This is an excerpt from "Stone Soup for a Sustainable World: Life-Changing Stories of Young Heroes" by Marianne Larned, available on Amazon and Target. Xiye Bastida is a featured keynote speaker at VERGE 21.
As a child, Xiye Bastida had learned from her father's indigenous Otemi-Toltec culture to respect the Earth. From her mother's historical studies on Mayan culture and society, she learned to respect her people. Her family lived a simple life in the fishing community of San Pedro Tultepec near Mexico City. "Everything about my upbringing taught me to be that voice of unity and balance."
Then when Xiye was 12, her hometown was devastated with massive floods after a long drought in 2015. She and her family were forced to flee. They landed in New York City. "At the time, I didn't really understand about climate change and its role in these increasingly volatile weather emergencies," she says. "I never even considered that there were people and businesses who didn't care about Mother Earth the same way my family and I do."
Thinking back on what happened in San Pedro Tultepec, Xiye realizes that the climate crisis was already there and affecting frontline communities like hers. What was a fishing community is now a furniture town, stripped of its culture and traditions. "The people who don't have the resources to deal with flooding by going somewhere else, or who don't have the infrastructure to tolerate it when it comes, are left to bear the brunt of the crisis," she says. "In the wealthy sections of Mexico City, people were given aid and repairs from the flooding were swiftly made."
Now an 19-year-old college student majoring in environmental economics and sustainable development in Latin America, Xiye says, "This was the first time that I realized just what climate injustice really was. That's when I set my sights on fighting climate change for the most vulnerable among us, who are being so disproportionately impacted."
Inspired by Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future movement in Europe, Xiye responded by co-founding the Fridays for Future chapter in New York City. At the Beacon School, she created an Environmental Club and rallied her classmates to join her for the upcoming climate strike on March 15. "I did everything I could. I organized. I did graphic designing. I put up flyers — they'd get taken down every day. I'd put up more," she says. "I even got my teachers to understand what we were protesting. They understood. But nobody was really imagining how big of an impact a few kids could make. Myself included."
A month later, when the day finally arrived, Xiye thought it was going to just be her and few friends striking for climate change. As it turned out, 600 fellow students from her school participated in the walkout. Empowered by this show of solidarity, Xiye next set her sights on the Global Climate Strike scheduled for Sept. 20. She and a core team of only 10 teenagers and 50 others worked together with 10 adults from climate organizations — and rallied 300,000 to strike for climate. They marched from Lower Manhattan to City Hall, carrying signs that read: "There is no plan(et) B,” and chanting "Green New Deal, make it real," "The sea is rising, so must we." It's estimated that over 4 million young people and adults joined together that day to make their voices heard. When Greta arrived by sailboat in New York's Harbor to attend the United Nation's Climate Summit with world leaders, Xiye officially welcomed her. "Fridays for Future NYC really showed our leaders the power that young people have to impact climate change, and there's no looking back."
We need not only mitigate these issues, but adapt with well-structured systems and policy to deal with climate refugees.
Now as a leading voice for indigenous and immigrant visibility in climate activism, Xiye has gone on to work with The People's Climate Movement. Then when the pandemic hit — with the lockdown, Xiye shifted from rallying people in the streets to educating people online. Her new venture, Re-Earth Initiative, focuses on radical inclusivity, diversity and accountability in all she touches through workshops, toolkits and webinars.
A powerful public speaker, Xiye has gained a reputation for her ability to inspire climate action. At the Global Citizens Festival in 2019, she spoke about the intersection of climate change with humans rights issues, which many people outside of activist circles don't yet understand. "We haven't thought too much about the effect the climate crisis is having on refugees," she responds. "But people displacement is an inevitable consequence of the climate crisis. And it's not just that the climate crisis will create climate refugees — it's already happening."
Reflecting back to her own personal story, she educates people about how extended periods of drought result in instability of crops, and people are forced from their ancestral lands. When there's irregular flooding patterns, people must seek shelter elsewhere. "We need not only mitigate these issues, but adapt with well-structured systems and policy to deal with climate refugees."
For Xiye, UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 17 is the most important goal: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development — since it has the capacity to link people, goals and places of all kinds in service of a broader, sustainable world. "Partnerships are a necessity. Cooperation is the key," she states. "We need for people to not focus just on one goal without thinking about all the others. Having all kinds of people from all types of background is what will make this possible."
Xiye speaks out on educational platforms such as TED Talks to inform people about the climate crisis. "TED has become a great advocate for climate education with Countdown," she explains. "A lot of businesses are shifting their whole way of thinking to be more sustainable. And when educational networks partake in community building around these issues, it creates a really cohesive coalition going forward."
Xiye gave a memorable TED Talk, which was framed as a letter to her abuela (grandmother). "The world is so big, and it has so many bad habits," she said. "I didn't know how a 15-year-old was supposed to change anything, but I had to try." Reflecting back on her speech she says, "It was a way to share my story, frustration, hopes and dreams for the future in a new way that I hoped would influence people, because what we need is more people supporting this movement. We especially need more youth to be involved as climate activists. If there were more of us, none of us would have to be full-time activists."
Wherever Xiye goes, she finds youth eager to get involved but who don't know how or where to start. For them, she has some guidance. "It doesn't matter what your gift or passion is in life. We need youth from all walks, because diversity of thinking and skills is what is going to make solutions possible. Any skill that you have can be used to address the climate crisis, whether you are an architect, photographer, educator, scientist or activist, we could use your skills because we need all the skills to face up to this emergency.
That said, she cautions youth to avoid the pressure to change who they are to fit into a particular role. "Be who you are, know yourself, and ask yourself what you can add," she tells them. "If you don't find anything that fits you, just Google a cause that you are interested in supporting and get involved. If there's nothing, come up with it yourself. It's true that a lot of times, there are no spaces for us at the table to share our voices and opinions. And if you can't find a seat at the table, just build your own table. You will make an impact because the youth always do. We have more influence than we think we do and we need to take advantage of that."
For adults, Xiye doesn't necessarily want support for the youth as much as wants support for the overall climate movement. "The youth grow really fast. I started out at 15 and in a snap of my fingers, I'm 19. And I've left my youth behind. I had a lot of great things to say as a youth and I was heard by plenty of adults. But what it boils down to is that the youth can't vote. So when adults work to amplify that the youth's demands be heard in their circles of influence, that's great, and we are grateful for that. But when you vote for what we want, that really makes an impact. Beyond that, if you have the means, support us. And if you don't, get out there and organize — that doesn't cost anything. Both are important. We are going to need all the help we can get to face up to this crisis of our age."
To her family, and her ever-supportive grandmother, the words she spoke under the bright lights at TED still ring true: "Thank you for inviting me to love the world since the moment I was born." With this love, she will devote her life to making this earth a better place for everyone. And she hopes for many more allies to join her on the journey.