Meet Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: The Teen Environmental Activist Making Waves - And Hip-Hop
"Everything we do ripples out and affects the world. The most powerful individual action you can take is to be accountable and responsible for that ripple effect."
So far, 17-year-old indigenous environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has given speeches at the UN, served on President Obama's youth council, won awards for his work (including the United States Community Service Award), and had several books published. Oh, and he’s one of a team suing the US federal government in October to demand they up their climate change efforts. We caught up with him to find out what it's like being a global youth movement leader, and how we can all do our bit to contribute to restoring the planet...
You’ve been speaking publically since you were just 6 years old. What made you step up to fight for the environment so early on in life?
My dad is from Mexico City and I grew up very traditionally, following a way of life. There were a bunch of things that I think helped give me a very strong sense of identity and showed me my responsibility to protect the planet, like learning at a very young age that all life is connected and sacred, and that as human beings with immense amounts of power we have the responsibility to be caretakers of that life.
When I first got involved it wasn’t about being an activist – that title didn’t matter to me – I felt and learnt that as a human being it was our responsibility to protect our land, our communities and our culture for future generations. I got a lot of support from my mom as well, who’s been involved in the environmental movement for a long time. That allowed me to have a really strong platform and the connections to be able to speak on the stage, speak at local council meetings and things like that that I couldn’t have done on my own.
How do you deal with any older people who belittle you and your ideas because of your age?
It’s more like that on the internet than in person, but you definitely still find that there are people who doubt what you have to say just because you’re inexperienced. I think one thing to recognise is that progress and creating the future that we want isn’t about continuing in these old mindsets of how things have been done – that’s not going to get us anywhere. Young people come up with new, fresh, brilliant ideas that challenge the existing system… that’s what young people do. We’re creative, we’re innovative, we’re bright, we’re young, we have access to tools and technology and social media that adults don’t understand.
The most important way that I combat opposition from older generations is to connect with more young voices of my generation because that’s where I find inspiration and power. I actually think that community is one of the most important things that has helped me find my way in this movement - doing this and feeling alone is really a bummer. Finding other people that share your interests, your ideas, your values, and your passion is really powerful.
You come up against intimidating enemies fighting for a more sustainable world. How do you cope with that pressure?
I’m in a place where I’m well educated, well-spoken and confident with what I got to say. I believe in the movement and the mission enough that, regardless of the opposition, I’m going to be able to hold my own. When you go up into meetings with these fossil fuel execs you know, and they know, that everything they’re saying is a lie – they’re telling you that their extraction process is clean for the environment.
You’ve gotta be able to hold your own. You have to recognise that yes, they have a lot of power, but it’s also a very fragile system to operate within which is all about the money. If you can threaten that, then you can actually have more power than they do.
You're also a hip-hop artist. How does your music help you get your point across as an activist?
Hip-hop is my biggest passion - to write music, perform, tour and be in the studio. I’ve been playing shows internationally for the last six years now, and sharing my stories and messages through music is such a potent way to get people inspired because it changes the way you deliver the message. All of a sudden it isn’t an activist telling people to get involved, it's through this method of hip-hop. You have your hands up and you’re singing the words with them.
It’s important to recognise where your power comes from and how powerful your passion is. Getting people engaged in their passion is more important than trying to get them to conform. For me, I found my passion for hip-hop and that's how I'm finding my way within the movement.
Are there any environmental documentaries we all need to watch?
Documentaries have had a huge impact. I’d say if most people took the time to watch one of the better ones, they would be shook - either really inspired, really afraid, or really sad… it would definitely stir up emotion. Racing Extinction is probably number one. It’s a documentary looking at our climate system, our rate of extinction and humans’ responsibility to play our part in getting that climate back. The cinematography is beautiful.
Another one that I would recommend is Chasing Coral. It’s all about climate impact on our oceans and specifically our coral reefs. It doesn’t feel like an environmental documentary though, it follows the story of these people that go out on the reef every single day and their personal connection to this issue. It’s quite unreal to see climate change’s impact on an entire ecosystem. I’ve never seen anything like it before. They take timelapses of the whole ocean - it’s very beautifully done.
Are there any other environmental activists we should all be following on Instagram?
Someone who’s really active in using their social platform is my man Jaden Smith. He’s obviously an artist and actor and doing lots of things in the world, but he’s also very involved in helping to figure out what role celebrities have in getting young people excited and inspired and involved. His stories are always full of good resources and inspiring stuff.
Another recommendation would be my boy Jackson Hinkle. He’s 18, he’s been involved in Earth Guardians for the last couple of years. He got his entire school district to transition away from using plastic bottles, he’s working to get his voice in the political system and get young people across California involved… he’s doing dope stuff all the time. He’s an up-and-coming artist and activist.
What are 3 ways we can do our bit to protect the planet every day?
There’s not one super simple, comfortable, easy way to change the world because there’s so much that needs to be done on such a large scale, but the changes the world needs begin with small actions.
One of the biggest things we can do on a daily basis, each and every one of us, is look at the way we eat. That’s huge. Recognising that is really powerful because then you say each decision that I make, three times a day, ripples out and affects not just our community but our climate. If you wanna make a positive impact, be aware of what you eat and research and learn about it yourself. Cut back on the animal products you use (meat, dairy) and cut back on how far your food travels. There’s more access to good healthy vegan food, so it is getting easier for more people to transition towards a few meals a week vegetarian or vegan. Make that sacrifice. It may not be comfortable for everyone, but the world we wanna build isn’t gonna be off the actions that are super easy and comfortable. It’s not about everyone being vegan, it’s about everyone being aware of their footprint. It’s all about awareness.
We’re in a consumer society where we’re always buying things, but buy from better companies. There are all kinds of better brands that support local communities, that are organic, that don’t have chemicals in them, that don’t support destructive processes like fossil fuel extraction, shoes that don’t require slave labour and child labour, companies that pay their employees well. Everything we do ripples out and affects the world. The most powerful individual action you can take is to be accountable and responsible for that ripple effect.
I’ve been working for the last 11 years of my life with an organisation called Earth Guardians. It became this platform to help young people who didn’t know how to get involved but wanted to to use their voice, engage their passion locally and make real changes on some of the biggest issues of our time. Now Earth Guardians has over 300 crew in more than 40 countries. Each crew is working with their community to create positive change and uplift the youth voice. That’s a powerful way for every single person reading this to get engaged – go to the Earth Guardians site to see the impact of what we’re already doing, sign up to join a crew that’s already near your community, or start your own.
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