Ilhan Omar’s Daughter Is Leading the Youth Climate Strike

Isra Hirsi.
Isra Hirsi. Photo: Courtesy of Isra Hirsi

Hundreds of thousands of young people are walking out of school today in protest of the older generations’ failure to address the looming threat of climate change.

The movement, known as Fridays for Future, initially started with a 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who held a months-long protest outside the Swedish Parliament last year after the hottest summer on record. It’s since swept the world, with teens and pre-teens around the globe staging school strikes of their own — in the U.K., for instance, tens of thousands of youths stormed out of class and took to the streets last month.

Today’s protest will take place in over 1,000 cities in 100 countries around the world. In the U.S., the first-ever Youth Climate Strike, as it’s being called, was organized by three girls: Alexandria Villasenor, and Haven Coleman, and Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old activist who’s also the daughter of Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

As far back as she can remember, Hirsi says she’s been aware that we’re in the midst of a global climate crisis. In middle school, environmental issues started to weigh more heavily on her mind; in high school, she started attending protests and getting involved with her school’s green club. But when Coleman reached out to her via Instagram DM to see if she would help organize the main U.S. action of the Youth Climate Strike, she was still utterly shocked.

“I thought it was an insane idea at first,” she told the Cut. And then, she said yes.

The day before the main demonstration in Washington, D.C., the Cut spoke on the phone to Hirsi, who immediately apologized upon answering the call — she was walking by a loud student-led protest against gun violence, which she had just then decided to join.

“I have a few friends who were going, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just come since I’m already in D.C,’” she said. But before she joined in with that, the Cut got a quick chance to ask her about everything from how she’s managed to balance school and organizing to why environmentalism must be intersectional.

How are you feeling, one day out?
Pretty good, pretty good. We’re super close to the day. I’m kinda stressed because there’s a lot to do, like figure out press, a lot of last-minute details, et cetera. We’re also expecting rain here in D.C. so we’re just trying to prep for that, too.

I can imagine you must be incredibly busy, balancing school and activism. What’s that been like?
It’s been really hard to balance, but I try my hardest. My counselors, my teachers, and my parents, they’re all aware, so I think that communication is easiest way for me to navigate through this. I also go to a pretty liberal high school where people tend to be pretty aware of the problems of climate change.

Are there any other issues you organize around?
I would say gun control and immigrant rights. I’m a pretty intersectional activist, so I focus on a lot of different issues.

At what age did you start to realize that we were — and still are — in the midst of a climate crisis?
I’ve kinda always been aware of climate change, but I guess I started doing something and realizing it a lot more around middle school, so when I was 12 and 13. I joined my school’s green club my freshman year of high school and then I started going to protests around climate change.

You’re one of three girls organizing the main U.S. action. How did you, Alexandria Villasenor, and Haven Coleman start to have conversations around this?
Haven contacted me via Instagram DM asking if I wanted to help her lead the climate strikes, and then we found out that Alexandria was organizing one in New York City, so then we connected with her, and that’s where we started.

When you got that message from Haven, what were your first thoughts?
I was kinda amazed! I thought it was an insane idea at first. I wasn’t really aware of the climate strikes happening all across the world — I only knew about Greta Thunberg. So when Haven told me about this global climate strike, I was really surprised.

Why do you think that young people have emerged as some of the most inspiring leaders of environmental justice movement?
I think that young people sense the urgency. These adults don’t really have to live with the problem of climate change, and young people have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. So it’s more of like, we are the ones that recognize it and want to do something about it.

But what about your mom — she cares, right?
She was always as aware of the climate crisis, but I do a lot of my activism separately, and I’ve learned a lot without her. But she’s been aware and I guess a climate champion, in her own sense, so yeah.

And she’ll be one of the few — if not only — confirmed lawmakers attending the strike tomorrow. How does that feel?
It’s pretty inspiring. It does say a lot about politicians in America, and also the ones that are actually willing to take real action.

In an interview you did with Grist, you brought up “environmental racism,” which I think is frequently missing from the discourse around climate. Why do you think it’s necessary that our conversation around environmentalism be intersectional?
Climate change mostly affects communities of color and low-income communities, and these people live in these areas under these conditions, and we don’t really do anything about it. I think people of color are automatically ignored. It’s also important to advocate to people who aren’t fully aware of the problem to make sure they take a stand and come together because climate change affects all us. We all have to come together at some point.

Definitely! I think a lot about indigenous peoples in the Americas fighting for things like water and land rights, which I don’t think is always included in discussions around the environment.
Yeah for sure, I think things like pipelines and indigenous people are completely disregarded. You look at Standing Rock — everyone was talking about that for a good hot second, and people just ignore indigenous people now. But there are still pipelines happening today. There’s one happening in my home state, and people just don’t talk about it. And, even if they do, they give credit to the white activists and not the indigenous ones.

What kind of career could you see yourself having?
I definitely want to be a lawyer and then go into politics. I’m not really sure yet, but I know I want to be a lawyer so I can defend those that can’t defend themselves — I feel like it can be a humanitarian act. I’m also on my school’s debate team, so I kinda love arguing.

Ilhan Omar’s Daughter Is Leading the Youth Climate Strike