In the Climate Movement, Making a New America

As we forge a path to climate justice, we can create an inclusive America for all of us.

At the Peoples Climate March, diverse communities from across the country came together to demand a just future | Charlie Jiang
At the Peoples Climate March, diverse communities from across the country came together to demand a just future | Charlie Jiang

Shocked, but not surprised

That’s how I felt on election night in November 2016 as I watched CNN announce Donald Trump’s stunning ascendance to the Presidency. For hours, about twenty friends and I watched in a daze as it sunk in that Trump was winning electoral votes in all the wrong places — that a dangerous new global order was about to take hold.

For many of my friends and colleagues, this was not the America they knew, or thought still existed. How could a man like Donald Trump, whose vision for the United States appeared fundamentally at odds with our basic Constitutional values — and indeed, it seemed, the very existence of people of color — become President of the United States in the 21st century?

I understood how. But don’t worry: this story is not about Trump. Rather, it’s about a small family in search of the American Dream. It’s about my quest to find my way in a country that does not always accept people who look like me. And it’s about a wellspring of hope in an unlikely place: in the depths of the climate crisis, and our collective struggle for justice.

When my mother came to the United States from China, she carried $300 and spoke barely a word of English. She came with not much more than a college degree and the hope of achieving the American Dream.

My father followed a year later, and for the next thirty years they struggled to build a life together in their new country. They spent several more years in school — a six-hour drive apart for some of it — and eventually moved to Chicago, where they hopped from apartment to apartment before landing in the bucolic neighborhood of Hyde Park.

My parents toiled hard to realize the promise of America, and to create a decent life for my younger brother and I once we came along. Indeed, we lived an idyllic childhood by almost all accounts. Thanks to their years of hard work, my parents were able to afford us a top-notch education, strong support networks, and a beautiful, clean neighborhood to call home.

They also made a conscious decision to raise my brother and I as “full Americans,” in hopes that we would have advantages they never enjoyed as immigrants. For example, unlike many of my Asian-American peers, English was my first language — I never learned much Mandarin at home. In short, I was made in America.

However, America was not quite made for me.

For all the privileges I enjoyed, the color of my skin shaped my childhood in ways I am still seeking to understand. For example, as an American of East Asian descent I faced two prevalent — and competing — pressures. I could not avoid the “model minority” myth: that Asian-Americans are quiet and hardworking; that we are good at math; that we become doctors and engineers. By happenstance, I was good at math, and fit some of those other traits, too. Nevertheless, how much racism’s subtle force shaped me I may never fully grasp.

I was made in America. Howerver, America was not quite made for me.

At the same time, Asian-Americans are constantly reminded of our perpetual foreignness. Too often am I asked, “Where are you originally from?” as if I could not have been born in America. (Chicago, I tell them, but oh yeah—my parents came from China.) In high school, my Asian friends would poke fun at the stereotypical Chinese accent (“Oh, he-rro”) in what I would later realize was a self-defense mechanism, a way of separating ourselves from “those FOB's” to prove we really belong here.

As a result, even though I was born in Chicago — even though my parents raised me to fit into the cultural (read: white) mainstream — I still had to work to define myself as American. From the beginning, I embarked on an endless quest to remind myself that I really do have a place in the country I call home.

Ninety degrees and sunny is not ideal weather for a march. But nor is a Trump Presidency an ideal time to sit at home, I suppose. So on April 29, 2017, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of Washington, D.C. and cities across the country for the second Peoples Climate March — a massive act of resistance to Trump’s agenda on his 100th Day, and a new milestone in the global struggle for climate justice.

I had the opportunity to watch the march pass by my station in front of D.C.’s City Hall, where I was canvassing for a local campaign I will write about later in this piece. Oh, was it beautiful: people of all walks of life marching together, bearing gorgeous displays of art and endless hope for a better world. Indigenous people, immigrants, laborers, students, faith leaders, and so many more walked side by side for justice and the planet, in a line that stretched more than a mile from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.

In the March, I glimpsed a hopeful future. In the movement into which I had somehow stumbled, I saw a powerful path forward towards creating a just, inclusive America for all of us.

“To Change Everything, It Takes Everyone,” read the tagline for the first Peoples Climate March in 2014. It is a fitting motto for a climate march, for climate change truly does touch everything — twisting and layering through the very roots of our social, economic, and political systems.

Climate change hit African American communities hardest when it touched the flooded streets of New Orleans in the form of Hurricane Katrina. For starters, slow disaster relief left many black families trapped in overcrowded shelters for far too long, leading to charges of racial bias.

On the plains of North Dakota, the climate crisis cast an ugly shadow over the historic Dakota Access Pipeline conflict, bringing to bear this country’s ugly record of Indigenous persecution, police brutality, militarization, and the fossil fuel industry’s dangerous role in exploiting our most vulnerable communities.

Climate change reached the halls of Congress, too, with the fossil fuel industry spending millions on Republican votes to stymie U.S. efforts to stem the rising tides. Dirty industry’s efforts to buy a political party more than paid off with the quiet demise of major federal climate legislation several years ago. Now, of course, they hit the jackpot with the election of Donald Trump and appointment to his Cabinet of some of Big Oil’s closest allies — former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, fossil fuel lackey Scott Pruitt, and more. And perhaps inevitably, the fossil fuel industry’s corrupting influence helped turn the GOP into a parasitic party that is eating away at American democracy just as surely as it feeds the xenophobia and racism that at times makes me feel like a stranger in my own land.

Climate change has exposed the roots of oppression and exploitation in our society. Maybe — just maybe — we can dig them up and grow something better.

Yet in the climate crisis, too, we have a singular opportunity to realize a hopeful vision for a just future. Climate change has exposed the roots of oppression and exploitation in our society. Maybe — just maybe — we can dig them up and grow something better.

Indeed, the seeds of hope and change are beginning to sprout, even as Big Oil’s cronies in the White House and Congress continue to cultivate injustice at every turn.

In Washington, D.C., I am grateful to be a part of a new coalition working to take on Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry directly by demanding the city divest from Wells Fargo. (This is the local campaign for which I canvassed at the Peoples Climate March). Following the lead of Indigenous leaders in cities across the country, we are organizing to expose Wall Street’s role in bankrolling injustices from the climate crisis to mass incarceration. For example, not only has Wells Fargo financed the Dakota Access Pipeline and the myriad abuses of civil rights and Indigenous sovereignty at Standing Rock, the bank also invests in private prisons — leading perpetrators of an incarceral system that disproportionately impacts black and brown people, and accomplices in Trump’s efforts to detain millions of undocumented immigrants — and has preyed upon some of America’s most vulnerable people in fraudulent and discriminatory lending schemes.

As we take on a powerful target in Wells Fargo, we are building a coalition that defies traditional silos — connecting Indigenous people, environmentalists, Black Lives Matter organizers, socialists, LGBTQ rights advocates, and more. We are building lasting relationships that will set D.C.’s diverse communities on a path to finally charting their own future.

In Kentucky, communities have similarly bridged old divides to demand a better future for the heart of coal country. Environmentalists, union workers, coal miners, and more are developing a revolutionary vision of a clean energy economy that creates high-paying jobs, improves public health, and mitigates climate change while extricating Kentuckians from the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold.

In basement meeting rooms and back-alley offices from Oakland, to Omaha, to Lancaster, PA, neighbors of all stripes are banding together to create a shared vision of a new America. In this America, there are no pipelines or coal plants. Instead, there are only citizens — Native Americans and immigrants; Christians, Muslims, and Jews; teachers and doctors; young people and elders — envisioning and building together the kind of country of which they want to be a part.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called for blacks and whites to come together in a Grand Alliance to eradicate the social evils of racial oppression, poverty, and militarism. Today, we are called upon to continue his mission on a global scale. In the throes of a climate crisis of existential proportions, we are tasked with bringing together not just black and white folk, but also Indigenous people, Muslims, women and femmes, LGBTQ folx, laborers, farmers — and of course, Asian-Americans like myself — to demand nothing less than revolutionary, transformative justice.

My parents came to America in search of a Dream: to find a new home, a new community, and a new life in which they could thrive. I was born into that Dream, but found it lacking. In the America I know, my family must still struggle to find our place thanks to the color of our skin. After all, this is the country of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, Jesse Waters, and whatever this is. It is the country of slavery and Jim Crow. Of Standing Rock and Isle de Jean Charles.

Yet this is also the country of Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, and the Peoples Climate Movement. It is the country of Donald Trump, yes, but also the country of a beautiful #Resistance to his agenda of hate. In the America I know, the blossoms of hope will never wither. For now, for me, my hope lies with the movement for climate justice.  Organizing for our planet, our future, and all our people alongside comrades of all colors and creeds, I believe we can create an America to which we can all belong and thrive. Together.