Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
photo: earthguardians.org

16-year-old indigenous Mexican-American Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is not only incredibly passionate about the state of his planet, but he’s also driven enough to rile up his peers and demand policy change from the government. Sure, Xiuhtezcatl could spend his days lounging around, playing video games, and skipping his homework, but there’s a greater purpose he wants to fulfill.

“What got me involved was a passion for our planet, for being outside, nature, and being really in love with the world,” he said.

“When I started to educate myself and learn about the destruction of the earth, I really got inspired to take initiative and responsibility for making a difference and taking action.”

Xiuhtezcatl has been an activist since he was six years old, when he stood in front of a crowd of 300 at a climate rally to speak on the importance of protecting our planet and how our dollars - and consumer support - are fueling its destruction. That soapbox moment led to an ongoing journey with his family’s organization, Earth Guardians, to raise awareness on climate change and the role youth can play in this show. When he was nine, he raised a protest in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado against the parks department’s decision to use unhealthy pesticides in its public parks. Brought about by a group of 50 children, its success - the City Council set aside $50,000 to improve pest management - was enough to propel them towards more pushes for change. Not one to be easily intimidated, he’s also filed a lawsuit that’s currently undergoing hearings against the state of Colorado along with the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission for their use of fracking.

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Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
photo: earthguardians.org

“It felt really good to have a team of people supporting me up there on stage, sharing different perspectives rather than it just being my voice,” Xiuhtezcatl said of the rally in Boulder. “So we started up a crew and we met every single week. We worked on other issues, such as fracking, coal ash, GMOs, plastic bags, plastic water bottles and the impact that had, and education projects and school presentations in high schools around Colorado. It was just a bunch of kids having fun. We’d get together, bring snacks, and all hang out.”

When the aspiring rapper isn’t playing for hundreds at music festivals and pursuing his passion for music, he can be seen addressing members of the United Nations, attending climate change conferences, or coordinating with any of the 400 regional groups that exist under Earth Guardians. The group was created by Xiuhtezcatl’s mother about a decade before he was born to inspire youth to take the reigns on the battle against climate change. His sister then stepped in to lead the organization and now Xiuhtezcatl serves as its spokesperson and youth director. Since 2009, Earth Guardians has grown from a crew of 75 to 2,000 all around the globe.

“All of a sudden it got global attention and then people started to reach out to us and ask how can we do this in our communities,” he said. “It was never our intention to begin a global movement, but regardless of what we wanted it to be it became something bigger than just an Earth Guardians in Boulder. People all over the world are now looking towards Earth Guardians as a model for something that young people can actually do in their communities to make a difference.”

Several celebrities, such as Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio, have given their support to the grassroots organization, but it’s the thousands of kids spread across the globe that give this group its power.

“We have such a powerful generation among us, such a powerful generation of people who are so connected with one another,” Xiuhtezcatl added. “We can create movements overnight so we have a lot of power at our fingertips.”

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
photo: earthguardians.org

But Earth Guardians isn’t the only group trying to inspire youth to get more involved. Organizations like Earth Force and Yes! are also empowering younger generations to solve environmental issues. Even the UN has a children and youth division that gives space to the voices of young ones so their opinions can be heard. In its 2013 overview on how the UN has been working with young people to address various social issues, the group stated, “Partnerships should be developed between governments, intergovernmental, non-governmental and youth organizations for joint environmental initiatives aimed at building the capacity of youth as future leaders and driving forces behind a new climate change regime.”

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Distinctions like the Brower Youth Awards and the President’s Environmental Youth Award also pay tribute to the growing number of young activists and honors their achievements. Xiuhtezcatl, himself, was recognized as “Youth Change Maker of the Year” by President Barack Obama in 2013.

So how do we get even more youth involved? By tapping into their passions and helping them see how they can use their interests and talents to improve their communities. Instead of shooing them away from the table, adults need to understand that there’s a whole powerful force they’re ignoring and should strive to make younger generations feel as if they’re an integral part of the conversation. It would better serve the world to properly prepare youth for the roles they can take on and encourage imaginative brainstorming. Groups like Canon Envirothon and the New Leaders Initiative of the Earth Island Institute seek to do just that by providing programs and resources that inspire and educate children as well as provide support to those who pursue activist positions.

“A lot of people don’t understand the amount of potential young people have to make a difference,” Xiuhtezcatl said. “I think the work that we do is changing perceptions and changing the ideology and expectations that people in the world have of my generation. We have so much potential to collaborate with business owners, government, and the tech industry. We want to work together with these people to build a better world because we can’t do it on our own.

Harnessing the potential of my generation is a really powerful, positive way to make a difference in the world.”