Artivism in Action with XR Youth NYC


We live in a crazy time and it’s easy to freak out and only see the negative or alternatively put on blinders and ignore it all. (note: as I write this we are in a global pandemic that is impossible to ignore but I’m talking in a more general sense.) So it’s exciting to see how people are coming together to create community and effect change. Extinction Rebellion is one such group. Less than two years old, Extinction Rebellion-known as XR- began in London and has become an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.

XR Youth NYC is a local group designed as a space for youth to come together as a separate community within the Extinction Rebellion movement. In February they did an action outside of a main New York Fashion Week venue as a protest against the negative aspects of the industry. We recently sat down with some of the members to learn more about that event and their thoughts on art and activism.

Our first question is how did you get involved with XR Youth?

Laila Fieldman, 15

went to the Climate March on Sept. 20th, and I just saw how many people showed up for this and it made a really big impact on me. And I was like I don’t want this to be one day, I want to keep going.

Sophia Turso, 17

I got involved with XR because my friends were asking for help with an art fund raiser and I thought it was a really cool opportunity and I just stuck around because the whole group and the movement is so cool.

Annabel Sexton-Daldry, 16

I went to London last year and saw Extinction Rebellion taking over Trafalgar Square and it was this huge mass of people that all had one goal in mind: to save our planet. To save us. To do something. I feel like it’s this feeling of frustration, you feel in the pit of your stomach, and it’s just what do I do? What can I do? They tell us that we can’t do anything as kids. And when I saw XR I thought, this is what I can do.

Alejandro Vasquez, 18

I got involved because I saw it as a chance to make a more direct impact and tell people in the City and politicians that “yeah, we’re strikers, yeah, we’re kids but we’re not messing around. It’s our future and we will disrupt business as usual and shut things down if you guys don’t act and we’re going to keep doing it until you guys either step up or step down”.

One organization we’re more familiar with is Fridays for the Future. How is XR Youth different?
– I’ve been involved with FFF for a longer time, but in XR Youth artivism is more of a core value. It’s a different way where every single person can apply what they’re good at and what they’re passionate about into XR, like graphics, art, music… everything.

 Annabel – XR in New York is a community of people that have a huge range of interests and are able to use these interests towards a common goal. We can organize an art fund raiser, we can help organize protests, we can use art and our voices to do something about the climate crisis.

 Sophia – The actual people, doing all of these projects, are so invested in it and it’s really powerful to see. Also XR’s a really good resource for us to get a lot of art out there, not just climate related stuff and it’s really awesome to see that grow, see artists grow.

 Alejandro – I’m one of the action coordinators, so I’ve been thinking non-stop about how we can make stuff more creative and more polarizing, so it engages creativity but you also have to put in escalated actions.I feel that’s one key component that I love about XR. It challenges me. For example, I’m walking around the City and I’m like, “Oh right there could be an action”. And I’m there for the next half hour taking pictures. I’m always scoping out places now just in my regular day to day life.

 Can you further define “an action”?
– So we have multiple different types…(pauses) so does someone else want to take this? (silence) ok, I just wanted to make sure no one else wanted to speak…

I appreciate that.
– So we have different degrees of risk taking in actions. Some are not arrestable, like swarming. Like when you take over a road at the crosswalks and do a soft block. A soft block is we’re not chained or anything, we’re just using our bodies –like linking arms– and we stay until the cops show up and then we go to another place.  The whole purpose is to create a gridlock and disrupt business as usual.

And then we have actions that are full shutdowns of places or takeovers of areas like we when we took over Times Square. We had a big boat and we kind of put it right in the middle of the intersection and one of our 16 year olds glued himself to the boat and waited, He was the last to get arrested, and we took over Times Square for two plus hours.

You guys just did an action over NYFW. How did that come about?
– We knew that fashion week was coming up and we knew we wanted to do something but it’s the difference between a “call in” and a “call out”. A lot of the actions are “call outs” to certain industries to certain people: calling them out in terms of the Climate Movement, the Climate Crisis, and we knew we wanted to make this action a “call in” asking the fashion industry to join us in this fight. We came up with these five different outfits that we made through upcycling and had our own “shows” outside of the place where many of the big shows were happening. And we made posters with our four demands which were: 1. improve their circular supply chain, 2. make fashion equitable, 3. no new polyester, and 4. net zero carbon emissions.

Laila – I think that XR people really love fashion, are really into it, and we didn’t want to make the fashion industry our enemy but we’re saying, we see the issues that you have and how you’re impacting the climate and we’re asking and showing how it can be different. And how it can be improved. And if a bunch of teenagers can do it just with their hands well you can do it if you have all these resources and… we looked great.

Sophia – Specifically asking them not just for sustainability within the creation but also the marketing and inclusivity of models… we’re trying to ask the Fashion Industry to become the best it can be instead of where it’s currently at which is very far away from that. And we’re trying to ask them not to just “go green” in this way but literally to become better and stay better. Not just for a month or for a special line – everything should be sustainable.

Alejandro – And I was a little surprised at the reception of the people at the fashion show. I was expecting them to be really prissy and annoying and shoo us away, especially the people that were running the check in and stuff, but they were really enjoying it and they loved the creativity and I feel that that’s one thing that we sometimes lose – I lose– remembering there are actual people in every industry and most of them believe in climate change and most of them want to take action.

You sort of answered my next question, but what did you learn in the process?
– We are a lot more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. We put that together in nine days.

Laila – I had a similar realization. I realized like “Oh, I don’t need to learn how to be an activist.” You just do it out of necessity and it happens.

Annabel – It showed us you don’t have to be a professional at anything you do in order to make an impact. It is a common misconception when it comes to the climate crisis that you have to know all these facts. You can come into this just knowing you want to have a future– and you can make a difference.

Sophia – Also, that when you call on our people, they’ll respond and they will come together and make this happen. It could’ve gone very differently if only three people showed up but so many people wanted to be a part of it, wanted to make stuff happen.

 Who have you found to be influential on your path?
  – The people in XR, they motivate me to do what I do. And it’s the other activists that I look up to that humble me and make me want to do better, like our local chapter coordinators Adam and Olivia, they’re incredible–and the people I see every other Sunday for three hours a week, putting their all into this.

Laila – I have the same exact answer. Especially after they did the “nowhere on a dead planet” fundraiser, I was amazed, I performed at that and I was so amazed. I was like, they’re just teenagers and I’m just a teenager and I thought if they can do this, I can do this.

What’s an ongoing challenge and how do you combat that and keep your spirits up? So it’s a two-part question…
– I’m a little brain dead…I was up doing stuff til three last night so…I was gonna say burnout, especially I sometimes get a little burned out because trying to balance everything is a little tricky sometime. Having 20 things to do and only having a couple of hours to do everything. But one thing that XR really prides itself on is a regenerative culture. We’re a community that’s important to each other. I literally couldn’t do what I do, planning stuff for action, without my other coordinator, Darius, cos he really makes it fun, so we’re all on calls for six hours, like planning stuff, but then we put in jokes and stuff so it makes it light and keeps me and him going.

Anyone want to add to that? How you keep your spirits up? What’s the challenge?
– Burnout’s the big one. And also the fact that we are teenagers and so it’s like here’s school stuff, here’s work, here’s XR and then here’s my actual social life and how do I balance everything within 7 days a week?

Annabel – Yes and something that helps is the community of XR and seeing that your friends are your co-workers as well. Sometimes when you put so much effort into an action and do all this work, it can be frustrating because you look at the people at the top and they basically turn their back on it.  It’s like they applaud it and then they don’t do anything. That can get your spirits down. Like some politicians, when they’re like “we love the climate movement, we know there’s a climate crisis” but they don’t do anything.

They’re patronizing?
– Yes and it gets frustrating because you don’t know what to do because you’ve done everything you can do.  But the culture of XR keeps me going – it’s like “ok, this action didn’t get them to look. What will?”

(to Alejandro) so I get from you that keeping a sense of humor and levity is important to you?
– yeah cos if not we’re going to fall into the depressive pit. This happened to me a couple of days ago – I was at an event for XR adults and you’re sitting and Roger Hallam (one of the founders of XR) was talking and he went really deep into Extinction Rebellion and saying we’re going to be extinct if we don’t do anything; large cities will face starvation if we continue doing these things and we don’t have enough infrastructure for agriculture in local places, like NYC, which is a food desert, to continue when other places are going to suffer and go through mass migrations, and I remember I had to step back a little bit and like breathe, and then go back in ‘cuz it was all serious for three hours…

 Sophia – I think that’s why it’s so wonderful that XR youth NYC is so focused on art because it gives us an outlet and also we are always trying to get new resources for people to be making art or seeing art, like the fashion show, and I think that’s something that helps when we’re talking about stuff that’s really heavy, like the climate crises, is that we have such a wonderful group of people who are constantly just making beautiful things that we get to see all the time. And they’re such beautiful people – It’s like everyone who comes is such an amazing person and is so talented and so wonderful to go and see people making such cool art all the time that it brings, it balances it for me.

Is fashion your main issue or is it all over climate?
– Climate 
– Our new things are task forces that focus on different issues. There is a fashion task force that is moving forward because many companies responded very well to this technique of a call in and reached out to us and asked what they can do to help the movement which was amazing to see. There will be other task forces for individualized things but it is climate all over.

What would you recommend if there were people who wanted to start their own XR youth group, or something similar, not nearby…
– Go into it with a passion and knowing what you want, and without any preconceived notions or the idea I can’t do it. If you want to do it, do it. And get more people to do it with you and make something and build a community. There are a lot of ways and a lot of templates. Just make it happen if that’s what you want.

I have a question of the overall umbrella – there were so many groups that got together for the climate March, there are so many things that are upcoming, the three days of Earth Day, is there a lot of interaction with other groups, and do you belong to other groups? Or is this your main…how do you integrate, synthesize…
– They’re all necessary. I know a lot of the people in Zero Hour and Sunrise Movement and XR…Alejandro, aren’t you in all of them?

Alejandro – I actually got arrested with Sunrise a couple of weeks ago, I’m involved with a lot of climate groups because they’re all different facets even though XR is one of my main one right now cos I love it so much. I definitely try to contribute in any way and make it intersectional like I feel like we try to coordinate with social justice issues and everything, especially during the Earth Day March. It’s a coalition of so many groups that are all fighting for climate justice and climate justice is also social justice.

Good, I’m glad…do you have a favorite quote or anything…

Alejandro – It’s my strike sign, my week 1 on March 15th, ” The biggest threat to the humans, to the earth, is the idea that someone else is going to save it.”*

That’s good!
– I forget by who.

Laila – I saw the most simple sign at one of these climate marches and all it said was “If not you, who?” And that was it for me, I was like “oh, ok yeah me, ok, that’s who.” It’s almost that simple if you need it to be. Just it is your future so you need to do actions to take control of it. And that kind of sealed the deal for me.

Sophia – My first climate strike sign was September 20th. It was a line from the musical Firebringer, “There’s been a change in the climate something’s in the air” and that whole thing, the whole song… it was like yeah this is we need to do something right now, it’s very much, it resonated with me.

Annabel – My first sign when I went to a climate action was “Have some empathy, asshole” (laughter all around) Not as poetic but for me, that anger, or just passion, I think that’s necessary. Uh…yeah…It kind of describes the whole movement: have some empathy, assholes.

L-R Annabel, Alejandro, Sophia + Laila wearing Zero Waste Daniel and their own thrifted/upcycled clothes.

*Full/Actual Quote from Robert Swan : “The Greatest Threat to Our Planet Is the Belief That Someone Else Will Save It”

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