When Isaias Hernandez was growing up in Los Angeles, he faced a host of obstacles. From living off food stamps to struggling with the city’s air quality, Hernandez was raised with an acute understanding of how poverty, migration, gender discrimination, and environmental destruction intersect and feed off each other.
“At a young age, I realized that there were moments in my life that I was never able to leave my apartment because the smog was bad,” he says. “Being in poverty really deprived me from having access to clean spaces.”
Hernandez has since devoted his career to ensuring that the links between these disparate issues are well understood. On his platform, Queer Brown Vegan, the young Mexican American climate educator and influencer tackles issues from how to adopt a climate-friendly diet to exploring the links between climate change and the border industrial surveillance industry.
With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, Queer Brown Vegan has built up a huge audience. Hernandez even recently spoke with Kamala Harris, asking the vice president how the federal government plans to ensure that climate education is made available to youth from kindergarten to grade 12.
Teen Vogue recently called Isaias Hernandez to talk about Queer Brown Vegan, the need to make the climate movement more inclusive, and what young people can do to fight climate injustice. This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Teen Vogue: Why did you decide to start Queer Brown Vegan?
Isaias Hernandez: I started Queer Brown Vegan back in 2019 after realizing that there was a lack of climate education on social media. As someone who graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in environmental science, I realized the career I was pursuing at the time wouldn’t necessarily educate or inspire people. Academia is a very insular space. And I saw social media as an independent outlet where I could actually express both research and personal experience.
One of the things that my mom always preached is that education should be free. She told me that regardless of your income, your race, your status, your gender, everyone should receive equitable education. And so, in the United States, my mom actually became my educator, especially my Spanish teacher. She taught me how to use my cultural experiences [through] an educational lens and that education can be made fun and engaging and accessible for people as long as you can connect it to people’s cultural experience.
TV: How have climate change and environmental destruction impacted your life?
IH: I grew up my entire life living near toxic facilities in affordable housing units. And so, when I was young, I started to question why don’t poor people have the same exact resources [as] affluent communities in the Los Angeles region?
When I was in high school, I learned about the term environmental justice to talk about the way that your zip code determines the health quality of your community. I realized that the conditions that I lived in weren’t because we were poor and we deserve to live like that. It was because of systemic racism. I realized that this wasn’t just because of an accident but by design. And that’s what really got [me] started questioning these things in my environment.
TV: In some of your recent videos, you explore the links between climate change and migration. Can you explain how these two topics are interconnected?
IH: As you see more climate crisis events, disasters hitting low-income communities, those communities are being displaced further up north and going towards the United States. But the issue is that the border surveillance industry is obviously profiting off of immigrants that are attempting to come over to the United States. Private prisons operate with these industries in a way to imprison these immigrants that are not able to come through legal channels.
Surveillance has been used under the rhetoric of security and protection. But for who? And whom are those actual systems truly serving? These immigrants are Black, Indigenous, brown people of color that are low-income. Their families, their children have been displaced and now have to seek a better opportunity in the Global North — and they’re being criminalized for it. As sea level rises, as certain areas are going to be flooded, there’s going to be mass migration going to different countries. And so, a lot of Global North governments, instead of actually investing in climate reparations and creating programs for climate refugees, are increasing funding for militarization and borders because they see immigrants as a national security threat.
TV: You have called out the climate movement for centering the voices of white, cis men and excluding the voices of those living on the front lines of the climate crisis. Moving forward, what would you like to see change in the climate movement? Whose voices do you want to hear more of?
IH: I think the important thing about the climate movement is that it’s actually based on intergenerational wisdom. I think that it is super important that we genuinely have youth voices, specifically those that are Black, Indigenous, brown people of color, that we do not censor those who are disabled, queer, and trans, or those that are immunocompromised. But I also think older generations of environmental justice [activists] should be centered. If we’re not able to actually create a movement that is very holistic in that it values both those who are young and those who came before us, we may be creating an unsustainable movement. Yes, we need younger people, but we also want older people too.
TV: What do you hope to add to the climate conversation?
IH: Climate justice in the environmental movement is being hijacked by corporations and institutions. Along with the terms of “net-zero” and “carbon neutrality,” a lot of companies believe climate justice means creating sustainable programs. But the truth is climate justice is saying that climate change is a social and racial justice movement. It’s also an anticapitalist system that calls for the dismantling of these systems.
Climate justice to me is a spiritual and cultural lens that allows us to build relationships amongst communities rather than building relationships with companies. I want to be able to ensure that companies are not just using the term climate justice and degrading the value of the term and what it represents.
TV: What is your advice for young people looking to learn more about the climate crisis?
IH: I think that for younger people, the best thing is to look for solutions-based journalism. What we’re good at in the media is identifying problems. That’s a good thing for us to understand, but if you look at solutions journalism, it reduces our anxiety and increases optimism. Evidence-based hope isn’t put out there as much as problem identification. I tell younger people to look into those local solutions that are happening. Work together with scientists, activists, and policymakers. The truth is we all have limitations in our own careers. [For example], I need to collaborate with these institutions and scientists to push these just agendas.
Also, continue to sustainably love yourself for this movement. A lot of us believe we need to sacrifice our mental health to be resilient. But if you don’t rest or build relationships — you start to lose those human components that we need. Striving away from isolationism is the best thing you can do in the climate movement.
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