Vic Barrett | New York

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This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on December 28, 2018. Gari De Ramos and Kia Johnson also contributed to the production of this story.

Vic Barrett is a 20-year-old Honduran-American college student and plaintiff with Juliana v. United States from White Plains, New York. He is also a fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education and attended the COP 21 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. This is his story:

“My name is Vic and I’m originally from Hudson Valley, New York. Later, we moved to Westchester and I went to school in Manhattan. I was pretty young, like 11 or 12, when Superstorm Sandy hit New York. A lot of my friends had their homes completely destroyed and were living in places they weren’t used to. I had never experienced anything like that. We had storms, but it was the first time I was afraid of weather, and I was legitimately worried about my safety and my family’s safety.  All the water stopped working and there were trees falling everywhere, and everyone was saying you shouldn’t drive. Me and my mom lived alone, and there was no water in the house so we went to the grocery store to buy packages of water. I remember the grocery store being empty; all the shelves were bare. I had never seen anything like that. It seemed so drastic and disastrous and terrifying. That was what really hit me. I was like, ‘Holy shit. This is an emergency.’ I saw my mom was scared. She was definitely trying to keep it together cause it was just her and her 12-year-old kid. That’s when I started learning about environmental racism and how, during Hurricane Sandy, people of color were disproportionately impacted.  


KEY FACTS

  • Superstorm Sandy left 147 people dead, 8.5 million without power, cost $70.2 billion in damages, and destroyed 650,000 homes. The worst hit houses were concentrated in neighborhoods that draw low- to middle-income households.

  • A study of FEMA data found that homeowners of color were less likely to have flood insurance than their white counterparts. For example, only 14% of African-American residents have flood insurance compared to the 86% of insured homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.


In New York, we always had four very distinct seasons, and that was a huge part of growing up. In the fall, you went apple picking or pumpkin picking; you went to orchards and stuff. During the winter, you went sledding and ice skating (I never learned how to ice skate though). In the summer, you went hiking and ATVing with your friends. I remember always being outside, and that being a regular, fun thing to do. I used to like fishing with my dad on the lakes and ponds in upstate New York because it's always so easy to rent a boat and just sit out there and talk.

When I was 14, I started working with this nonprofit called Global Kids because they had this human rights activist project after school program. The first time we sat down, they were like, ‘We’re going to be focusing on climate change,’ and I was really confused. I was like, ‘What does this have to do with human rights?’ But then we started learning about the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we started learning about how climate change manifests in people’s lives.

Vic Barrett in New York. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

Vic Barrett in New York. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

As soon as I learned about climate justice and the way that climate change disproportionately impacts certain people, I put it into the context of my own life. I was like, ‘Well, I’m young and I’m Latinx and I’m Black and I’m queer and I’m a first-generation American. This is something that really affects a lot of the identities that I hold and a lot of people like me.’ And I just couldn’t ignore it after that.


KEY FACTS

  • In 2017, there were roughly 200,000 Garifuna people in Honduras. Now that their ancestral land is at risk, as many as 60 Honduran Garifuna migrate to the United States on a daily basis.

  • By 2050, Honduras is likely to see a 13% increase in rainfall, leading to a 60% increase of flooding. On top of this, by the end of the century, Honduras is set to experience sea level rise of anywhere between 0.4 to 0.86 meters.


Being 19, it’s hard for me to know if there was ever really a chance for me to fully understand the world before climate change. I’m Honduran-American and I belong to the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna community. We settled on the Northern coast of Honduras hundreds of years ago and sea level rise has really impacted the Garifuna people. We’re critically endangered according to UNESCO.

I used to go to Honduras every year. In Honduras, my grandma has a big backyard with banana and plantain and mango and coconut trees. All the tropical fruit have these holes, and I never knew what they were until the first time I saw a crab come out of them. I was so excited. My grandma had this whole crab colony living in her backyard. One time, I was at her house and she had made some type of seafood soup and she had cooked some of the crabs from the backyard and I just started crying, panicking, freaking out like, ‘You can't eat your pets!’ My grandma is a very stubborn woman and not usually interested in anybody's opinion, but to this day, she never eats the crabs and she feeds them the leftover food from the kitchen. She throws the food in her backyard and they all come out and eat. She's always like, ‘I'll never forget that day, I haven't eaten one of them since.’

Vic at a rally in Eugene. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

Vic at a rally in Eugene. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

I was 14 or 15 the first time I thought about climate change in Honduras. We were at our house, which is close to the beach, and it’s also where my mom grew up and lived her whole life. My mom was talking about how, when she was younger, they used to have to walk a little bit to get to the beach, and now it’s just right there. I remember being on the beachfront and seeing that the community had put together these sand and rock walls, and seeing telephone poles that were in the ocean that didn’t used to be there. I remember thinking, these people, my people, don’t necessarily have the resources or access to knowledge to fully understand what this is and how it’s impacting them, but it’s clearly a huge presence in their lives every day. And it’s because of emissions from where I grew up in the U.S. and actions of people around me and my peers. The society that I live in is drowning the society that I’m from, that my family is from.

My family in Honduras, other than my grandparents, never really knew much about my  environmental work. Then one day, I spoke at the UN General Assembly and the first thing I said was I was a Honduran Garifuna kid so it was all over the Honduran national media. My grandma called me and talked about all the different people in the community who want to start doing work. She talked to me about the obvious sea level rise and how much the beaches changed. Sometimes it's kind of bizarre because she's part of the frontline communities that I'm always talking about when I'm in Poland or in Paris or in front of the UN. But climate change is still not a priority there given the plethora of issues that are present in Honduras. I always try to explain that when I speak. My community in Honduras is dealing with extreme poverty and hunger, losing family members migrating to the U.S., and they are living in the murder capital of the world.


KEY FACTS

  • Syria experienced major drying and drought from 2006 to 2011, which ruined agriculture and caused many families to migrate to cities.

  • The relationship between climate change and violent conflict is being made clearer and clearer with more studies finding a correlation between rise in temperature and rise in violent conflict.


And then there’s climate migration. We already have a huge refugee crisis all over the world, and the amount of refugees that we’re going to have as the climate crisis continues is insane. A lot of people don't realize that the Syrian Civil War was driven by climate change and drought and lack of resources. I used to be the president of the environmental club at my high school and the first activity I always did each year was write climate change on the board and then I would ask for all of the kids in the club to give me any issues they could think about, like homophobia, poverty, water scarcity, or gender inequality. I would write them all up on the board and then we’d spend the next hour just drawing lines between them to show people that literally none of these things are stand-alone issues.

Vic with fellow  Juliana v. United States  plaintiffs, (from left to right) Aji, Xiuhtezcatl, and Levi. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

Vic with fellow Juliana v. United States plaintiffs, (from left to right) Aji, Xiuhtezcatl, and Levi. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

Being born with a lot of intersecting identities—not just being black, but also being LatinX, and not just being queer, but also being trans and a first-generation American—I have a lot of experiences that have made me an empathetic person when I speak on climate justice. People who look like me or even share an aspect of my identities are suffering disproportionately, and not just in the United States, but around the world. Black and brown people, people who just want a chance, people who have always been oppressed and held down, are still being oppressed and held down by something that's seemingly invisible.

People of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change and climate impacts because they’re disenfranchised and have less opportunity to speak in public about zoning laws and things like that. Like in New York, public, low-income housing, which is mostly filled by people of color, is far more likely to be built in a flood zone, or in an area more susceptible to climate disaster. The reason I do this work and the reason my identity is so important to me in the work that I do is that there's a lot of times in my life when I wished people had advocated for me. Now, my communities need to be spoken for and advocated for.

The amount of resilience and strength and power that's always had to exist in oppressed communities is incredible. Like, if you're queer, you're probably going to be a pretty strong person because you've always had to deal with the struggles that go with being queer. If you're indigenous, you're going to be a really strong person because everything behind you has been about continuing to exist. There's a lot of power and strength in the communities that are being impacted the most by climate change because they've always been impacted by something. I believe in understanding the political process and looking to institute some necessary things through it, but I also know that a lot of the solutions and most of the urgency lie in the people that are being impacted.

YouthvGov plaintiffs Victoria Barrett and Kelsey Juliana. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

YouthvGov plaintiffs Victoria Barrett and Kelsey Juliana. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

Working in UN spaces, even in the Juliana vs. United States lawsuit, it’s disheartening to see how the people who are making the decisions do not have the same level of context as the people who are being impacted by the issue of climate change. The average Senator in the United States is 61 years old, so I don’t have a lot of faith in whatever process they think is correct for fixing this issue. If you’re looking at a 12-year timeline, when you’re 61, you’re retiring in 12 years. Whereas, in 12 years, I’m going to be 31 and very much in the middle of my life. That’s my reality and there are still kids being born into a world not ready to sustain them. I got a tattoo of the amount of carbon emissions that were in the atmosphere the year that I was born. Scientists have determined that 350 parts per million is a safe and sustainable level and, when I was born, it was 370 parts per million.


KEY FACTS

  • "Juliana v. United States is a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit filed by young people in 2015. The lawsuit "asserts that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources." (Our Children's Trust)

  • The average Senator is 61 years old, but the average American is 37.8 years old.

  • People under the age of 21 make up a quarter of the U.S. population.


Being part of the Juliana vs. United States lawsuit has been a completely life-changing experience. I wouldn't have gone to the college I went to, I would never have spoken at the UN; my life would be very different if I'd never joined the lawsuit. It's been such a rewarding experience in so many ways. Meeting the 20 other plaintiffs who have such amazing stories and things they've lived through and had to grow from, I have learned so many things.

There’s a lot of young people all over the United States who are doing a lot of direct action in their hometowns and doing a lot of action for their communities. Many politicians don't feel accountable to their young constituents, so getting to be a part of this case, which elevates voices of young people all over the United States and puts them right in front of these politicians has been really great. It's been a huge lesson in bureaucracy. I started this when I was 16 and I'm going to be 20 in a few months. This has been a part of my formative years. It's been a crazy ride, but so worth it.

Youth plaintiff Vic Barrett speaks at a rally following a hearing in the landmark  Juliana v. U.S.  climate change lawsuit at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

Youth plaintiff Vic Barrett speaks at a rally following a hearing in the landmark Juliana v. U.S. climate change lawsuit at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Photo: Robin Loznak / Our Children’s Trust

There is a lot of celebrity right now around being a youth activist or climate activist and getting the most Instagram followers or Twitter followers in order to have a voice in this movement. I think a lot of young activists are getting burnt out, not just because of what's happening right in front of their faces, but also because they go on Facebook and Twitter and you see disaster after disaster after disaster. Every day, youth activists are struggling under the weight of the pressure. I would have never enjoyed this or have been able to get into it if there wasn't a space that I could go to and have in-person and interpersonal connections.

Really, doing this work well is about focusing on not getting caught up in the online activism and just building your own space where you feel comfortable and safe and cared for and then going out and doing the work, because that's what’s important.


TAKE ACTION

Here’s how you can support Vic:

1) Share Vic’s story to amplify his voice!

2) Vic and his fellow plaintiffs presented their argument to the Court of Appeals in Oregon about why their case should continue to trial on June 4, 2019. You can watch the hearing here and let the courts know that we are watching.

3) Use Our Children’s Trust’s #AllEyesOnJuliana 👀 to talk about the importance of this case on social media.

4) Sign up for Our Children’s Trust’s newsletter to get updates and to offer your time, skills or resources in support of their historic legal campaign. Follow Our Children’s Trust on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to stay up-to-date with the Juliana v. United States lawsuit.