Sohayla El Deeb is a climate change activist from Florida. She’s seen the effects of climate change in the places she’s lived, from Egypt to New Jersey to Florida. She is the Global Outreach Director at Zero Hour, a youth-led organization that is raising the stakes on the climate change conversation.
What got you interested in activism in the first place?
I was born in Egypt and raised there — I moved to U.S. when I was six or seven. Egypt is one of the leading countries with high air pollution. I was raised in a village, so I saw before my eyes how people thrive daily off of the Earth’s resources by using the Nile for crops, washing their clothes, etc. Coming back to Egypt, I saw the transition of the Nile becoming polluted and become inaccessible. That’s the prime factor, but there are other factors like hurricanes and natural disasters that have followed me. In Egypt there was water scarcity, and when I moved to New Jersey, we got hit by one of the biggest hurricanes — Hurricane Sandy. Our home was completely damaged because we lived in front of the bay. Now I live in Florida and I got hit by four hurricanes since I have moved here. And now I’m moving to California for college and I’ll have to deal with earthquakes and forest fires. It’s just a common threat and fear. It shouldn’t be a thing that we have to face. And I can recognize my privilege and understand that when we got affected by hurricane, we could come up again, but it’s important to understand that there are other socioeconomic communities that don’t necessarily have the same privileges I have when facing these circumstances.
Climate change is a huge threat — what can we do as citizens to make things incrementally better?
I love that question. Every time someone brings that up, I always refer them to the Zero Hour platform. Of course there are common answers like reducing plastic use, but we have it broken down by encouraging people to take all these different things into consideration. I always encourage people to educate themselves, because the biggest factor that keeps me going is that I stay educated and sometimes this leads me to feel uncomfortable because of the privileges I am forced to acknowledge and the things I have to hold myself accountable to. I encourage others to do the same.
What has your experience as a young activist been like? Have you ever experienced people telling you that you’re too young or inexperienced to be engaging in this level of activism?
As an organization, we’ve built ourselves up as a group of young women in high school. We meet a lot with advisors who sometimes advise too much. We understand they have experience, but sometimes they put their foot down on things we want to do. Things like that have not necessarily pushed us back, but have created barriers. There are other factors, like I’m the Global Outreach Director, and back when we did the march and the summit, working with getting licenses for venues and talking to vendors was a bit hard because we’re at such a young age, so it put us at a disadvantage. It can sometimes be a struggle making things happen because age puts us at a disadvantage.
How can we influence our elected officials to take action on climate change?
I would always advocate for the Green New Deal and support AOC on that. Second, we have a Letter to Politicians on our website, and it breaks down different ways that officials can take action by 2020/2030/2040. We also advocate for leaders to sign the fossil fuel pledge [refusing to take donations from the fossil fuel industry] — that’s one of the top priorities I have when I’m talking to an elected official or training other youth leaders to talk to an elected official.
Climate change is such a huge existential threat — it can be really difficult to think about the devastation that’s currently happening. How do you keep going despite the gravity of the situation?
I do a lot of re-grounding, thinking about why I joined the movement in the first place. It’s hard to find balance between anger and hope. Some people are doing this work, because they’re angry and they don’t see any hope. I on the other hand have hope, those same places I was telling you about, that’s how I choose to re-ground myself. I go back to the places where I was affected directly, places that make me feel angry — the Nile, Hurricane Sandy — those moments that have hit me to the peak of feeling. Which is ironic, because instead of feeling angry I feel hopeful to keep moving.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a climate change activist?
The climate movement has become mainstream, which is good and bad, because a lot of people are jumping on for the wrong reasons. Everyone wants to claim themselves as an activist or put themselves in the movement for media opportunities. It’s hard to distinguish yourself as a genuine activist — I don’t even like labelling myself like that anymore. You’ve got to stay intact and re-grounded about why you’re working hard and working towards your goal in order to stay on track.
That’s interesting that you bring that up. What is your definition of an ideal activist?
An activist — oh gosh, I’ve met so many different types of activists — I think of frontline youth using their voice, emphasizing the reason they’re fighting, and sharing their story to different communities. An activist means someone who chooses to recognize their privilege and recognizes their voice and can utilize that to fight for others who might not have the opportunity to voice their opinion but at the same time acknowledging the fact that fighting someone’s fight should not allow you to talk over those affected.
Ok, last question: what advice do you have for young people who want to get involved in activism, but just don’t know where to start?
I would definitely say start local. It’s hard to start with national movements, so start local. There’s always an issue that needs to be addressed within your community, and you are the best person to speak on behalf of that problem. Find communities and find different issues that need attention, and then just do it. Advocate for it, look for local action groups, and if there aren’t any, don’t be afraid to take that first step in launching it. And also, if you’re a youth or Gen Z, social media and all these networking opportunities that we have are a privilege. Educate your followers, educate your friends who might not know what’s going on despite these being issues that affect everyone. I personally work with a lot of activists who are a lot of first time activists,and most of the time they’re from different countries or more rural parts of the US, so its hard for them to find these organizations. So they become that initiator, that leader. They’re taking the first step by reaching out to organize things they’re interested in or reach out to people they’ve seen who are doing that work. That’s another piece of advice: reach out to people who are already doing that work. Educate yourselves in order to distinguish yourself. And always remember that if you do not like the news, then become the news.
You can follow Sohayla at @sohayeldeeb, Zero Hour @thisiszerohour, and Meet the Activist @meettheactivist!