Interviewed by Dea Larsen Converse, WICCI Science Writer
Stephanie Janeth Salgado Altamirano is the co-founder of Youth Climate Action, Madison.
Who are you/what is your role?
I am Stephanie Janeth Salgado Altamirano, pronouns she/her/hers. I am Co-founder of Youth Climate Action Team, which is a nonprofit here in Madison that mobilizes youth to demand climate justice here in Wisconsin. I am also on the leadership team of the Wisconsin Student Climate Action Coalition at University of Wisconsin-Madison that helps students bring change to their campus and statewide.
Could you tell us more about your organization, Youth Climate Action Team, and what it is that you’re trying to do?
The Youth Climate Action Team first started off when we saw the need for a climate strike. It was during the time Greta Thunberg was becoming more known worldwide. We decided we needed one in Madison, which is when we realized that there was no youth organization that intersects social justice with climate change. We take very seriously how people with marginalized identities are incorporated into this conversation. Having said that, we believe that community work and political action is the best way to demand climate justice as time is running out.
What would you like people to know about these climate justice issues?
Climate change shouldn’t be a political issue. It is an issue that we are all facing, even if it looks different according to where we live or the identities we carry. We should look at it through the lens of what we want for our future generation or what we want for our children. Especially people who are 18-20 years old will feel the effects of climate change by 2050. We should also look at it not with just with an American perspective, ethnocentric, but more as a worldwide issue.
For example, I was born and raised in Honduras, which is a tropical third world country, where we are often hit by earthquakes and hurricanes. That makes me think of who is disproportionately affected by climate change even if they are not contributing the most to it. It’s something you always have to remember because it’s such a global issue. Take the time to look through solutions and think about it with many different lenses.
What do you mean when you say that people who are feeling the impacts are not the ones contributing the most to climate change?
There is a term called environmental injustice. That is a term that could go along with environmental racism. The premise is that people with marginalized identities, whether that is through religion, where one lives, race, or whatever, do suffer disproportionately the effects of climate change. And for that reason, they experience climate change from a different lens than people who have more privilege.
You come from a Honduras; how do you think that has affected your views on climate change?
Coming to the states and seeing that there wasn’t much Latinx representation in activism, specifically climate change, I wondered why. While I am very proud of my community members that are continuously demanding immigration rights, I do think it’s good to see the whole picture. If the third world countries are destroyed by natural catastrophe, we will be more likely to suffer than others. That will influence a lot of the issues in our community, including immigration.
I grew up in a city, but there were multiple indigenous environmental leaders that I was really inspired by. One of them was Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader who was protesting a dam near a sacred river in her community. She succeeded after so many fights, standing in line, not letting workers pass, continuously asking international advocates to intervene and not let this happen. But the reality in my country is that when you speak up, especially as a woman of color, you are then sentenced to death. She was shot and killed in her house. To this day nobody knows who did it but we are pretty confident that it was the government. So, I would see all that and grew up hearing more of a radical way of demanding change. It’s now or never for me. I work for people in my country, for indigenous people that do not get to have a conversation at the table. I am not indigenous, but I have to encourage those conversations in order to be a climate activist. I have to know myself better so I can influence a shift and change within others.
For instance, a lot of “environmentalism” has been by white-washed. The more people who participate in the conversation, the more people are active. But of course, a lot of other voices have been left out. So, when I enter a space, I need to know how to carry myself, I need to inform them where I come from, and the issues that pertain to my communities and other marginalized communities. I am often getting invited to these forums and conferences where I speak as the only person of color. I am not trying to represent every BIPOC community, that’s a lot for a twenty-year-old.
What would you want to say to decision makers in Wisconsin about how they could interact with groups like yours?
I think youth as of now care so much about the end product and what we put out rather than having partnerships. By that I mean that youth organizations want to see action happen, want to see results, they don’t just want to initiate conversation, or be invited to a conference just to be tokenized as youth activists. No, we want to see things happen. Like this report is an accomplishment and we are happy you let us know about it. It calms our climate anxiety.
How would you, as a young person, like to be involved?
I always tell people, especially older people trying to engage youth with their mission, the best way to involve youth is to actively get to know what they’re doing. You could go to our protests and just listen in. Another one is to listen to First Nations and understand that black and indigenous people are the first ones who created this movement and now they’re being left out of the conversation. It is really sad. I also think it’s important to let these people have agency to choose, not just ask for their input, but ask them to take a role in making this idea that we have move forward.
When you talk about climate anxiety, do you have hope for the future?
Often when I talk with climate activists, it’s so interesting how our climate anxieties come forward. Some of us do have hope, others not so much. But that all depends on whether you want to take a more realistic perspective or a more hopeful perspective. People my age talk about whether we want to be parents and ask why would I bring a child into a world that is dying. There are big anxieties that we have to consider every day, knowing that water scarcity and air pollution could get worse. Our food system is getting more and more inaccessible and further away from “farm to table” towards “corporate farm then process, process, process, then to us.” Personally, the way I like to view climate change is to be realistic. We will have to deal with climate change by 2050, one way or another.
However, what gives me hope is seeing a lot of young people understand it. We grew up understanding climate change. If I tell someone my age that climate change is real, they will probably agree. We have seen the statistics that more and more people believe in climate change. It’s not a losing battle.
- Wisconsin Student Climate Action Coalition: Instagram
- Wisconsin Student Climate Action Coalition: Facebook
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.