Céline Semaan and Isra Hirsi Are Fighting for the Future

Two of Today’s Most Vocal Environmental and Human Rights Activists Discuss Intersectionality, Instagram, and How to Stay Hopeful

  • Photography: Heather Sten

The following piece is part of Earth to Fashion, a series of stories dedicated to sustainability in the fashion industry and beyond.

“People think sustainability is eco-friendly. They believe that it’s something that’s generally good for the earth,” says Céline Semaan. “But I think that sustainability lies at the intersection of good for the earth, and good for the people.” Both Semaan and Isra Hirsi position this belief at the center of their work, using social media to spread information, amplify voices, and organize passionate people for real-world action. Semaan and Hirsi—despite their generation gap—have a lot to say, and even more to do. They’re both lifelong environment and human rights activists: Semaan, 36, is an expert in her field and founder of Slow Factory, a sustainable fashion lab, and Study Hall, a sustainability literacy conference series in partnership with the United Nations. Hirsi, 16, is a Co-Executive Director of the US Youth Climate Strike organization, a rising voice of the youth activism movement, and daughter of Minnesota Congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar. Through their activism, both Semaan and Hirsi strive to make a lasting, large-scale change, but in the attention economy, how do you get people to care enough to take meaningful, consistent action? “Honestly, it’s really hard to be hopeful in this country in the first place, but if we weren’t hopeful, we’d have to live our lives in a very sad state,” says Hirsi. “The work that you’re doing or the attention that you’re bringing to an issue should be giving you hope, because you’re attempting to do something, you’re fighting against the soon-to-be doom.”

We invited the New York-based Semaan to call Hirsi at her home in Minneapolis to discuss everything from the importance of intersectional environmentalism to what’s inspiring, and challenging, about activism in 2019.

Céline Semaan

Isra Hirsi

What prompted you to use your voice as an environmentalist and human rights activist?

I’ve always considered myself somebody who cared about a lot of issues. I went to protests at a really young age and I’ve just always been a socially aware child. When I had the opportunity to join an environmental group at my school, I realized it was really important to me. From there I was able to move up the ladder from city organizing, to state organizing, to national. The more I learned about it the more I cared.

I also started super young. When I returned to Lebanon after having fled it during the war, I was 13 years old. I witnessed the cost that the war had on my country—on an environmental level and a human rights level—and I was protesting and organizing against the occupation at that time. Human rights and the environment are one big topic, not separate topics. In the American media, it’s either one or the other. There’s very little intersection between the human rights issues and the environmental issues.

Everybody considers the climate crisis to be one single issue. When in reality, it’s this massive overarching problem that impacts almost everything. Denial comes into play, people don’t want to think about the fact that we don’t have a lot of time left, they don’t want to think about how it’s impacting their family members, their own health, or their own quality of life. We’re really stubborn, so I think it has to do with thinking there are other things more important than this, or not wanting to talk about it because it’s scary.

I’m a child of the 80s and back then it was also something that people were in denial about. There was also a lot of shaming against scientists for being too alarming, like conspiracy theorists, and a general sense of mocking their projections. It’s mainly because it’s not affecting first world countries, it’s affecting developing countries first and foremost, it’s affecting countries that are never talked about in the mainstream media. For instance in Sudan, people are being murdered and raped and there’s nothing about it in the media, there’s this blackout. Mass media is an extension of the colonial empire, and it doesn’t include the communities that are being affected by climate change. You talk a lot about environmental racism, how do you see this from your perspective?

It’s a hidden issue, because the media doesn’t talk about it, and people don’t talk about it. Like you said, a lot of these countries are not cared about and are the ones that are usually impacted. My family is from Somalia and right now there’s a really aggressive drought there leaving people without water. There are cyclones in Mozambique, India, and Bangladesh. It’s an ongoing problem because of how frequently we see it happening, even in our own country. We talk about California because it affected celebrities in really nice cities, but we don’t talk about how the hurricanes are affecting Puerto Rico and how they still don’t have 100% electricity. How communities in Texas, Alabama, and Florida are still suffering because of Hurricanes in the last two years. It’s easier to talk about how it impacts a certain group of people because people care about it more.

I hear “How can we help people in the Middle East?” or “How can we help people in Africa?” a lot. Instead, ask how you can look within your own space, how you can help locally. When I’m vocal about these issues or write about how with sustainability⁠, one must understand colonialism, I’m often flagged as problematic or controversial. Instead of looking at the issue, I get criticized for speaking about the issue. Do you get that as well?

I don’t get criticism speaking about it, only because I think I’ve become the one person within the strikers, like “Isra is intersectionality, she’s the environmental racism person.” I’ve gotten that title from bringing awareness and making sure that spaces aren’t filled with whiteness. So I think it’s more of a white savior praise than people being upset about it. It’s like “Isra’s doing it, so I don’t have to do it, it’s not my job anymore.” People recognize that it’s a problem but they don’t want to do anything about it. Nobody really talks about the Indigenous people around the world who have been doing this work for decades and centuries. [The strikers] have the privilege and power to skip school every Friday, when not everybody has that. A lot of people don’t have the ability to go down to their state capital or city hall every Friday, they don’t have the transportation. It’s always going to be this privileged place until we start trying to dismantle it.

I’m also oftentimes the person who has spoken about this, but then I get sanctioned, because I am no longer a young person. I feel like I have moved into being a young-elder, if you will. I work with decision-makers and policy-makers, but I feel I have hit the limits of activism. Activism for me is no longer a tool for change. Maybe I’m raising awareness on a global level, but I’m not physically in the system making any change. I recently wrote a piece about the limits of activism, it’s an overcrowded space now, ever since the 2016 US elections. Before then, activism was controversial, activists were troublemakers, and now it’s a job! I see so many influencers turned into activism. What’s it like for you to marry school and activism and influence change on your level?

I’ve always attempted to do my part, but I guess I didn’t really become an “activist” until I had the opportunity to in 2018. But I’ve always been an organizer and I’ve always been doing the work. I was already known as a “social justice warrior-esque” person in elementary and middle school because that’s just who I am. It’s a little different because before the climate strike stuff happened I was just that one vocal person that everyone thought was funny and annoying because I would always talk about it. I would always bring things up or call people out. But ever since things became bigger and everyone got to know Greta Thunberg and the climate strikes in the media, the attention on me has increased in school and the spaces I’m in.

I run a sustainability literacy conference series called Study Hall in partnership with the United Nations. One of the panels we held was “Whose fault is it, the consumer or the companies?” Because I was seeing a lot of people advising to vote with your dollars, or if you’re vegan it’s better, or don’t use plastic straws. It was a focus on individual solutions rather than looking at the society as a group, or corporations as massive entities that are responsible for what’s currently happening. It’s not on the shoulders of the citizen to be able to shift this entire system. The system has been designed by these corporations that are still benefiting from it, so how can we manifest change on that level? How can we shift those systems, make them circular, more responsible?

It’s a really common thing that you see in environmental justice work, it’s always on the individual. In reality doing small actions is a feel good, but not a feel good enough to save our planet. Environmentalists love to bring up straws and how we need to get rid of them, but we need to stop a million more things before we care about that.

It’s a shared responsibility and the corporations hold the biggest part of that. There’s a fascination on the youth right now, that the youth is going to save us, and that’s just relinquishing yourself of responsibility and putting it on a young person’s shoulders, it’s so irresponsible. The role of people in power is to come up with solutions as fast as possible and not to rely on the youth to fix their problems.

It’s 100% the fault of politicians and corporations for the current state that we’re in. It’s not even on my generation, or people younger than me, or young people in general, it’s 100% on these corporations and politicians only, because they have the opportunity to do something and have not. They have the power to let this get worse and my generation, and people younger than me, are the ones that have to suffer. It’s 2019 and people are dying because these corporations polluting our air, our water, everything. It’s important for them to step back and see what they can do instead of what us young people have to do to clean up for them. I shouldn’t have to be worrying about this in my life, I’m only 16, I should be worrying about high school. It’s their responsibility to fix this and not mine.

As far as Sustainable fashion, how do you choose your clothes?

I thrift a lot, and I’m the oldest so I don’t get hand me downs from my family, but a lot of my friends at school sell their clothes in person, so I usually get a lot of my tees and tops from friends. I make sure that the things that I do end up buying are going to last. I try to buy sustainable fashion but it’s extremely expensive. It’s difficult to buy these items when they’re $40-plus, and I’m a high school student without a job.

Going back to intersectional environmentalism and the disproportionate effect of the climate crisis on communities of color, I know you’re holding a lot of the responsibility to shine a light on these issues, what do you wish allies or other people did to help?

Taking a step back is always the first thing. I’ve been in a few extremely white-dominant groups where people refuse to step back because they don’t want to lose their leadership. People with privilege and power don’t want to take a step back and allow those to lead and that’s exactly how indigenous and black and brown people are ignored. I also think giving media attention to those that aren’t always in the limelight is another great example.

What are some questions that people ask you on Instagram?

I get a lot of “How do I get involved?” A lot of people do it for the fame, so a lot of people ask me, “How did you get this many followers?” or, “How did you get this press attention? Do you have any contacts I can have?”

In mine, people say “I’m having a hard time keeping hope, how do you stay hopeful in this terrible time?” I think right now everyone is oversaturated with the news, because it’s not pretty. The only answer I give when people ask me “How do you have hope?” is that you have to be actually doing something. There is a gap between people’s values and their actions. Because they have to work, have families to feed, studies to do or whatever, and they’re not necessarily working towards the values that they want to see. So the best answer for me is to try to create a bridge between what you’re doing and the values that you have. Any step towards those values is a huge step forward, and that’s how you maintain your sanity and the hope to keep going—when you feel like you are part of the solution.

I try in my daily life to recycle, compost, and bring reusable items with me when I go out. But I think it’s a good idea to not make people feel bad about what they do. People are quick to get mad at someone for using a plastic straw or water bottle, but in reality you should be mad at these massive corporations. A simple act, while it’s beneficial, isn’t necessarily going to shift everything. Knowing that people are attempting and trying, seeing these people doing the things that they do, hearing about new candidates and politicians helps me know that I’m not in this alone and I’m not the only one. There are hundreds upon hundreds of people who are scared too, and that gives me hope because I know that we are not just going to give up.

  • Photography: Heather Sten
  • Date: July 23, 2019