Climate Change Looms Large for Teen Activists at Miami's Youth Climate Summit

Climate change activists Kaylah Brathwaite, Zeena Abdulkarim, and Anaiah Thomas
Climate change activists Kaylah Brathwaite, Zeena Abdulkarim, and Anaiah Thomas Photo by Jess Nelson
On the outskirts of Wynwood is a colorful warehouse-turned-Airbnb where 25 teenagers are on a mission to save the world. As electronic and pop music plays loudly inside, students huddle together on their laptops to put the finishing touches on their plans for this weekend's Youth Climate Summit in Miami.

"A lot of people talk about climate change, but we're actually doing something about it," says 17-year-old Zeena Abdulkarim, one of the student leaders of This Is Zero Hour, an international organization concentrating on climate and environmental justice.

"How can you go home at night and not think about this?" adds 17-year-old Anaiah Thomas, a grant writer for This Is Zero Hour. "Climate change has been looming over me my entire life."

Abdulkarim and Thomas are two of the 25 This Is Zero Hour members in Miami this week to organize an event to helping youth activists join the fight for the environment. The conference will take place this weekend at the DoubleTree by Hilton Miami Airport Hotel & Convention Center and will kick off Saturday with a presentation about the challenges facing South Florida.

Already the event has seen huge support from politicians and celebrities: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle mentioned This Is Zero Hour in an Instagram post at the beginning of July, and former Vice President Al Gore encouraged Floridians to attend the summit. The Avengers' Don Cheadle and Mark Ruffalo lent their financial support to the initiative by helping a group of environmental activists from communities such as Standing Rock, Flint, and the Bronx with their hotel rooms and airfare to Miami.

"The Hulk carried us here," Thomas says with a smile as the other teens giggle. "The Hulk!" they all repeat with emphasis.

Kaylah Brathwaite, age 18, hails from the Virgin Islands and has witnessed the island changing due to shifts in weather patterns, sea-level rise, and intensifying hurricanes. "I'm fighting for my people back home," she says emotionally. "I'm doing my part."

In an in-depth conversation discussing a wide range of topics — including environmental justice, capitalism, systemic racism, artificial photosynthesis, carbon sequestration, and ecophobia — Abdulkarim, Thomas, and Brathwaite express their motivation to bring the Youth Climate Summit to Miami.

"Miami is a frontline community," Abdulkarim says. "Sea levels are rising, ice is melting, and we will all drown if we don't address this."

"We want to allow people in Miami to speak and advocate for themselves because they're living it," Brathwaite adds. "We've been organizing, and we want to share what we've learned because we're all in this fight together."

Although the three young women have been emailing and attending video conference calls together for months, they only met in person upon arriving in Miami. Yet they seem like old friends and constantly offer praise and support for one another's work. Abdulkarim at one point wraps her arms around both Thomas and Brathwaite and calls them her sisters.

Their weekend of activism will kick off this afternoon with a rally and a "die-in" in front of Miami City Hall at 2 p.m. Then, at 3, volunteers will plant 250 trees on the historic Virginia Key Beach, something Brathwaite says she is particularly excited about.

Saturday and Sunday, organizers have planned training sessions on the role of social media and finance in activist movements, a panel on how women are taking the lead in the fight against climate change, and a discussion on the upcoming 2020 election. Next year will mark the first election in which Abdulkarim, Brathwaite, and Thomas can vote, and they beam with excitement as they talk about registering to vote.

At the end of the weekend, This Is Zero Hour hopes to give Miami youths the agency to find their own path and take action. The goal is to start a chapter of This Is Zero Hour in Miami.

"Kids want to do something, but they don't know how," Abdulkarim says.

"We're giving them that opportunity," Brathwaite replies. "We're giving them that foot in the door."

"You don't need to talk to the president in order to make a difference," Thomas says. "There are little things you can do in your community, your school, your home. Talk to your parents. Tell your story on why you are fighting for climate change, and use that story as a call to action."

Admission to the Youth Climate Summit is free for anyone under the age of 25. Sister events will take place this weekend in locales ranging from Silicon Valley to Australia.
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Jess Nelson is the 2019 writing fellow for Miami New Times. She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and is excited to be living close to the water again after moving to Miami from New York. She studied history at UC Berkeley and investigative journalism at Columbia University.
Contact: Jess Nelson