Khadija Khokhar: Climate Change and Environmental Justice
by Nhi Pham
Khadija is a youth climate activist and she is serving as the social media lead and a member of the communication team for Zero hour, a youth-led movement that calls for action on climate change and environmental justice. Last year, Khadija co-founded the Zero Hour DC chapter and she helped organize multiple climate strikes in DC. Besides that, she has also served as a Detroit fellow for the #Voteforourfuture campaign, where she works alongside grassroots organizers on the ground to help encourage youth voter turnout and voter turnout amongst marginalized communities.
Khadija started her climate activism journey since she was in high school, and she continues her journey to educate people on policy work and sustainable solutions to local and regional environmental problems until now as a college student at George Washing University. By pursuing a degree in political science, she hopes to have a closer look at how politics can help us move to a more sustainable future.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background please?
My name is Khadija, I’m a sophomore at George Washington University in DC but right now I’m in Michigan because of the pandemic. My family moved here from India and I have two siblings. I have been doing climate organizing since I was in high school, which I’m still doing right now.
What climate organization are you involved with right now and what is your role in the organization?
I’m currently working with an organization called Zero Hour, a youth led climate grassroot organization where we work to bring advocacy and awareness about the climate crisis. Besides climate change, we also try to talk about issues such as the patriarchy, capitalism, and racism that all connect together that cause the climate crisis.
My role in the organization is the social media lead and a member of the communication team. Last year I co-founded a chapter in DC and I’ve also organized two climate strikes. Our team was planning for a climate strike in April this year for Earth day but it was cancelled because of the pandemic.
I would love to hear more about your climate story. How did you first get passionate about climate change activism?
When I was a junior in high school, I started to join a team at University of Michigan that works on divestment, in which we try to get the university to stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry, and a lot of schools in the country also try to do the same thing. As a team, we would organize, lobby, and talk to the local communities and people at the school to get them to listen to us. With that same group of people, I started organizing the first global climate strike two years ago, and I also had a chance to speak at one of those strikes. Then we marched to the president's office and all of us sat there for 6 hours.
Besides joining the team, I also started climate activism in my own school where my friends and I would make presentations on climate change and we went to each and every classroom to give those presentations.
When I graduated from high school, I moved to DC for college and I started working on national organizing such as organizing at the White House and also organizing with Congressmans.
So you are involved with Zero Hour. What are some of the significant work that Zero Hour has been working on or has done in the past?
One thing I have mentioned a lot before is the climate strikes. So there are organizers around the world who are interested in climate change, they can join Zero Hour and create a chapter to start organizing. So there are always people who have to plan for things such as who’s speaking at the event, who’s organizing everything, where and how long it's going to be. One of the most fun things is that I get to meet really cool people, make a bunch of friends and we can all do art and music, create posters and boards, do research, and organize together to help our community. And then one of the most accompshing things I’ve done is that I got to speak in front of the white house and I got to be a part of the national climate strike where thousands of people came because we organize that so it’s a very exciting thing that I got to see when I helped organize that.
As you mentioned before, you are the social media lead for climate change. Can you tell us about the role and the importance of social media in terms of advocating and spreading awareness for climate change?
I think it’s very important, especially right now as we’re in a pandemic, we’re always on our phone looking at social media. So if you look at the Zero Hour social media page, they have about 70K followers and we have an entire team of people who help create the content so every post has someone make the post, then they send it to me and I’m the person who makes the caption and posts it.
I think social media is so important, especially to young people who are your age and my age, since everyone’s on social media, it’s a very easy and smart way to get our message out. For example if you’re planning a strike, you would post on social media so everybody can see it because it’s much quicker and faster than I tell you and you tell friends, especially when we’re not in school all together due to the pandemic.
We’re all in a big pandemic right now. So do you think that the outbreak of the pandemic has any positive or negative impacts on our ability to address climate change?
Because of the outbreak, a lot of the public pressure on the climate crisis is a little less now because everyone’s paying more attention to the pandemic and less people are thinking about climate change. Also, since most of what organizing people do is with the community and we organize climate strikes together to demand action, it’s a lot harder to get the same attention online. Imagine if people walk into your house and demand you to do something, it’s more stressful and more likely that you’ll listen to us than people putting pressure on you online. One good thing I would say is with the pandemic, we get to see that the government can put money, funding and take action to solve the problem if they have to. So as we keep putting pressure, we hope that they are going to do the same with climate change.
I understand that you are the co-founder of Zero Hour D.C chapter and also a member of the national communication team, so I know that you have organized and led many community events and campaigns. What has been your most memorable campaign?
One campaign that I did online this summer is the #Voteforourfuture campaign where I would teach people in Michigan to vote with a sustainable conscience, meaning how you decide to vote for a president and think about climate change. So if you know about the Green New Deal that some congress people as well as many young people are trying to push, it’s a way that you can have a just transition for everyone, in which we shift the way that our jobs and our economy that rely on oil and fuel to make it all green and create a more sustainable future. So one thing I did in my campaign is to talk with people in Detroit about the Green New Deal and what it would look like for them so that people could understand what it was.
Also, I got to accept an award Amnesty International with Greta Thunberg in DC. And the best thing out of everything I do is that I get to do organizing, I get to meet really nice people, and I like that we can really see changes, as in the 2020 election people were all talking about climate change because of youth pressure so it’s good to see that the things you’re doing actually play out in your community and the nation.
I understand that you are studying political science at George Washington University. So how has your background in political science helped you advocate for climate change?
I chose political science because I think the politics part of climate change is very interesting. So there is the environmental side where people talk about planting more trees and how we can make a more green ecosystem. But the politics side is all about how we can make this change for the climate and help all the people at the same time. Because whenever you create change, not everyone’s happy with it, and it could be a big shift that some people won’t get the same benefits as others. In my opinion, everything involves politics, such as our rights to water, land, or money, everything would go around politics. So by taking political science, I want to look specifically at how politics is affecting climate change and how it can help us move to a sustainable future while also making sure that the policies and laws we make are just for everybody.
So do you think that other people who are also interested in climate activism should pursue a degree in political science?
I think you can take political science if you’re interested, but it’s not the only way. There are so many different routes you can take and probably find a way to connect them to climate activism. One of my really good friends is a climate activist and she’s studying art right now because she wants to make films and cartoons about climate change. I know another person who studies environmental ecology because they want to look at how the ecosystem is changing because of climate change.
I have one more question. What advice do you have for young people who are interested in climate activism?
My advice is to start in your own backyard and community. When I first started, I was looking at the seasons and realizing that it’s not normal, trying to think of why it happens, and knowing that climate change is the cause of that. Then you can start to think about what you can do. You can start educating kids and other students about climate change in your school or at an after care center. You can discuss with your student council about compostment or educate kids about climate change in class. Maybe you want to make an Instagram page or an afterschool program where you teach people about climate change. So a lot of it is finding what you’re interested in and seeing how that can be applied.
A lot of students want to do more advocacy work but organizing might feel scary to them. Can you tell us what is organizing for climate change and what are some ways that students can start organizing to understand more and get their feet wet?
It might seem scary before you start, but I think the best way is to look in your own backyard, see what you’re interested in and start organizing in your local community. For example if you’re living in Virginia, I’m pretty sure there’s a Zero Hour chapter that you can join and they can give you tools to help you get started. If not, you can create your own chapter, or you can go to the Zero Hour page to fill out the form to join the team. I think there’s an idea that advocacy looks one certain way but that’s not the truth. For example there are music teams, art, policies, and communication teams and many other things that you can do if you’re interested in. You can start by going to the city council or join any green club after school to bring art and your ideas into the club. Maybe you can ask your school to create a composting system. Just start small and see what you like to do. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room and know everything, you just have to be passionate and want to create change. So don’t be scared to try different things and reach out to different people and organizers, it could be your teachers, mentors, you can reach out to me or anybody, and there’s always people who will want to help you in any way they can.
My other question is around policies priority. Now with the biden administration without going into details, it seems like everything’s gonna be great now because you put good people in places and there’s just an acknowledgment that it’s a problem. But what are some of the Zero Hour policies priority that our students can sign on?
There’s not one answer for that because every place has different policy issues they’re pushing for. For example in Florida people’s biggest issue is the fact that they might go underwater, whereas in Michigan, people’s concern is that they don’t have clean water. But what Zero Hour tries to do is provide a platform with the resources equipped to help support a certain policy they need. However I would say the universal ones that all chapters are pushing for is the Green New Deal, Indiginous land rights, water rights.
We are also creating a magazine called Zerohourzine and every month would be a different topic. This month we did about pipelines and we would include information, pictures and an activist story. I think it’s a really cool and engaging way to learn about different aspects of the climate crisis.
Overall, it’s really about finding what they’re passionate about and find a way to connect that to climate change, whether it is water rights, sustainable fashion, art, etc. It could also be music because when people listen to cool music, they listen and pay attention to our messages. So I would say rather than one specific policy, there are many different avenues they can take.
What is the difference between Zero Hour and Sunrise Movement?
Zero Hour and Sunrise are both youth-organizing movements. Sunrise focuses mostly on the Green New Deal and divestment, and they are only US based. We’re more focused on dismantling the system that is contributing to the climate crisis such as the patriarchy, racism, the US military industrial complex. So we try to educate people about the intersectionality between them and the climate crisis, and what we try to talk about is more of a big picture and more international. Even though the Green New Deal is one thing that we do push for, we like to be more open so people can cater their needs.
Is Friday for Future connected to the Zero Hour?
Friday for Future is another organization but it’s less solution-based, it’s more like
People strike every Friday and it’s less of an organization pushing for certain goals.
Is there a chapter that is based at George Washington or do other GW students participate with you or is there any other avenues within GW for you to do advocacy work?
The Zero Hour DC chapter I found is specifically not GW based, it is to address the issues in DC because I think many people disregard those issues and they only talk about national issues. But there is action from GW because they have a sunrise team that works on divestment and they also have a sustainability committee that I work pretty closely with. But I’m pretty sure that every student got something around them such as some sort of green school, a garden, or something near them even if it’s really small. So maybe they can look at their town’s newsletter or ask around if they have an after school program, and if not, they can take initiative.
Most of the schools that our students go to are fairly progressive or have done some stuff and some haven’t at all but it’s a mix. But I was asking because FXB was considering expanding to college students and so I just tried to understand how college advocacy happens and what the different existing opportunities are for students.
I think it really depends on college, but most of the organizations you find are student-led so it’s usually not as much of the school itself as it is to the student body because students are the ones who create the clubs rather than the school giving them those clubs.
So in the DC chapter that you founded there are young people who are living in DC, maybe they’re working or they’re students.
It’s a range of ages and there’s room for everybody. I think people don’t understand that there are so many different avenues and levels and things you can do within a movement. Your goals can be like bringing a social media platform or create some infographics that reach more people so they can understand better. You and your friends can get together and make a powerpoint about climate change, send it to your teachers and ask them to share the presentation with their class. There are so many different things you can do but I think people get afraid if they’re too young or they’re not the most experienced but no one comes in as an experienced person because you learn as you go.