There’s not a ton of room for environmental optimism these days—optimism in general seems to have taken a leave of absence in the Trump age—but that wasn’t the case at the 6th annual Climate Justice Youth Summit (CJYS), hosted by UPROSE, a Latino community-based organization based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The summit billed itself as “the largest gathering of young people of color discussing the future of climate change in the country,” and around midday, hundreds of attendees aged six to 18 cheerfully packed tight into a light-filled chapel in Morningside Heights’ Union Theological Seminary for one of the day’s highlights: a fashion show.
The “Culture Not Consumption” runway show could have easily been cheesy or dull or sparsely attended, but it wasn’t remotely any of those things. Before it even began, the chapel erupting with teenagers rapping along to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” was enough to get the iciest hearts soaring. Models stomped out onto the makeshift runway into a sea of shrieking, dancing teenagers, who were particularly interested in Ricardo Muñiz’s CHULO Underwear line—specifically, the models wearing said underwear. A loud “OH MY GODDDDD” rang out with each subsequent set of abs, whose owners seemed pleased at the unusually direct attention. Fashion Week is not nearly this good.
This year’s summit was developed in partnership with the Climate Justice Alliance, a national collaborative of organizations like UPROSE that represent frontline communities battling pollution, rising seas, and other impacts of environmental degradation that often disproportionately target poor and minority populations. The goal was to educate and excite young people from New York—and this year, kids from communities around the country—about a somewhat complex topic, and throughout the day breakout “learning circles” discussed issues like policing, climate refugees, and gentrification.
Trump’s medieval budget proposal would effectively eliminate the Office of Environmental Justice, a small division of the EPA established under George H.W. Bush and expanded by Bill Clinton (and later degraded by another Bush) to pursue environmental equity issues involving those communities. This was already a space that wasn’t getting enough attention in Washington, although loud activism around the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and the Dakota Pipeline fight at Standing Rock helped raise public awareness.
Fashion may not seem like an obvious part of the story here, but the $620 billion industry has managed to become one of the world’s major polluters while somehow dodging that reputation; as Racked pointed out in March, there are no solid emissions numbers to hold it accountable. The show, according to an UPROSE press release, would “explore how fashion can be reclaimed as a demonstration of resistance and used to address the socioeconomic political systems and extractive economy that forms our cultural fabric.”
“This is a perfect conversation to happen in the climate justice space, because not only is fashion one of the biggest polluters, but it spends a lot of time not valuing all of the people on this earth,” model/activist Cameron Russell said on a panel before the show started. Russell’s “Model Mafia”—a group of models working to push the fashion industry towards sustainable practices—collaborated with teenage activist Sofia Lopez and the House of Fa Mulan (organizers in the kiki scene) to produce the show.
“80% of the people in the fashion industry are women, but women are almost never in charge,” Russell said during the panel. “Most of the women are black and brown, most of them do not make a livable wage, and that includes here in New York City.”
“Growing up, you see so much fashion, so many things that influence you—and things that dictate your expression,” added Maya Mones, a trans model on the panel. “So if we look at fashion from an outside point of view, it might not seem that powerful, but being part of the fashion industry has taught me that one person can make a difference.”
“Just by me being present and existing as a trans woman of color, also Latina, Dominicana, in this industry,” she continued, to whoops from the audience—“just by me existing, that’s already a revolutionary thing, just by me walking into the room. So if I have that much power just by myself, then what can I do if I put my voice forward?”
The collections ranged from whimsical to wearable to more avant garde, with designs from Mara Hoffman, Zero Maria Cornejo, and recent Parsons grad Joy Marie Douglas, among others. Rebranded, a fringe-y, washed-out collection built on reclaimed materials, was designed by Douglas in collaboration with former inmates, whose words were cut and scrawled into the fabric.
Fifteen-year-old Asli Mwaafrika was beaming when I walked up to her afterwards, nodding vigorously when I asked if she’d liked the show.
“So many people!” she said. “People of every color, shape, size, everything... it’s really great.” Asli, a sophomore in high school, is involved with KHEPRW Institute, a intergenerational community organization in Indianapolis that focuses on mentoring young people. She’d be speaking on a youth panel later in the day.
“In my community, we’re on the borderline food desert [right by downtown Indianapolis],” she explained. “Agriculture isn’t something a lot of people think about.” After two stores the neighborhood relied on for groceries were closed down, she and other KI interns in their early teens organized a discussion attended by over 60 people, proposing solutions like a community garden and earning a writeup in a local paper. A few months ago, she went to the People’s Climate March, which got her even more pumped up.
“I got to meet all these different people, I was just like, oh this is so amazing, I love this feeling,” she said. “I’m making a difference, and that’s probably why I keep on doing it.”
There’s nothing quite like chatting with a 15-year-old activist to get a person feeling like things might really be okay.