Bearing Witness to Injustice with Maia Wikler

Bearing Witness to Injustice with Maia Wikler

As an activist and journalist who writes for Teen Vogue and other leading publications, Maia Wikler is documenting the human and environmental impacts of climate change for a Generation Z audience, often said to be the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it.

In this interview, we wanted to learn a little about what it's like to witness the impacts of environmental justice up close and in person, and how vulnerability, community and being present and are the keys to healing our planet and ourselves.

Tell us a little about you. Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun?

I’m from Philadelphia but made the move out to the west coast as soon as I could! I first moved to Vancouver for grad school for a Masters in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia. But I was still craving more nature and outdoors adventuring so I just moved to Vancouver Island, where I am now living in a cabin amongst arbutus trees, Douglas firs and cedars.

Maia Wikler surfing

Above: a sunset surf at Jordan River on Vancouver Island, BC

I find great joy in community, creativity, moving my body outside and wandering. From potlucks and foraging wild foods with friends to organizing film screenings, my heart is so full while being surrounded by incredible, compassionate people. As a writer and creative, my solitude and ability to wander outside is incredibly important to me. When I am mountain biking forest trails or paddling out for a surf in my 5/4 wetsuit in the freezing cold Pacific Ocean, my mind feels the most free, clear and curious.

I think it is super important to engage our senses, especially as we live in a digital age of distraction, attention feels revolutionary. When I can unplug and wander through mossy forests, where curtains of lichen drape the branches of trees, I feel alive and restored — happy!

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Through your work as a Teen Vogue contributing writer reporting on climate justice, you've been able to raise the profile of the movement in a major fashion magazine with millions of readers. What are your best communication tips for young environmentalists who want their voices to carry this kind of credibility?

When I was fourteen years old and first learned about climate change I felt incredibly discouraged because I didn’t think I could be a part of the solutions. I thought you could only be involved if you were a scientist or an engineer because the climate crisis was primarily portrayed as an issue of metrics and emissions reduction. Now, after years of organizing in community and deeply learning about the intersections of climate justice, I understand the movement holistically — one that encompasses racial, social, environmental and economic justice. I encourage young environmentalists to nurture a deep understanding of these issues that go beyond metrics and delve into stories, lived experiences and emotion — if we can convey the relatable dimensions of climate change in the way we communicate, we can better engage and mobilize people to act and see themselves as a part of the solution.

Maia Wikler at a speaking engagement

Above: Maia speaks on a panel in Seattle advocating for the Arctic

It is crucial for anyone speaking on these issues to earn their credibility by being grounded in the scope of the issue (intersectionality), being accountable to communities and informed by relationship to land, waters, and place. Everything must be guided by consent based practices. When you are honoring relations, practicing consent and accountability, being humble and recognizing privilege and forms of colonial bias, then you are garnering credibility.

Of all the people I have interviewed, including well known politicians and public figures, I find those who are not actively engaged and accountable to community are always a bit out of touch and don’t carry the same credibility as those grounded in relationships.

Maia Wikler hosting a North Face panel on protecting the Arctic from drilling

Above: Maia hosted a panel for The North Face with Jody Potts and her daughter, Quannah Chasing Horse, a 17-year old Han Gwich’in youth who has been tirelessly advocating for the protection of her homelands from oil drilling in the Arctic

You've traveled to witness environmental injustices up close and in person. When you immerse yourself in powerful experiences like this, what emotions come up and how do you handle them? Do you think that fear of feeling these emotions could be a reason why many people are in denial of the climate crisis?

I think a patriarchal society discourages vulnerability and the spectrum of emotion, yet when we allow ourselves to experience vulnerability then we can more meaningfully connect, be present and reflect on our experiences and relationships. Embracing vulnerability and all of the emotions that come with witnessing human and environmental injustices is vital. Otherwise, we are removing ourselves to be “objective” and creating distance between ourselves and everything around us — if we're not being present and emotionally engaged, how then are we truly bearing witness?

Maia Wikler on embracing the emotions of the climate crisis

There is no such thing as objectivity, science isn’t objective, and the sooner we can let go of that fallacy and embrace our collective humanity, the better we can show up in our work, in our communities and with one another.

You believe in community — from hosting conferences that bring youth activists together, to film festivals for cross-pollinating ideas. What do you believe unites a community — is it shared fear, or shared hope?

I believe what unites community is a commitment to collective liberation, the ability to empathize and feel that those around you are truly present in a shared experience. When we can hold space for one another to show up as our fullest, complex, sometimes messy selves with honesty, vulnerability and accountability, we are creating a powerful foundation of support to collectively carry us through challenging times.

Reciprocal relationships and showing up in a strong practice of community and consent is the opposite of capitalism, it is the opposite of being extractive and a way for us to put into practice the values for a more just world in our daily lives.

Indigenous youth climate activists

Above: Maia with a group of youth lobbying on Capitol Hill to pass a bill protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling

You're the media director for SustainUS, a youth leadership council that sent a delegation of indigenous youth to COP25, the 2019 United Nations climate conference. What is the mainstream climate movement missing when indigenous voices aren't included? Why is indigenous youth leadership the solution for climate justice?

Indigenous sovereignty is climate justice, therefore indigenous voices must be front and center. The mainstream climate movement is failing to understand the roots of climate injustice (colonialism, capitalism, systemic oppression/dispossession/displacement); therefore, if the roots of the problem aren’t fully grasped, proposed solutions will always fall short.

It is the responsibility of the media and journalists to inform the public for a stronger democracy — knowledge is power. However, when the media calls Indigenous youth “anti-pipeline protestors or activists” they are actually upholding colonialist frameworks because Indigenous youth are land defenders, water protectors and fighting for their human rights to their ancestral lands, culture and identity.

Maia Wikler on the role of journalism in the fight against climate injustice

Above: Reporting in the field for Teen Vogue on threats to the Arctic Refuge on The North Face expedition

Language is powerful; it shapes our consciousness and ability to understand different issues. It is integral for the mainstream climate movement to grasp intersectionality and put B/IPOC voices front and center — they are the ones who understand climate injustice best because they are the ones most impacted, and therefore have the most informed approach to the most just solutions.

In light of the way that world leaders are reacting dismissively and even offensively to youth leaders of the climate movement, do you think it's more effective for Generation Z to push into the elite, established circles where power is concentrated but dissenting voices are not welcome, or focus on a counterculture movement?

I think what is most effective is for every single person in this movement for climate justice to reflect on their skills, resources, networks, experiences and talents and channel that into their approach for change. If someone is most energized and well versed in elite established spheres and wants to tackle the problems there, that’s great. If someone thrives as a grassroots community organizer and wants to put forth their vision for a just world into daily practice, that’s amazing too.

I always say that the sheer biodiversity of this planet represents the diversity needed in this movement, that there is a place for every single person to be involved in a way that is true to them.

Indigenous youth activists for climate justice

Thanks to Maia for sharing her story with us. Follow her at @maiareillyw and browse her Teen Vogue articles for more.

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