Environmental Activist Xiye Bastida Says “Ok, Doomers”

Published December 10, 2019

Photo by Pamela Elizarraras. Courtesy of Extinction Rebellion.

The “Ok, boomer” trend taking over social media—used to silence our grandparents and politicians alike—needs to be corrected, according to 17-year-old, Mexico-born indigenous activist Xiye Bastida. “Our biggest problem is not denial. Our biggest problem is apathy, and that’s what doomers are,” she says. “They write articles in New York Magazine saying, ‘We’re all going to die,’ so, ‘Okay, doomer.’” Yet Bastida, who immigrated from Mexico four years ago to help motivate Americans to combat climate change, urges that the climate crisis does not form a divide between generations, but rather a bridge. Bastida helped implement September’s Climate Strike in New York City in conjunction with Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Our Future, and several other environmental organizations drawing an estimated seven million participants across generations. Her voice undeniably stands at the front-lines of the movement, rightfully representing indigenous and immigrant people, but she’s too humble to say that about herself, crediting Greta Thunberg as her inspiration to strike (as do we all).

Bastida has continued leading school strikes on Fridays outside the United Nations for the past nineteen weeks, and she has led a traffic blockade in peaceful protest for Extinction Rebellion.  It’s all quite a feat for someone whose college applications are due before the New Year. Bastida arrives from another school strike outside the UN just before meeting me in the Walker Hotel lobby to talk over a couple coffees—her’s, of course, in a sustainable travel mug. “I’m already balancing activism and school, so I just have to prioritize, I guess,” she says. “When it’s midterm week, I’m not going to engage in international events.”  Now, she’s just waiting for her next strike.

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EVALENA LABAYEN: How are you?

XIYE BASTIDA: Just came from the strike.

LABAYEN: Was there already a strike today?

BASTIDA: Yeah. I mean, there’s a strike every Friday, but they’re small strikes.

LABAYEN: Where was it?

BASTIDA: At the UN. But today was different because a cop came, and he told us, “You can’t protest here.” And we have been in that same location every Friday for 49 weeks.

LABAYEN: Did you tell him, like, “Hey.”

BASTIDA: Yeah. He was like, “This time is different because someone called 911.” Kids protesting for climate, and they call 911.

LABAYEN: Oh, “Those kids out there are really dangerous trying to save the environment.” How long have you all been out there?

BASTIDA: 49 weeks. Not me, but my friend started the strike on December 13th, Alexandria [Villaseñor]. My first strike was March 15th, the first global strike. And I started weekly striking 19 weeks ago.

LABAYEN: Did you get started because of her?

BASTIDA: I didn’t know her, actually. We met at the first strike. I met so many amazing activists on the streets literally striking. I think that’s the coolest part.

LABAYEN: I saw that you’ve been striking since high school, leading out 600 students outside for the March 15th first global strike. Was that the entire school?

BASTIDA: No. We have 1,200, but then for September 20th, over a thousand walked out. I think that 600 is very impressive for the first time ever with no permission. Because for September 20th, we got every public school to allow kids to strike. That was us going to the DOE [Department of Education], sending emails, making calls for a month.

LABAYEN: When you started your environmental club, did you ever imagine it getting to be this nationwide of a movement?

BASTIDA: It wasn’t something that was even in my mind. Sunrise [Movement] was already there. Extinction Rebellion had not started yet. So for my environmental club, what I did first was to take kids to Albany and to City Hall just to talk to representatives and tell them, “We kids care about this. What are you doing?” We lobbied for the CLCPA [the Climate and Community Leaders Protection Act] and the Dirty Buildings Bill. After that, then I heard about the strikes. First of all, I heard about Greta [Thunberg]. This girl who showed up at COP24 who was in Dallas with her speech. And it was just amazing to see that somebody had the platform to say these things that I didn’t think were possible, for a kid to be out there and say, “What are you doing?”

LABAYEN: Yeah. Greta Thunberg definitely inspired me. You were on the dock the day that she arrived in New York?

BASTIDA: Yeah.

LABAYEN: From that moment, did you kind of really feel this whole global movement building around you? That you’re present in this historic moment with her changing history? Or was it just like, “Oh, cool. We got more people now”?

BASTIDA: [Laughs] Yeah. I don’t see myself or Alexandria or other activists that get media attention as the organizers for activists because I see the same energy that we have in everybody. That’s what’s amazing. For some reason, we’ve gotten platforms to speak, and Alexandria and I were both at the Youth Climate Summit, at the UN Climate Summit. We’re both going to COP25 with other activists. I’m sure you’ve heard about Jamie Margolin. I guess it’s because we have the most time to do it, that we can be vocal about it everywhere we go.

LABAYEN: The media has actually been comparing you to Greta, calling you “America’s Greta Thunberg.”

BASTIDA: Yeah, which is weird because I’m not even American. It is awesome in the sense that people know who she is, and when they say, “Xiye is the American girl who’s doing this,” it’s like, “Oh, my gosh.” But I also don’t want to say, “I’m the one doing the most work,” because Greta is the one doing the most work I would say. I am not going to be here and say, “Oh, yeah. I started the environmental movement in the U.S.,” because that’s not true at all. Xiuhtezcatl [Martinez] has been speaking at the UN since he was eight years old. Jamie [Margolin] started Zero Hour in 2015.

LABAYEN: You do have this whole different perspective than Greta has because she’s from Europe, while you, I would say, have the benefit of this intersectionality between being indigenous and being an activist. The two always go hand in hand.

BASTIDA: Yeah. They do.

LABAYEN: Do you feel that does give you a broader perspective and understanding of the situation?

BASTIDA: I definitely think that. Being raised with this notion, this philosophy that you take care of the earth because that’s your job. That’s what you have to do. That’s the way we can feel best about what we’re doing and about ourselves and our community. I thought that was something everyone thought because I was raised that way. 

So when you realize that people are drilling the earth, killing biodiversity, cutting down trees just for profit and not thinking about anything else, it was just shocking, and I couldn’t believe that was real. I couldn’t believe that was a thing. So I think that bringing indigenous cosmology and philosophy and practices into the conversation are a crucial part because indigenous people have been living this way since . . .

LABAYEN: They’re the original protectors of the earth.

BASTIDA: Yeah. Original protectors of the earth.

LABAYEN: You bring up being in Mexico and seeing the climate change there, and then coming to New York and seeing the effects of Hurricane Sandy, how they relate, and how this is so global. Do you think New Yorkers have the same kind of perspective, or do you think it takes traveling to really see that?

BASTIDA: Being able to travel—because, also, I’m half Chilean—I used to go to Chile a lot more than now. Now when I travel, I go back to Mexico. But it’s definitely having a global perspective that plays such a big role in the understanding of how big this is. A lot of people don’t have that privilege of traveling. Also, Americans who go to Mexico go to Cancún, which is like a mini-America, so it’s not even like real Mexico.

LABAYEN: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.

BASTIDA: I think that traveling definitely plays big role in my understanding of it. But what I saw is that nobody really connected the dots between Sandy and the climate crisis. When I talked to my friends about it, they would say things like, “Oh, yeah. We didn’t have school for a week. It was cool.” Or, “The power went out. That had never happened.” And, in my house, power used to go out every time it rained, which I think happens in a lot of places that are not cities.

LABAYEN: I think that this is a really important thing people have to understand. Because my dad’s Bolivian, we went to Bolivia two years ago. And I just saw this entirely different way people approach activism and the climate and taking care of the earth. I think it takes a lot for people to really separate themselves from this weird American mentality of, “It’s not happening here, so it’s whatever.”

BASTIDA: This morning I was listening to the radio. You know what they were talking about? About air conditioning and who runs the air conditioning in the house. Then people would call in and be like, “I run it, and my husband doesn’t like it when it’s too hot, so I have to be in another room when it’s colder.” Just this whole notion that we can control what it feels like inside and don’t care about the outside and don’t realize the repercussions that all this energy is having. I think that’s where the disconnect comes from, from our conformity. People are too comfortable.

LABAYEN: When you graduate, do you know if you’re going to go to college, or is that out of your mind already?

BASTIDA: I am applying to college currently. I was going to take a gap year, but I’ve seen a lot of activists who are in college and are able to be activists and college students, so it’s possible. I’m already balancing activism and school, so I just have to prioritize, I guess. When it’s midterm week, I’m not going to engage in international events.

Photo by Pamela Elizarraras, Courtesy of Extinction Rebellion.

LABAYEN: It has to be a cakewalk, I imagine. Your resume is gorgeous. You’re like, “Yeah. I’m just a part of a global movement.”

BASTIDA: [Laughs] I had my Barnard interview the other day, and then the girl asked, “So what do you do in school?” And I said, “I’m a climate activist.” She’s like, “In school, not outside?”

LABAYEN: You’re like, “Let me just pull something up for you real quick.” Hi.

BASTIDA: [Laughs] Hi.

LABAYEN: So are you going to stay local in New York?

BASTIDA: I do want to stay in New York. My top choices are Barnard, Columbia, NYU, The New School.

LABAYEN: Good choices.

BASTIDA: Then I’m applying to a lot of safety schools.

LABAYEN: Do you know what you’re going to major in?

BASTIDA: Environmental studies and international relations.

LABAYEN: Of course. I saw a thing that you were interested in biochemistry?

BASTIDA: I was before. The first dream job I ever had was veterinarian because I just loved animals, and I love to help animals. But then I thought, “If I can do more, why wouldn’t I?” So I was interested in biochemistry mainly because of GMOs. I’ve always been aware of artificial things out of balance with the earth. So why would we change the genetic makeup of things that are just designed to be naturally feeding everything? But, now, I also realize that I am strong in math and chemistry and bio, but I think I’m stronger at public speaking, which I didn’t know until I started speaking publicly.

LABAYEN: You’re going to turn 18 next year. Do you know who you’re going to vote for?

BASTIDA: I cannot vote because I am not a citizen. But I can vote in Mexico and Chile when I turn 18. But that doesn’t mean I’m not telling everybody I know to vote. I attended the CNN climate town hall and I saw all the candidates. Well not all, but six candidates.

LABAYEN: Have you been asked to endorse anyone?

BASTIDA: Yes, I have. I’ve gotten a lot.

LABAYEN: No choices yet? 

BASTIDA: After seeing the candidates speak for four hours on the climate crisis, I have a pretty good short list of candidates that I think have the strongest climate plans. But, obviously, being a climate activist doesn’t mean that you only care about the climate crisis and don’t look at all those other issues. So, surprise, we have opinions on every other issue, as well. But in terms of the candidate that I like for climate, even though Bernie [Sanders] is putting so many millions of dollars into the climate, in the Green New Deal, I think that Elizabeth [Warren] is stronger in her understanding, honestly. Just because she is saying, “I am going to implement climate policy in all of my policies rather than having a climate book.”

LABAYEN: Do you have ambition, one day, to run for office yourself, or do you think you have more influence on the outside as an activist?

BASTIDA: I think it’s a very thin line, and I’m at a point in which, as a climate activist, as Fridays for Future, we’re bipartisan, so we cannot endorse one side or the other. If I personally endorse Bernie or Elizabeth, then people are going to say, “Oh, the whole climate movement is just a political agenda.” And that is what we cannot afford to have because we cannot have half the country shut down to the idea of inviting a world that is clean just because of politics. But I have considered running for office.

LABAYEN: In five years? 

BASTIDA: Hmm…

LABAYEN: Next year?

BASTIDA: [Laughs] I feel like it’s such a big thing. I’ve gotten a lot of people who are like, “Oh, run for office,” and seriously telling me that. Honestly, I don’t know if I could see myself doing that because it seems like such a big thing. A badass thing, too.

LABAYEN: Do you find yourself having to hold hands with older generations through this process?

BASTIDA: Always.

LABAYEN: There’s the whole internet thing with, “Okay, boomer,” because they just don’t really understand the severity of what’s going on a lot.

BASTIDA: When I saw the, “Okay, boomer,” thing, I was like, “It should be, “Okay, doomer,” right?

LABAYEN: [Laughs] Oh my God.

BASTIDA: That’s it. It’s not boomer. Our biggest problem is not denial. Our biggest problem is apathy, and that’s what doomers are. They know what the problem is, but they don’t think that we can do anything about it, or they don’t do anything about it. And they write articles in New York Magazine saying, “We’re all going to die,” so, “Okay, doomer.” 

Maybe this very specific kind of European older generation and U.S. older generation are just oblivious to, or were oblivious to, what the crisis is and how it started and how they contributed to it through their consumerism. But that doesn’t mean that millions of boomers all over the world were acting the same way. This is a very European slur, either way, just because it’s looking at only what white Europeans did back then. And if there is an indigenous elder who’s the same age, it’s not like they have the same thinking, so it’s dividing us in so many ways that is unnecessary. Our September 20th climate strike was about intergenerationality. That was the point of September 20th.

LABAYEN: You’re pretty much going to keep striking on Fridays indefinitely?

BASTIDA: I don’t know if I’ll ever stop. Maybe I won’t do it every Friday going forward just because I might an important college class on that day or something. But I know that youths are going to keep doing it. Our global strikes are every three months, so March 15th, May 24th, September 20th. The next one is November 29th, so it’s roughly three, four months. And then the next one after is after Earth Day, so it’s going to be centered around Earth Day.

LABAYEN: Is it going to be as big as the September 20th one?

BASTIDA: September 20th, our goal was numbers to see how many people we could get, and we got like seven million.

LABAYEN: There were people performing. It was almost like a concert in New York.

BASTIDA: They called it “Climchella.” We had Jaden Smith perform. He did such a big thing for Flint. We had Xiuhtezcatl perform. We had indigenous speakers from Brazil.

LABAYEN: Do you expect something of the same platform?

BASTIDA: The thing with that is that it costs a lot of money. The permits for staging, sound, it’s just a lot of money. Striking is free. We don’t have that kind of money, so because many adult organizations joined us, they paid for it. We never saw money, but they paid for everything, which was a great way to help because it increased awareness. But our goal for the next strike is not numbers. It’s visual impact. We’re going to march around City Hall three times to say, “We’re watching you. Every angle, you’re being watched.”