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Exclusive – In conversation with Daphne Frias

We went to the Natural History Museum’s Generation Hope: Act for the Planet event to speak with the climate justice activist and storyteller about how young people can use their influence and actions to drive positive change for the Earth’s future.

Daphne Frias is a Latina climate justice activist and storyteller born and raised in West Harlem, NYC. As a freelance organiser, she spends her time speaking at various colleges, summits, and panels. She additionally consults with non-profits, crafting engaging campaigns highlighting the voices of Gen Z.

Her work focuses on achieving meaningful change through a holistic view of all communities and guaranteeing that we tackle disability and the environmental emergency simultaneously in order to create a just and equal future.

In her words, ‘including people with disabilities in the climate and environmental justice space, and following their lead will help us think beyond typical practices and assumptions and will empower us to address harms that we have yet to mitigate.’


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Thred: How should we be integrating disability awareness with the fight against climate change?

Daphne: One of the things that people don’t realise is that disabled folks are inherently resilient and inherently adaptive. These are the two qualities that we need most in order to solve the climate crisis. When we talk about adaptation, disabled folks have been doing that all of their lives because we live in a society that unfortunately is not made for us to thrive and succeed. We have to go out and find creative solutions to be able to live an independent and equitable life.

Using those skills of innate adaptation and including disabled voices would present amazing solutions in this space.

Thred: When did you decide to dedicate your time to safeguarding the future of our planet? What made you want to take it to a global height, from project to mission to life’s work?

Daphne: I went to high school in a predominantly affluent area which was vastly different to where I grew up and still live now. West Harlem is populated by BIPOC communities and immigrants. It’s a food desert. So when I went to this new neighbourhood and saw the shelves in grocery stores lined with vibrant produce I’d never seen before, I contextualised that not everyone was living the same way I was and started asking why. When I learned it was due to environmental racism and gained the knowledge and words to express what I was experiencing it was game-changing. It made me angry that nobody was talking about it and I knew that I had to fill the gaps within the climate space and be the human megaphone for my communities and make sure our stories were being heard.

Thred: In BIPOC communities especially, there’s a visible lack of accessible climate information and an absence of terminology they’re able to understand. What’s being done to better the language around these issues so that those who need it most can benefit as well?

Daphne: It’s really about remembering that the climate crisis is a like a web. It’s a system of oppression that’s led us to where we are. If you’re addressing a community of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, who haven’t had access to green spaces, how are we going to talk to them about the climate crisis? It’s completely disconnected from their reality. It’s about making sure that, one, we safeguard the foundations that are incredibly vital to us like where we live, eat, and work, and, two, once we have those core needs met, then we can talk about the climate crisis. We need to initially make sure our communities are safe and kept before we go in with a public health approach (because the climate crisis is a public health crisis).

Thred: Your passion evidently lies in encouraging the world’s younger generations to step up, rather than shut down, against any matters they are passionate about. Why is this so important?

Daphne: I really want to push back against this notion that Gen Z is the future because Gen Z is the right now. We don’t have to wait until we grow up to instigate change. In 2019 I became county committee woman of my district which meant that I was the first local democratic representative of my community and I was allowed to be the liaison between my community and my local elected officials. I encourage other young people to do the same. What’s really important is that we encourage reverse mentoring. This idea that I’m really harnessing is that when we have leadership roles, the leaders shouldn’t expect an entire life of expertise. We shouldn’t have this hierarchy of power between CEO and intern. The CEO should be asking what they can learn from their intern and have a relationship with them. They should be seeking to harness their lived experience. This is something I run into a lot as an activist. People say ‘you don’t have your degree yet, what makes you legitimate?’

What makes me legitimate is my lived experience. I’ve been living the truth of the climate crisis my whole life and so has the generation I’m a part of.

We don’t need qualifications to be able to be at the table with world leaders. Our lived experience is our expertise. I want more young people to realise they don’t have to wait for a certain time to take part in the conversation. No one can tell your story better than you can. I want all young people reading this to know that they can live in the truth of their story and that’s their power within the climate crisis.

Thred: Why is storytelling so important to you and how do you integrate it into this field of work?

Daphne: The climate crisis can be a very divisive space with a lot of doomsday narratives. This is incredibly harmful and is why we decided to name this week Generation Hope because hope is the underlying thread that will get us to that better future that we’re all fighting for. Storytelling is one of the ways that we can break down that divisiveness and remember that even if people across the table don’t agree with our values, at the end of the day we are all human with storytelling components that we can all relate to. It’s important to remove barriers – that don’t naturally have to exist – and share our stories as human beings, as people that experience emotion.


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Thred: It’s about remembering that we’re human beings fighting a collective fight.

Daphne: Exactly. The climate crisis is something that we’re all going to experience eventually. When we’re at that final stage, the money, our titles, our connections, none of it’s going to matter. There’s a misinformation rhetoric where people think that the climate crisis is impending, but it’s happening right now. One of the major takeaways from the recent IPCC report is that, while we’re focusing on that 1.5 degree target, we must not forget the incremental lowerings that we should be striving to attain. Doomism stems from centering on the bigger picture. What about the little wins?

Thred: Besides the changes we can make on an independent level, what’s the best means of approaching influencing change on a grander scale? Aka how do we shift the focus of the conversation from individual to corporate action (think, recycling v manufacture).

Daphne: Community action drives global change. Change starts with conversation. If we are not communicating with each other, we don’t know how we’re feeling. And that’s why inter-generational communication is so critical. We must be asking how we can bridge the gaps. Additionally, it’s about remembering that the government works for us. We have this paradoxical relationship with them, but we need to keep holding them accountable. I always say it doesn’t take flooding the streets to bring about tangible change, it’s the grassroots work that matters just as much. We’ve created this hierarchy where activists seem to be on an unattainable level but we’re still you, we’re on-the-ground in our communities and we see you as our colleagues, our collaborators. We don’t see you as someone disconnected from us and we want you to be part of the movement as well.

Thred: How can we ensure that youth are being respected in the conversations aiming to instigate change and guarantee that their lived experiences are being recognised as crucial to this fight?

Daphne: When we talk about high-level organising spaces, it’s important that those who are supposed to represent us actually mirror our values. It’s not only about saying that we’re grateful these social arenas exist, but that on each individual level of representation we ensure that the people representing us hold the same beliefs as us. For young people who aren’t eligible to vote, it can as though they can’t make their voice count. But that’s why having those tough conversations with your peers is so essential. Tap into your emotion. This goes back to the storytelling component I mentioned earlier.

If we channel how the climate crisis makes us feel, it will span generations.

Thred: How can we be amplifying the voices of frontline communities and marginalised groups – those most impacted by the crisis – without resorting to youthwashing and tokenisation?

Daphne: I’ve been at the forefront of this. Whenever I select a project to work on, I ask myself whether it aligns with my values and whether it will help my community in the long run. If it doesn’t I don’t sign onto it. If it doesn’t impact my community, I won’t contribute. I think we can do this in smaller ways too. When we look at the celebrities we patronise, are they using their platform to amplify climate measures? Are they making their tours climate friendly? Are they partnering with companies and having that collaboration that actually follows a sustainable model? If we can move culture and media, that is a huge tool for making the climate fight irresistible. It’s important to understand that change doesn’t have to be overnight. Making small efforts every single day adds up.

Activism is a lifestyle not a moment.

We have to buy into that lifestyle approach more than we do emphasising one-off individual marches or big global events. If we create a lifestyle of activism then we’ve already established the building blocks along the way which will amount in progress.

Thred: People often forget that this is an intersectional issue and that we should be taking an intersectional approach to finding solutions whether that be through conscious consumption or pushing for change on a grander scale. What do you deem the top priority in the fight against climate injustice? Namely, what would you like to see action around in the immediate future?

Daphne: For me, it’s twofold. I think we struggle a lot with infrastructure and creating climate resilient communities. A lot of governments are focused on how to harden communities against the climate crisis when we should be focusing on nature-based solutions. Our nature already has the solutions. We just have to listen to it in order to find a way forward that is climate friendly. Make small shifts. Eat more seasonally so that you’re not putting so much stress on the produce and agricultural chain. Guarantee you’re living in harmony with the Earth – it’s here telling us what to do. Using this approach is so much more effective than trying to strong wall our communities. What really gives me the most hope is seeing how much of Gen Z is already going into positions of leadership. It’s happening so much more than you think it’s happening; we just need to be able to capture the news cycle to really showcase the power of Gen Z. To say we are not waiting, we are not the future, we are right now because there are so many of us doing amazing work worldwide.

All justice is disability justice. Which ever space you’re working in, if you’re not including the voices of those with disabilities, you are not thinking Intersectionally and holistically. We must be included in your activism in order for the better world we’re all fighting for to be possible.