I clutched my side, in excruciating pain. It felt like the sharp bones of my ribs were puncturing my lungs with each inhale. My breaths came in shallow, sharp gasps. I was in the 8th grade and it was 4 in the morning. I could hardly lower myself into the car as my dad started the car to drive me to the emergency room. Of the countless asthma attacks and hospitalizations, I knew this one was different and I clung to a mantra as my breath began to fail me. “I just need to make it to college,” I kept repeating over and over in my head. It was Colorado College, the only school I applied to in the binding early decision process without ever stepping foot in the state. I had seen photos of the snow-capped mountain peaks, red rocks and desert land stretching out into the horizon, a place where the bright blue, cloudless sky became a symbol of breath for me. A move away from the polluted city of Philadelphia to a place where I could fully live, fully breathe.
The hours after that 15-minute car ride to the hospital were a blur, my vital signs plummeted and I drifted in and out of consciousness as each remedy that had given relief in the past now failed. I remember vomiting onto the floor as I was transferred onto a stretcher and rushed in an ambulance from Bryn Mawr Hospital to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The doctors told my dad to say goodbye before the ambulance doors closed just in case. The days spent in the Intensive Care Unit at CHOP were excruciating, somehow, I contracted both pseudomonas and pneumonia simultaneously. Having asthma, my health was seriously compromised to an extreme and I was afraid. My friend Adam had died just two years earlier when we were in the 6th grade from asthma complications with pneumonia. I regained my health slowly, painfully and while my friends walked across the stage at our 8th grade graduation from middle school, I was in the Intensive Care Unit desperately trying everything I could to regain lung function and get out.
People often ask me why I’m so passionate and unwavering in my fight for environmental justice, what “made you interested?” is the question I usually get. For me, I’ve struggled with asthma since I was an infant and from an early age realized a deep gratitude for breath and the very source of it: nourishing forest air and the trees. When us youth today express the gravity of what we are fighting for, our collective lives, that is my lived reality. One year before CHOP, I remember clutching the ‘Green Issue’ of Vanity Fair where a feature article focused on the impacts of strip mining in Virginia on children who were struggling with asthma — the journalist described school bus windows blackened from air pollution. My heart ached and I was filled with indignation as I brought the magazine to my 7th grade science teacher, demanding that we do something, anything! I began wearing t-shirts to school with the slogan, “Green is the New Black,” as I began to find my breath not only from an inhaler but from resistance and fighting for what I believed in.
With each year, I learned to stand taller, stronger and rooted deeper into my love for this earth as my understanding of the complexity of this climate crisis grew. From starting a socio-eco justice club, Design for Mankind in high school to Films for Justice at Colorado College, to leading backcountry service trips and lobbying on Capitol Hill as a Sierra Club Fellow— I was dipping my feet into different pools of engagement and resilience. Last summer, with 8 other wildly passionate and devoted 20-some year olds, we organized a movement and three-day conference called Uplift to engage youth in climate action on the Colorado Plateau. The staggering biodiversity of this planet represents the diversity needed in this movement, a testament to the fact that there is a place for every single human to be involved and make a difference.
10 years ago, climate change was a hot new buzz word evoking new truths to challenge the status quo, today it’s warped into political weaponry as Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreements. How can our collective breath, our collective future be reduced to political ideologies? Americans and Canadians subsidize the fossil fuel industry in multi-billion dollar incentives and tax breaks each year. We are being forced to fund the demise of our communal and environmental well being. While a climate denying government continues to fail us in their political decisions, this fight for environmental justice won’t end. The power of this movement is in the strength of community and that won’t be dismantled by corrupt political decisions. We’re energizing each other for the long run as we act together for our future.