America Ferrera On One Reason Living Under Trump Is “Terrifying”

Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic.
As an actress, America Ferrera has battled dragons, a difficult fashion editor boss, and teenage angst (the latter while wearing a pair of magical jeans, of course). But her latest fight is against a much bigger enemy: climate change. National Geographic's eight-episode series Years of Living Dangerously has shown stars like Sigourney Weaver, Gisele Bündchen, and Jack Black tackling a series of serious environmental issues. In the finale, airing Wednesday, Ferrera heads to Waukegan, IL, to see firsthand the tension a local coal power plant has created in the community. During the episode, the Superstore actress explores both sides of the argument: The pollutant-emitting coal plant is allegedly to blame for horrific health issues among the area's mostly Latino and African-American, low-income population — but shutting it down would mean the loss of hundreds of jobs. Ferrera works with the Beyond Coal campaign to get thousands of signatures for a petition to the mayor to shut down the plant and create greener jobs for the community. We won't spoil how the story ends, but the episode did remind us just how much work can be — and needs to be — done across the country to push back against climate change. Ferrera spoke to Refinery29 about how the average citizen can make an impact, what environmental protection will mean in the Trump era, and more.

You've long been vocal about politics, campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the most recent election and pushing for more Latinos to vote in the past. What made you want to take on climate change?
"It's a pressing issue that has an impact on countless other issues that we all care about. I think it's incredibly important for people to begin to understand how interconnected it all is. Climate change affects the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our economy, our political affairs, conflict, war. That can all be exacerbated by climate change, and it's slowly getting scarier and more urgent."

In the episode, you say that
"everyday people have to learn how to be activists" in order for real change to happen, especially in local communities. How can someone who feels like one person won't make much of a difference get motivated to fight climate change?
"There isn't a single one of us who isn't living in a community, a neighborhood, a state, a city that isn't impacted by climate change. Whether that's a coal plant in your backyard, whether that's rising sea levels, whether that's a drought, whether that's erratic and different weather patterns and behaviors, whether that's pipelines, whether that's clean water…we're all very, very connected to the different intersections of our lives within climate change. So my advice would be to educate yourself on what's happening in your own backyard. Educate yourself and educate others. And then push back. Let your voice be heard. You know, in Los Angeles alone, we've got lots of communities pushing back against fracking, against the pollution of our ocean, the use of paper bags in grocery stores. There's no shortage of issues that one can get involved in that impacts climate, because everything impacts climate. Yes, this is a global problem, and yes, it affects our entire planet, but it starts on a very local level, and even one person's efforts can help."

When you have a president-elect who says he doesn't even know if climate change is real, for the next four to eight years, the future looks pretty horrible.

What did you personally learn from working on this episode and with the Beyond Coal campaign?
"I think what I came away with was a lot of inspiration from the people of Waukegan who chose to push back locally, no matter what they were going through. It's very sad and disheartening to see that if you're a person of color, you're more likely to be living in an environment that can make you sick. That your air is less pure to breathe and your water is less clean to drink. That even when it comes to our environment, there is a sort of racial justice component. Yet what I saw from the people in Waukegan was people struggling just to get by, just to have a job, keep the job, put food on the table, provide for their family — there's very little energy left for pushing back against large corporations and politicians. But they still put all that aside to make change happen. If they didn't fight for themselves, nobody was going to. I hope it's inspiring to all of us about our roles in our communities, and a reminder that if we don't show up for ourselves, especially in communities of color, there really isn't going to be anyone who's gonna sweep in and do it for us."

You were a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter. How are you feeling about the future of our environment during the Trump administration?
“When you have a president-elect who says he doesn't even know if climate change is real, for the next four to eight years, the future looks pretty horrible. We know that climate change is real, and yet he's still questioning it. So, that's pretty terrifying. We haven't had any time to waste for a long time now, and it's a pretty devastating thing to start moving backward. So yes, I think that it's really daunting. But we have to be committed to staying alert and staying awake and staying educated and using our voices to push back. It doesn't mean it's gonna be easy, or there's ever going to be a defining last fight where we win and we never have to go back and defend the idea that climate change is the real thing we need to pay attention to. But we can't give up the fight."

You're often choosing meaningful projects, both in your acting life as well as with issues you've chosen to speak out about. What's next for America Ferrera?
"I have a number of different projects I can't talk about yet, but I can say that I feel passionately that we all have a role to play in the future of this country, and of this world. Whether we're artists, or doctors, or students, or educators, teachers, plumbers…we all play a part, and I'm always just figuring out for myself where my voice is impactful and how I can stay present and hopeful, which I think is really important in this current time that we're living in. I think that there is a lot right now that is terrifying to so many of us, but we can't let that fear drown us or drown our hopes. I personally believe and want to inspire other people to believe that our voices matter and that the stories we tell do make a difference." Thanks to America, we're feeling pretty inspired to get involved. Watch a clip from the episode below. The season finale of Years of Living Dangerously airs tonight at 10 p.m. EST on National Geographic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More from US News

R29 Original Series