Photo: Vanessa Nakate/Xiye Bastida/Instagram

7 Inspiring Youth Climate Activists You Should Be Following

Sustainability Activism
by Alex Bresler Apr 13, 2020

Greta Thunberg became a household name in 2018 after her solitary strike outside the Swedish parliament went viral. She’s since been showered with accolades and distinctions, being named the youngest Time Person of the Year in 2019 and receiving a Nobel Prize nomination the same year. Though Thunberg has succeeded Al Gore as this decade’s face of the climate crisis, she’s hardly alone in her environmental advocacy. And she’s not even an outlier given her age.

Youth activists around the world, many inspired by Thunberg, have become some of the most vocal and dedicated defenders of the planet. Though they may not have the same name recognition, these seven are making waves in the world of environmentalism, and they may very well inspire you to make a few splashes of your own.

1. Helena Marschall


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A post shared by Helena Marschall (@helena.marschall) on Dec 31, 2019 at 5:37am PST

Helena Marschall is among the leaders of the Fridays for Future movement in Germany. The 17-year-old has been organizing strikes since December 2018 after being inspired by Thunberg’s address at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP24. Marschall helped organize the first Fridays for Future strike in Frankfurt, which, she notes, only drew around 30 people. “It just kind of evolved from there,” she tells Matador Network. “We were more and more every week. And then suddenly, I organized a protest in March with only two other people, and there were like 8,000 standing there.”

Marschall has since become more involved with organizing strikes on a national level, committing 30-40 hours a week to her activism on top of her school schedule. “Activism in its essence is hope,” she says, noting that to seek change is to implicitly believe that change is possible. Outlining its hopes for the future, last year the Fridays for Future movement in Germany named six demands the group is working to see realized, including reaching net-zero carbon emissions and 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

Marschall herself has become a role model for other aspiring activists around the world, and she encourages others to join the cause. “The climate movement is super wide,” she says. “We need everyone. We need artists, we need musicians, we need designers, we need organizers.” And even those unwilling or not ready to make considerable lifestyle changes can contribute to the cause, she adds. “Where we put our money, who we support, who we vote for can often have even bigger changes than what we eat or how we move through the world.”

2. Alexandria Villaseñor


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A post shared by Earth Uprising (@earth_uprising) on Apr 22, 2019 at 8:44am PDT

At 14 years old, American activist Alexandria Villaseñor has established herself as a leading voice among young environmentalists. Born in Davis, California, she joined the Fridays for Future movement started by Thunberg in 2018 when she began protesting outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where her family relocated earlier that year. Villaseñor was motivated to support the cause after experiencing the effects of the deadly Camp Fire that originated in Northern California in November 2018, as well as hearing Thunberg’s speech at COP24 in Poland that December.

Beyond protesting weekly outside of the UN headquarters, Villaseñor launched a nonprofit organization of her own: Earth Uprising. The group seeks to encourage more young people to join the climate cause, identifying today’s youth as those who will experience some of the most devastating effects of climate change as well as those with the greatest opportunity to effect change. According to the website, “Earth Rising isn’t an organization. It’s a battle cry.”

Villaseñor also co-founded the US Youth Climate Strike. The student-led movement aims to see net-zero carbon emissions and 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, supports the Green New Deal and a Blue New Deal addressing marine environmental issues, and advocates for indigenous and social justice, as well as demanding environmental education in schools. With 15 other youth activists, Villaseñor notably filed a petition with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in September 2019, condemning five G20 member nations for failing to meet their Paris Agreement pledges to reduce carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels.

3. Vanessa Nakate


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A post shared by Vanessa Nakate (@vanessanakate1) on Apr 7, 2020 at 2:41pm PDT

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate is known internationally for her involvement in the Fridays for Future movement. Despite the coverage her climate strikes have received, however, the thrust of Nakate’s media attention came after the 23-year-old was cropped out of a photograph published by the Associated Press featuring fellow activists Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In response, Nakate, the only black and African activist in the group, tweeted a comparison of the edited and unedited photographs, captioning the post, “You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever.” She’s since become outspoken about the issue of representation in the world of climate activism, particularly given that Africa emits relatively little carbon yet feels some of the harshest effects of climate change. In another tweet, Nakate addressed the fact that, in 2019, the fires ravaging the Congo received disproportionately little coverage in comparison to the same year’s fires in California and the Amazon.

Beyond her involvement with the Fridays for Future movement, Nakate founded the Rise Up Movement and Youth for Future Africa group. She first garnered attention after striking outside the Ugandan parliament, taking cues from Thunberg’s parliamentary strike. Nakate has since been outspoken about the issue of rising temperatures in her home country, as well as spearheading projects like implementing solar energy in schools. She also hopes to inspire other African youths to join the climate cause and change the West-centric climate narrative.

4. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez


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A post shared by Earth Guardians (@earthguardians) on Oct 14, 2019 at 6:19am PDT

Nineteen-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians, an environmental organization that teaches young activists how to become leaders in the climate movement. Promoting activism through art is a driving force behind the Earth Guardians mission, an approach Martinez advances as a hip-hop artist.

Of Aztec descent, Martinez describes his music as “raw and quick witted” and his lyrics as being “anchored by the Indigenous roots of his father’s lineage and the social justice work of his mother.” Martinez credits both of his parents with inspiring his activism. He’s spoken about being raised to honor traditional Mexican values, which highlight the connectivity of man and nature, and his mother is the founder and executive director of Earth Guardians.

Martinez’s resume is extensive. In addition to collaborating with artists like Bassnectar and Jaden Smith, as well as performing for hundreds of thousands at the Fridays for Future strike in 2019, he’s spoken at the UN and associated summits, given multiple TED talks on climate issues, and addressed students on college campuses across the county. Martinez has also earned a number of awards and accolades, including a 2013 US Volunteer Service Award designated by former US President Barack Obama and a spot on Rolling Stone’s 2017 25 Under 25 list of influential youth.

5. Helena Gualinga


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A post shared by Sumak Helena Gualinga (@helenagualinga) on Jan 24, 2020 at 7:29am PST

Raised between Ecuador and Finland, 17-year-old Helena Gualinga was born into the indigenous Sarayaku community of the Amazon. She grew up protesting on behalf of the traditional Sarayaku territory, speaking out against the Ecuadorian government and big corporations that have long threatened the indigenous community’s land. Throughout her career, Gualinga has been outspoken about the environmental impact of oil extraction, as well as drawn attention to the fires, floods, deforestation, and other issues plaguing the Amazon.

In September 2019, Gualinga was photographed outside the UN headquarters in NYC holding a sign with a caption translating to “indigenous blood, not one more drop.” That December, she spoke on behalf of the Amazon at the UN COP25 climate summit in Madrid. The following month, in January 2020, Gualinga started a campaign called Polluters Out, which has brought together young activists around the world with a particular emphasis on rallying the youth in Latin America.

6. Lilly Platt


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A post shared by Lilly’s Plastic Pickup (@lillys_plastic_pickup) on Jun 17, 2019 at 10:07pm PDT

Lilly Platt, the 11-year-old founder of Lilly’s Plastic Pickup, first became aware of the plastic pollution problem in 2015 while on a walk with her grandfather in the Netherlands. In just 10-15 minutes, the pair counted 91 pieces of plastic.

“And then my brain, it sort of awoke,” Platt tells Matador, “and then I was saying in my head, ‘I need to do something about this. I need to pick up more plastic.’” She was particularly motivated after learning from her grandfather that the majority of that plastic waste would wind up in the ocean.

Platt first began gaining recognition for her cleanup efforts after her mother posted a photo of the inordinate plastic pollution on Facebook. The online response prompted the Platts to continue documenting their cleanup efforts, and soon after, a local newspaper had sought out the young environmentalist for an interview. From there, a national newspaper followed, prompting further coverage from Dutch radio and television stations.

Today, Lilly’s Plastic Pickup has more than 7,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter. Platt’s commitment to environmentalism has also grown. She credits her interest in addressing climate change to a video of Thunberg speaking about the Paris Agreement in 2018, as well as cites David Attenborough as a role model.

Now a role model in her own right, she encourages aspiring youth activists to start small. “Then, as you learn more…you can start with more larger things like organizing strikes and pickups,” she says, also noting that everyone can make changes to reduce their impact on the environment, such as carrying reusable bags, bottles, and straws, as well as favoring public transport. “No one is forcing you to become an activist,” she says, “but it’s always good to be informative and to know about most environmental problems.”

7. Xiye Bastida


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A post shared by Xiye Bastida (@xiyebeara) on Dec 19, 2019 at 3:22pm PST

Xiye Bastida has been called “America’s Greta Thunberg,” though she was born in Mexico and has Chilean citizenship as well. Of Otomi-Toltec descent, Bastida moved with her family to NYC in 2015 after her hometown of San Pedro Tultepec flooded following years of drought.

Her interest in environmental activism began at her Manhattan high school, where she organized a strike in March 2019 that some 600 students joined. She has since organized countless strikes as a major player in the Fridays for Future movement in NYC and become an icon of the youth activist revolution. Today, Bastida serves on several environmental committees, including the Peoples Climate Movement, Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion.

In 2018, she spoke at the ninth UN Urban Forum, taking home the “Spirit of the UN” award. The following year, she was the subject of a Teen Vogue documentary called We Rise. Now 18, Bastida continues to strike on behalf of the planet and encourage other students and youth to do so, as well. You can follow her efforts on Twitter and Instagram.

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