Akilah Sanders-Reed: Youth climate intervenor

Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to notice what millions of other take for granted. 23-year-old Akilah Sanders-Reed, a native of New Mexico now living in Minneapolis, is on the front lines of the movement to protect the northern Minnesota waters that are an integral part of this state’s cultural heritage.

“Water is a scarce and precious commodity,” she says. “We should never take that water for granted, or treat it with disrespect.” Sanders-Reed, currently the Oil Free Organizer for the youth climate group Power Shift, is actively working against a pipeline proposal that would bring Canadian tar sands oil through Minnesota’s lake country.

“The current Enbridge Line 3 pipeline goes straight through Leech Lake,” she says, “and the expansion goes through some of the best wild rice lakes in the state.” The Mississippi Headwaters are also threatened by the pipeline proposal, Sanders-Reed says, “if there were a spill it would affect the drinking water in the Twin Cities.”

Sanders-Reed and 12 other activists under the age of 25 are working in state courts in a novel way; calling themselves the Youth Climate Intervenors, their legal petitions won them recognition as directly affected parties when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission holds hearings on the permit this fall. Any citizen can speak at a hearing, but only a court-approved intervenor can call expert witnesses and file discovery requests on other parties in the case, including Enbridge itself. “The [permitting] process should be transparent and fair,” but Sanders-Reed says the company is doing all it can to rush approval of the permits, even without thorough environmental impact reviews.

The Youth Climate Intervenors argued that the environmental costs of the pipeline, both in terms of a possible spill and the impact of fossil fuel dependence, would be disproportionately borne by their generation. Long after oil executives have cashed out and enjoyed luxurious retirements, these young people “will be living with the direct threats to our lives, to our health, to our communities.”

“The voice and the moral clarity that young people can bring is what got us a seat at the table,” Sanders-Reed says.

Connecting to activism

Growing up in Albuquerque, “I always had a soft spot for the environment,” she says. “The more I learned about climate change, the more I learned that my future and so much of what was beautiful about this world was at risk.” When she learned that her hometown had no plans in place to participate in the 2009 International Day of Climate Action, she decided to organize an event herself, though she was only 15. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she says, “but I knew I had to do something.”

Sanders-Reed chose to attend Macalester College in St. Paul in part because the Twin Cities seemed “like the kind of place that could be a model for climate activism,” with its diverse population and active social justice communities. “I have so much faith inthe people I have met here,” she says, “the people fighting for climate justice, for indigenous rights, for women’s rights and in the Black Lives Matter movement.”

The connection between environmental justice and other systems of oppression is something Sanders-Reed stresses in her activism. “We have an opportunity now to walk away from the kinds of structures that have allowed a few to run the world at the expense of millions of others.”

Sanders-Reed’s environmental coalition also includes the Women’s Congress for Future Generations 2017 conference in Minneapolis. “If you look at [environmental] resistance, it’s led by women, and especially indigenous women,” she says. Overlap between feminism and the environmental movement is inevitable when “the climate crisis is a symptom of the patriarchal and extractive, colonial systems embedded in our society.” The Youth Climate Intervenors will be at the conference, Sanders-Reed says, to share their work and “to have intergenerational conversations” about best practices.

Building the future

“[Climate justice] means building a world in which people from all walks of life are able to live in dignity and prosperity,” Sanders-Reed says. She recognizes that her activism can feel like a struggle, but she is undaunted. She draws strength from the “love and joy we have for one another, for our communities and for the next generations.” She is filled with hope for Minnesota’s waters, forests and people, and thanks to her job, “I wake up every day feeling like I won the lottery.”

Oil dependence is not inevitable, she says; “we have everything we need in order to build the future that we want.”