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Exclusive – Kevin J. Patel’s community-centric approach to activism

We spoke with the intersectional climate justice activist and founder of OneUpAction International about his mission to support and empower young leaders to implement solutions by providing them with the resources they need to be changemakers.

‘Community is where it begins,’ says Kevin J. Patel, an intersectional climate justice activist who’s spent the last decade advocating for the environment.

He is the son of working-class, Indian immigrants, who relocated to the United States before he was born. They did so because farming was already becoming unsustainable due to the impacts of environmental breakdown.

As Kevin tells me, with the agriculture industry continuously being devastated by flooding, heatwaves, droughts, extreme weather, and other natural disasters (even then, though the reality today is far worse), it was not economically beneficial for farmers to stay put.

‘While they loved India, they couldn’t make enough money to survive,’ he says.

In search of better opportunities, they uprooted their lives and moved to the US, where they eventually ended up settling in a neighbourhood in South Central Los Angeles.

Kevin’s exposure to the harmful effects of climate change that his parents had sought to leave behind would find him there, however.

Growing up in an area classified by research as a ‘sacrifice zone’ – where residents are subjected to heightened levels of smog and hazardous materials despite the adverse health risks this poses – he was diagnosed with arrhythmia caused by poor air quality at just twelve.

‘Some of my friends and family members live near oil refineries,’ he says. ‘It’s not the communities of the rich and affluent in LA that are affected, it’s the low-income communities of colour that are.’

This wasn’t the only issue Kevin dealt with during childhood. Even before experiencing the direct repercussions of living in one of America’s most polluted cities, his introduction to advocacy occurred three years prior when he came to realise that his classmates didn’t know food came from the Earth, not the grocery store or a fast food restaurant.

‘This jump-started my desire to explore the interconnectedness of all these different challenges we face,’ he says.

‘It clicked in my head that it wasn’t a single issue we needed to be confronting, but a multitude. I saw that if I didn’t use my voice to speak out against them and uplift my community in the meantime, nothing would get done and injustices would prevail.’

Igniting his passion for providing underprivileged groups with a platform to express these disadvantages, Kevin took Naomi Klein’s statement that ‘Greta Thunberg may have been the spark, but youth are the wildfire,’ and ran with it.

The result? ‘OneUpAction’, an organisation he launched in 2019 to support the next generation of activists to implement their climate solutions, especially those from marginalised groups.

‘There was a lack of people who look like me within the movement,’ he says.

‘Change isn’t possible without representation that includes BIPOC communities and those on the front lines of the crisis, which is why I felt a space dedicated to supporting them was important.’

Kevin created OneUpAction to push activism beyond striking, rallying, and protesting, and instead push for tangible, global transformation.

‘How can we one-up our actions within our communities and ensure we’re implementing and accelerating solutions?’, he asks.

By guaranteeing that young people recognise the power of unity, a message that OneUpAction is focused on spreading. ‘Our aim is to let activists interact with each other,’ says Kevin.

‘We’re no longer a platform for BIPOC specifically, we’re a platform for anyone who’s fighting this fight.’

Emblematic of Kevin’s resolute faith in young people, working to nurture their growth in a way that enables them to carry it forward is his self-proclaimed purpose.


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As is eradicating the stigma that their age implies less expertise which, as the youth climate movement has proved time and time again, is most certainly not the case.

‘We see the urgency of the situation in front of us,’ says Kevin.

‘We’re not only inheriting this planet; we’re living on it right now. We’re not the generation, the leaders, or the workforce of tomorrow; we’re the generation, the leaders, and the workforce of today.’

Expanding on this, Kevin cites young people’s hyper-awareness about past and future in the context of the crisis as their motivation for working to tackle injustice.

The former being their conditioned understanding of what contributed to society’s ongoing problems, the latter their largely altruistic nature and how it’s fostered a widespread aspiration to safeguard the Earth for generations to come, as well as their own.

‘We’re looking ahead,’ says Kevin. ‘I’ve seen so many young people come up with solutions that the current generation, those who are in charge, have never been able to produce, let alone fulfil. Their power as a joint force is absolutely crucial.’

Another reason why Kevin believes so strongly that young people hold the key to a more promising future is that their worldview stems from an intersectional framework, which he deems an essential facet of environmentalism that seeks to instigate progress.

‘The role of intersectionality is to ensure it’s a lens we implement within our work so we aren’t missing anything,’ he says.

‘Intersectionality is integral to getting to the root of injustice in that it encourages us to see everything as a whole. That’s when you’ll be able to comprehend just how much vulnerable communities are dealing with simultaneously and offer them the correct aid.’

There is, realistically-speaking, only so much aid that we as individuals can offer, however.

That’s  why Kevin is additionally keen to push for improved inclusion and resource distribution from a top down level.

‘Governments and corporations have to do the due diligence and incorporate us,’ he says.

‘If they really want to make a difference, they’re going to have to change the ways in which they operate and adequately prop up the communities that are suffering at their hands.’

To guarantee this cry is heard, Kevin says we must transition from calls to action on the street to having our demands met in decision-making arenas – which is the ethos of his organisation.

This is no easy feat when you consider that young BIPOC in particular are frequently excluded from such conversations.

With this in mind, Kevin suggests that white allies (who traditionally receive more invitations to sit at the table) should pass the baton to the communities that deserve it and amplify their voices so that they also have a say.

‘We all have the ability to advocate for the communities that need it,’ he says.

‘A common misconception is that activism is only for the people that have been directly impacted, but I believe that everyone can stand up for those without the resources to stand up for themselves. Because gradually, that one action will have a domino effect that will lead to lasting change.’

As Kevin highlights, this involves questioning whether the policies that are being implemented by those in power are genuinely lessening the blow of the crisis’ impact on communities.

Amplification is necessary, yes, but what good is it without proof that the appeals they’re therefore able to vocalise are being brought to fruition?


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‘When we talk about marginalised communities, a lot of the time we discuss ‘doing this and that for them,’ but there’s little evidence of this actually happening,’ says Kevin.

‘Don’t claim to be there for them if you aren’t. Don’t wait until another injustice happens, consistently show up in line with BIPOC efforts and remember that suffering doesn’t stop with strikes. It’s a ceaseless uphill battle.’

This being said, as a Gen Z activist conscious of protecting his mental health, Kevin stresses on a final note that as vital as it is we refuse to give up, it’s also imperative we go at our own pace to avoid falling victim to the burnout, pessimism, and fear that has the potential to make us switch off entirely.

‘I go by the ideology of ‘rest is resistance’ – we need joy, we need happiness, we need rest to generate the best versions of this work,’ he says.

‘How are we building a movement that’s optimistic about the future instead of leaning into the doom of it all? We have to unlearn practices entrenched in the work mentality and return to the connection we have with ourselves, our communities, and our planet.’