Good afternoon, YouthMundees! At YouthMundus, we aim to not only be a platform for music, film and global change, but for the artists and global changemakers who create them. Our Artist Spotlight series aims to create a space for discovery of new, budding global talent, while simultaneously offering you an exclusive glimpse into their creative process.
You might have first heard of Sabirah Mahmud in early 2020, when she was, without her consent, featured in a Joe Biden campaign ad. Mahmud later coined her appearance in that ad as “hijabi clout,” standing up for herself and her identity. Mahmud wasn’t at that rally to show her support of Biden; rather, she was advocating for climate change. This is something she has continued to do since.
What compelled you to begin fighting for climate change, and what continues to drive your efforts?
I became compelled to fight for climate justice because I did not see anyone else my age doing so. I saw a need for someone to lead my Philadelphia community in climate activism, and I took to it. Today, years later, I'm compelled by the story that is attached to my identity. My heritage comes from a small country in South Asia, called Bangladesh. This country where my parents immigrated from is plagued with floods, fires, and pollution- a product of climate change. Despite being abnormal, this emergency state has become normalized. Many of my family members are still in Bangladesh and have to live through that climate crisis. Their experiences motivate me to be the best advocate I can possibly be.
How does climate change effect all of us?
Climate change is a very intersectional issue, in many ways that are not often acknowledged.
The climate crisis touches every single part of our existence and livelihood – from the agriculture sphere to the realms of racial, social, and economic inequalities. An example of how multi-faceted climate change can be is in housing: solving the climate crisis requires us to address the nation's unhoused population. So you see how momentous a topic climate change is, and how much work and attention it requires (but unfortunately does not receive).
How do you feel when you are in the heat of the moment, such as when you are speaking at a rally?
I often feel empowered. There are not many people who look like me and also speak out like I do – unapologetically and in front of so many people - especially at rallies. Knowing that with every action, I am making history makes me feel super honored to represent my community and the many identities I hold. In general, I think because of the many different identities I hold, I feel a lot of different feelings: fear, sadness, empowerment, honor, bravery, and so much more.
Do you ever feel vulnerable, as a young, female activist of color?
Yes, I do often feel vulnerable as a female organizer of color - I would be lying if I didn't say I did. But it is just not my gender and the color of my skin, but the fabric that I wrap around my head that also makes me feel vulnerable. Being a visible Muslim and a hijab-wearing advocate usually puts a target on me. There are times when I feel like an imposter in this movement, and that I feel attacked by my white organizer counterparts. However, these difficulties only empower me to be a better advocate for my community. Over the past few years, I’ve met many amazing young activists of color, many of whom also share my Muslim identity. When I connect with these people and see how they too stand unapologetic in their identity and mission, I feel as if we are standing in solidarity together.
The organizations you work and stand for are not the only ones who center themselves on climate change. Yet, the Youth Climate Strike has been extremely successful in garnering attention. What do you do differently from other organizations?
I would say the largest difference is that we try not to focus on single-action solutions. Although these might be catchy and translate well to social media, single-action solutions are not always the most effective. This is because they fail to take into consideration significant barriers.
For example, in an effort to reduce plastic waste, many organizations direct their young audience to make the switch to metal straws. While it is great to do so, this should not be advertised as the sole solution to the climate crisis. When we prioritize single-action solutions like metal straws, we fail to recognize how classist and excluding such a way of thinking can be. Many lower-income families cannot afford metal straws, and for some members of the disabled community, metal straws are not a viable option. Single-action messaging makes it seem as if there is only one solution, when in reality, this is not the case at all. And to those who that single-action solution is not viable, climate advocacy might, as a result, seem difficult to become involved in.
Have you modified your tactics in response to the pandemic?
Most definitely. It has been hard during the pandemic because many of our actions involve in-person mobilizing. Additionally, mutual aid informs a lot of our work. So while the climate crisis is still very important to us, during the pandemic we’ve shifted our focus to support the black and brown families in our community. Many of these families are lower-income and are extremely vulnerable right now, and I think it is so important for activism groups to be able to adapt and provide to the needs of the community.
What would make you feel heard, as an activist?
This might sound really simple, but I would love it if adults in high power would take me and my advocacy seriously. Since I began in climate activism, politicians often tell me how cute and inspiring I am, rather than working with me towards change. This kind of sentiment makes me feel like my work is performative rather than effective and powerful.
Where do you hope to take your activism?
I hope to continue organizing for the rest of my life! Although I am optimistic for positive change to come in the near future, at the end of the day I recognize how difficult real change can be. Our world is imperfect, and, unfortunately, we will likely never achieve a beautiful world where all the issues of injustice are solved. But because of this, I strive to always work towards being the best advocate I can. While I am currently working in climate advocacy, in the future, I’d like to also work with refugees and in international human rights issue.
How can a reader become involved?
Research local groups that are based in your area. And when I say, local, I mean local; as close to home as you can get! Reach out to these people in your community and show your excitement for the cause- your ambition and passion in working to address the climate crisis is the most important!
To learn more about Sabirah's work, follow her on Instagram @sxbirah, and get involved in a climate change organisation near YOU.
Thank you all so much for your continued support. We look forward to bringing you the voice of more inspiring artists and changemakers in 2021.