By Anonymous Youth
Editors Note: We received this essay over the holiday in response to our December 24 post by activist Joe Soloman. Because of the personal nature of subjects covered herein, we suggested anonymity to the author.
I write in solidarity with Joe Solomon’s desire for more youth-led climate justice.
I am 26 years old. I hold degrees as a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Juris Doctor. I have $230,000 of student loan debt and growing. I have already began and finished a career as a public defender.
I am young and I want climate justice.
I want a livable future for myself, my loved ones, and the rest of the world. I want the current extinction rate of 200 species a day to stop. Forever. I want more whales off the San Diego coast this year than the year before. I want less deforestation. I want the kids in Barrio Logan to be able to breathe. I want the rich to stop stealing from the poor. I want to see a grizzly bear in California again one day.
The year’s end is always a time of reflection for me. I look over the year that was and look to the year that will be. I offer my 2013 as a case study in the support the youth need to effectively work for climate justice.
January 1, 2013 found me in my office at the Kenosha Trial Division of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Office preparing for a probation revocation hearing.
My client faced six years of prison for violating his terms of probation for consuming alcohol and shoving a man on the street. My job was to convince an administrative law judge that my client didn’t deserve a six year prison sentence.
My client was sentenced to the full six-year sentence.
February 26, 2013 found me arguing that a nineteen year old should not be sentenced to two years in prison for simple possession of marijuana.
This client was sentenced to the full two-year sentence.
April 8, 2013 found me begging a circuit court judge to allow another client’s trial to proceed after a prosecutor who failed to prepare over the weekend for the trial was dismissing the charges only to re-file later that afternoon. All this while my client sat in jail on a cash bail he could not pay.
We didn’t get our trial.
April 18, 2013 found me waking up in an emergency room after I took a bottle of sleeping bills in an attempt to kill myself. In an act of desperation, loneliness, and cowardice, I simply downed the pills, put on pajamas, pulled the covers up, and passed away hoping to close it all off.
A complexity of personal, emotional, and professional issues led me into the ultimate act of silencing.
I was hired in May, 2012 just out of law school. I went to law school because I felt a law degree would enable me to fight against the injustices I saw in the world. Early in law school, I realized I wanted to be a public defender because I saw the criminal justice system for the enforcer of the American racial caste system that I’ve learned, first-hand, it truly is.
I knew the job would be hard. My case load was extremely high. I had to take over 400 cases a year (over 2 a day) to meet legislatively mandated totals. I had to learn to deaden myself to my own emotional sensitivity. I had to steel myself to the pressures of trial litigation where mistakes meant incarceration for my clients.
I knew in a vague way the financial pressures I would be under. Wisconsin pays public defenders $49, 500 a year. This salary has been frozen for several years meaning that I knew co-workers who had been in the office for 6 years making the exact same pay I did walking in my first day. In other words, experienced attorneys make the same wage as raw recruits. It also means that as attorneys grow older they face difficult decisions about how to balance student loans and a young family on a public defender’s salary.
When my loans repayments came due, I was immediately placed under a real financial pressure. This pressure played out in ways I had not expected. I knew I wouldn’t be living in the nicest apartment. I knew I wouldn’t be driving the nicest car. I knew my vacations might be to the corner pub for a PBR instead of to Hawaii. But, what I didn’t expect was the guilt that came from cancelling trips to see family when the money just wasn’t there. The stress put on my romantic relationship stemming from too many nights coming home late from the office too emotionally beat to do much more than eat and head to bed.
These financial, social, and financial pressures became so intense they worked against my effectiveness as an attorney. I worried about rent when I should have been worried about next week’s trial. I felt guilty about my family when I had sentencing arguments to prepare. I fought with my partner when I kept coming home so late.
After my suicide attempt, I took time away from the public defenders office with the encouragement of doctors, friends, and family. I ultimately decided that the work was too much for my present mental health.
I moved to California to be closer to my family and to spend time deciding how I could renew my commitment to fighting injustice is a personally sustainable way. I do not know the answer yet, but as Mr. Solomon wrote, with the rapid deterioration of the environment, I need to figure it out.
I do know that environmental concerns are the most pressing issues facing the world today. In fact, they were the most pressing issues facing the world yesterday.
As a young public defender, I was earnest, passionate, and energetic. I think I exhibited the characteristics that make young people so important to any movement. I danced around the office. I sang to our secretaries. I came back to the office cussing and cursing when I lost. I ran laps around our lobby when I won. I got laughed at for messing up in court. I challenged my boss on firmly entrenched office policies. I got yelled at for talking back.
I know, now, that in attempting to kill myself I let the total cynicism of the system metabolize me in a terrible way. I let all the seriousness and stress get to me.
I let them beat me. I will not let them beat me again.
In the hopes that my experiences can bolster the courage of my young sisters and brothers fighting for climate justice, I offer three considerations for the movement as a whole:
- Young people need material support.
As the cost of education soars and the wealth disparity grows, the financial pressure placed on young people willing to devote their life to climate justice will increase, too. All of us working for climate justice must be willing to sacrifice creature comforts. As young people spend more and more time on environmental causes they will lose income. The most seriously involved will lose the ability to pay rent and even the ability to pay for food. This kind of serious involvement is crucial. But a homeless, starving activist is an ineffective activist. Someone sitting on fracking well preventing oil extraction cannot be in an office making money.
- Young people need social support.
Let’s face it. If the majority of Americans felt that climate justice was worthwhile, we wouldn’t be in the current predicament. This means that young people devoting their life to environmental issues will face a wall of resistance from society in a general sense, but they might also face pressure from friends and family. We need to establish communities where young people will not be called crazy for devoting their life to climate justice. We need to establish peer support networks where young people will find communities of other young people to lean on in the face of mainstream pressure. The old adage “everyone’s doing it” can work for us just as surely as it works for those destroying the planet.
- Young people need emotional support.
Working for justice is hard work. It is often fun and fulfilling, but one of the reasons we work so hard is because we love our world. This capacity for feeling makes us vulnerable to the desperation we all face doing this work. It is difficult to jump online and read about another species going extinct. Seeing another mountain toppled. Seeing another indigenous community destroyed. Seeing another massacre. Young people desperately need the wisdom and experience veterans possess