More Powerful Than Oil Executives

Liner Notes / Naina Agrawal-Hardin

My family’s roots span multiple continents, yet our places of origin are more connected than they might appear. East Tennessee and Northern Bihar are both rural, poor, and uniquely vulnerable to the climate crisis. In 2016, a fire exacerbated by drought nearly burned down my maternal grandparents’ home near the Great Smoky Mountains. Not a year later, flooding nearly claimed my paternal grandparents’ home near West Bengal. In both cases, my family was spared, but our communities were devastated. These were potent previews of the climate injustice that burdens my generation. Paradoxically, they left me feeling both powerless and galvanized.

When I heard about the first Global Climate Strike, set for Friday, March 15th, 2019, I jumped at the chance to take action. In a university town like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no shortage of nonprofits and clubs focused on environmental justice. As a sophomore in high school, I knew it was important to create a space where they could connect. I envisioned a strong local coalition mobilizing thousands of students to strike from school. Our meetings started small, but as January became February, they became populated with  diverse high schoolers, undergraduates, grad students, and community allies.

After months of social media posts, flyers, and phone calls, our young coalition found ourselves at the beginning of Strike Week. On the eve of the strike, on the third floor of a downtown Ann Arbor building usually used by the University of Michigan Graduate Students Union, the coalition met to finalize the last minute details of the next day’s protest. Our team had grown to nearly fifty organizers, and the chaos of the room made my head spin. Looking around, I saw a scrappy, diverse team distribute art, acquire megaphones, sort armbands for marshalls, textbank friends, and more. My heart swelled with pride at the grassroots power in the room that night.

My memories of Strike Day are a blur, but when I looked over the 2,000 person crowd at the rally, I was grounded in a desire to protect the places I’m from. As I watched social media messages stream in from Indian and Appalachian relatives alike, I no longer felt powerless. This day was only the beginning of my climate justice journey, but it permanently shaped my perception of where power comes from and how we, as organizers, can build it.

Remembering that day reminds me of the comfort of community; the young people in my coalition have become some of my closest friends. It commemorates a turning point: March 15th created a local culture of youth political engagement and an international movement of young people that’s only just getting started. It also instilled in me a belief that although I’ve gone on to work nationally with the Sunrise Movement and other climate groups, local organizing will always be the most effective way to foster change. And it showed me the value of intelligent intergenerational collaboration. That day, I learned that power - real, true power - lies not with fossil fuel billionaires, influential politicians, or massive corporations. Rather, it belongs to passionate, collaborative community organizers.

About the Author

Naina is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States.  In addition to her local community organizing, she works with Sunrise Movement on national campaigns. You can follow her on Instagram @nainagra and on Twitter @nainagradin.