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Exclusive – Jerome Foster and Elijah McKenzie-Jackson talk intersectional activism

The Gen Zers have dedicated their lives to mobilising young people into action. I spoke with them about the many facets of taking a stand against social and environmental injustice.

When it comes to the unified fight against our current climate crisis, Jerome Foster and Elijah McKenzie-Jackson are a power couple if ever there was one.

Jerome, whose upbringing in the US acted as the catalyst for his involvement with centring marginalised voices in spaces pushing for social and environmental justice, is a White House advisor – the youngest ever.

Elijah, whose activism stems from a lifelong commitment to advocating animal rights and draws upon his passionate creativity, is a campaign coordinator for Fridays for Future International and a member of XR Youth, the UK-based independent wing of Extinction Rebellion.

Together, they co-founded Waic Up, a ‘news to impact’ non-profit working alongside communities to make a difference while simultaneously spreading awareness of civic causes through journalism and art.

Credit: Pamela Elizarraras Acitores

Both are firm believers that mobilising today’s youth into action with intersectional conversations is of the utmost importance if we are to find equitable solutions to bringing our increasingly suffering planet back from the brink.

Above all else, however, is their collective goal to ensure that humanity is at the heart of the ongoing movement to safeguard the Earth’s future.

That the people who are first and foremost impacted by the repercussions of ecological breakdown are front and centre in the impetus to bring about meaningful change that will ultimately benefit us all.

Yet in the age of compassion fatigue – whereby the ceaseless flow of news recounting the appalling events taking place across the globe every day is leaving many of us desensitised – achieving this is proving to be no easy feat. Not without empathy, that is.

‘Connecting emotion with action is so important,’ says Elijah. ‘It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that the people in these countries who are isolated and feel at risk know that we are here to empathise with them and support them. And if they can’t do it openly, we’ll be there behind closed doors to do it for them.’

Staying true to this statement, Jerome and Elijah’s most recent effort saw them call on the United Nations to relocate COP27 from Egypt due to the country’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people, citing concerns that they and other activists would be targeted by security forces if they attend the summit in November.

‘We wanted to encourage them to engage in an open dialogue with us because we’re coming from a place of compassion and they should respect that we have a right to love, to exist, to be ourselves,’ says Jerome, who adds that the pair are still awaiting a response.

Though they maintain hope that the UN will cooperate (and are prepared to turn to other means of delivering the message if need be), both deem the silence so far an unspoken indication that the organisation is not as pioneering as it claims to be.

Credit: Mia Evans

Namely because this is another blow to the LGBTQ+ community, displaced persons, and minority groups who continue to be excluded from decision rooms despite being those most disproportionately affected by the eco-emergency.

With this in mind, as well as a fear that potentially dangerous or discriminatory settings for such discussions will act as another hindrance in the bid for enhanced diversity in these arenas, Jerome and Elijah are determined to hold the governing bodies that falsely tout themselves as being accessible and inclusive accountable.

‘No one truly understands the intersectionality between the climate crisis and human rights when it’s so real, so desperately in need of being discussed on a global scale that will change how it’s viewed,’ says Elijah.

‘This topic cannot be side-lined. If it is, any social issues or stigma at play will be perpetuated and the problems we’re dealing with will persist. Simply put, the door shouldn’t even be opened if we’re going to be put in the corner.’

For Jerome, the key to guaranteeing that these establishments are practicing what they preach is to insist they be as transparent as possible.

As he explains, this has become challenging in the face of constant greenwashing, which poses a dilemma when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff.

‘Our biggest hurdle at the moment is the over-marketisation of the climate movement,’ he says, referencing COP26 as an example, where the media storm surrounding it and premature outpourings of praise towards agreements that were yet to be verified as worthwhile made it laborious to fully comprehend what was actually happening.

‘A lack of clarity is how things slip through the net. Amongst all this greenwashing there is real change, but it’s getting progressively harder to identify which delays development,’ he continues.

‘In order for us to have intersectionality, we must have insight. Without transparency there is no accountability, so we should be propping up the platforms that are providing clear, useful information without negative ulterior motives.’

Unfortunately, navigating greenwashing isn’t the sole obstacle that POC activists in particular are striving to overcome.

Witnessing first-hand the experiences of his partner in a role that is unpaid, Elijah tells me that an entire uprooting of all systems is necessary to prevent POC activists from feeling like they’re being taken advantage of.

‘It’s more than just a colour, it’s so integrated into society – even in the spaces which claim to be diverse,’ he says.

‘Jerome does so much work for free. Because [POC activists] are scared, they take up these positions, but that shouldn’t mean they are then tokenised.’

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jerome, who explains that while the situation – and discourse – has indeed improved, he still too often encounters moments of not only tokenisation (where he is regarded as an ‘asset,’ a ‘photo opportunity’) but prejudice, too.

‘Even though I am an advisor who gives recommendations, the struggle has been still having to yell in meetings, to raise my voice,’ he says, with Elijah adding: ‘a Black, Muslim woman wouldn’t feel as empowered as a white male because they have to scream when the latter only has to whisper. It’s so unfair because what matters most at the end of the day is the selfless work people are doing, not who they are or where they’re from.’

Fortunately, this hasn’t deterred neither Jerome nor Elijah from their battle against injustice, primarily because they share the same mindset that frustration equals power.

Credit: Pamela Elizarraras Acitores

That channelling our emotions into constructive agency will ignite our sense of purpose further.

‘If you aren’t passionate, it won’t fuel people’s desire to get involved,’ says Elijah.

‘We need to be inciting a combination of the facts (to bolster recognition of the severity of what’s going on) with tangible methods of action so they step up and don’t shut down.’

This translates continent-wide in both the US and the UK, where people pressure driven from disappointment towards the snail’s pace of progress is, according to Jerome and Elijah, the most successful way to augment public engagement and instigate change.

‘I publicly believe we have to be radical in order to be the change we want to see,’ says Elijah.

‘This can be anything from organised protests, to sit-ins, to getting creative. There are no limits. All avenues are impactful because they are the amalgamation of everyone coming together.’

Speaking of creativity, Elijah – who is in the process of writing a children’s book designed to guide young people through their journey to activism – considers innovative outlets as effective nowadays as taking to the streets.

In a world oversaturated by demonstrations (which he stresses remain undoubtedly beneficial), he argues there ought to be more appreciation of individual strengths, passions, and skillsets in the fight for a secure future.

‘Don’t get me wrong, protests are the foundation of activism and are essential because they draw attention, but we need more creative solutions,’ he says.

‘In addition, we should be viewing activism as a circle. It can be top-down, bottom-up, and in between. Everything works together in tandem to bring about the change we’re looking for. There are so many facets, we need to be covering all bases, not just sticking to one display of indignation all the time.’

And where better to present creative solutions than through social media?

As Elijah explains, in an era where everyone with the privilege of accessing these platforms is able to express themselves without jumping through hoops, educating others has never been easier.

Whether that be with music, photography, illustration, or poetry – to name a few.

Jerome, on the other hand (though of course in support of Elijah’s tactics), has adopted a more technical attitude in the realm of upscaling Gen Z activism.

‘As young people, we don’t just exist, we spend money,’ he says.

‘And where we choose to do this has a significant impact because corporations and politicians are at the heart of it. What we’re inching towards is a movement that ensures we be mindful of what we spend so it instinctively drives businesses out of business if they are continuing to uphold unethical practices that contribute further to the climate crisis.’

As imperative as introducing new forms of activism and strengthening those already in existence is, however, nothing matters as much as protecting the mental health of a generation overwhelmed by helplessness amid environmental collapse.

To combat this, Jerome and Elijah have three approaches they recommend.

The first, to find a place in activism, to seek out where our capacity lies, and to understand that every single voice has the potential to flip the catastrophe on its head.

For Jerome, this involves shifting the focus from the all-encompassing problem at hand to thinking about how we can alleviate confusion in specific systems we want to change.

 

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‘When I am completely exhausted I remind myself that the weight of this does not fall on my shoulders alone,’ he says. ‘We are united in this mission, and that’s liberating.’

The second, which embodies the duo’s joint ethos, is to acknowledge the power of community.

‘This isn’t just a movement, it’s a coping mechanism’ says Elijah.

‘We have friends in this sphere, people we call family that help lift us up. It’s not just about constantly worrying about the future; it’s about focusing on the now and the connections you make.’

Credit: Mia Evans

And the third, to trust in the immeasurable influence of a demographic whose age refuses to stop them from inspiring their peers to dispute absolutely anything they oppose.

‘Being young means you haven’t been conditioned to fear asking why,’ says Elijah.

‘We aren’t going to agree just for the sake of it. We can still raise questions, scrutinise things with a fresh perspective. We care about action that doesn’t prolong the lines of oppression and historic traditions that are causing the world to fail.’

‘It’s the reason young people are so integral to this fight. Because we don’t want this for our future, we won’t accept it. It’s time to step up and get everyone involved in the ways that work best for them.’

 

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