Perhaps more than anyone else, young LGBTQ+ people know what it's like to feel alone in the world -- and how life-changing it is when they finally find their community.
For climate change activist Katie Eder, a 19-year-old lesbian from Milwaukee, this search for connection has defined her worldview and her work. As co-founder and executive director of Future Coalition, she's made it her mission to create "a community for young activists and organizers across the country so no young person ever has to feel alone in what they are doing again."
Her current initiative, StrikeWithUs.org, is set to unite activists from more than 950 protests nationwide ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. "For the past year, the youth climate movement has been quietly growing in coffee shops in midwestern suburbs, libraries in urban centers, and classrooms in the rural South," she wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN. "Young people are preparing for a revolution to save our future, and on Friday, September 20, we invite you to join us."
Eder told The Advocate that while she's been speaking out on important causes most of her life -- she staged her first "sit-in" in her 4th-grade gym class -- much of her community organizing is shaped by her experiences coming out as a teenager.
"Growing up in a small suburb in Wisconsin and being gay, you definitely understand what being 'other' feels like. I grew up in a very liberal community, but it was still a place where people were accepting until they weren't."
With no queer friends or role models in her immediate community to talk to, she turned to online spaces for support and encouragement. "If it wasn't for YouTube and the online community, I wouldn't have understood that I could be gay or even have the language to describe what I was feeling, and that other people were feeling that too. That was a really big piece of me being able to come out so early."
Future Coalition was launched in September 2018 with the same spirit in mind: helping youth activists who may feel isolated and helpless in today's political climate by creating a space where they can connect with each other and share resources. Through text chains, Instagram messages, a community Slack channel, and in-person meetings, local groups can band together to coordinate their protests and amplify their message through media-savvy online campaigns.
"Being able to be connected with other like-minded young people across the country and really develop a sense of community with other people who are going through the same things you're going through and having the same challenges you're having, makes it a lot easier to do work and feel like you're connected to something bigger than just yourself," Eder said.
This movement has taken on some lofty challenges in the last year. In June they teamed up with Our Children's Trust, the organization behind the Juliana v. United States climate change lawsuit in Oregon, to rally nationwide support and press conferences for an #AllEyesOnJuliana campaign. Leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, they collaborated with gun violence protest group March for Our Lives and other organizations to stage walkouts from high schools and colleges and get young people to the polls.
StrikeWithUs.org unites eight different youth-led organizations around the UN Climate Action Summit: Earth Uprising, Earth Guardians, Extinction Rebellion Youth, US Climate Strike, Zero Hour, Sunrise Movement, International Indigenous Youth Council, and Fridays for Future USA. Their list of demands include support for a #GreenNewDeal, respect of Indigenous land and sovereignty (including an immediate halt to all fossil fuel projects), environmental justice, protection and restoration of biodiversity, and implementation of sustainable agriculture.
\u201cBREAKING: 1,000 U.S. #ClimateStrike events on the map and counting! Visit https://t.co/3k8vVaCLSb to find a strike near you and make history with young people and adults all over the country. #StrikeWithUs \u26ab\u201d
The broader goal of the strike on September 20 is to focus all the simmering anxiety about climate change into a jolt of collective action, uniting the energy and passion of today's youth with the political infrastructure built by climate activists over the last few decades.
"In movement spaces we talk about trigger moments," Eder told The Advocate. "Trump getting elected in 2016 was the trigger moment for the Women's March; the shooting in Parkland was the trigger moment for March for Our Lives. With climate, we don't necessarily have one big trigger moment. There hasn't been one big catastrophe that has inspired action; it's been a buildup of tiny trigger moments over the last number of months and number of years, that has left people feeling this sense of urgency and fear of what's happening in the world."
Keeping a sense of optimism can be one of the biggest challenges for groups like Future Coalition. At the time of this interview, international news was full of shocking images of the Amazon rainforest fires, which continue to burn a month later; and Greenland was in the midst of a massive ice melt after months of record high temperatures. Eder said organizers often have to deal with "environmental melancholy," a sense of exhaustion that sets in when climate change seems too overwhelming to do anything about.
"Young people really feel that. They feel that pain and that loss and that destruction, and then we're able to turn around and project that into our work. That's going to motivate me to work even harder."
She added, "The best thing to do is take action. We often feel like we can't do anything, like this problem is too big to solve. But the truth is, huge social societal shifts can happen with a very small percentage of the population. It really is going to take each of us to make the choice and choose to fight for the future and fight for our kids and our grandkids."
Leading the movement has pushed Eder into the ranks of outspoken young activists like Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg, who have used the media spotlight to put pressure on world leaders. Eder was invited to speak at the Global Climate Restoration Forum at the UN on September 17, and earlier this month she helped generate a viral moment around Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at CNN's Climate Town Hall. "Older generations have continued to fail our generation by repeatedly choosing money and power over our lives and our futures," she challenged him. "So how can we trust you to put us, the future, over the wants of large corporations and wealthy individuals?"
\u201c\u2018If we don\u2019t take action, nobody else is going to.\u2019 \u2014\u00a0Katie Elder, a leader in the teen movement against climate change, explains why students worldwide are walking out of class Friday\u201d
Meanwhile, Eder has pushed back her admission to Stanford to the fall of 2020, when (election results permitting) she hopes to take a short break from activism to focus on her studies and figure out her long-term career plans. Wherever that takes her, she's confident she'll return to community organizing in some way.
"When you look at history, young people have always been the catalyst for change," she said. "When young people get involved, something changes, something shifts. Change comes faster and tends to be more powerful. With this movement, we're talking about potentially one of the largest globally coordinated movements we've ever seen, and young people are the ones leading the way."