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ParentMap 2020 Superheroes Jamie Margolin and Kendall Kieras: The Climate Crusaders

A Q&A with two climate activists from Zero Hour

Published on: March 25, 2020

Kendall Kieras and Jamie Margolin
From L to R: Kendall Kieras and Jamie Margolin | Credit: Will Austin

For high school seniors Jamie Margolin and Kendall Kieras, climate change has always been a fact of life. They have never experienced a month with a below-average global temperature, and Margolin has been trying to do something about it since her early teens.

“There was a perfect storm of things that really pushed me over the edge to start Zero Hour,” says Margolin. One of those triggers was Donald Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Then a cluster of climate disasters occurred that were not being treated with the urgency they deserved: Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Harvey, and then a disaster closer to home.

“There were these massive wildfires in Southern California that covered Seattle in a thick layer of smog. And that was just the final straw. So, I posted on my social media, ‘I’m going to start a youth climate march. Who’s with me?’ and I got a response from a girl named Nadia Nazar, who lives in Baltimore, and we started planning,” she says.

At first, Kieras, Margolin’s best friend at Seattle’s Holy Names Academy, watched from the sidelines.

“I was sort of an internet activist,” says Kieras. “I spent a lot of time reading around online, but didn’t know how to get involved.” Then, on their school’s Peace and Justice Day — a day filled with guest speakers and workshops — Kieras listened to Margolin’s presentation about Zero Hour. Kieras only attended out of friendship, and in retrospect, Kieras says it wasn’t even a particularly good presentation. 

“But I signed up, and I sort of just kept going and didn’t stop,” says Kieras.

Last fall, Kieras took over as executive director of the local chapter of Zero Hour. Now, both Margolin and Kieras are deep into planning for the climate strike on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this April. Ironically, though they are close friends at school and both are involved in the leadership of Zero Hour, they rarely work together.

“We do different things,” says Kieras.

“I lead the national organization and organize the chapters,” says Margolin, “while Kendall does more local stuff and tasks for the national communications team.”

This year, Margolin also has been working on a book titled “Youth to Power,” a guide to intersectional activism for young people. Coming out in June, the book features interviews with successful youth activists; and advice on organizing events and protests, balancing school and activism, and using media to spread a message.

Zero Hour also is partnering with the National Children’s Campaign on #Vote4OurFuture. This campaign is aimed at increasing voter turnout among first-time voters and young people from marginalized communities to combat environmental racism and environmental injustice.

While different projects take the friends to different places, they remain united in their cause, each working toward the same goal of building a sustainable world. 

Who is your personal hero?

K.K.: My grandmother is my personal hero and helped me to succeed. She was on her own from age 13 and had to grind to get an education. She worked hard and eventually became an amazing midwife. What sticks with me is how invested she is in what I’m doing.  

J.M.: My personal hero is the Standing Rock youth and the youth who started the No Dakota Access Pipeline movement. Really, I’m doing this work thanks to the groundwork of indigenous young people before me, and I’ve been lucky to meet with these kids and work with them and meet my heroes. Tokata Iron Eyes, Jasilyn Charger — these are kids who are doing incredible work, and I’m really proud to be working alongside them.

What do you wish people understood about your work?

K.K.: The change you see happening in mass media is only the tip of the iceberg. Everyone knows who Greta Thunberg is. But for every idol, there are millions of kids grinding. This is a generation of kids, not just one person or a handful.

J.M.: I wish people stopped thinking of it as a passion or a hobby. I don’t enjoy thinking about the end of the world, and if I didn’t have to, I’d be doing other things with my life that I would prefer to be doing. Instead, I wish people would think about it this way: There’s a time bomb about to go off. Using common sense, we should probably stop that. So, I’m doing everything I can to stop this ticking time bomb.

What’s one small action readers can take to make positive change happen?

K.K.: Vote! Oh, please vote. If you are an adult and have voting power, use it. Vote in local elections and not just for president. Voting is the easiest and most effective way to make change.

J.M.: Get involved with an organization, whether it’s Zero Hour or another one. We really need to be focused on system change, so it’s really important that everyone in some way gets plugged in with a community of organizers as a way to get involved.

What daily habit or small routine is most important to you?

K.K.: Writing is definitely the thing that keeps me most motivated and focused. I try to do it daily. I’m a climate activist, but I’m also a writer, and that part of my identity grounds me.

J.M.: I can’t live without listening to music. Putting in headphones and listening is time that I get to reflect and chill. Without it, I don’t feel right.

What has been the biggest change since you’ve started your work?

K.K.: The biggest change is social media. It scares me a little the way that people build themselves up. Wanting to be seen and recognized is human, but sometimes it can come across as inauthentic. What’s most important is the work, not the attention.

J.M.: The most profound change since I first got involved is that everyone is engaged, and climate is the main issue for a lot of people. It’s not enough, but it’s really shifting the culture in the right direction.

What is your best advice for today’s parents who want to support their kids to achieve big ambitions?

K.K.: Independence is the first and probably the most important thing. Give kids the ability to self-dictate what they want to do. Then give them the resources to do it, [for instance], “Hey, do you need a ride?”

J.M.: Don’t step on their throats. Don’t steer your kids in the directions you want them to go; let them choose. My parents didn’t steer me into the path I’ve chosen or clip my wings.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

K.K.: I think about this a lot. I really want the ability to adjust probabilities.

J.M.: I’d really love to fly. I know that’s basic, but to see things from a bird’s-eye view would be amazing.

Favorite read of the past year?

K.K.: “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls” by T Kira Madden; it’s a memoir that’s very good and super moving. It’s a very humanizing story of growing up as a queer woman, and I really like that she admits her faults.

J.M.: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate” by Naomi Klein is an eye-opener.

Ideas for kids to get involved in volunteering?

K.K.: Meet good people who want to change the world and everything else will follow. Finding a good community is the first step. Then, know your talents and skills and you’ll find the right place for you to contribute.

What book do you think every kid should read?

J.M.: Would it be a cheap, shameless plug if I said my book? “Youth to Power” comes out June 2. You can preorder it online.

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