November 13, 2020

Who will fight climate change? This youth activist is empowering his generation to take a stand

As part of our emerging leader series, we spoke with Kevin Patel, founder of One Up Action, on how he built a diverse, youth-led organization.

Kevin Patel founded One Up Action to help other young people make a difference and fight climate change in their own communities. Photo via Kevin Patel/One Up Action

Nearly a decade ago, 20-year-old Kevin Patel first decided to join the fight against climate change. When he looked around at his fellow climate activists he realized: no one looked like him.

Patel, who is from South Central Los Angeles, decided to remedy this by founding the nonprofit One Up Action in 2019. The organization provides resources and support to underrepresented youth who want to fight climate change in their communities. Research shows that environmental organizations struggle with both gender and ethnic diversity. One Up Action’s support allows young people to tackle the climate crisis within their own communities. This is crucial when assistance and recovery efforts are not applied equally following climate disasters.

Patel is now a sophomore at Loyola Marymount University studying political science and government. He recently spoke with us to discuss his work creating a stronger, more inclusive community to fight climate change, as well as his plans and hopes for the future. You can follow him on Twitter @imkevinjpatel. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the origins of One Up Action? It’s unique compared to a lot of other climate change activism organizations.

I first got involved with climate activism nine years ago when I was directly impacted in South Central Los Angeles by the air and smog pollution. When I first got involved, there weren’t any resources for me; there weren’t any people who were going to help me fight for change within my community and for climate justice. Being in the movement for nine years, I’ve worked with many organizations and many people. What I can say is, this movement has very much been white dominated. There also was no youth movement nine years ago. The only option was to go to Greenpeace or other organizations that were around, and I didn’t see anyone who looked like me–a young person of color fighting for this cause that is directly impacting my community and communities all around the world.

I wanted to make sure that BIPOC (Black, Indigneous, and people of color) young people are not only heard, but have the power to make decisions on behalf of their communities. Last year when I was invited to multiple conferences, I got to speak with so many young people who are just like me and they were all saying the same thing: They didn’t know where to start.

You’ve accomplished a lot. In all of your work, what is your biggest success story?

One of the successes and unique strides that I’ve been able to make is the Youth Climate Commission. It’s actually the first ever in our nation and the world. It not only amplifies young BIPOC people but also makes sure that our low-income communities have representation within government offices. It allows us to speak up and say the policies and motions they’re putting forth in there are not helping our communities to fight these inequalities, injustices, and the climate crisis.

Young people are politically engaged, but we don’t have any political power. This Youth Climate Commission gives us political power. That’s one of the things I looked at as a success story, and One Up Action is working to bring Youth Climate Commissions all around the world.

Climate justice means fighting for people's rights across the world. We can't just sit back and say that we've done enough until problems are resolved and people affected by them receive justice.

The mission of One Up Action is to provide resources and support to marginalized youth who also want to fight climate change. Aside from financial support, what are some of the ways you’re providing that help?

One of the things I always think is important is mentorship, and having someone who was in the same shoes as you to help and guide you into becoming your own climate advocate and leader within your own community. Training in specific skills is also key. We want to build on that training, to give them specific skills and the ability to interact with people who are knowledgeable on these issues and discuss solutions. It’s not all about monetary aid. It’s also about resources like tool kits, handbooks, and retreats.

These are the opportunities that many young people might miss. They don’t get to go to the Google Science Fair or work for NASA. I think what we need to do is break that barrier and make sure that all communities are able to get those opportunities.

What are your plans and goals for 2021 and beyond?

When we talk about climate justice, we’re talking about communities directly impacted by the climate crisis. Climate justice means fighting for people’s rights across the world. We can’t just sit back and say that we’ve done enough until problems are resolved and people affected by them receive justice. One of the goals that I have for One Up Action in 2021 is to make sure that young people are equipped with these opportunities and these resources to not only be the leaders of tomorrow, but also be the leaders of today.

We’re also working on a microgrant program for youth innovators within the U.S. That’s going to be launched later this year or next year. I can’t tell you too much about it, but it’s focused on nature-based solutions and making sure that we’re not just providing monetary aid, but we’re supporting with other resources such as training, webinars, handbooks, as well as mentorship with activists or people who are in the field of science.

That’s really exciting. Thank you for giving us that sneak peek. As an active member of Gen Z, What do you wish older generations knew about Gen Z, and your generation’s commitment to climate change?

One of the things I wish they knew is that it’s not all on us. I think this is an intergenerational issue and we must not blame one another. I think one of the things that older generations need to get is that young people are not in this fight alone.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.
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