“I get DMs all the time like, ‘Focus on the climate. Why are you talking about being gay? That’s dumb. You’re spreading the agenda,’” Zero Hour co-founder Jamie Margolin sighs with exasperation while speaking to Refinery29 after a 2019 MTV European Music Awards panel celebrating the Sunday, November 3 show. Seventeen-year-old Margolin, a 2019 MTV EMA Generation Change winner, is often cited as a climate change activist — which is true. She is also a queer woman, a Latinx woman, and a Jewish woman, and a vocal advocate for those communities too.
In a world besieged by upsetting news, Margolin quadrupling her output of support should only increase the positivity coming her way. That is clearly not the case. Still, no amount of trolls can keep Margolin down or stop her from telling other teens how to change the world.
“It really does something to you as a person when, everywhere you go all around you, just constantly, you’re reminded you that don’t belong and people like you don’t get a happily ever after. You don’t get the Disney ending. That’s not for you. That really hurts,” Margolin says. “I’ll tweet something like that and [people] will be like, ‘Um, what the hell? Focus on climate change.’ Or just no one will care.”
When haters do care (in far too twisted ways), Margolin confirms they use violent slurs against her. “People call me the F-word. It’s like, ‘The correct word is dyke. Thank you very much,’” she quips.
While Margolin is irritated by the attacks on her identity, she is also bothered by some people’s fixation on limiting her to one passion. “They’re like, ‘What? No. You’re The Climate Girl,’” she says of critics. “Pushing someone into that box isn’t helpful. It lessens my climate activism because it’s like, ‘Yeah, of course she’s gonna say that — she’s The Climate Girl’…It’s been really affecting my mental health for a while to be pushed into that and being stripped of all of my other identities.”
The teenager has reclaimed those parts of herself by becoming more vocal than ever about all of her passions. “I’ve really been conscious of reclaiming them and going out and saying, ‘I want to make other things and do other things,’” she explains.
One of those projects is Margolin’s upcoming youth activism guide, Youth to Power, which debuts in June 2020. The Zero Hour leader already has advice for would-be activists who may feel left behind by society’s frayed attention span. After all, Margolin is still traveling from conference to protest to conference attempting to educate the world on climate change weeks after our nation’s September 2019 fervor for the youth-led movement (like Greta Thunberg, Margolin testified in front of Congress on the environmental crisis this fall). Few people better understand how to keep the activism machine whirring long after the Twitter trends have changed.
“Media and attention and even social media stuff isn’t everything. That’s a way of broadcasting the work and it’s a tool, but it’s not the work,” Margolin explains. “No matter how many likes you get, you actually have to go out into the community. You have to do the work. You have to talk to people face-to-face. You have to change the laws. You have to meet with the politicians. You have to plant the trees.”
She advises young people to reach out to classmates to prepare local protests, perform walkouts, use art to speak truth to power, and recruit powerful people like celebrities to their causes.
It’s those tangible actions that will push the people around you to evolve their behavior or thinking. As Margolin explains, the best litmus test for activism is knowing your work wouldn’t vanish if all media disappeared. “A large chunk of it would be [gone],” she admits of her own projects. “But I would still have the personal people I’ve changed the minds of. The physical events that have been organized. The people who have been moved. That’s really the stuff that matters.”
Since Margolin understands how daunting the pressure of activism can be, she stresses the need for self-care and recommends budding activists do the same. In her case, that often means listening to Lana Del Rey.
“I’ll write. I’ll watch a Netflix show. I’ll listen to music. I’ll draw,” she says. “Something that reminds me that has nothing to do with climate. Something that reminds me that I’m still a person.”