Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez has spent the last seven years battling to save the planet.
It's a mission that has led him to speak at a United Nations conference in Brazil; meet with politicians; be a party to lawsuits; stand up to energy companies; and assist in founding environmental groups in places as far-flung as Togo, Africa. In his spare time, he is a composer and emcee. Oh, and a seventh-grader.
The 13-year-old Boulder resident was born into this life. His father has Aztec heritage that he honors through environmentalism. His mother is a long-time activist who founded the Earth Guardians group as an eco-minded high school student in Hawaii in the early '90s. When she moved her family to Boulder, the group was reborn into a club for child activists, led largely by Xiuhtezcatl's older sister.
Xiuhtezcatl began taking an active role in Earth Guardians by the time he was 6. The group has multiple approaches, from education to direct activism to filing lawsuits. It's taken aim at a number of environmental issues, from climate change to the use of chemicals on the grass at public parks. Most recently, it's focused on fracking.
Given that the theme of the Seventh Annual Educating Children of Color Summit is "YOUth be the change," it seems appropriate that Xiuhtezcatl will be the keynote speaker.
"What we were thinking about when we came up with this year's topic is how youth are the future and how they're going to be responsible for so many changes that come about, and how youth have made changes in the past," says Regina Walter, co-chair of the summit. She notes that the event, which will be held Saturday on the Colorado College campus, comes just over a half-century after the Children's Crusade in Alabama, in which hundreds of kids marched for civil rights and many were arrested.
The summit features 60-plus presenters on subjects as diverse as gender inequality, hip-hop, drugs, civil rights and "the bro code." With programs for educators and the public, the conference aims to find creative ways to bridge the gap for minority children.
Xiuhtezcatl has some ideas on that point as well. We spoke to him about school, activism and, you know, saving the planet. Here are some excerpts:
Do you go to public schools in Boulder?
I didn't go to public schools until third grade. I really wanted to try public school — I wanted to see what the system is like.
Were you home schooled before that?
Yeah, sort of. I wasn't really doing a lot of home schooling. I was in this home schooling program that did a lot of herbology and more like alternative practices, and it was interesting. ... I went to public school for third through seventh grade. I'm in seventh grade right now, but I'm dropping out because my traveling is getting so huge. Like, I'm going to India in April, back to Australia probably in June, and then all throughout the East Coast this spring traveling to present at different colleges.
What would you like to see changed [in the education system]?
I think one thing is that a lot of teachers, they go to school because it's a job and they make money. And they're like, "OK kids, get out your textbooks and turn to page 218 and read that for an hour then go do your homework." A lot of teachers aren't passionate about what they're teaching.
Now that I'm traveling a lot, I'm meeting doctors and scientists that when they talk about their studies, about their work, they are so like pumped up and excited about it, that it makes you want to learn it. ...
There are so many good things about the education system, too. It provides a form of structure that you can't get out of home schooling ... [But] I think there has to be a change in the way that we are being educated, in order to change the global shift of where we are heading right now, I think especially when it comes to people of color.
Colorado has seen several destructive fires and floods, as well as the pine beetle epidemic. Do you think that's gotten more kids excited about environmentalism?
I think that when a lot of people think about climate change and our environmental crisis, they think about global problems like Fukushima ... climate change, loss of ice in the Arctic, and polar bears dying, that kind of thing. A lot of times it's not related to us. That's how we perceive it; it's out there. And I think when we saw these floods, and these droughts, and these fires ... I think it's really showing people that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Are there any successes you've had that you felt most proud of?
I think this last success that we had with fracking was really, really huge. ... There was this whole Broomfield thing where we won, actually, to get a moratorium .... We got five-year moratoriums in towns and cities all across Colorado, and bans as well. And just the movement that is rising around fracking is so huge because people realize it does immediate damage to our health, our water, our safety, and the future of our children — the kind of Colorado that they're going to grow up in.
Tell me about the other branches of Earth Guardians.
There is a branch in Australia. A branch in the Philippines. There is a branch in India. There is a branch in Brazil. We're also setting up branches throughout Europe and Greece and England — the U.K. They're all over the United States. I think there is a really big one in Ohio that is just set up that has an incredible community center. Also in New Zealand there's a really big one that has, like, 200 kids.
In Togo, Africa, there's an incredible group there led by this young man called Samuel Ayivi. ... He's trying to spread the groups throughout Togo, because they really want them there; there's a lot of environmental problems that they're starting to solve there. ... It's kind of difficult because they don't have their NGO [non-governmental organization status] yet so they're getting a lot of pullback from the government and stuff. But we're working with them so that they can get their NGO and so they can really start expanding.
Are world leaders ready to listen to children?
I think they are listening, and to some extent they acknowledge what we are doing. But I don't think they're willing to sacrifice money they are getting to really make a huge environmental difference. ...
The other part of this campaign is lawsuits that we've filed in all 50 states. It's young people standing up and saying, "We have a right to these natural resources, to [the] atmosphere for the next generations." So we're suing our state governments in all 50 states. ...
We also have a [dismissed] federal lawsuit that we lobbied congressmen and tried to get their support for it. And they were really [supportive] and it was really cool, but I think that if any real global defense is going to be made, it's going to come from the people, not the politicians and governors and world leaders.
I think it's really hard because adults are kind of the creators of this mess. Your generation, the past generations, have created this mess. And I'm not throwing the blame to you ... but it's not fair that the adults can have a party on the planet and leave it for us to clean up.