Anger has always come easily to me.
There is a folder on my computer titled “Raw Pent Up Political Anger.” It has eight documents inside of it. Three letters to the editors of the New York Times about their lack of coverage of women’s soccer, a 1,000-word scripted voicemail targeted at my representatives that contains the terrifying promise to “call every day until someone acknowledges I exist” (they haven’t yet), a document titled “call scripts” with step-by-step instructions for reaching your senator through the capital switchboard, and three more letters addressed to all of my various representatives. My personal favorite is titled “You may be the demise of democracy, but I am the future.” It’s not a catchy title but it is an accurate reflection of the letter’s content. It was longer than my Fourth Form research papers and hit highlights such as the racism inherent in our immigration system, sexual assault (I wrote it after the Kavanaugh hearings), and of course climate change. It concluded with a 700-word paragraph about how through dark-money campaign contributions, gerrymandering, voter ID laws—the whole kitchen sink of corruption and voter suppression—my senators were rapidly eroding our democracy. I promised to pay attention and when the time came, to vote them out.
I never sent the letter. All these documents I just listed were written of my own volition, just to pass the time.
Anger comes easily to me, and I have been angry for a long time. As many of you know, I live in North Carolina. Throughout elementary school, on Moral Mondays, I watched as people I knew traveled to Raleigh and, led by the Reverend Dr. Barber, protested whatever new injustice happened that week. On Wednesdays, we wore Red for Ed to protest the state’s lack of support for public schooling. After the election of Democratic governor Roy Cooper in 2016, the ensuing power grab by the outgoing governing party, added to the previously mentioned voter suppression, led the international Electoral Integrity Project to give North Carolina’s democracy a 58 out of 100. That’s only a passing grade in LV1 chem. In terms of democracy, that puts us above Iran but below India. I grew up steeped in frustration and dissent, and that was all before Trump took office.
My peers and I are all reaching political consciousness at what I can only hope is an unprecedented time for U.S. politics. We have heard our president speak about immigrants, women, and people of color with words and phrases I would not feel comfortable quoting in this Chapel. This Monday, guest speaker Josh Silver used the term “soft civil war” to describe the state of politics in this country. Misinformation and division—at times violent and fatal—are my norm. And all of this—this anger, this hate, this division—occurs concurrently with what appear as insurmountable challenges.
Challenges like a global pandemic, the worst economic downturn in decades, the continued reckoning with four hundred years of anti-Black white supremacy. On a more granular level, challenges like a prison system that penalizes being Black and criminalizes being poor. An education system that perpetuates these same oppressions. Diminishing voting rights and widespread corruption. The killing of Black trans women at epidemic proportions, shrinking health care even during a pandemic, rising gun deaths and suicides.
And finally, the threat which overshadows all: climate change. In brief: There is more carbon in the atmosphere now than in the last 400,000 years. Nineteen of the warmest twenty years have occurred since 2001. Just this summer, we have seen apocalyptic wildfires on the West Coast, too many named storms in the Atlantic to be contained by one alphabet (Tropical Storm Beta formed last week), and 2020 is on track to become the warmest year on record. And while this is the scientific reality of the problem, we still can’t agree as a nation that climate change is real. We have the technology needed to stave off the worst effects, and yet we aren’t even in the Paris Climate Accords2. Instead, in the last four years, precisely one hundred environmental regulations have been rolled back. Nothing deflates me more than considering what a climate change future looks like.
In short: this world is very good at making me, and probably you too, feel small. If hearing me read that list off makes you want to run to the top of a redwood only to reemerge in a few decades, I am right there with you. On many days in the last few years, if you picked the tree, I’d beat you there.
The problems we face are terrifying, and anger, apathy, and paralysis are all natural reactions. Perhaps not productive, but immensely human. I have been fortunate, however, to bear witness to an alternate—or perhaps more accurately, a parallel—way forward.
This summer I worked for an organization called Working Landscapes in Warrenton, North Carolina. Warrenton is an hour-and-twelve-minute drive from Chapel Hill and comfortably in the middle of nowhere. Drive down Main Street and you’ll pass first a “Warrenton Population 800” sign, then a traffic light, two cafes, the courthouse, the empty pedestal in front of the courthouse, a recently burned down pizza place, and finally the second traffic light. Then, you are on to next door Norlina.
If you were in my U.S. [history] class last year—and, for some odd reason, paid close attention to the topic of my research paper—you may also remember that Warrenton is the birthplace of the Environmental Justice movement. There’s a plaque a few minutes outside of town marking the movement. Since the 1980s, the number and scale of climate justice protests has only grown as citizens in Eastern North Carolina are called to act on everything from coal ash spills to natural gas pipelines to concentrated animal feeding operations to still more toxic landfills. It’s no coincidence that it’s also one of the poorest, most rural, and least white areas of the state. And yet, it was in this place that I encountered more cause for hope than I had ever known.
I first met Carla in person on the Fourth of July. With a pandemic-emptied summer looming, my dad suggested I give Carla a call. He’d worked with her before, and more recently her photo had appeared in the Washington Post in an article about North Carolina climate activists getting arrested protesting in Washington, DC. While I waited for her to arrive, I managed to get lost in town. To pass the time, I talked to an elderly man who found me on my bench. He was here to go antiquing—Warrenton has three antique stores—and had foolishly turned to me for directions. Instead, masked and six feet apart, we discussed the recent removal of the Confederate statue. A very Warrenton beginning.
Carla soon found me and extracted me from the conversation, and we went upstairs to her office. She made herself a cup of tea in her Bernie mug, and then quickly launched into a lengthy and meandering discussion of the world.
She told me Warrenton wasn’t a bad place to be this spring when the world broke. Unemployment means less when there are no jobs to begin with. Kids out of school changes life less when the schools are underfunded to the point of no utility. To her, the new chaos of the world was simply the reality of growing up in Warren County.
She still lives in her old family home up by Kerr Lake. She returned with her husband, Gabe, after getting a degree from UNC and a PhD from Duke, to start Working Landscapes. On the surface, Working Landscapes aims to revitalize local food systems to help develop the stagnated rural economy, but more accurately, Carla uses it to fill every community need she can think of. When I worked there, this consisted of buying produce from local farmers, packing it into vegetable boxes or preparing it as senior meals, then distributing these throughout the community at low or no cost, depending on need. That way, farmers get paid and families get fed.
My role in the organization was to use Carla’s network of allies in the region to investigate potential climate justice projects. This meant mostly making maps and setting up meetings. One afternoon, we were in neighboring Halifax, North Carolina, in a meeting with the director of a local solar farm. Our original goal was to tour their education facility. By pure chance, we found ourselves in a conference room with a motley crew of organization directors, interns, and Teach for America fellows. They traded gripes about the frustrations of climate justice work and economic development in rural communities. I was new to this room, but the conversation felt familiar. The same smallness, anger at outside actors, and frustration over a lack of progress dominated the conversation.
Then Carla transformed the room. As we talked, she wrote out on the board a way of framing the situation to connect with members of the community to help them realize their power. At the heart of this plan was a number—14,000—or the total number of votes that swung all of North Carolina for Obama in 2008. In just the four home counties we were in, some of the smallest and supposedly most insignificant in the state, there were 32,000 people who registered but did not vote in 2016—more than twice the number needed to swing a state like North Carolina. It was a simple statistic, but the shift in the room was immense. We were giddy at the secret she had just told us, giddy with the knowledge we had power. The plans for town halls, small grant-seeded organizations, and voter registration drives sprang up organically from there.
I went over to Carla’s house for dinner that night. We watched through the window as her kids swam in Kerr Lake in all their clothes, sun setting behind them. We talked about the future again, this time while washing dishes. I remember saying, “There are some days I think this world might turn out alright—and today is one of them.” Carla had transformed my anger to hope through collective action. For what is hope if not the belief in your own power to create change.
I would learn that this transformation is Carla’s superpower. I watched her do it with her twelve-year-old daughter, Juniper, who started a Sunrise hub earlier this month. I watched her do it with one of my coworkers who was, for the summer, living with her high school English teacher. Carla helped her get to NC State so she could earn a degree then return and become an English teacher. I watched her do it with local farmers facing broken supply chains and fickle weather, with local families and Haliwa Saponi tribe members stuck in food deserts. She would not consider herself a hero or a role model—she told me this explicitly. She was doing what she considered the minimum when faced with a world as broken as ours: accepting her anger and transforming it into hope through collective action. These situations were not inherently hopeful, but they were made this way by her willingness to choose power and to choose action.
Hope, however, is fragile. It requires care and maintenance. I may have felt hope that night on Kerr Lake, but what about when I woke up the next morning and checked the news? What about when a new climate change report comes out? What about when I receive a surprise call about the death of Justice Ginsberg? How would I avoid feeling small then? I needed to find another source of power, and that is why I stand here today. You all are my power, and when I say “you,” I do mean everyone in this room and beyond, yes, but now I speak directly to my peers.
Just one in five young people vote. If that number shifts to two in five or three in five, we swing every election every time. In practical terms, that is each one of us getting two other people to vote. Demographics are changing, and for the first time the collective power of Gen Z (us) and Millennials is greater than that of the older and previously politically dominant Boomer generation. That is not to say we do not need to or cannot find power across all ages, but simply that we, at long last, hold amongst ourselves the power to shape the future, which will ultimately fall heavily on our shoulders.
And to those who say their vote doesn’t matter, now I speak directly to you. Yes, not all of us live in North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, or Florida, or any of the other major battleground states, but in every single state there is something on the ballot worth fighting for. Whether that is ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts or an end to cash bail and a parolee’s right to vote in California, we all have power in this next election.
And when I say all, I mean all, not just the citizens in this room, not just the thirty-nine students who will be eligible to vote on November 3, not even just you whom I agree with politically. There are dozens of phonebanks to help register voters or request absentees. You all know people who are old enough to vote: friends, siblings, parents. Have you texted them yet to help them figure out a pandemic voting plan? If you can’t vote, you gain power from helping others vote.
In voting, you are, on the surface, simply fulfilling your duty and obligation as a citizen of this nation. However, you are also making a more significant and fundamental decision: you are choosing power over powerlessness, action over paralysis. It may begin with a single phone call or a single vote, but once you choose action, your world expands from there.
Not only is this a choice I urge you to make, but I argue it is a choice you must make. Feeling small, feeling angry, feeling disenfranchised: this does not lead to change. I stand at a podium that was not built for me, staring at a room that may have terrified the founders of this school, and yet all here embrace this. The ongoing protests are, by total number of protesters involved, part of the largest social movement in our history. I will get to marry whoever I love. The current proposals to address climate change are the boldest in our history. And every single one of these indicators of progress is the direct result of a group choosing to fight, choosing to locate and lean into their power to make this world better. We all owe our place in this moment to the rebels, protesters, rioters, and change makers who came before. And from this comes a lesson: we must choose to fight if we want to forge a just and livable future for all in this world.
And this choice we have before us is frankly a matter of life and death. We must ask ourselves what it means to live in each of these spaces: in a space of smallness and anger or in a space of community and power. The first, in my case, led to paralysis and apathy. That folder of writing I mentioned at the start—those documents were written while I sat alone and anonymous on different flights back home from school. Most were not sent. All that anger, left to fester in isolation, drove me away from action and towards cold, lonely darkness.
Inaction changes nothing. Inaction is dangerous. We have too much to lose at a time when we have already lost so much. The flag at half-mast beyond these Chapel doors mourns Justice Ginsberg, yes, but to me it also holds within it the thousands killed by police brutality, lost to gun violence or otherwise gone too soon, the 200,0003 Americans who have passed away due to COVID-19, and a grief for the loss of a pristine climate that is so large it threatens to swallow me. This is our present, but it cannot be our future.
So, we choose a different path, all of us, together. We choose to find our power, small now and ever increasing, not only because we can, but because we must.
1 Chemistry teacher Dr. Nathan Lamarre-Vincent
2 Delivered before the U.S. rejoined the Paris accord in January and before the rollback of many regulations.
3 At press time, 433 million and still rising