Climate Activist Vic Barrett on Wonder, Transformation, and Storytelling

Climate Activist Vic Barrett on Wonder, Transformation, and Storytelling

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

PHOTOGRAPHS BY AKILAH TOWNSEND

Vic Barrett is best known for suing the federal government, but the climate activist is finally figuring out who he is outside the activism. The Frontline digs deep into Barrett’s queerness and where his work is headed next.

Vic Barrett is a man of many titles. The most popular of all for the 23-year-old is surely climate activist, but after nearly a decade of focusing on advocacy, Barrett is ready to explore all the other identities he holds. The many different versions of himself—a first-generation American who’s Black, Latino, Indigenous, and trans—used to overwhelm him. Now, he’s finally creating the space to embrace the multitude of cultures he embodies. 

 

“I spend a lot of time representing a lot of different organizations and agendas,” Barrett said. “I really want to learn more about myself, which sounds like not that big of a thing, but it’s something I’ve struggled with a lot.”

 

Since he was 14, Barrett has been attempting to bend the world and the people who run it to care more, feel more, do more in response to the urgent ecological crises humanity faces. In 2015, he joined 20 other young people to sue the U.S. federal government for its role in fueling the climate crisis. That high-profile lawsuit—often described as the Brown v. Board of Education equivalent for young people’s right to a habitable planet—is ongoing as plaintiffs await a district court decision to amend their complaint, but it’s indicative of Barrett’s style of climate activism.

 

He looks at the world through a lens of wonder, which allows him to dream big. He recognizes the power of storytelling—it’s been a necessary tool in his work. And he’s not afraid to confront the bad guys because his life has always been a series of confrontations. That’s the reality when you grow up Black and visibly queer. In this political moment when the right wing is waging an all-out war on the rights of trans people, people with uteruses, and young people, Barrett is exactly what the climate movement needs. For far too long, environmentalists have obsessed over the science and policy all while forgetting about the actual experiences of people living through disaster (climate-related or not).

Vic Barrett now carries a joy that took time to foster. Since his transition five years ago, he’s finally feeling like his true, authentic self.

And that’s what Barrett has always been attracted to: stories. When he was only 6 years old, Barrett would call his sister, who was away at college, and ask her to describe the trees outside her window. During beach trips with their grandmother, Barrett would ask their abuelita to share tales about the fish in the sea and their people’s relationship to the water

 

Barrett’s family is Garifuna, a people of African and Indigenous ancestry who arrived in Honduras hundreds of years ago only after escaping enslavement. He’d spend his summers absorbing all he could about his people when he would visit the city of Trujillo on Honduras’s northern coast—especially the dying Garifuna language. Land theft and violence have increasingly threatened the remaining 300,000 members of the Afro-Indigenous community in Honduras, an issue that’s quite personal to Barrett, especially as climate change exacerbates the danger. 

 

“Ever since he was a little, little kid, he cared,” said Lillian Ruiz, his 35-year-old sister, sharing the time they drove past a highway being torn down and a troubled Barrett asked about the baby rabbits in the area. “He was always really curious about bringing community history and understanding into why people are who they are.”

 

That’s why Ruiz wasn’t surprised when Barrett began his climate work in high school. “It’s extraordinary, for sure, what he’s done, but it’s not surprising to me,” she said. Her younger brother—or “little baby bear,” as she calls him—has always shown empathy for others. He now brings this attitude into his role as network organizer for the Power Shift Network, a clean energy coalition dedicated to mobilizing young people.

“The fact is that sometimes I wake up, and it’s a little bit harder for me to show up in the same way that it might be for someone else.”

VIC BARRETT
CLIMATE ACTIVIST

What excites him most about his future is, well, storytelling. Barrett might be only 23—a Gen Zer whose peers are single-handedly dismantling the status quo and revolutionizing the relationship between employers and employees, politicians and voters, and corporations and consumers—but Barrett’s got skin in the game. He’s been an internationally renowned climate activist longer than Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Over the years, he’s told his own story and has witnessed the power it holds. What Barrett wants next is to help others feel comfortable sharing their stories, too. 

 

“A lot of folks assume that their lived experience is non-consequential when all of ours is,” he said. “How do we build empathy through making platforms where people just learn about other people?”

 

And Barrett is onto something: science is beginning to show that narrative storytelling does wonders for the mind. A listener’s brainwaves can even mimic that of the storyteller. Researchers believe this may be the body’s way of building empathy and understanding, which can ultimately help change a person’s perspective. Funny enough, stories are what drew Barrett to climate change when he was a high schooler in New York City.

 

“Climate change, to me, just made me think science,” he said, joking that he was more of a humanities kid until he heard stories of young people who lost everything when Hurricane Sandy hit the city in 2012. “All this context of how climate change was a justice issue—it didn’t really take long for me to grasp. As soon as they gave the first example, it was like, Oh, OK, yeah, this is a justice issue.”

 

It’s wild to think about a 14-year-old connecting these dots in a way many legislators and even climate action proponents have yet to do. But Barrett’s not like most people. In high school at the all-girls school he attended, he would hop between tables at lunch and talk to different kinds of people—despite the school being “weirdly very cliquey,” said Shama Khayat, his best friend he met in high school. After their first lunchtime conversation, Khayat felt as though she had known him forever. 

 

“He’s always been open and such a beautiful soul,” Khayat said. “From the moment I can remember, he’s always been this very sweet, very open person.”

After nearly a decade in the climate game, Barrett is finally ready to focus on himself.

Maayan Cohen, a mentor who first began working with Barrett when he was a teen, could immediately sense his dedication and commitment to justice. She actually connected him to Our Children’s Trust, the group behind the youth-led climate lawsuits that Barrett has since developed a close relationship with.

 

“As one of the 21 young Americans represented in this case, Vic’s story plays an essential role in seeking climate justice for youth through our courts,” said Andrea Rodgers, co-counsel for the lawsuit Juliana v. United States, in an emailed statement. “He has not only experienced significant climate change impacts—caused by his own government in violation of his constitutional rights—that deserve a remedy from the federal courts, but he has also played an important leadership role in the youth climate movement, not only among his fellow Juliana plaintiffs, but also to young climate leaders around the world.”  

 

In the years since Barrett embarked in the legal battle (which is now featured in a Netflix documentary), Cohen wouldn’t say he’s changed much. He was always a leader, but Cohen has noticed the newfound joy he carries. Back then, Barrett hadn’t yet uncovered his trans identity. He didn’t like the label lesbian, either. That didn’t feel quite right, so he went with gay, instead. At the time, he would watch YouTube videos of trans men, yet even then, he’d think, That’s cool, but I could never do that. He continued to feel this way—until he moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for college.

“I spend a lot of time representing a lot of different organizations and agendas. I really want to learn more about myself.”

VIC BARRETT
CLIMATE ACTIVIST

There, he met more visibly queer people. He started dating someone who was nonbinary and trans. They were the first person to ask him about his pronouns, and hearing he/him pronouns for the first time triggered an immediate reaction. “It was more than just a feeling,” Barrett shared. “It was an act of realization.” He acknowledges that he had probably made that realization before but hadn’t quite accepted it. The thought of adding yet another marginalized identity into the mix was too much. 

 

“I was already Black and Latino and Indigenous and first-generation American and neurodivergent and all of these things and gay and a woman,” Barrett said. “I always thought in my head, How fucked up would it be if I’m also trans? Like, I actually had that thought: I can’t check off another box. There’s no way that I can deal with being in another group that’s on the margins. I remember genuinely thinking that.”

 

Meeting another Honduran trans boy whose family didn’t accept him helped Barrett find the courage to come out and share his new identity with his family. Barrett knew his family would accept him—his mother was always supportive and loving. She even made a funny comment when Barrett came out as trans, asking if he’s the dominant one in his relationships in the same way she believed Ricky Martin to be the more submissive one in his. “I was like, No, it’s not like that,” Barrett laughed, explaining that this new identity was not about sex or relationships. It was about his gender; he was a man. 

 

He’s grown more confident since transitioning five years ago. His transition has sparked that joy Cohen described. Barrett finally feels that he’s bringing his full authentic self to his work, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t struggled. Across the U.S., environmental organizations (be they governmental or not) are made up predominantly of white people. That creates a different context for how they approach their climate work and, say, how Barrett does. 

 

“The fact is that sometimes I wake up, and it’s a little bit harder for me to show up in the same way that it might be for someone else,” he went on.

Connecting with nature is essential for all of us. For Barrett, connecting with water runs even deeper given his Garifuna roots. Luckily enough for Barrett, he lives near a lake where can go kayak.

LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities are more likely to experience housing issues, money issues, mental health issues. The list goes on. Colonialism, slavery, ongoing systemic racism, and discrimination are all to blame—but this is a reality that weighs heavily on Barrett. It’s why he took a while to accept his full self and why he cares so much—sometimes too much. He admits he struggles to set boundaries. 

 

“I never want anyone to feel unheard or less than or like their feelings don’t matter even in cases where maybe they should,” he said. “Anything that I can do to make someone else feel good, I’m going to do so.”

 

Isn’t that what this moment calls for, though? Human connection? Deep emotion? Feeling the feelings we don’t want to feel? Knowing when to speak up and when to listen? Barrett offers a wisdom many older folks don’t even have—likely a result of his 10 years in the climate game, hearing the same promises and seeing nothing happen.

 

And yet, he’s still got a lifetime ahead of him: a lifetime of lessons to learn and memories to make. He still wants to finish college and explore his interests. He wants to look in the mirror and feel certain about the person looking back at him. Barrett doesn’t know what exactly comes next, but he does know that this next chapter will be all about him. He’s lived enough of his life in service of other people. He’s ready to nurture himself for a change.

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