West indian culture

How to Create Culture Change: Xiye Bastida

Xiye Bastida, climate activist on the urgency of her work

When I gave the closing speech at the Global Leaders Summit at COP26 last year, most world leaders had already left. Previously, backstage, I had heard Prime Minister Modi of India and various heads of state speak and I thought, “That’s it, then they’ll listen to me.” After it was announced that a young indigenous Mexican activist was giving the closing speech, I took the stage and the room was practically empty. I understand they all have busy schedules, but not staying three minutes to hear the voice of the next generation surprised me. I still gave the speech as if the room was full, because it’s stories like mine that move people to action.

I inherit my ability to speak to large crowds from my parents, both climate activists and teachers, who met at the Earth Summit in 1992. This also comes from experience: my first lecture took place when I was 15 at the World Urban Forum, which focuses on how cities can be more sustainable. This was my favorite talk so far, not only because it was my first, but because it was so solution-focused and didn’t just repeat that “we need to act” refrain.

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A lot of the conversations we have about climate change can be performative, and I think that comes from us speaking a different language. With the UN, language is all about resolutions, treaties, policy documents and articles. The language we speak as young activists tries to translate science so it’s more accessible to people, but in doing so we miss the connection to what policymakers say or what corporations want to hear. So that’s a step we’re going through right now: how do we speak the same language and bridge that gap?

As an activist, what keeps me going is that I’m constantly learning. If I don’t learn, I can’t be a good communicator. When I’m in college and taking classes in environmental ethics, international relations, physics, global warming, geology, environmental science, Latinx environmental justice…it gives me motivation to continue.

There is an urgency to what we do as climate activists: we have seven years to halve our carbon emissions. It has been five years since my first conference and that time has passed so quickly. But, also, from the history lessons I’ve taken, I’ve learned that progress takes time – from people realizing there’s a problem, to mass mobilization, to impact on legislation, culture and business.

This is also what keeps me from panicking: I know that, historically, movements take time to see the results of their efforts. The movement has grown exponentially – at COP26 we have never seen so much interest from civil society. It feels like we’re on point. Cultural changes start slowly, bit by bit, then all of a sudden they go “whoosh”. I’m just waiting for that “whoosh” to happen.

People often ask me, what does success look like? Joy is what success looks like. Because I want to see my kids having fun, not fighting to make the world a better place to live. I think we always have to include young people in the spaces, mainly because we see things more clearly and we are not tied to anyone. You need this challenge. But the activism doesn’t stop when you’re young – my parents are in their 40s and 50s and they’re still fighting.

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I’m outspoken on climate justice, not only for the indigenous values ​​I’m trying to amplify, but also in saying it can’t just be a European-led movement. It’s about making room for MAPA [the Most Affected People and Areas] to express themselves and be heard. Personally, I make sure to take up space and make room all the time: out of five invitations to speak, I give four to open the way for others.

My commitment is that when I turn 40, I will listen to young people – but I will also always listen to people who have been there: the old ones. A very wise person told me to always hold someone’s hand older and someone’s hand younger. This way you never lose track. You stay connected and you continue to take care of yourself.

This article appears in the September 2022 issue of ELLE, on sale July 28.

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