At the start of 2021, a coalition of youth-led organizations drafted a memo calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to create an “Office of Young Americans” within the president’s executive office, and to appoint a director of youth engagement to oversee it. “As the generation that led social movements over the last several years and fundamentally changed the political landscape that determined the election, we have more than earned our seat at the table,” the memo reads.
Indeed, from climate change to social justice, youth activists across the country and in New Mexico have increasingly played vital roles, big and small, in addressing political, cultural and social change.
For this week's cover story, four interns accepted into the Winter 2020 training cohort for the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, SFR's nonprofit partner, identified a few key issues driving youth activism—climate change, immigration, LGBTQ rights and social justice—and sought out youth who have worked on these concerns. The project spotlights four activists ranging in ages from 11 to 28, working with and for local nonprofits Wise Fool New Mexico, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action, Global Warming Express, as well as other initiatives. While each activist has areas of specific focus, their overlapping motivations soon became clear. As Artemisio Romero y Carver, who works both as a climate change and social justice activist, says: "To know that there were wrong things in this world and to know that as a person, I have to do something to stop those wrong things from continuing."
—Julia Goldberg, project mentor
World of Difference
At 11, Sierra Woosley is fighting for the earth and disability rights
By Magnificent Farrell
Three years ago, then-8-year-old Sierra Woosley read The Global Warming Express, a children's book about the dangers of climate change. Now 11, Woosley is a deaf-blind activist whose combined hearing and vision loss informs her experiences and knowledge.
"My experience as a deaf-blind person means that self-advocacy can be hard," she tells SFR, who interviewed Woosley via email. "Every day, I learn about new barriers in our society, and there's not enough information with people's needs for access. For example, information access like captions, certified deaf interpreters, location and lighting, color-font changes on computers so that deaf-blind people can remove barriers."
Woosley was born in Oregon, lived in Vermont and has been in New Mexico for the past seven years. After she read The Global Warming Express, she knew she wanted to make a difference. "The book has a lot of important information. And it is powerful that children wrote it, and that it is about climate crisis and protecting the environment," she says.
The book tells the story of an Earth imperiled in familiar ways—oil spills, global warming, environmental neglect—and the animals who try to save it.
Fellow Santa Fean Marina Weber, now 18, began writing the book when she herself was around 8 years old. The final version, which includes illustrations by her classmate Joanna Whysner, eventually made it to President Barack Obama and includes an introduction by former Sen. Tom Udall.
After Woosley read it, she began having discussions with her parents and others about climate change, and how it's affecting the Earth. In 2018, she met Weber and learned about the Global Warming Express, the by-kids-for-kids nonprofit Weber co-founded in 2012, geared at children ages 8 to 12 (a new program called the Global Warming Emergency is in development for ages 13 and up).
"We don't impose a plan, we bring a program which helps the kids with climate science, science, resilience, arts and advocacy," Global WE's Executive Director Genie Stevens, Weber's mother, tells SFR. "They found when they brought those issues to adult leaders, they listened and paid attention."
Woosley signed up immediately and has remained involved since.
Her activism and speeches mostly focus on disability rights in the climate crisis. At 11, she has a matter-of-fact perspective on how climate change will impact New Mexico over the next five to 10 years.
"I would say there will be more drought, and an increase of extreme weather and fires, more carbon dioxide in the air from pollution…possible earthquakes from fracking and our ecosystems and food habitat may be at risk," she says, adding, "But this can be reversed if we change our behavior." The next 10 years, she notes, will "likely be people fighting over resources, severe shortage of resources, increased rate of people getting cancer from chemicals, and severe poverty." To change this trajectory: "We will need to learn how to work together without hatred and we will need to learn how to reuse materials and use public transportation."
While the Global WE is kid-focused, Woosley has many opportunities to work with older activists, which she says can be motivating. "When I work with older activists, it is very inspiring, and I often look up to them and learn new facts," she says. "My experience is interesting with older activists because they can become really powerful when they talk about climate change."
Woosley herself inspires others, including her mother, Marisa Soboleski. "When Sierra was a baby, we gave her a sign name with a S from the shoulder indicating 'boldness, bravery' in American Sign Language," Soboleski says. "Eleven years later, this is absolutely still the case—she's not afraid to speak her mind, stand in front of a crowd, and fight for social and human rights. It's been quite a journey and I look forward to her continuing her journey. I have learned so much from her and I am so humbled and lucky to be her mother."
As for Woosley, she offers this advice to her peers: "Keep an open mind, work together, don't exclude anyone we're different from. We work together."
Magnificent Farrell is a student at the Santa Fe Community College. They've aspired to be a writer for some time now, and have written for various blogs. They have also done various projects with Wise Fool New Mexico, performing in many shows in the past four years. When Magnificent isn't writing, they find an interest in forensic science, and studying that field of work.
The Big Top
At Wise Fool, youth create a safe place to land
By Urmi Vallassery
At a lively weekend class for 4- to 6-year-olds in aerials, trapeze, obstacle courses and creative movement, 17-year-old Revely Rothschild introduces herself to the bouncy children with her pronouns. She then explains the different pronouns the children can use to describe themselves—he, she or they—and says they should choose whatever they are comfortable with for the day.
Open-mindedness and inclusivity feature heavily at Santa Fe nonprofit Wise Fool New Mexico, which annually holds classes for 2,000 youth and adults, and promotes social justice through puppetry, theater and circus art performances. The organization's core values of community, art accessibility and social justice, Rothschild says, "helped me learn to support other people and lift them," and inspired her last June to start her own LGBTQ youth support group (SFLGBTQ).
Rothschild identifies as bisexual and recalls one of the "hardest things for me about coming out that I've heard true for many other people as well is feeling alone." It's a sentiment fellow Wise Fool member Arlo MacGillivray, 16, echoes. "Being in the [LGBTQ] community can be terrifying. While the community is very supportive, it can be terrifying to exist as a trans person or really as anything that is not a cisgender hetero person."
Before the pandemic hit, the group gathered to talk, as well as share and discuss work by artists in the LGBTQ community. "Some themes of our conversations included labels," Rothschild says, "what it might be like in other countries, and our experiences at schools with [Gay Student Alliance] organizations. We also talked about important queer historical figures and compared artists like [painter] Mickalene Thomas with artists like [multi-media artist and author] Slava Mogutin."
Leading a group where vulnerability is the center of many conversations can be difficult, Rothschild notes, but also rewarding. "It was very interesting for me to…make a place where everyone could feel welcome and heard," she says, recalling a conversation that took place between a friend in Dubai and one in Arizona regarding the differences between living as an LGBTQ person in their two different environments. "Even though they had such different [life] experiences," Rothschild notes, "I think someone made a joke and then everyone started laughing and we just really connected in that moment. It was really powerful to just see, like, even though we come from such different places in the world, we can truly bond in such a strong way over a shared experience."
Rothschild has been involved with Wise Fool since she was 5 years old, and professionally involved for the last six years, now participating as both a member and assistant coach. Wise Fool, she says, is a place "to express myself through performance, not even in relation to LGBTQ rights, but [Wise Fool] has really made me more confident as an LGBTQ person [and] also directly helped me connect with the LGBTQ community."
Rothschild's experience tracks with the organization's foundation. "Social justice helps us all be better people," Wise Fool Co-Executive Director Kristen Woods says. "Learning about the issues that are affecting the lives of our community members can help us to treat others better, work to create positive change in our community and change attitudes in ourselves that are harmful. We hope that the youth that visit Wise Fool leave as more accepting and brave, and more thoughtful about the lives of others."
All classes welcome people of different ages, sizes, genders and backgrounds. The classes honor personal pronouns and encourage community engagement with posters and signs from protests and actions around the space. Youth are key to the organization.
"This year, the youth group has been pretty much the heart of the school," Woods says. "The passion and energy, the love, the connections, and the friendships."
And for the youth, Wise Fool has offered a much-needed space before and during the pandemic. "Being able to open up and express themselves at Wise Fool…I feel is really important," Indigo Austin, another 16-year-old Santa Fean and member of the Wise Fool community, says. "As a trans and [bisexual] person…I feel like it's just having everyone in the [LGBTQ] community being treated equally to everyone" that makes the work essential. "And from a personal standpoint, it was…one of my only real outlets because I was just stuck at home all the time…It was so nice to be able to come here and express myself creatively."
While the pandemic and busy schedules have limited their meeting time, the group remains important to Rothschild as a rising college freshman, where she hopes to possibly study education or psychology. She plans to pass the baton on to another one of Wise Fool's youth and offers this piece of advice to any queer activist: "…I would say…find a place where you feel like you are supported and where [there are other people] who you trust to love you no matter what…Wise Fool has definitely, definitely been that."
Anyone interested in joining the group should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Urmi Vallassery is a senior at the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West in Montezuma. She moved to New Mexico a year ago, but is originally from Texas and India. From the time she was born, she moved across five different countries with her family and was exposed to a vast array of cultures. Because of this, she has always been interested in social justice, international relations and activism. She hopes to continue her passions in these fields in college, but for now, she's enjoying the time she has left in Montezuma! While she's at home, she enjoys spending time with her family, playing with her dog, learning new knitting patterns and baking pastries.
Artemisio Romero y Carver believes empathy can change the world
By Nicholas Romero
As Americans across the nation took to the streets last spring calling for police reform in the wake George Floyd's murder by police in Minneapolis, Artemisio Romero y Carver and a group of artist activists were constructing an altar at the Santa Fe Railyard in response to the killing. They built the O'Gah Po'Geh Altar Project as a place for healing, reflection and meditation, as well as in recognition of the struggle of marginalized individuals in New Mexico.
Constructed with reclaimed wild-harvested wood and adobe, each of the altar's four sides align with the four cardinal directions and feature work by local artists within the Indigenous, Mestize/Chicane, Black and immigrant communities.
Merging art and social justice action reflects Romero y Carver's dedication to both. As he finishes his last year of high school at the New Mexico School for the Arts, Romero y Carver, 18, juggles multiple jobs, a social life and work with several organizations around Northern New Mexico that focus on climate change and fighting for marginalized people. He's also finishing up his term as the City of Santa Fe's youth poet laureate.
His venture into environmental activism grew out of involvement with a school speech and debate club. While preparing for a debate, Romero y Carver encountered a report from New Zealand, he says, which forecasted an existential threat from carbon emissions by 2050.
"They describe the potential of a hot Earth that has been so super-heated that it is essentially unlivable, and that was terrifying…I was like, 'Oh my god!' There's this larger injustice being perpetrated against the entire human species…That's when I decided to take arms or, you know, decided to become an activist."
Romero y Carver delved deeper into environmental policy and encountered the proposed federal Green New Deal. "That…document told me…there is a space where I could be representative of my community and my community could be represented," he says. "Here is a description of a better future…I believed that I had to do everything I could, and I still believe I have to do everything I can in my power, to get us to that future."
Romero y Carver helped found the youth-led nonprofit Youth United for Climate Crisis Action (YUCCA), for which he serves on the steering committee, and is currently serving as the lead lobbyist for YUCCA's lobbying arm, YUCCA ACTION, at the Legislature. Romero y Carver says the group's top priorities include Senate Joint Resolution 3, which would amend the state constitution to add environmental rights; the Community Solar Act (House Bill 106); amendments to the Produced Water Act that would have increased oil and gas industry regulation as it relates to water (Senate Bill 86, which was tabled by the Senate Judiciary committee); and a bill to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. "It's been a learning curve," Romero y Carver says. "I took one government class in high school and then I started doing lobbying. I was very intimidated at first, but I think a lot of it comes down to articulating and understanding historical context and I'm feeling OK with it. We've had some small victories. It's been wonderful to contribute to those victories."
Alongside his environmental activism, Romero y Carver, who grew up as on Santa Fe's Southside and in Lamy, aligns with anti-racism activism and what he describes as systemic racism in Northern New Mexico. He points to the Department of Cultural Affairs' removal of the "Multi-Cultural" mural as an example. "The removal of that mural is part of a larger process of gentrification that has removed nonwhite expression and peoples from downtown Santa Fe," he says. Romero y Carver also helped organize protests in Santa Fe alongside Walk the Talk Santa Fe, another youth-led group focused on addressing police brutality and systematic racism.
"He has been able to bring the voices of Chicanx, or Latinx [people] in Santa Fe to the forefront of a lot of different issues," fellow organizer Mary Ann Maestas, a campaign organizer with Earth Care, says. "He shows up in a way that's like, 'I'm here to show you that from my own identity I stand in solidarity with you all. I will show up for you all…And he has really worked to be a connector between different groups, different people, and broadening the network, I think in Santa Fe especially, around these different movements."
As for what comes next—that would be college. Romero y Carver applied to 19, and says he hopes to embark on a dual program to study political science and fine arts. Needless to say, he intends to remain active.
"I think activism at its core is the constant and active practice of empathy," Romero y Carver says. "To know that there were wrong things in this world and to know that as a person, I have to do something to stop those wrong things from continuing."
Nicholas Romero is a staff photographer and freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo, and a senior at the University of New Mexico majoring in Mass Communication/Journalism, on track to graduate in the spring of 2021. During his free time, Nicholas is found spending it with his two dogs, hiking, taking photographs, or playing sports. Nicholas has a passion for sports, animals and culture with hopes of using his photography and writing to make a positive impact on those fronts. He has spent the last two years taking photographs of sports, culture and protests around the City of Albuquerque.
An activist finds their place helping immigrants find theirs
By Kiera Ortiz
As a transgender, nonbinary individual, ben found their passion working with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, transporting transgender asylum seekers from ICE detention centers—providing friendship, warm food and community.
SFR is not including ben's last name at their request.
Now 28, ben has been involved with activism since they were a teenager growing up in Littleton, Colorado. There, ben attended a unique charter school that exposed students to different ways of learning, sometimes holding classes in downtown Denver and discussing topics such as racial justice. "I just learned so much," ben says. "It was so expansive." Some fellow students were undocumented, while others had status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Observing teachers who protected and ensured those students had their needs met, "I realized how much [immigration] impacts people's lives," ben says.
After leaving school at 15 and getting their GED, ben became more involved in activism, joining an organization called the Buried Seedz of Resistance, a youth-driven group that worked to end violence against LGBTQIA+ people.
Yet as they came into their queerness, a divide developed between ben and their parents, and they were asked to move out at the age of 17. After that, ben spent many years struggling to stay afloat. As an adopted, mixed-race and queer kid, ben struggled to find their place in society and within their own family. However, they believe those struggles "allowed [them] to tap into some deep…empathy as a young person."
Moving to New Mexico in the summer of 2019, ben says, allowed them to become more involved in activism and community work, and feel they were no longer "in survival mode for the first time in really a long time."
After learning about SFDP's work with post-release trans women, ben applied for and became a fellow with the nonprofit in the summer of 2019 through Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program. Before moving here, ben had done work with the organization, getting "just a peek" of the post-release program. "When I moved here it was like, 'Yes, I want to do that full-time, all of the time,'" ben says.
That work consisted of picking up immigrants after their release from Cibola County Correctional Center—located in Milan—and bringing them to the house where they would stay. There, they would receive bienvenidos meals, which ben describes as the "first hot, familiar meal that they would have in months, sometimes years." The meals would be eaten communally and then ben would take them shopping for gender-affirming clothing at Thrift A Lot and makeup at Walmart. On average, ben would spend a week with each person.
"We'd be in my car playing music way too loud, listening to the same freaking Camila Cabello song over and over," and ben would watch them transform from suffering in detention to living in a "wildly affirming safe space [where they would] just be silly and listen to music and eat good food."
SFDP's program ended overnight when Cibola closed the unit for transgender women in January 2020 and transferred them to ICE facilities in Tacoma, Washington ,and Aurora, Colorado.
Interim Executive Director Michael Santillanes says project staff have been working with agencies in those communities to help continue the services SFDP offered. For instance, ben helped set up a post-release program in Colorado. "I'm sad that I'm not a part of it," ben says. "But I also would love for me to not have this job ever again and for detention to just end."
During the Trump administration, Santillanes says, SFDP was in "crisis mode…A lot of our work has been reactive, trying to meet…incredibly pressing emergencies." Now, the program is working to prepare current trans asylum seekers in Juarez and Tijuana, Mexico, for entrance into the US and hoping to see the new Biden administration press forward with important changes to US immigration policy.
Ben's current focus is on sponsor outreach, creating materials for both sponsors and those being sponsored. "I'm still learning all the time about immigration," ben says, but they encourage young activists to engage with issues that matter to them and not worry about making mistakes along the way. "Young people are so vital to any movement. You'll be leaders so soon, so developing those skills and building up your knowledge base is so important right now."
Kiera Ortiz is a junior in the International Baccalaureate program at Sandia High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is interested in pursuing a college education in journalism with a focus on International Relations. In her free time, she enjoys painting and drawing, caring for her many houseplants and listening to podcasts about psychology.
Support the next cohort of students that will receive training from the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, learn more about the program and see past projects at nmjournalism.org. The nonprofit mailing address is PO Box 4910, Santa Fe, NM 87502.
The organization also benefits from proceeds of the ongoing SFR Photo Show, displayed at the Santa Fe Outlet Mall. Buy prints at sfreporter.com/shop.