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Climate justice is intersectional feminism in action

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

On a rainy Friday morning in mid-April, a group of Harvard University dining hall workers brought a petition about workplace conditions to the office of University President Drew Gilipin Faust. 

But President Faust wasn’t there. Instead, the employees presented the petition to the group of students who had been blockading the building day and night for the past week in an attempt to get the Harvard Corporation, the financial head of the university, to divest its $35.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

“I used to be proud to say I worked for Harvard University. Now I’m proud to say I work for the students of Harvard University,” the organizer presenting the petition said.

This moment of visible, vocal solidarity between labor organizers and climate justice advocates is one of many in a movement that is inherently about — and focusing more and more on — climate justice as social justice. And the week of activism I got to fangirl out about here on campus, Harvard Heat Week, is just one iteration of fossil fuel divestment actions that students are organizing across the country and world.

There’s already been writing on why climate justice is a feminist issue. “Justice” here is the key word. We know that as the effects of human emissions become more and more visible — hotter summers, colder winters, sea levels rising, more and weirder storms — the folks who are going to be hurt most are the ones already most marginalized. Maya has written beautifully right here on Feministing about the connections between capitalism, structural marginalization — racism, classism, nativism, gender oppression — and climate change.

As a university student, I want to think a little more about the actual moment of activism: Not only what the movement is fighting for, but the way direct action in the climate movement can help us as feminists imagine a better world.


“You know why all of you in American colleges stay so busy all the time?” a friend of mine asked me once. We were on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, where I was studying abroad. JNU is a bad-ass hub of leftist student activism. Its students and professors are leaders in the Indian anti-sexual violence movement and in labor movements alike. It’s a place that, above all, gets the fundamental underlying fact that any system built upon coercion — whether it’s capitalist coercion or gender coercion or both — is bad for everyone.

My friend and I were passing the afternoon drinking tea lazily in the sun — a far cry from my college experience brimming with business casual and boat shoes and buzz words and business — when my friend rocked my world.

“You all keep so busy you don’t recognize the fundamental injustice of capitalism,” he said.

Everyone faces the pressure to stay in line, to do our work, to keep our heads down, to not challenge the system. Many of us don’t have a choice: If you’re working a low-paying job for a big company, it’s well-nigh impossible take the day off to go protest your employer’s holdings in fossil fuels. If you’re a first-generation college student or on financial aid, speaking out against your university may feel like risking your family’s future.

But there’s a reason students, in solidarity with folks from all walks of life, have long been major shapers of social movements across the world. As students, we don’t only learn about the way the world works. We learn, at best, that the shitty parts of the world, as well as the good parts, are set up by humans. And we can learn that we can undo the bits that harm human beings. We learn about capitalism, and we begin to wonder about our schools’ investments. We learn about sexual violence, and we connect it to our own lives, and we begin making noise about our campus sexual assault policies. We learn about our countries’ racial histories, and we see this in the dynamics on our own campus.

That idea of applied knowledge is precisely why collective action is threatening. To university presidents and business leaders alike. Not because it is disruptive — though it is disruptive, and in the best way. But because it is constructive. It’s an act of making visible the big scary systems that dictate our lives more than we like to think. The bodies that make laws and campus sexual assault policies. That control billions of dollars of investments and with them, our shot at the future.

And it shows us what alternate spaces might look like. Moments when petitions are delivered from workers to students instead of the President. When hallowed buildings become stages of concerned dissent. These moments give us hope that the future, salvageable yet, is a thing that we can shape together.

As feminists, we fixate a lot on everything that’s wrong with the world. That’s our job. We look around and everywhere we see a structures that deny our rights and the rights of our loved ones and friends and the rights of people on the other side of the planet. We see lawmakers who use our bodies for political points and corporations who barter our futures for profit. We see that our own suffering is connected to other people’s suffering, and we’re pissed.

But collective action — the kind we see ongoing in the #BlackLivesMatter movement; campus sexual assault activism; and the Divest movement across the country — reminds us that intersectional feminism is not only about critique. It’s also about imagination: About having the guts and the hope and the silliness to imagine a different world. A world where our lives are not dictated so painfully and rigidly by our genders and our sexualities and our races and our backgrounds and our bodies. A world where each and every one of us cannot only survive, but can play.


Climate justice is feminist because it’s visionary. It’s a movement about the literal, material future of the whole world. That not only suggests but demands new ways of doing things: Scientific innovation. Financial innovation. Restructuring of the ways we consume, the ways we live our lives. That’s the kind of issue that encourages — necessitates — the radical imagination we specialize in as feminists.

One of the founders of the Harvard Divest group, Chloe Maxmin — a college senior, bad-ass climate activist, and my lady leader crush of the month — said it just right in a speech last week.

“If we’re going to make a new future, we’ve got to live it now.”

Direct action isn’t perfect. Camping out on the ground in front of a building is not accessible for everyone. Risking arrest may put students of color at particular risk. And of course, the ability to spend a week holding down an administrative building without fear of expulsion or firing is a privilege.

But that privilege is an opportunity, too.

I don’t think most students on my campus knew about the act of solidarity between dining hall workers and student climate activists that happened on that rainy Friday morning before most of us had rolled out of bed.

But I thought a lot about my friend’s words (“you keep busy so you don’t see the fundamental injustice of capitalism”) as I sat off and on at the blockade last week. Because often, the experience of activism is just as important as the underlying goals or issues. Direct action lets us see and feel our own power to change the world. It lets us feel that the world can be different. And in the climate movement, it lets us feel like the world has do be different if people are going to survive on it at all.

If last week’s blockade is what the future on this planet could look like, I want it bad. And I want to start living it now.

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Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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