ACE INTERVIEW: Co-Founder of ZeroHour, Jamie Margolin details what she’s learned about balancing mental health and activism

Indi Howeth

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February 4, 2021

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Jamie Margolin is an 18-year-old Colombian-American award-winning organizer, activist, author, public speaker, and Film & TV student at NYU. She is co-founder of the international youth climate justice movement called Zero Hour that led the official “Youth Climate Marches” in Washington, DC and 25+ cities around the world during the summer of 2018 and which has 200+ chapters worldwide. Jamie has authored Op-Eds for publications like The New York Times, Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, TIME Magazine, DAZED, Refinery29, and The Guardian and her debut book, “Youth To Power: Your Voice and How To Use It,” is out, (you can order the book at youthtopowerbook.com).


IH: How did you first get involved in activism? 

JM: I can’t pinpoint the first time I heard about climate change, there was never an ah-ha moment. As a young person, I am always asked and expected to plan for my future. “What are you going to be when you grow up” “what are you going to do with your life” — how am I supposed to plan and care about my future when my leaders aren’t doing the same, and instead leaving my generation and all future generations with a planet that is inhospitable and impossible to sustain civilization.

So first, existential dread drew me to this issue, but gradually I began to realize how climate justice is the key to all justice.

Correctly solving climate change means dismantling all the systems of oppression that caused it in the first place. It’s not a matter of choosing between say, Black lives matter or Climate Justice. Climate Justice is black lives matter. (69% of coal plants are built in POC communities.) 20 thousand people die from air pollution alone each year in the united states, and the majority of those people are people of color. That’s not a coincidence.) So now I am a hopeful activist. You can’t motivate the world with one giant existential crisis, but you can motivate them with a hope of a brighter future. In terms of how Zero Hour started… I had a vision of youth all over the US and the world marching for urgent climate action since the first Women’s March back in January of 2017. At that time I was still fresh to the community organizing world, and was nervous to take on the enormous task of starting a mass movement.

And so I suppressed that vision and continued to do local environmental organizing.

Then, the summer of 2017 happened. I was at a month long Political Speech and Communication course at Princeton University for high schoolers in July. It was the first time I had spent such a long time away from my family. I was on the other side of the country, surrounded by politically engaged high schoolers.

By that time I had had a ton of community organizing experience. That was also a summer full of natural disaster after natural disaster, and thick smog that covered Seattle thanks to stronger-than-usual wildfires up north in Canada.

That was when I finally decided to take the plunge.

I had social media friends, like Nadia Nazar, who was also willing to take the plunge. Madeline Tew and Zanagee Artis also joined, who were friends from Princeton camp, are now two core team leads.

For a while, we did tons of visioning and brainstorming, struggling to find our footing. Soon we brought on some adult mentors and we reached out to frontline communities who we knew had to be at the center of the movement, like some of the youth from the Standing Rock tribe who famously let the #NODAPL fight. They were super excited by the idea, and some of the youth, like Tokata Iron Eyes and Danny Grassrope, ended up speaking at The Youth Climate March in Washington DC on July 21st, 2018.

Since then we’ve organized many actions, lobby days, protests, and have expanded into a full fledged organization. We are not a movement that happened overnight at all. It took grueling hours and hours every day of slow but gradual movement building, and it still does.

IH: You co-founded ThisIsZeroHour when you were only 14 and many young climate activists, like yourself, have grown up through the already tumultuous teenage years as an activist in the public eye – how has balancing your adolescence and activism played a role in your life?  

JM: It’s been an interesting balancing act. I still haven’t found the perfect balance between life, school, and activism — it’s something I’m still trying to figure out every day. Teenage years are very vulnerable, so it was definitely interesting living out my teenage years in a pretty public way. I opened myself up for judgment and attacks, and I’ve had to learn to cope with them.

IH: You recently released a book, titled “Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It,” in which you speak about the importance of protecting your mental health while dedicating yourself to a cause – why did you want to speak about this issue?  

JM: I wanted to speak about this issue because it is often overlooked. We are taught all about the actions people need to take, but we hardly ever talk about the toll those actions take on people. It is easy in today’s hustle culture to get so caught up in the “doing” aspect of activism, that you forget how it feels and end up burning yourself out. I’ve struggled with burnout so I felt it was an important topic to cover.

IH: How has your activism challenged your mental health and what did you learn from that experience? 

JM: Activism has made me a very busy person, which has led me to have several different bouts of Burnout. What I learned from those experiences is that balance is important. There is so much going on in the world my instinct is always to do as much as possible. But I learned to respect my own limits and learn to tell when I was about to burnout, so I could step  back and rest.

IH: What does self-care mean to you and how have you learned to take better care of your mental health? 

JM: Self care to me is more than just doing a facemask or taking a warm bath. Self care means understanding your body and your mind limits and learning how to balance being productive with making memories. I often have to remind myself that there’s more to life than work. That I have to live my life, and stop thinking about myself as a work robot that is just a vessel for a cause.

IH: The majority of young people feel anxious and scared about the climate crisis – how do you cope with this stress? 

JM: Honestly? Escapism. TV and movies are the best form of escapism, and I rely on them heavily. That’s why I’m in film school. Because movies and television are my happy place. Sometimes it’s tiring to think about the weight of the climate crisis, so I tap out when needed and watch a good show. I love animated shows, some of my favorite go-to escapism shows are The Harley Quinn Animated Series and SheRa and the Princesses of Power.

IH: Many students are finding school in the age of COVID-19 to be a strain on their mental health.  How has starting college played a role in balancing your activism and mental health?  How has moving across the country to attend school played a role?  

JM: College played a role in balancing my activism and mental health because it has forced me to rearrange a lot of aspects of my life. I can’t miss school in college like I used to be able to miss school in high school. Whereas back in high school, academics were just a hurdle I got over so I could focus on my activism, not I actually need and want to really focus and pay attention in school. Moving across the country to go to film school has deeply affected my mental health. Living without my parents is a huge adjustment, and I am on a journey to learn more about myself and the world around me. One thing it has helped me do is find balance. Going to film school has allowed me to focus on things that have nothing to do with the climate crisis. My true passion is fiction and fantasy, so it’s nice to be able to set aside time to focus on my creativity in topics that don’t have anything to do with climate change.

IH: When do you know it’s time to take a break from activism to care for your mental health and when do you know it’s time to make a final push to finish a project?  How do you get in touch with what your boundaries are?  

JM: My body tells me pretty quickly what my boundaries are. I get migraines a lot, so when the headaches start coming on, I know it’s time to ease up. When my eyes start to water cause they’ve been staring at screens for hours, I know it’s time to close them and go to bed.

IH: Climate change can be such an overwhelming topic that it sometimes feels like an insurmountable advocacy challenge.  Have you ever felt like giving up under the weight of it all and what has helped you keep fighting in those moments?  

JM: Yes, all the time. What has helped me keep fighting in those moments is honestly, the Dory mantra. Dory from Finding Nemo sang, “Just Keep Swimming” and that’s what I did. I pushed past those feelings and just kept swimming.

IH: For people who might not be able to commit a huge amount of their time or energy to activism, so that they can focus on their mental health, what are some small actions that people can take to advocate for climate action? 

JM: People in their daily lives can do so much to combat climate change. I am going to skip the personal things like recycling, composting, going vegan or eating less mean, etc. because that has been said a million times before. Yes of course, take public transit instead of a car and walk instead of drive when you can and use less plastic and all of those things — personal actions are all super important. But on top of that, people can change the political climate and build solutions in their communities.

Zero Hour’s “People’s Platform” outlines things that people can do in their communities today, without waiting for leaders and politicians: thisiszerohour.org/files/zh-peoples-platform-web.pdf

IH: What advice would you give to your younger self about balancing climate activism and mental health? 

JM: I would tell myself to stop thinking that being stressed and tired is a badge of honor. I used to brag about how I was so overworked and exhausted, as if that was a good thing. It wasn’t. Health is a much better thing to brag about then overworking yourself.

IH: Anything else you’d like to share?! 

JM: I am also a filmmaker and I have written and directed a pilot for a TV show called, “ART MAJORS.” It’s about queer kids in art school, and the stories I tell in the show are close to my heart. People can learn more about the show HERE: instagram.com/artmajorsshow


All photos courtesy of Jamie Margolin.

Answers may have been edited for length.

Indi

Indi Howeth

Social Media Intern

Indi joins ACE as a Social Media Intern based in Washington, D.C.  They are currently studying at American University for a B.A. in an Interdisciplinary Studies major of Communications, Legal Studies, Economics and Government with a minor in Arabic: their third language after English and Spanish.  

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