Climate activist Vanessa Nakate presents at the Winsor and Boston Latin Schools.
In late September, the Winsor School was lucky enough to have Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate as a guest speaker during one of our assemblies. Vanessa is a climate justice activist and author, who, at age 26, has already appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She is the founder of the Rise up Climate Movement, a platform that allows African Climate Activists to make their voices heard by the world at large. Additionally, she is a leader in the campaign to save Congo’s rainforest from the mass deforestation it currently faces as well as in projects that help schools update their facilities to be more sustainable. Winsor was able to coordinate with the Boston Latin School’s environmental club YouthCAN, to open the presentation to both Winsor and BLS students. I’m a senior at Winsor and one of the heads of the environmental club, Conserve Our World (COW), so I had the honor of introducing Vanessa and moderating a Q&A session along with my co-head Zoe and the heads of YouthCAN.
Vanessa’s accomplishments seem almost larger-than-life, so I was shocked at how relatable she seemed. Having attended New York City’s Climate Week just a few days before she presented at Winsor, Vanessa opened her speech by remarking on a sign she saw at the march that read: “It’s so bad, even the introverts are here!” As an introvert who stumbled into climate activism due to the consequences of climate change in Uganda that are simply impossible to ignore, Vanessa has a unique perspective. She did not set out to change the world; rather, she stepped up to the task when few were willing to do so. As an introvert myself, and someone who has struggled with public speaking in the past, I found Vanessa’s words inspiring. For me, climate activism has been a way to push myself out of my comfort zone through meetings with COW, presentations at school assemblies, and engaging with state government via the Massachusetts Youth Climate Coalition (MYCC) Lobby Week and Massachusetts Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer’s Youth Climate Council.
During the Q&A, we asked Vanessa if there were any common misconceptions she noticed in the way people talk about climate change. Her response stuck with me. She said a common misconception is that young people will fix climate change. Though it may seem counterintuitive to think of this as a young activist, I agree with her. It’s true that much of the push for climate action is coming from young people, but we also need the help of older and more powerful people to actually implement the change we want. It’s unfair to place the burden of the future health of our planet and of humans solely on the shoulders of today’s youth. Climate change is not some abstract future threat that will not affect the older generations; it is happening now, and change has to happen now too!
Additionally, I valued Vanessa’s perspective as a Black, African climate activist in a space that is dominated by white American and European activists. In 2020, the Associated Press tweeted a photo of four prominent white climate activists. Except the image was cropped — the full picture actually included Vanessa, who had been wrongfully cropped out of the photo and omitted from the list of participants at the conference where the photo was taken. Vanessa spoke out, sparking a wave of reckoning against racism within the climate activism space. Since this instance, Vanessa commented that she has felt a responsibility to amplify fellow marginalized voices within the climate movement. I found that Vanessa’s words were a valuable reminder for Americans to consider a global perspective when discussing climate change, perhaps the most global issue we face today.
By partnering with both Vanessa and BLS, this assembly helped forge connections both locally and globally. To paraphrase Vanessa’s advice for teenagers interested in the climate movement: start small, you are already activists.