a little over than half identify as BIPOC or POC. In terms of class (with 2 people missing), the median rung on the socio-economic ladder was 68.5 (out of 100), with the minimum at 13, and the maximum at 96. Only 20.6% were employed full-time.

In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with each youth activist by a team of four Community Psychology graduate students (Stephanie Lam, Jessica Roncker, R. Hayden Courtney, and myself) over the summer of 2021. After subsequently transcribing interviews (on average 1 hour and 12 minutes long), a coding team of four, made up of one Environmental Science undergraduate (Delaney Malloy), one recent graduate with a bachelor’s in Psychology (Shaunelle Casey), and two Psychology graduate students (Jacquana Smith and myself), began coding the transcripts. We decided to start with the interviews of BIPOC and POC identifying youth in order to elevate their experiences in our development of initial codes. The researchers have a diverse array of passions including issues of justice and equity, with over half of us of a racialized identity, and a majority of us having past or current experiences with activism and/or organizing.

Our generation of codes is following a Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) methodology, using literature-informed research questions – within which inductive analysis was used to draw out codes, focusing on responses directly related to questions about or topics on successes and challenges. From these blocks of texts, codes were generated inductively. Thus far we have generated 5 broad categories: (1) successes, (2) challenges, (3) methods of dealing with challenges, (4) fluid concepts (not solely successes nor solely challenges), and (5) whether or not burnout has been a factor.

Our coding process took an extensive time in the beginning as our team initially discussed every single code and sub-code (some up to 6 levels), moving on from one to the other only after coming to a consensus. Despite putting us behind in our initial timeline, these slow conversations proved invaluable to our process of building logic cohesion among a group of diverse thinkers. Over time, we have shifted focus towards discussing the major codes developed, relegating some of the lower-level codes as information to put into narrative descriptions of themes identified. We also took the time to reflect on our connection with the youth through reflexive conversations, taking into account our own experiences and positionalities relative to theirs. In response to these interviews, my teammates and I found our own thinking and ideas around education and activism evolving over time; we were deeply impacted, and in some senses, our academic trajectories have been shaped by what we were reading. Coding is ongoing, estimated to be completed by the end of April 2022.

Some preliminary observations from coding include the ways in which defined challenges and successes intersect with each other. Challenges here are not the antitheses of successes; in fact, in dealing with challenges, or in anticipation of challenges, many efforts at fostering care have built a strong sense of community – the same sense of community which is defined by many as success in and of itself. This reinforces the perspective that success and failure are not true binaries (Haiven & Khasnabish, 2013), and social movements really can exist in their nexii.

There has also been mention of concerns of climate justice movement visibility of racialized identities. Some experiences by BIPOC and POC youth include tokenism and under-representation, despite being more likely to represent frontline experiences. In terms of age, most activists interviewed were significantly younger than mid-twenties, and expressed the necessity for structural and social supports for their developmental needs. This is consistent with a recent report released by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (Campbell et al., 2022), which found that Millennials and younger adults, as well as People of Color (Black and Latinx), are more likely to engage in non-violent civil disobedience to protect the climate. In our interview study, many youth have also reported experiencing burnout (85%) or coming close to burnout (12%), describing competing demands of school, sports, self-discovery, and activism. In terms of what causes burnout, it is sometimes a combination of psychological challenges (e.g., climate anxiety), guilt (and subsequent neglect of self-care), and a sense of invincibility that drive some youth to push themselves beyond their capacity.

On the flip side, it is evident from these same interviews that youth, being aware of their particular challenges, are building systems into their organizing and activism which foster more communal support and burden-sharing. They describe non-activism related gatherings, celebrations, and opportunities to decompress and share, check in with one another, and make room allowing folks to step away from the work when needed. In addition to this, we have found that across racial and class lines, these very young activists are often cognizant of intersectional issues, sometimes feeling more informed than their adult counterparts, and seeking to implement methods and solutions for addressing these issues at their source. The future, in the wake of complete success, is often envisioned as one of greater quality of life, not merely a prevention of climate disasters but an overhaul of capitalist and exploitative economic and industrial systems and a better standard of living for all, including those historically left behind. Aesthetically, this future has been imagined by youth variously as familiar, incomprehensible, beautiful, and bright. We are also cautioned that unsuccess is just as important as success, such that the ideal future would not equate a total lack of challenges to the movement.

In order to keep participants up to date on the progress of our project we sent original study participants, via SMS and email, a link to a brief update in November 2021; if you wish to view this update, please visit Charts describing the sample can be found there along with some quotations taken out of the youths’ own recommendations for each other regarding burnout. The next phases of the project will consist of reaching out to youth to become involved with constructing a survey out of their own questions and concerns (which we gathered in this past round of interviews), as well as opportunities to collaborate in data collection, analysis, and possibly more. Our lab plans to investigate further questions driven by the interests of the youth themselves. A survey for youth to rank these interests is in the second page of the web update described above. These future phases are out of the scope of this initial thesis project funded by SCRA but are worth mentioning as transparency with participants and their sustained attention was part of the thought and design of the initial phase.

After the completion of coding, we will be in a position to member-check our findings throughout the Spring of 2022 and write over the following summer. This process will be accompanied by a presentation which is intended to be given to the 34 activists who participated in the project. There we will solicit feedback before the thesis defense and further dissemination. Findings will consist of theme descriptions, representative quotations, and reflexive statements from the research team.

Author’s Invitation: Emmanuel-Sathya Gray would be happy to engage with any correspondences about this topic. He can be reached at You may also reach out to the Collaborative Sustainability Lab at

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