February 23, 2021
When I was 19 years old, I went to class with a sign hanging from my neck. In thick, black Sharpie it read, “Climate Change Is Real.”
Like many others, I was feeling immense grief over the future of our planet. As I walked across my college campus in Gainesville, Florida, I mostly avoided eye contact with my classmates. I was nervous and embarrassed. (I still kind of am.) But the only thing that seemed more embarrassing than wearing the sign was remaining silent. I wanted to know who else in my community felt as heartbroken as I did. I knew there had to be others, but I didn't know how to find them. So I wore a sign.
Looking back, I see that choosing to wear the sign that day was the culmination of my personal evolution colliding with the events taking place around me. Like many coming-of-age stories, it started with body image. The story I’d been taught — be skinny, be beautiful (implicitly, be White), and you’ll be loved — became demonstrably untrue the more diet sprees I went on. Eating only carrots and celery didn’t make me feel more loved, just taken advantage of.
My belief in the American ethos of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” also began to crumble as I noticed that the people I saw work the hardest around me were paid the least. This included the immigrant custodians who I’d talk to in my mom’s classroom after school, as well as my own mom who took a pay cut to teach at a private school so my brother and I could attend.
Every morning at that same private school, I would pledge allegiance to a flag that promised “justice for all.” Yet I saw Trayvon Martin killed and his killer acquitted just a few hours away from my home. I was beginning to understand that patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy — the toxic foundations of our society — were the same forces threatening the well-being of people and the planet.
I knew I wanted to help bring about change. I didn’t yet know I would find salvation in the many other people who do, too.
“It’s no wonder Gen Z is the most stressed generation in America.”
Some call this psychological distress “climate grief” or “eco-anxiety.” I just call it paying attention. And at this particular moment in human history — with mass death, modern day lynchings, tens of millions of jobs lost — paying attention can be devastating. This is especially true for young people, who are graduating into the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression and are being particularly hard hit in almost every measure of coronavirus-fueled economic distress.
It’s no wonder Gen Z is the most stressed generation in America.