When the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference convenes in Paris in December, 21-year-old Aidan Ferris of Shandaken plans to be there. As a member of the Earth Guardians youth delegation, she will be pushing toward the goal of a legally binding agreement among all nations to dramatically cut the world’s carbon footprint. But first she has to raise the money to get to Paris and the convention nicknamed COP21 (the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).
One semester away from graduating from SUNY Ulster, her passion for protecting the environment has drawn Ferris into a youth movement that includes 15-year-old rapper Xiuhtezcatl (shu-TESS-cot) Martinez, who has made the news from Esquire to Rolling Stone. The hip-hop activist, of Aztec descent, led programs recently at a Bioneers Conference in California, where Ferris co-facilitated workshops on, as she put it, “working toward solutions we can bring to our communities wherever we are, and the actions that Earth Guardians is working on for Paris.”
The words tumble easily from Ferris’s lips with a self-assurance developed over six years of environmental activism that included the successful fight to stop Niagara Bottling from taking water out of Cooper Lake in Woodstock. She credits her mother — Phoenicia herbalist, gardener, and massage therapist Adelinda Hyde — with laying the groundwork for her activism, bringing her to Native American ceremonies, making her play outside, forbidding video games and cell phones. “I spent all day outside,” Ferris recalled, “riding my bike, lying in the woods. Then I grew into an angsty teenager with a lot of problems, and I forgot that connection. I was partying, doing what a lot of 15-year-olds do.”
The turning point came when she saw the movie Avatar, James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic in which humans exploit an inhabited moon, threatening to destroy the native population and the environment. “It met me on my level and woke me up,” said Ferris. “It showed me what we were doing to our Earth through our consumption lifestyle. It was an intense experience, since I had just been shopping in a giant mall in Albany.” At first, she was depressed, but she decided to take action, getting petitions signed, joining environmental actions, and attending a Greenpeace summit.
When Ferris began to study at SUNY Ulster, she joined the environmental club, which consisted of two people talking in the cafeteria. “I said no, we have to do stuff!” said Ferris. “No wonder no one’s part of the club!” She and her compatriot started going to marches. In February 2014, they attended a demonstration in Washington DC and heard Xiuhtezcatl speak. “It was the first time I had heard someone younger than me speak up,” she said. “I was shocked. What’s he doing up there saying these incredible things?” Ferris and her friend started to take part in an action, lying on a tarp with a group of people on government property to symbolize an oil spill. The plan was to get arrested, but her friend changed his mind. As they were climbing back over the fence, they bumped into Xiuhtezcatl on his way in. He asked why they were leaving and gave them a hug.
When Ferris took a public speaking class and had to analyze someone’s speaking skills, she chose Xiuhtezcatl. The same day, she found out he was on his way to speak at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. She went to meet him and learned about RYSE (Rising Youth for a Sustainable Earth), the youth council of Earth Guardians. She applied to join the council and was accepted, just as the controversy over Niagara Bottling was developing.
Niagara was attempting to partner with SUNY Ulster in its bid for local water, and the issue ignited the school’s environmental club. “All these organizations surfaced and started working together,” said Ferris. “I started Earth Guardians New York to work on empowering youth locally. We go to public hearings and meetings on important issues to stay educated. We’re trying to get a productivity and outreach center in Woodstock, to have a place for youth to positively put their energy.”
At the Bioneers Conference, the topics included food justice and permaculture, with its potential to “bring harmony back to the land.” Participants also discussed the November 30 climate strike, a youth walkout from schools, in which 21 countries are participating, as the climate summit begins. “Students will be taking time out of the day to acknowledge climate change,” explained Ferris. “We stand in solidarity to let the UN delegates know the world is watching as they make decisions that affect our future.”
Does the movement ever get pushback from elders who allege that the young lack the experience to understand the realities of modern life? “We combat that by being educated and knowing what we’re talking about,” said Ferris. “If I know exactly how fracking works and have concrete examples of why it’s bad for our environment, the fracking industry can’t push us down. We speak truth. When kids from all different cultures speak up, the world stops and listens — ‘Wow, what just happened?’ Youth come with innocence and a different kind of power from adults. We’re not limited by the box society has formed around us. Some adults only see problems and not solutions.”
Ferris encourages youth to find ways to make their communities more sustainable. Local activities can include planting trees, picking up garbage, using art to express their aspirations for the environment. Earth Guardians organized a kite project last summer, asking kids all over the world to create kites bearing images of a hoped-for future. “It symbolized their hopes and dreams flying,” said Ferris, “an empowerment activity. There are over 300 Earth Guardian crews around the world. Thousands of youth are stepping up. Sometimes driving in my car, I’m smiling, just thinking about it.”
Still in college and making a limited income from babysitting, Ferris is using a crowdfunding campaign to get to Paris. “It’s so scary to ask for money,” she said. “I thought of taking out a loan or putting it on a credit card.” Instead, Rachel Marco-Havens, the adult co-director of Earth Guardians New York, hosted the online appeal, and Ferris was astonished to see that it had gleaned $1052 in the first day online. Now she can buy her plane ticket but still needs another $1000 for food, lodging, and the website fee. “It’s so heartwarming,” she said. “My community has really supported me. I’m amazed by it all. You put your intention where you want to go, and then you walk, and you stumble into what’s supposed to happen.”