My dad always took my brothers and me for walks in the warm and humid evenings when we were young. In between laughter, he told me how I would wobble a few feet, stop, and stare at a tree that stood right next to me. I observed the leaves and the deep grooves in the bark. Then, I would wobble a few more feet, stop, and watch the grass and try to touch as many blades as I could. I would pick up a dandelion and stick it in my hair. Smell it. Wobble, stop, and observe the ants crawling around my feet. My dad said that I would take an hour to walk just one block.
From a very young age, I watched nature with intense curiosity. I lived in a suburb in Chicago where every blade of grass needed to be regulated and cut down to a standardized height. My family did not conform. We mowed our lawn maybe once a month. The grass became nice, messy, and long. The neighbors were always uncomfortable with it. They came to our house and offered their lawn mower to cut our lawn, or the contacts of the people that they hired. We didn’t feel inclined to live the cookie-cutter life that everyone else conformed to. The moment I moved to Utah, I saw a raw and wild beauty that could not be compared to suburbia. The mountains shaped my surroundings in ways that seemed random. During the fall, the mountains that I hiked with my brothers blazed with the warm colors of the trees. There was nothing cookie-cutter about this place. I couldn’t contain my excitement. I felt right at home. I felt free.
Growing up, I was raised to question everything, except my parents, which I did anyway. I still believe that asking the right questions can give you the solutions. In 8th grade, my science teacher showed us documentary films highlighting different key issues. One that stuck in my mind was about GMOs and their adverse effects on people and the environment. I remember the scene that showed the bees dying. I remember my heart twisting for them. I felt a great responsibility to the people that the corporations were threatening. My heart overflowed with a mix of anger and empathy that filled my whole body. Right after that, I talked with my friends about creating our own school garden using organic farming. That was the turning point for me. I found the new ideas I had were exhilarating. If my friends and I could work together, we could make our community better. Still, people told me to “relax” and “enjoy my youth.” They told me that I had no reason to worry while I was young, because the adults would protect us. To my surprise, this was not at all true. If anything, they were making it worse.
I think one of the most empowering things about being a youth activist is the ability to take matters in my own hands and to shape the kind of future that I want. I think back to the stories my dad told me about my evening walks, how I felt the beauty of the world radiating and was protective of it.
The election last year angered a lot of young people under 18. We had absolutely no say in the results of the election. Yet, we are already being affected. We are experiencing hurricanes, forest fires, pollution, mudslides, and droughts. Children are so vulnerable to environmental injustices. They are disproportionately affected by the toxic air we breathe. It is only right to listen to our voices to hear the future we want.
More and more young people in Utah are beginning to realize that we have the power to shape our own future. More and more young people have stopped listening to the empty promises of elected officials who claim to want to build a future for “the children and future generations.” The children and future generations are here and ready to make the future we believe in because it’s clear that we have no one else to rely on. If people in power truly want to build a future for young people, then it is their responsibility to listen. Not for future votes, but to make life better for us.
Young folk embody hope and resiliency. Only the strong can grow up in a world that seems to get worse every day. Only the strong can grow up to still see hope and fight for the light at the end of the tunnel. In contrast to the older people in my life who tell me that the problems I face are too big to handle, young folk push back and demand to be heard. We have a unique ability to make ourselves be heard no matter the place or situation.
Last year, young people were refused a hearing from the Utah State Legislature Natural Resources Committee for a resolution that acknowledged that climate change is real and human caused. For others, this might’ve been the ending point for their endeavors. But not for us. We held our own testimony in the largest conference room at the Utah State Capitol. We filled the room with over 14,000 people, and more than 20 young people shared their stories.
Utah has the highest population of young folk in the nation. Every day, I see more young people asking questions. They take action, educate themselves, and help their communities. They are working to find the truth that we all need, using their voices to shape a future for the world that they wanted to grow up in.
Mishka Banuri is a 17-year-old junior at West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. She has been an activist since 7th grade, promoting diversity in schools and institutions. She is passionate about social and environmental justice, particularly on empowering women, people of color, and youth. As a Pakistani Muslim American, she seeks to build bridges within her many communities with progressive values. Among other things, Mishka organizes and participates in grassroots movements across the country to empower minorities. She was an organizer and emcee for the Utah People's Climate March this year, and co-organized the first Utah Youth Environmental Summit. She is also the co-founder of the Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, a youth-led group that engages with their community on environmental issues. She is currently working on several campaigns with the network, and is employed by iMatterYouth, a youth-led climate organizing organization as a facilitator to help youth in Utah conduct environmental projects of their own.