By Duncan Magidson
Photo credit: Malik Francis

I’m an active, 26-year-old environmentalist. I helped lead the movement to divest my college from fossil fuels, was a fellow with the CEL Climate Lab, and worked as a field organizer in the 2016 presidential race to try to stop Donald Trump’s anti-environmental agenda.

So I’ve heard a lot of conversations about climate change, and to be honest most of them are the same. They feature middle-aged or older white men, from Bill McKibben to Bill Nye, talking about climate change deniers or explaining the greenhouse effect, and they’re often about the imperative to come together to save the planet.

But CIRKEL‘s recent event in Queens, “OK, Climate Change,” was something I hadn’t seen before — an honest accounting of the generational divides that make working together to protect the environment a challenge for all of us.

The panelists represented four generations — the two oldest were white men, the two youngest women of color. They all agreed on the easy stuff: Climate change is a real problem, but working together to solve it isn’t always as simple as coming together to talk about it.

After that, things got more difficult — and more interesting.

Jade Lozada, the Gen Z high school student on the panel, shot a jolt of electricity through the room with a performance of “Babygirls,” her poem about a young woman “seeded first in a dying race” who grows to understand the ravages a changing climate is having on her life.

Lozada recently performed at the Apollo Theater as part of Climate Speaks, a spoken-word competition presented by the Climate Museum. She is also one of 15 youth core organizers who led the September 20th climate strike in New York City, which mobilized 250,000 people and brought Greta Thunberg to Battery Park. Her group, Fridays for Future, partnered with 350.org to organize the protest. Her story of the collaboration was the centerpiece of the evening.

At first, the effort seemed to be a natural melding of different generations and different skill sets, Lozada said. She and her colleagues brought energy and enthusiasm, along with a firm commitment to their values. The reps from 350, which Lozada described as “an adult organization,” helped organize permits, stages and other necessary organizational tasks.

But “as we got closer to the strike,” Lozada recounted, “so much of it was [350] taking charge and saying, ‘It’s going to be this way,” and “This person can’t speak, and this person isn’t worth [the investment].”

Eventually, Lozada said the youth organizers cuts ties with 350 altogether and began working only with a few adults allies committed to the vision and values of the organizers.

“We have a very strict moral code that comes along with climate activism, and it’s that we’re going to constantly honor the voices of frontline communities, of indigenous people who are first affected by climate change,” Lozado said.

“We felt that 350 and a lot of adult allies were superseding our own code and just kind of deciding, well, ‘This will look better for optics’ or ‘It should be done this way’ in a way that contradicted the vision we have of the movement.”

Lozada called the experience typical of many Fridays for Future organizers around the country. “It begins with needing the help of adults who have experience and then eventually, we decide, oh no, we can handle this ourselves.”

Lozada’s story illustrated something that can be difficult to acknowledge if you’ve dedicated yourself to bridging the generation gap: Intergenerational collaboration is messy.

If the “OK, Boomer” dust-up demonstrates anything, it’s that Gen Z is not seeing eye-to-eye with older generations. And that there is undeniable truth in the meme — the people in power have profoundly failed young people on climate change.

Still, Lozada acknowledged the contributions of the 350 employees and especially the older allies they kept on board. She said she didn’t know if the breakup was “healthy for the movement, but it’s where it’s leading.”

Katie Ullmann, the millenial on the panel, expressed astonishment that Lozada saw the folks at 350 as the old guard. “It’s funny to hear you refer to 350 as adults because I think of 350 as kids.”

I had the same reaction. Attending a 350 event in college — full of young people like me — inspired me to take environmental advocacy seriously. But now, I’m nearly a decade older than Lozada and the other young activists leading the fight against climate change, a realization that pulled into focus the importance of generational diversity.

There’s a reason Gen Z has its own identity. Lozada’s generation has a distinct perspective from mine — and one that was important for me to hear.

The takeaway from the panel wasn’t that different generations can’t work together. Ullmann recounted a story that perfectly illustrated the value of older and younger working together.

At a protest she attended to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, Ullmann recalls 350 founder Bill McKibben telling youth he wouldn’t recommend getting arrested if they had political aspirations or wanted to work in the FBI one day. The movement had enough older people getting arrested that final day of the protests.

Ullmann was impressed and convinced. The massive group that came together to protest the pipeline saw people of all ages coming together as one, but older people stepping up to be arrested showed that different generations bring different skills to the table.

For me, the takeaway from the panel wasn’t even about age-segregation or integration. I left feeling like I can do a better job at Encore.org telling the full story of intergenerational connection.

When you’re making the case for bridging the generation gap, it’s easy to rely on feel-good stories of grandparents reading to their grandkids or a pair of unlikely, old and young roommates. Those kinds of stories can be inspiring, but being honest about messy realities is even more important.

Like all things that are worth doing, telling more complicated Gen2Gen stories — about everything from environmentalism to elections — won’t be easy, but it will be worth the struggle.

Duncan Magidson handles digital engagement for Encore.org.