Reflecting on “Our Climate Change Stories” 

“Our Climate Change Stories,” an event organized by undergraduate environmental groups, invited Harvard College students to share their stories of environmental injustice, community resilience, and climate action.
Feb 13, 2023
By Siman de Silva

“While the past is immutable, the rest of our stories are still unwritten,” said Osasenaga in concluding his speech at the, “Our Climate Change Stories,” and imparting a message of hope to the audience. He spent the entire speech smiling, with a suavity that he carries throughout his day-to-day life as a pre-med undergraduate. 

What few know is that hope is fundamental to Osasenaga’s ability to channel his everyday swagger. Growing up in Hyde Park, Boston, Osasenaga did not realize the disparity between public health awareness and pollution in his neighborhood until he went to Boston Latin High School in Longwood. “I felt safer breathing the air in Longwood. The grass always seemed greener over there,” he told the audience. Upon making this realization, Osasenaga fought to introduce a robust waste management program in Hyde Park. He fought to make an impact but noticed ambivalence among his peers and family. His brother challenged him: “It’s cool that you wanna recycle and reuse stuff, but that’s not doing anything to solve climate change.” 

Osasenaga faced a threatening ultimatum: accept his inability to help his neighborhood or continue fighting. The experience helped Osasenaga understand some of the hopelessness that plagues the climate movement—particularly within his own community, a historically yellow-lined manufacturing district. 

In November 2022, undergraduates presented, “Our Climate Change Stories,” told by seven students about their reckoning and perseverance in spite of environmental and climate injustice. Like many Harvard undergraduates, these students had experienced tremendous adversity, but turned their feelings of hopelessness, despondency, and ire into action for a future where no students would have to reckon with these forces. 

Harvard College Freshman Saman de Silva introduces the event, “Our Climate Change Stories”

Academia has a tendency to view climate change as a subject of scientific inquiry. We often lose the faces and stories that underlie the phenomena we are fighting to stop. “Our Climate Change Stories” sought to shift the power of conversation around environmental justice by amplifying historically marginalized voices. The storytellers came from communities that are starkly underrepresented in academia and the history of environmentalism. The event was organized by undergraduates who hope to give power and leadership to individuals who most directly experience the brunt of climate change and environmental racism. 

The event began with LeMonie Hutt, a freshman from the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in California. LeMonie grew up on the Hoopa reservation, steeped in her culture and surrounded by her community. As she grew up, she began to see how climate change threatened her way of life, inhibiting key cultural practices. Her mother’s role as a tribal councilwoman inspired her to speak at California State Water Board meetings and to introduce the Advocacy and Water Protection in Native California Curriculum into her high school district. As an advocate, LeMonie has fostered a stronger relationship with her culture and community by developing a greater understanding of her values. 

Ricardo Marrero-Alattar, a sophomore from Puerto Rico, detailed the love he feels for his community on the island and the anxiety he feels when hurricanes sweep through his home. Marrero-Alattar, which translates to “storm breaker,” perfectly relates Ricardo’s passion for improving catastrophe resilience in the global south. As a pre-med student, Ricardo is developing a plan to connect Puerto Rican citizens with healthcare updates and awareness during climate events. As a neurodivergent student, Ricardo shared his experience being in organic chemistry while reading news about Hurricane Fiona. Ricardo discussed how he converted his feelings of powerlessness into efficacy and hope. 

Harvard College Sophomore Ricardo Marrero-Alattar shared his story on stage. He described his emotional experience of being in class as news broke of Hurricane Fiona’s landfall in Puerto Rico, his hometown.

Telling us about the richness of her connection with land as a living ancestor, sophomore Kiani Ku’uleimomi Akina, a Native Hawaiian from O’ahu, then discussed the many ways in which she has been galvanized to act. Kiani described how she grew to feel such a strong connection to her culture, land, and family, as well as the pain and strife caused by the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Throughout her story, Kiani emphasizes the need to listen and foreground Pacific voices in climate studies. 

Sophomore Gunnhildur Hallgrímsdottír discussed her upbringing in Iceland. From an aspiring activist at a young age to vice parliamentarian ten years later, Gunnhildur had to fight cultural loss due to climate change as an Arctic citizen. She attended the first funeral of a glacier in Iceland and described her renewed ardor for climate action and connection with Icelandic culture. 

From Left to Right: Event organizers: Michael Waxman and Siman de Sama, Event Speakers: Lizbeth Ibarra, Gunnhildur Hallgrímsdottír, Kiani Ku’uleimomi Akina, Ricardo Marrero-Alattar, LeMonie Hutt, Lucy Tu, Osasenaga

Lizbeth Ibarra, a freshman, followed by discussing her experience living in Richmond, CA, where Lizbeth grew accustomed to the consequences of having a Chevron oil refinery in her hometown. From crisis alarms to intense asthma and incidents of cancer, to flaring, Richmond has grown a toxic and inextricable link with Chevron—one that Lizbeth has fought against from a young age. Joining with other activists of color, Lizbeth found a new way to approach climate activism on her terms: advocating for and with low-income, predominantly BIPOC communities, for environmental justice. 

Junior Lucy Tu was the sixth speaker, discussing her summer work in high school de-tasseling corn in Nebraska, where she grew close to her host farming family. In college, she traced the difficulties the family faced as climate change intensified drought and wildfire and brought severe mental and physical health strains upon midwestern farming communities. Lucy used her platform to underscore the connection among environmental, physical, and mental health. 

Osasenaga concluded the event with a message of hope: despite these stories of injustice and environmental trauma, there remains the hope that we can write our own stories. 

To hear the speakers’ words and stories from themselves, please see the full event recording here: