Changemaker Spotlight: Q&A With Voting Rights & Climate Justice Activist Jerome Foster II
Jerome Foster II is the Founder and Executive Director of OneMillionOfUs, an advocacy organization that educates and empowers a movement of young people to register and vote. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Climate Reporter, a publication amplifying the voices of youth from around the globe.
As you may have seen in news coverage, Jerome has organized some of the largest climate marches across the Washington, D.C. area. He's spent most of his youth passionately organizing for the environmental movement and has continually stoked the fire for other Gen Z climate activists to organize for change. Reaching a major milestone this year, Jerome turned 18 years old, making him eligible to vote for the first time in the 2020 Presidential Election.
One Million of Us and Climate Reporter
Q. Would you tell us a bit about your organization and publication?
A. OneMillionOfUs is a completely different culture than The Climate Reporter. It's focused on voting, activism, going out in the streets—really taking the energy from the streets and bringing it into the polls. Our whole initiative is being a coalition organization by talking about gun violence prevention, immigration reform, gender equality, racial equality, and climate action. All these great movements coming together and saying, "We need to unite to vote."
The Climate Reporter is more fun, more earthy. Kind of like, "Let's go out and make a garden!" Less partisan and just talking about the environment.
Q. You have to oversee many different people and projects at the same time. What is your approach to creating scalable movements?
A. For me it’s been learning how to get out of my box of being an introvert because normally I was the guy who was coding on my computer all day. I had to transition fast into being my own Executive Director and running multiple organizations. It was a bit overwhelming at first but surrounding myself with passionate people of my own generation is so amazing.
When it's scalable, it's really just that the movements are building upon the energy. If you continue to talk about the "why" behind us being here and that we are fighting for our future, it's really transformative for a company culture. I also think that it's important to make it relatable to people by not coming in with the biases of your own demographic—like being American—but really understanding the global reach of it.
Q. What steps do you take to avoid these biases?
A. When we write a story for The Climate Reporter, we don't come from the perspective of, "We are going to tell your story for you." Say we reach out to a community in Canada, like the Inuit Circumpolar Council, we ask them to write their own story because we don't want to come in with our own preconceived biases. We want this to be as scalable as possible and have as far of a reach as possible.
I think that you have to give people the flexibility—the freedom—to tell their own story of how they actually feel and not just having it as a sad story of how they 'haven't been able to get things done.' Some people tell the stories of resilience; that even though they lost their land and access to fresh water, they are still able to organize and find their sense of community. I think that is what's key: giving up the reins and not always seeing yourself as an Executive Director but as a people coordinator and just trying to make sure things move smoothly.
Q. Do you have any challenges getting your groups moving in the same direction or keeping efforts coordinated?
A. There are always decisions like we shouldn't do a march, we should do more of a demonstration or a sit in. I think my approach has always been to never really say "No," but to recruit some more people to make the action happen if we don't have the capacity.
There are so many types of leadership and I think the role of Executive Director is so crucial in the culture of any organization. If the Executive Director is the type of CEO that's always like, "No, we are not doing this right now," then people lose passion. We are all volunteers. We are young people sacrificing our Saturdays and Sundays meeting from 8 a.m. to sometimes 10 p.m. at night. If you're there being a rude boss why would they come back to the meeting? I think it's important to be sensitive to the style of the person, personality, and company you want to have.
There are three different perspectives when it comes to this: The first one is the Executive Director runs everything—what they say goes, the second is organizations who have a people coalition where members of the organization run it and the Executive Director signs off of it, then there's organizations like the one I have where the people run it.
They come up with like 1,000 ideas [laughs] always way too many and I ask myself, "Okay, how can we do this?" Sometimes we just don't have the scalability of it I say, "Recruit more people." But I never say "No," because they are good ideas!
Advice to activists
Q. Do you have suggestions to other activists on this path, either just starting out or farther along on their journey?
A. Reach out to organizations that already exist! If you're in the climate space, there are way too many organizations already. It was even worse before Greta Thunberg came. The dynamic between adult and young climate activists then was very toxic because they would come in and take over the project since they had more experience than us. Adult groups were like, "What do you have to offer?" and Greta was like, "This is what we have to offer."
But then after that, they saw our value. They have the knowledge and the wisdom but they realized that young people have a unique energy to just not care about the status quo. If you're 40 or 50 years old, you understand what you shouldn't do or what cannot happen in politics because 'politics is always the same.'
But young people who have only been around—I've only been around for 18 years—we know the norms or the House Reps so we can be like, "That's wrong. We should have ranked choice voting. We should have nonpartisan gerrymandering." I think that's the value we see in working together. So before you start an organization at this point in the climate movement, reach out to someone you already know doing the same work.
For grassroots organizations to be fiscally sponsored is also really important. There's a bunch of options out here and many only take about 3%. They will really help you to grow and give you the resources that are out there.
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A post shared by Jerome Foster II (@jeromefosterii) on Feb 4, 2020 at 9:01am PST
Q. Where would you suggest starting when reaching out?
A. The Sunrise Movement is great for supporting young activists and you can start a chapter in your area. But if you do want to start your own that has a niche focus, try to get in touch with the work you do directly. For example, if you want to pick up trash and clean up your neighborhood, try to collaborate with the local government and make it a community wide thing.
Then reaching out to local government because they're the best if you're a local organization starting out and trying to root yourself in community. Like in D.C. they have a program where environmental groups can work with them. But if your local government is not supportive—which is obviously why activism is here—always use social and reach out to another grassroots organizations.
Also, trying to make your organization as big as possible is like the key for grassroots organizers. A lot of volunteers won't stay for long, max seven to eight months, then they will have something else to do. So always reaching out to more and more people, always recruiting, always having a dedicated person for volunteer intake is great.
Q. What are some tools and resources you use that might help other organizers be productive?
A. I use G Suite to set up professional looking emails and Google Domains. I think that the power of social media also gets people to know of the work you do and help to recruit. Action Network is the best. It’s for organizers that want to set up marches, meetings, sit-in's, anything that's in the public. It's really well integrated with social media. Bonfire to sell merch. They have t-shirts and hoodies. All of the packaging and everything is eco-friendly.
Oh, and Pin Save The Climate! They are a mom and pop organization working so hard to make environmentally friendly pins and a lot of other things like necklaces. They're sourced and made in the USA and it's completely sustainable. A lot of plastic comes from the Shandong Province of China with Uighur forced labor in Muslim detention camps. It's really horrible but every single company in the world uses it because China makes a lot of our plastics. So we've got to support the little guys!
Q. What was your experience like being mostly online with the movement during the pandemic?
A. I think the youth climate movement was so well prepared. Emily Zhao and I started the The Climate Reporter together but we are on opposite sides of the country. We only met a year after starting it!
It was a whole year and we had planned an entire event for the Future Youth Summit where we talked about environmentalism. Young people have always been organizing digitally. I think digital organizing has been our forte because we grew up in the time of the internet. We had iPods and iPhones in middle school then in high school we had Instagram and TikTok... we’re just digital natives.
Q. What our team especially appreciates about your activism is the emphasis you put on social justice being a priority in climate solutions. What suggestions do you have for climate activists to form important intersections with social, environmental, and racial justice movements?
A. I find it weird when people ask like, "How do you get Black people to join?" or "How do you get women to join?" Make it accessible! If you only reach out to communities that are predominantly white and predominantly male, then how do you ever expect to get diverse members? Reach out to communities that are already intersectional. With The Climate Reporter I reached out to the Ron Brown Scholar Program which is a coalition of Black, women-led organizations where they provide scholars with the opportunity to go to ivy league schools. I was just like, "Hey, if you all are interested in journalism this is a place where you can submit!"
At The Climate Reporter no one knew who I was so it was really just reaching out and finding communities that are advocating for young people. If you are trying to start a technology company, reach out to Black Girls Code. If you're trying to start an environmental organization, I definitely suggest Future Coalition.
Recruit BIPOC to make sure we have a more diverse environmental movement because the environmental movement is not at all diverse [laughs]. It's so weird when I walk into a space... sometimes I'm the only Black person there and there's like one woman. So I'm like, "How are we intersectional when we only have one representative of entire groups of people?"
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A post shared by Jerome Foster II (@jeromefosterii) on Nov 3, 2019 at 1:36pm PST
Q. In situations with a lack of representation, many concerns of diverse communities can be left out if environmental groups are just talking about 'individual sustainability' or 'buying solar panels.' Have you been in these situations often?
A. Absolutely! That happened in D.C. one time when we were having a town hall meeting for the Climate Strike in September last year. The Pasquato Indian Nation was talking about how Georgetown University was basically stealing a part of their land to put solar panels on.
From our perspective, we would've been like, "Oh that's so great." But the Indian Nation said, "That's the little bit of land we have left, they are taking it, then saying it's for a good cause." If we didn't have a representative of that community we would not have known!
Another situation in D.C. is that there is a huge division of people. NE is predominately rich, predominately white, and no people of color. South is 100% Latino, Black, Brown, Asian—there is a huge mix. Women's March and March For Our Lives never came to our communities; they never said, "We will have a march on Washington, will you join us?"
Q. What did you do to increase collaboration in this situation?
A. Our community got together to attend their meeting and said, "Look around the room. You guys are coming to Washington, D.C. talking about gun violence and only recruiting from areas that don't have gun violence." In my community we've had 14 community shootings in the first two months of this year. How have you guys not come to our community and you're talking about intersectional gun violence?
It's making sure to go to communities that you wouldn't expect. And people say, "Oh well... it's dangerous." No it's not, you just need to come and contribute more resources into us. If you just abandon the whole community there is no way to get the full perspective of Washington, D.C.
We've been here for generations and a lot of NW and NE are new people gentrifying the city. It happened in the 70s. People were kicked out of Washington, D.C. for being Black. They made an entire community all white in like five years and now it's the number one place organizers go to plan marches but they don't know anything about the history of D.C.! I think what it really takes is just reaching out and not being scared to go in Black or Brown communities.
What the future holds
Q. What are your top goals for One Million of Us over the next year?
A. For One Million of Us we want to make it international, make it global, and talk about youth organizing around the world. We know the U.S. is really bad but there are a lot of places that don't even try to be Democratic. So we want to go into those countries and really talk about youth voting; talk about how young people aren't voting anywhere around the world, how they 'don't care' about politics because politics doesn't work for us.
Then continue working locally in the United States for the Senate races that are coming up in the next year and continuing to make chapters across high schools, colleges, and community centers—really being a coalition organization. March For Our Lives, Women's March International and Fridays For Future are part of the coalition but we want to make it bigger.
Q. What are your top goals for The Climate Reporter over the next year?
A. We want to have our own show, Movement Makers (not on TV) but with Vox Media. Actually, I’m probably the only person who actively wants our organization to be a child organization of another company [laughs] but I want to be under Vox Media! We want to be under an established news organization and be the premiere place where youth organizers come to get informed about the climate movement. Really being that one place where you can come to get press releases, updated news on climate change, and interviews from people who are movement makers.
The whole idea of it is having leaders of Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Zero Hour, the organizations that kind of created the climate movement that we see today coming together and talking about how they did that.
Also, we're working to create something we call Frontline Media where we have frontline communities come and submit a story to talk about what is happening in their community right now. Like if we had it where we talked about what happened a few months ago when they were trying to postpone the SAT equivalent for Indian students and couldn't even get access to testing locations, we would say, "Hey can you write an article for this so we can get it to other news outlets like the Guardian or Now This News?" And really be that stepping point for frontline communities to not have their message filtered but just have it amplified. That is what we want to be a place for—not to censor or tell them 'they don't know what they're talking about' because we are not in their community, we don't know what they are feeling or what they are going through.
We want other people to understand what's happening because climate change is all about empathy. Solving climate change is an empathy issue. If California was burning in the 1970s and we had a climate legislation back then that did what we are doing now, we would've solved climate change. We wouldn't even be talking about this.
Q. At WeAct one of our mottos is moving from "passive awareness to action." How does this look in your organization?
A. The OneMillionOfUs chapter looks drastically different from other organizations because we are just bringing all of the community leads together at a roundtable and talking about, "How does the gun violence movement work with women's rights? How do we organize together and not just for one march but consistently and repeatedly?"
How do we have those open dialogues about intersectionality and not just some social media post talking about how climate change disproportionately affects black and brown people? We're actually having Black Lives Matter talk to Sunrise Movement then organizing a campaign around that. That's really where we want to see ourselves is being a place for young organizers to collaborate on a local and national scale.
Q. In one of your recent articles by the Washington Post, they greatly misrepresented you by making the false claim that you are "against adults." What has that experience been like?
A. I'm on the phone with them every day trying to get it deleted but still they put it on the front page of the Washington Post for two days straight: Me talking about how I'm "against adults." Almost everything in there is a lie. The journalist had said, "You should just be grateful your name is in the title."
But if we can get climate change solved and not even have me in this, that would be totally fine! I didn't even want to be a climate activist. I wanted to write technology; I wanted to code. I like Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence—those are my main passions. If you talk to any youth and climate activist a lot of times they say, "Actually, I wanted to be an artist; I wanted to be an animal rights activist; I wanted to paint. I didn't want to do this... I wanted to do something else."
I think that's really a testament to the fact no one goes into battle sending middle schoolers and high schoolers first. We are the last line of defense. People talk about the children's children but we are the children's children at this point! That's our future directly. It's been 50 years—and I was born in 2002—every other option at this point has been exhausted. We could have implemented a moderate carbon tax in 2002 and we would be phasing out. But now we need WWII scale mobilization and young people have to skip school because adults don't want to listen—and they still aren't listening when we talk to them for articles!
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A post shared by Jerome Foster II (@jeromefosterii) on Mar 11, 2020 at 12:57pm PDT
Q. Where are you going to school now?
A. I'm going to Pace University and taking classes at Columbia University, majoring in Computer Science and specializing in Artificial Intelligence. I'm in New York City right now so I'm a New Yorker! [celebratory voice as we "yay" together].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.