Activists Xiye Bastida and Jerome Foster II are youth climate superstars. Bastida is a 2023 TIME100 Next honoree who has been featured in Vogue. Foster, before he was old enough to drive, interned for legendary congressman John Lewis, and is one of the youngest members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. They have a combined 159,000 followers on Instagram. And they were both involved in organizing a youth climate strike that drew hundreds of thousands in New York City in 2019.
But that’s not why they deserve your attention. As part of an increasingly vocal youth climate movement, they are demanding precisely what corporate sustainability professionals say we want: for business to play a central role in supporting life on earth, not endangering it.
At last week’s VERGE climate tech event in San Jose, California, the two 21-year-olds talked with me on the keynote stage (to multiple rounds of spontaneous audience applause) about what it is they’re fighting for — on a global and a personal level — and how sustainability professionals can ensure we’re working in tandem. Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer at Google, joined us on stage too to ask the activists: "How do we better support you and how do we better engage?"
Foster replied: "It's very rare that we see companies coming out here and having discussions [about] how we have holistic collaboration," said Foster, offering a first step toward the answer: We can better engage by — you guessed it — actually engaging. (I was thrilled when Brandt, Foster and Bastida exchanged contact information backstage after the talk.)
Foster and Bastida had more recommendations, which I’ve distilled for length and clarity below. You can also watch our 15-minute talk here, at 1:05:30.
Invite youth and community advocates into the work
"Have spaces in which we can inform the work that you do," said Foster, "and not just young people, but community organizations and people who can ground-truth the data. Have them not just in advisory councils, but on the ground with the people that are doing the work, creating programs… Be seen and heard supporting the organizations that are pushing for change," including with funding, collaboration and creating space for activists and corporations to engage "in the same room."
Bastida concurred: "What we also bring as a youth movement is that diversity of perspectives, because, for example, indigenous wisdom, indigenous values of reciprocity — of 'if I take I must give back,'" she added. "Those types of things that have been missing from our global conversation that are so, so important."
Youth activists are impatient for corporate sustainability professionals to bring "moral clarity" to companies, as Foster put it. "We have to think deeply within the structures that govern how we work and say, if we slightly change the packaging of our product and have greenwashing labels that change the way we market, that isn't enough."
"We come to the climate movement thinking not what we're upset about and what we're angry about, but what gives us hope for changing the world," said Bastida. "That is what I want to bring to this space. And I think all of you here have that in you. So the question now is: How do we work together so that we're proud of the legacy that we bring to our children?"
Be an activist inside your company
Bastida noted that many "CSOs actually see themselves as activists within companies and see themselves as somebody who will push a company to do better." She suggests sustainability practitioners could better live up to that potential. "So it's a collaborative effort [to] get the perspectives of youth activists and the climate movement to senior officers to open minds."
Foster agrees: "Hey, we're gonna keep pushing from the outside but you're gonna have to push them [from the] inside as well," he said. "We're gonna keep knocking down that door, but we’ve got to have people like you" on the inside, advocating for change.