On a Friday this past September, a 16-year-old Swedish student named Greta Thunberg skipped school to sit in front of her country’s parliament building with two cardboard signs demanding action on climate change.
During her 35 weeks of striking, Thunberg spoke in front of EU leaders, earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, and sparked a youth-led climate movement that has activated students around the globe, including here in the United States.
Haven Coleman, 13, is the Co-Executive Director and National Co-Director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, the organization that called for a national student strike on March 15, which saw thousands of students and concerned citizens turn out across the country.
The Colorado-based 7th-grader first became aware of climate change at age 10 when she learned that her favorite animal, the sloth, is endangered because of deforestation by human encroachment and climate change. She realized, “This is something bigger than me…but this is something I have to act on.”
Haven’s mom, Nicole Coleman, supported her daughter’s awareness and helped her sign up for training through Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. She used the slideshow she was given to encourage her Congressman Doug Lamborn, a climate change denier, to support wind turbine jobs for veterans. Her action became news and caught Al Gore’s attention. “He loves her,” Nicole told The Advocate. “He’s more like a grandpa to her.” The two met when Haven introduced him to speak at last year’s Teen Vogue Summit. But Haven’s high-profile recognition doesn’t exactly translate to coasting through middle school.
She’s been bullied because of her activism. “I was shoved into lockers…It can be so dang scary,” Haven said. The family was unable to resolve the bullying issue with the Colorado Springs school, so they moved back to Denver for Haven’s safety. The change of scene didn’t entirely solve Haven’s struggle to get along with her fellow tweens.
“At school they're just talking about celebrities, and crushes, and things and she's just like, ‘I'm so bored. Let's go save the world. Like what are you guys doing?’" her mother described. Another popular topic that Haven isn’t interested in is boys. “It’s just ridiculous because all my friends just talk about like ‘Hey what boy do you like? What crush do you have?’ And I can’t speak out because it feels like I’m acting.”
Haven tells The Advocate she identifies as gay.
”I’m proud to be who I am. But I’m also scared,” she said. “I so badly want to be out at school so that I don't have to be hiding behind a mask. That's why I'm really excited about doing this article. It's just super frustrating because I have to be two different people. One person at home, one person at school.”
While Haven’s parents are supportive of her identity and sharing her story, she realizes that’s not the case for everyone. “Most people can't even come out to their families. And that is something so frustrating, because they have to be ashamed of themselves. They can't speak out. They can't do anything. And that is something so terrible…that we all have faced at one point.”
Nicole had picked up hints about her daughter’s identity from moments such as when Haven asked for a bowtie, wanted to cut her hair short, and became attached to a particular dessert. On a trip to New York, Haven was insistent on going to Big Gay Ice Cream, but they didn’t have a chance. Now that Haven is out, Nicole says, “We need to celebrate!” On their next trip to New York they plan to visit rainbow rooms in a pop-up museum known as The Color Factory and finally make it to Big Gay Ice Cream on what Haven calls “a big gay day.”
These clues gave Nicole and her husband a chance to talk about their daughter’s identity before Haven spoke to them. “It wasn't a big deal. It was just like, "Okay, yeah. We knew." But they did notice a major change in Haven. “She just came out to her dad and me in December. Before that she was starting to get super depressed this past year especially. I thought it was all the tension from just the activism, but it was just eating at her that she was keeping this to herself. She's felt so much better since December just being able to talk about. She's told the kids that she's organizing the strikes with, and I think that helped too. She just wants to tell everybody.”
Haven found a “climate family” through her activism. “I've grown so close to many people that I wouldn't have known without the LGBT community or the climate community.” She says that what makes them a family, “doesn't have to be blood, it just has to be something that we care about, and that we care for each other.”
One member of her climate family is Feliquan Charlemagne. He moved with his family from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to Florida because of the crippling effects that hurricanes had inflicted on his homeland. The 17-year-old high school junior describes feeling the threat of climate change as “something that looms there every single day of your life.” Even though the citizens of St. Thomas may have physically rebuilt the community after a hurricane, “emotional insecurity…and economic insecurity is still going to be there,” he says.
His activism, sparked by students of March for Our Lives, became more urgent when he learned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts there’s 11 years left to act before the worst effects of climate change are going to be irreversible. “I always thought that we would have a lot more time to do this stuff. And I always knew that it was important, but, I just didn't realize that it was going to be so early in my lifetime,” he said.
Climate change isn’t the only threat he’s faced. He’s also faced “a lot” of racism starting in elementary school. He recalls a 5th-grade classmate reacting to a scene in The Color of Friendship by using the n word. “I was literally a 10-year-old boy surprised to hear anything like that. My parents would tell me about racism…but I was kind of doubtful, I guess. From there on I started noticing it in everyday life.”
The experience of racism informs his activism as he works to teach people about how climate change most drastically impacts low-income communities of color. He also learned that due to high rates of homelessness in the LGBTQ community, climate change will disproportionately affect another community to which he belongs.
Feliquan publically came out as bisexual via The Advocate. When asked if he was out at school he said, “I wouldn’t say it’s a question of out or in. I don’t really hide…but if someone asked me I would just be like, “yeah”. So, it's not really a big deal for me. I think that my generation is far more progressive, in terms of [sexuality].”
His identity influences his climate activism because he emphasizes grass roots organizing, drawing from the Civil Rights movement and the LGBTQ movement. As the National Creative Director for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, he approaches his social media responsibilities from the question, “What would the Civil Rights movement look like if they had [cell] phones?”
Haven and Feliquan, along with five teenage girls who make up the executive team, have written an incredibly intersectional set of demands. Yes, they support a Green New Deal and a halt to all fossil fuel infrastructure projects, but they also call for protecting First Nation lands and an end to an unjust prison system, among other points. Feliquan describes inclusivity as “a driving principal” inside their organization. He emphasizes the necessity that “people of different backgrounds, people of different sexualities, people of different religions,” are all part of the movement.
“We’re getting things done while being inclusive. That makes me so, so, so happy!” Haven adds. She echoes the importance of representation within the climate justice movement saying, “Once you see yourself in something, you're more empowered.”
These kids are not immune to the fear that keeps many people paralyzed in the face of climate change. Haven says, “You can use that fear in so many ways. I turned my fear into empowerment. I might be scared in the moment, but I'm helping people. I know what I'm doing is right.”
Feliquan stands as a testament that people with diverse identities have a place in the movement. “I can be LGBT, I can be a Caribbean black man in Florida, and I can still be a successful climate activist. I can still have my voice heard and make change.” He believes people will find new community while fighting for climate justice. At Youth Climate Strike, he says, “we're there for you.”
For Earth Day, Feliquan encourages the queer community to get involved. “I think one thing you can do is really raise awareness. Tell a neighbor. Tell a friend. Let them know what's going on in the world so that they can be part of this change. Make sure that your politicians know as well, that we're not going to vote for them if they continue to act the way they've been acting now, and in the past. That's how we're going to make big change. That's how we're going to stop climate change,” he says.
Haven amplifies that message saying, “You have so much power in your voice. Once one person speaks out another person is going to be inspired. You're going to start a wave of people speaking out, then it's going to be a roaring ocean.”
Watch a special Earth Day message from Haven below.
The Youth Climate Strike encourages you to sign their petition for a 2020 presidential debate on climate issues. The petition has already gathered over 40,000 signatures. Their goal is 50,000.
The next national climate strike is May 3.