in the park - a conversation with Varsha Yajman
Updated: Oct 23
"Individual action is important, but systemic change and widespread climate action need to happen now." - Varsha Yajman
Varsha Yajman on climate justice and navigating life as a young woman of colour.
In late 2019, I strapped on my newborn in her stretchy wrap, drew up a rough protest placard and boarded a train to The Domain on Gadigal Land. It was baby’s first protest. As we stood there in the sun, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, I felt a deep sense of awe. The stage had been taken over by young people – teenage girls to be more precise. Their speeches were short and to the point, filled with passion and lacking all the boring lingo of big speeches. “Climate justice now!”, they demanded at the top of their lungs. I looked down at my daughter, my heart fluttering with the unique sense of hope that only collective action inspires, and then up at the young woman on stage – this was the first time I heard Varsha Yajman speak.
On a quiet, drizzling Saturday morning in February this year, Varsha and I meet at the Quadrangle of The University of Sydney. She’s soft-spoken, unassuming, expressing the same clarity and strength in her words and views as when I’d heard her 2 years earlier. Back then she was in high school, an organiser in the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
Climate activism & it’s lack of diversity
How did you get involved in climate activism? I ask. She tells me she was in Year 11 when her school sent around a call-out note for a leadership program. The theme was climate change, and she admits she didn’t know much about the whole thing. Looking to fill some after-school hours and meet new people, she signed up. She soon realised just how much she didn’t know on the subject, but the pragmatism and enthusiasm of her peers inspired and pushed her to keep learning. There was a shared sense that ‘climate change is something that we can actually solve, or we're trying to solve or take actions and steps towards it. It's not just about the government, but we all have a role to play, and it was a bigger role than just recycling or using beeswax wraps or something. It was about organising and protesting.’ Through solidarity training she continued to educate herself about climate justice and First Nations justice, understanding her own responsibility to the people and communities around her.
So how did she go from being someone who admittedly knew so little about the issues, to someone on the frontlines of the school strikes? ‘I don't know because I think sometimes the climate movement is very whitewashed. I'm not sure if they actually want me for me or only to do a tick mark on a diversity quota checklist. But it seems like a balance that every single climate group is trying to achieve. It’s like, “we need to be inclusive and we're talking about justice, but then we also have just a bunch of white people”. We talk about how most of the media features young, white activists – ‘it’s mostly, white, inner city, Sydney kids.’ I ask her if she felt tokenised. ‘If they want me to just tick a box, then that's fine. At least I'm going to do what I can to speak up, because this is something that is really important to me. And I hope that other people see that. To think “I can do it too” and that it's not just restricted to white people.’
All around the world, climate activists have begun reckoning with the fact that their movements are mostly white. Even when climate change disproportionately affects women and non-binary People of Colour (POC). Often discourses at the heart of the climate movement tend to alienate people of colour – a recent example of this is Extinction Rebellion. Do you think that’s changing, I ask? Are People of Colour becoming more involved or more visible? She hesitates a moment, ‘I think they have… and I think there's more awareness that they aren't involved if that makes sense. I think most people have at least acknowledged that the climate movement is very whitewashed.’ Varsha tells me that what she thinks is missing is true solidarity. Solidarity instead of overpowering and overshadowing. Understanding, for example, that First Nations People ‘are really on the front lines of the crisis, but are constantly being pushed aside, pushed away’.
"I'm not sure if they actually want me for me or only to do a tick mark on a diversity quota checklist." Varsha Yajman
Before the pandemic, there was a momentum in the climate change movement -an agreement that we’d reached a tipping point and change was more urgent than ever. ‘People are making the connection, understanding we don't have 40 years. We need to do this right now. I don't think many people are really denying climate change anymore. It’s just acting on it.’ So what do you think is holding us back, I ask? ‘Laziness? Or just not being able to recognise how important individual action is sometimes. When you have a government, or just the entire world, putting it off constantly, it's kind of like OK, me taking dairy out of one meal isn't going to make a difference.’ That said, she goes on, individual action is important but there must be systemic change, there must be action from the government. Frustratingly, that hasn’t happened yet. ‘Something has to be done… [for example] providing enough money to bushfire relief, all the mental health impacts of it. That just was never done. It was completely ignored and I think having the pandemic kind of pushed everything under the rug. Because you have two crises, right? It's not like climate change stopped when the pandemic began and attention to climate justice has kind of faded a little bit. It’s very understandable. [At the same time] the amount of waste we had during the pandemic was insane. Everyone was like “all greenhouse gases are reduced”. Yes, they have, but also waste has increased tenfold. More happened during the pandemic, legislation-wise, probably more has passed than in the past three or four years, but we just don't know about it. Government accountability has definitely reduced, everywhere.’ We continue talking about accountability, or lack thereof, and she concludes ‘It shouldn't be up to whether you’re [part of a] conservative party or a more progressive party. Climate change shouldn't be this weird partisan divide. It's literally just a human rights issue at this point. So, I don't understand why that debate is still going on.’
On privilege & the word ‘activism’
Do you think inaction and apathy on climate change has to do with age? Varsha recognises the generational difference has often been used as an explanation to some degree, but she disagrees. There are young people who don’t care and older people who have been fighting all their lives, she tells me. ‘I think it's genuinely about empathy and sympathy for the issue and just being aware of what's happening. I especially think it's about the people you're surrounded by and the type of media you're consuming. Media literacy is so important, and you’re never taught about it. I also think privilege is the biggest thing and I realised that during the pandemic. I am so privileged. And I'm so lucky to have the things that I do. I think it's being aware of how much privilege you have that allows you to recognise all the injustices. And I'm not saying drown yourself in the depression of how sad everything is. I don't think you should ever feel guilty about it, because I mean, if you can do something about it, you're just doing what you can and that's it.’
I’ve noticed how she shies away from the term “activist”, both in this conversation and in other interviews she’s done. I ask her about it. ‘I think performative activism is a real issue. If people want to call themselves an activist, go for it, but to me I think it's my duty as a person living on this planet, it's my responsibility to do what I can and if this is what I can do, then I'll do that. I'm definitely not perfect; I have so many flaws that I should fix when it comes to climate action. But I think it's just about doing what you can. I wouldn't call myself an activist for it. I think it's just being a human.’ I ponder this for a moment and she goes on, ‘I think it can also be a little bit “gatekeep-y” and kind of keep people out and say “no, you haven't done this or this. I've been in the movement for six months longer than you, therefore I'm an activist and you're not”. And that just becomes a really big divide. I just want to feel inspired and empowered by them [others in the movement], and I think the word activist can sometimes be a bit of a turn off.’
"Climate change shouldn't be this weird partisan divide. It's literally just a human rights issue at this point." Varsha Yajman
Mental health & self-acceptance
We’re deep in conversation at this stage when we move on to discuss mental health. Varsha was on a panel last year discussing eco-anxiety and she also attended Q&A raising issues around eating disorders. Given the unprecedented times we’re living through, mental health is prevalent in every conversation I’ve had, and rightly so. The impacts of the pandemic alone: uncertainty, isolation, economic struggles and loss, will have deep effects we’re only just beginning grasp. Varsha reminds me that even before the pandemic, the unprecedented bushfires around the country had severe impacts on so many communities across Australia. Our conversation took place shortly after the bushfires in Western Australia and as I write this, severe flooding is ravaging New South Wales. ‘All of this could be avoided if climate action was taken. The more impact we suffer from climate change, the greater the risk of eco-anxiety.’
The night before our conversation Varsha posted on Instagram about eating disorders. I ask her about it. ‘It's something that I've struggled with and I think it's something I find quite difficult to talk about because there's so much stigma around it as well and I think for me, especially, being a person of colour, there's a lot. There’s always the argument that I hate: the kids at home in India don't even have food and you're worried about eating too much or something. And I'm so lucky to have all this food, but at the same time, it's always typified as a “first world issue”.
‘I remember watching a video [at school] where they told me that if I don't eat, I'm going to lose calcium and my bone density will decrease. And when you're 15 or 13, it doesn't mean anything to me. I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to look like other people. I think something I've come to realise is that a lot of that was just based [on the fact that] I went to a school that was mainly white, so I think trying to fit in was always about trying to like look like them and be like them, and I could never change my skin colour. So, I think I was trying to be the same size or have the same shape and, I didn't realise it but I think a lot of that played into my catalyst for the eating disorder as well.”
We talk about beauty standards back home and how colourism comes into play, along with conflicting opinions on body shapes. The influence society, family, friends and white supremacy have on us. We agree that for young women, there are so many contradicting messages – tans are beautiful and healthy, unless you’re born brown or darker. In that case, stay out of the sun and use “fair and lovely” to make yourself whiter. And don’t even start me on body shapes! ‘It’s hard to live up to anything. I think it's only something that I've come to accept recently. My skin is this colour and I can't make it lighter. And if it gets darker then it gets darker. Obviously, I want to keep it healthy and that's really it. Just recognising how much my body's done for me and the fact that me trying to constantly change it has never helped.’
It’s getting late and I don’t want to keep her. Next week she’s heading to Melbourne for work. Varsha is working as a paralegal at Equity Generation Lawyers. ‘It’s been amazing. They’re a small team and all of their litigation is climate change based.’ She wasn’t sure what her career in law might look like and ‘seeing the work they do and how passionate they are… a few of them went to Sydney [University] and have done things in the environmental space. [It’s] been really motivating and really nice to see.’ The team at Equity Generation are heading to Melbourne to represent a group of young people – teenagers, actually- who are challenging the federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley. They’re asking her to fulfil her duty of care and protect young people from climate change and the harm of coal mining. It’s a landmark class action that has currently stalled the proposed extension of Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine. The proposed extension would increase production of coal by 25%, with emissions of 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses over the next 25 years (equivalent to about 70% of Australia’s total emissions since 2019). The lead claimant is also a young woman of colour, Anjali Sharma. If successful, this case has the potential to significantly affect the future of coal mining in the country.
Initially, Varsha tells me, her idea was to finish the degree and go into politics. Now she’s not sure. Her experience with university politics in 2020 didn’t feel right for her. ‘I think they're really great spaces, but I feel more empowered to make change in other spaces because at the end of the day I think white supremacy is quite institutionalised, as much as you have those trying to change things. They definitely do have People of Colour, but I think the way they go about change is just very different to the way I found [effective]. I don't love being surrounded by police (in fact she mentioned throughout the conversation how terrified she is of police, particularly after their violent response to the university protests in 2020) but I really do think that protests and lobbying are effective methods. Sometimes, at University, it's too theory based and it’s just not my thing. I love talking to people and I think it's really important to listen.’ Additionally, going into politics as a person of colour has further challenges, more so if you’re a woman. ‘Being a woman of any race or colour is hard in politics. And now hearing about the whole issue with Brittany Higgins…’
It’s frustrating to see the lack of leadership and action on such important issues. Moreover, while cases like Brittany Higgins’ are discussed in mainstream media, they tend to be viewed as singular events – even when additional cases are reported- instead of discussing the root cause, which is institutionalised patriarchal violence and white supremacy. We finish up our conversation on this note with the added promise of following up on the Vickery coal mine case in the upcoming months. It’s heartening to see that despite all odds, there are young women of colour leading the way for change in this country and beyond. 🔥
Varsha Yajman is an 18 year old university student who is passionate about fighting for climate justice. She believes the climate movement to be intersectional and sees mental health awareness as being fundamental to achieving climate justice.