a conversation with Akilah Sanders-Reed
We are thrilled to share this conversation with Akilah Sanders-Reed with you. Akilah is a force of nature, working tirelessly to stop the Line 3 pipeline from being built in Minnesota. A constant advocate and ally, Akilah has been involved in the environmental movement for at least ten years in the intersection of climate justice, economic justice, and social justice. She is also incredibly knowledgeable and a wonderful communicator- someone we truly admire.
Akilah grew up in New Mexico, where she stumbled into climate organizing as a high school student in 2009 and never looked back. In 2012, she moved to Minnesota in to attend college, and joined the budding pipeline resistance movement. She now works with the Power Shift Network as their pipeline resistance organizer, focusing on stopping the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline and supporting young people to leverage their vision and creativity and collective power to fight for a just and sustainable future
Here are just a few highlights of this incredible conversation with Akilah.
About her ongoing work with the Power Shift Network:
A: “So I joined the small organization The Power Shift Network back in 2016 when I graduated from college and I applied for the job and got involved as a student organizer in the work to stop the expansion of some large tar sands oil pipelines that run through northern Minnesota. And I had felt really, really compelled by that struggle and the work that was going on to stop these pipelines because taking on the fossil fuel industry by stopping these kinds of expansion projects and these long-term investments and fossil fuels feels like one of the most direct and tangible ways of taking on the climate crisis at the scale that we need to. And it’s also a really direct way of confronting the industry, the fossil fuel industry, that has profited off of and exploited communities of color since its inception. So being able to take a stand on multiple issues and to be able to, again, confront the climate crisis at the scale that I feel we need to and make, what feels to me, like obvious, logical decisions like not building enormous new fossil fuel projects. It felt like the best place to be putting my efforts, especially since there were such big and impactful fights happening right on my doorstep once I moved to Minnesota. I had been involved in a number of different organizing projects in Minnesota including some early public hearing organizing and rallies around an early expansion of one of their pipelines that Enbridge Energy was doing… So when I was graduating from college I knew that I wanted to keep working on pipeline resistance organizing I had known that fighting for climate justice was what I wanted to do with my life’s energy since I was in high school. So when there was a job opening at the Power Shift Network…I still feel everyday like I won the lottery getting to be able to do this work full-time that’s such a luxury and to have that be the main work that’s also putting a roof over my head.”
What got you interested in this work in high school?
A: “Well, as a high school student I grew up in New Mexico just outside the city of Albuquerque and I definitely always had a soft spot for the environment and I feel like the natural world is so ‘in-your-face’ in the desert. It was just such a big part of the backdrop of everyday life for me. I grew up a little bit up in the mountains and I feel very lucky to have had that experience as a kid and also living in the desert I was aware of water in a very different way than other folks are. It’s been interesting now living in Minnesota being so aware of water because of its abundance and its importance to people- and having grown up in New Mexico where water was important to everyone because of its scarcity.”
“So as I started thinking about and learning more about climate change as a kid, there’s this backdrop in my kind of knowing that the communities that I grew up around- we’re gonna be some of the first that are hit hardest. And I think I’m part of the generation that (I’m 25 now) grew up being told be to fix the climate crisis in the same tone of voice we were told to clean our rooms, and do the dishes, and do our homework. And, somewhere along the line, I think a lot of us realized that just changing our light bulbs and recycling wasn’t going to get us where we needed to be and that, actually, nobody had a plan for how we were going to solve the climate crisis. And it just got added to the laundry list of problems that hopefully our generation will be able to solve.”
“And so, in high school, back in 2009, I was aware of the climate crisis but hadn’t really found a way to be meaningfully involved. That was the year there was one of these early ‘Global Days of Action’ around climate change that 350.org organized, one of their first ones. So I threw myself headlong into organizing something for that. I didn’t really know what organizing was beyond the idea of, you know, putting my pens and pencils in the right drawer…Community organizing was a completely foreign concept, but I knew that I wanted to do something. So I started putting together an event in Albuquerque and held it at my high school on a weekend. What I did was I went around the community- I was at art fairs and farmers’ markets and asked people to outline their hand on a piece of paper if they felt like we needed immediate action on climate change. And the vision for these international days of action was that people would somehow make the number 350, which of course, is now the name of this international organization and a scientific benchmark for the upper limit of carbon dioxide that we can have in the atmosphere. But it was important to them because it was a number, it translated across language barriers which was really important to this day of action being global. So, I took all of these hand prints that I had collected and said, well, you know, individually all of these are just one person, but if you put them together making the number 350 we can, in fact, do something collective. So that was the vision that I started out with for this event and collected over 750 handprints from around the community and put them together into this big 350…And I remember coming home that evening…getting on my family’s desktop computer and looking at the pictures from all over the world of people from so many different walks of life, from so many different backgrounds, doing so many different things to participate in this day of action…And for years afterward I would go back to that, you know, Flickr account photo album online, to look at it when I needed a pick-me-up because I think I got introduced to an incredibly diverse and incredibly powerful and optimistic version of the climate movement. And it actually took me a while to realize that’s not the climate movement that a lot of people get to know, especially in the United States where the climate movement is predominantly white and very policy-focused and can often be very exclusive, especially to young people in communities of color…”
“One of the things I did as a high school student was get involved with a group called Kids versus Global Warming, which is now called iMatter. And one of the projects they were working on was a partnership with a group called Our Children’s Trust and Our Children’s Trust was putting together lawsuits or legal petitions in all 50 states across the Country and looking for young people who wanted to be a part of that to make the legal arguments that young people were going to suffer specific individual impacts from the climate crisis as a result of the government’s lack of action and their abdication of their responsibility to protect resources that fall under what is called ‘The Public Trust’… “
“I [also] worked together with a bunch of other young people here in Minnesota. There were 13 of us who intervened collectively in this legal process on the basis that the tar sands oil pipeline was going to exacerbate climate change and impact each of us individually. And one of the big differences here is that we did that without a lawyer, so we had to learn all of the legal processes ourselves, which I hadn’t had to do the previous time in New Mexico. But the lessons that I was bringing forward from the experience in New Mexico is that I knew that there was this interest from the community, from media, from people as a whole from the public in these stories about specific impacts to specific people in their communities from climate change. We had an opportunity to really tell those stories and we had this opportunity to use that platform to lift up all of the other incredible youth organizing, and climate justice, and community organizing that was happening around this pipeline.”
What is Line 3?
“So, for folks who aren’t familiar with that, the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline is a proposed pipeline similar in size to Keystone XL. It would transport at least 760 thousand barrels of tar sands oil a day from Alberta, Canada where the tar sands are extracted, down through Canada, across northern Minnesota, to Superior, Wisconsin, and then that oil would be put on other pipelines and most of it would be headed for the coasts for export. Much of it running down south toward the Gulf.”
What is Tar Sands Oil?
“And tar sands oil is different than conventional crude oil because it is this thick, gooey, tar- it’s right in the name. And the process of extracting this stuff, it’s really the worst kind of oil out there, it’s the toughest to extract- it’s the dirtiest. So getting it actually out of the ground and the sending it through a pipeline and then refining it takes so much extra energy that tar sands oil is up to 37% more carbon-intensive than conventional oil. So not only is this a huge fossil fuel expansion project, but it’s expanding the worst kind of oil when it comes to our climate. And this oil, in order to put it through a pipeline, it gets mixed with a bunch of chemicals that are basically paint thinners, it’s carcinogens like benzene and things like that, in order to get this thick, gooey stuff to move through a pipe. And so when it spills, and it’s always a matter of when, not if- we know that all pipelines leak. So when this stuff spills, it’s much harder to clean up, especially is it gets into water…and Enbridge Energy, the largest pipeline company in North America, that’s proposing this project has routed their pipeline’s proposed route right through some of the most pristine waters in Minnesota, through some of the last remaining wild rice stands in the world, and across the headwaters of the Mississippi River twice. So, the likelihood that a spill would happen in water, or get to water really quickly, is REALLY high. And when it spills into water, it’s incredibly difficult to clean up- [the] chemicals go up into the air and into the surrounding communities…And it runs through the 1854 and 1855 Treaty territory of the Anishinaabe people. And the wild rice in northern Minnesota is also central for not only the culture and spirituality of the Anishinaabe people, but to their sense of identity, as well. So there’s been a lot of leadership on this particular struggle from the Anishinaabe in Northern Minnesota- I want to make sure to uplift that…”
“I hear people talk about wanting to fight climate change for their kids and, at this point you know, I’m kind of turning around to say, you know, I want to fight climate change for my mom. Because she’s going to be on this planet to watch some of the worst impacts if we don’t do anything, if we don’t take the steps that we need to. And I don’t want that to be her last decade on the planet- watching things get so much worse. That’s now what I want for her… We’ve been fighting for the next generation for 40-50 years. It’s really easy for that to be a constantly moving horizon.”