Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Art by Kristel Brinshot.
Sabirah Mahmud is a Muslim, Bangladeshi-American climate activist. She’s the National Logistics Director of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike (USYCS), a youth-led organization fighting for radical climate justice. After discovering her own personal connection with the climate crisis, she realized that the suffering her family has endured in Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to this crisis, could not stand longer, pushing her to found her own climate movement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she lives at the age of 16. She has been organizing with USYCS since February of 2019, when she founded Philly Climate Strike, soon becoming the Pennsylvania State Director until her promotion to her current position of National Logistics Director.
In the future, she wants to travel abroad to fight for human rights, but right now she fights for a leftist revolution starting with her home base in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You can catch her spilling hot takes on Twitter, organizing a revolutionary uprising, or creating art in her free time. Find her work with the U.S. Youth Climate Strike here, and donate to support their work at https://secure.actblue.com/donate/usycs.
The following has been condensed.
You’re a national logistics director for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. How did you become a national level organiser?
I started my involvement with the U.S. Youth Climate Strike February 20, 2019. My first involvement with this movement and this organization was through my local organizing and founding of the Philadelphia chapter of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. I started planning for the first global strike on March 15, and haven’t stopped since.
After March 15, I was contacted by our State Director for Pennsylvania at the time, stating that she was stepping down and wanted me to be her replacement. With excitement and nervousness I took her up on her request and became the Pennsylvania State Director from April to November of 2019. There, I worked on the state level, expanding the strikes and training new strike organizers.
My involvement in state and local organizing got me to my position as National Logistics Director for the U.S Youth Climate Strike. Nonetheless, my involvement isn’t just national — I’m still heavily involved with the Philly Youth Climate Strike and mentor the Pennsylvania team on reformations that can be made to make our state stronger through our youth advocacy.
You questioned Joe Biden for using your image in an advert as “hijabi clout.” Why did you feel compelled to speak out about it?
In all honesty, this false involvement of mine meant to me that I only amounted to being used for face value. It made me feel objectified in the manner that I was probably only put in the ad because of my identity as a female-identifying, hijab-wearing brown Muslim. This prompted me to speak out about it. I wanted to make sure that I was not used just for face value and [share] that, indeed, my vote was not for Biden. As a matter of fact, I was a Bernie supporter way before Biden even got into the race (I supported him all the way in 2016). In general, this experience made me realize the truth behind politics, and that not everything is truly face value. Additionally, it made me sadly realize that, most times, being a person of color involved in politics on any level can have you become susceptible to being used just for your identities.
What impact does your faith have in your activism?
My faith has impacted my activism in ways I never would have thought. Ever since I was young, I was raised in a highly religious household that always told me that my voice was never to be silenced and that I should always fight for the justice I seek for. I was always taught peace, equity, justice, love, and forgiveness. My religion has only further developed these qualities into my life through the scriptures that make me love my neighbor for who they are and for always helping those who are less fortunate than I am. These qualities that my religion has helped me develop relates to my activism as I know that it is important for me to fight for the rights of my marginalized brothers, sisters, and non-binary beauties across the world. Moreover, it has pushed me to remember that I must stay resilient and strong amid my involvement in this political era. These qualities keep me the person I am and make me more passionate to fight for not just environmental justice, but racial, economic, social, etc justice for everyone.
The Youth Climate movement seems to be one that is genuinely inclusive. Why do you that is?
I think the Youth Climate movement is one of the only genuinely diverse and inclusive movements because the climate has been visibly affecting our populations the most, and we have realized that we will not get anywhere in this movement if we neglect the voices of those who are on the frontlines. Specifically for me, this goes into the context of my Bangladeshi background, as my family emigrated from there. While my family suffers back home, I’m able to extend my privileges to use their frontline story to amplify this movement and further it to be more inclusive of the frontline populations.
What can other organisations learn from your experiences?
I think there can be a lot of lessons to be learned from our movement, such as making sure that there is always a POC in the room (not just one but multiple). There are often too many spaces where POC are left out of the decision-making process.
Moreover, make sure you have POC leading training on how to avoid tokenizing marginalized peoples when trying to bring them into the movement. I’ve been in too many places where, when they were trying to bring me into their space, they said so in a manner that did not make me feel welcome at all.
What is something you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?
The climate strike on September 20, 2019. That day made history in my city of Philadelphia. We brought more than 4,000 Philadelphia youth and adults to gather together at our City Hall. We demanded that more effective climate legislation be introduced in our city, and for a sustainable future for us all. The week after, legislation passed in our city council that declared 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Although, no, this isn’t the most radical or effective legislation we want to see, it was a big step to know that this was caused by the people-power we held that day when we protested. This strike was also the first time I organized a march around my city and, to be quite honest, leading a crowd of four thousand people who all are repeating the chants you say is super powerful.
You have family in Bangladesh, a country that is suffering severely from the impacts of climate change. What can the rest of us learn from the ways people in Bangladesh are resisting and agitating for change?
In all honesty there is limited action you can really take in Bangladesh, due to the fact that most of these causes that affect my family’s country are due to the inaction from other countries. Moreover, Bangladesh does not always protect the civil rights that I am privileged to experience in the United States. Thus, the only way I can truly respond to this question is that those who are reading this that are in places of privilege need to do their part in amplifying the struggles the citizens in Bangladesh experience. Additionally, they must keep their own governments accountable and make sure they do the right part in preventing the crisis from getting worse.
Many governments and corporations abuse the fast fashion industry, which affects the Bangladeshi people, and their inaction on reducing the impacts of the climate crisis are the reasons Bangladesh experiences the drastic effects of flooding, fires, and droughts. These corporations and governments need to be held accountable and many people abroad in places of privilege and power are able to do that.
How has your family supported your involvement in the strikes and the movement?
My family has been super supportive through this process of organizing. My mom came to the September 20th strike with my seven-year-old sister, and my dad has always reminded me to prioritize my health through long days of organizing. Of course, as they are immigrants they were (and still are) worried, but they have always empowered me. Even with our religion, they have supported me because fighting for justice by all means is integral to what Islam stands for. They were the people who sparked fire into my soul and made me passionate about my organizing, so I am always in debt to my loving parents.
What do you think people misunderstand about the climate change movement?
Many people misunderstand the climate movement is not just fun and games, and not just a photo opportunity. This isn’t just limited to adults, but also to the youth in the movement as well. Many times we forget why we’re fighting and instead we focus on the attention and praise we receive. I wish we could ground ourselves in why we strike. Moreover, prioritizing those who have stories like the ones of my family is a great way to avoid forgetting the reason you’re striking. Additionally, people always misunderstand that students sacrifice a lot to strike, reworking our entire schedule to even organize. This is a big misunderstanding amongst white adults. They try to make our work sound “cute,” especially when talking to BIPOC youth. It makes us uncomfortable and invalidates our work to use soft words.
How do you think people in general can contribute to the resistance and fight against climate change?
Through educating themselves and truly changing the narrative from being a “white performative vegan movement” to being a movement that is not only inclusive but also recognizes systemic change and not individual mobilization as its goal. Too many times I’ve been told that veganism or some recycling B.S. is the answer, but it honestly isn’t. Instead, we must combat the climate crisis through implementing sustainable and effective legislation, like the Green New Deal introduced by AOC that lines out sustainable housing, recognizing indigenous sovereignty, and addressing not just the blatant effects of the climate crisis but the systemic results such as environmental racism. If we truly change the narrative and make the movement more radical and accessible, we can have the revolution we desperately need.
About the Author
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.
Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa.
Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.