Leave a Place Better than You Found It

Members of the 2021–22 FCNL Advocacy Corps assemble outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photos courtesy of the author.

Activism and Performance for Environmental Justice

When it comes to meaningful action on climate change, there are so many issues to address. Sea levels are rising; storms are becoming more dangerous and destructive; costs to maintain infrastructure amid these changes are mounting; and marginalized communities are shouldering much of the burden. 

From climate refugees and pollution-caused health issues to human impact on natural ecosystems, the realities can be overwhelming. It is easy to become both despondent and cynical. Some frustration may come from the failure of lawmakers to implement effective legislation for environmental action and accountability—but there is hope.

To create large, systemic change requires a long-standing commitment to manifesting the future we hope for. The backbone of this work is found in those who dream of a sustainable future, who revere a healthy earth, and who understand that now is the time to make important changes. Many of these folks are young people.

Learning from these stewards strengthens my work and lets me know I am not alone in my hope for an earth restored. Though immediate action feels like pushing a boulder up a hill, it is imperative to do something. Whether it’s implementing new action or taking away old structures, present actions will shape humanity’s future.

I believe part of what motivates young people to act is a deep understanding that our relationship with the environment is both individual and collective. I grew up in a household that was very conscious of the human experience being a part of the environment. There was no inside or outside when the windows let the summer breeze flow through the living room. Repurposed salsa jars made the best lightening bug homes. Dandelion greens picked out of the community garden to allow room for strawberry roots made a delicious salad. 

Beyond the confines of my family home, my Uncle Bud taught me to “leave a place better than you found it,” which is a principle that impacts my life on a daily basis. At a basic level, I pick up litter when hiking and make sure to properly dispose of my own garbage. In this miniscule way, I am leaving the trail better than I found it for those who will hike after me.

I often wonder what might happen if we all asked ourselves what we could do to make a place better for the next beings who will be there. Just imagine what would happen if we all answered the collective call to steward the world ecologically and care for what we leave behind to future generations.

Each of us in our own individual responsibility must learn about our relationship to and impact on the environment. Lawmakers and corporations have a responsibility to create safe environments for individuals to understand what is beneath our cities, learn how to care for environments, and derive joy from nature. It is also the responsibility of lawmakers and corporations to rectify the damage they have already done to the planet and their communities.

In 2021, the author created this display featuring themes of curiosity and resilience for the lobby of the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, Pa.

I have learned that the only way to hold large-scale polluters accountable is through legislation. This systematic change cannot reverse what has happened but can give reassurance that it will not happen again. Environmental legislation will provide the essential measures of accountability that have been missing since we first understood our role in causing environmental harm.

So, how do we do it? How do we learn from the past? How do we move forward? When will our actions be enough?

While I don’t have all the answers, I see youth-led movements and community action as meaningful paths forward that are filled with potential. As obvious and clichĂ© as it may sound, the youth are the future. Youth activist movements around social injustice, racism, gun violence, and the environmental crisis are of collective value because the changes they seek improve everyone’s lives.

Young people bring a freshness, consciousness, and interconnection to key issues that add tremendous value. Just look at what Black Lives Matter has done to advance the cause of reparations for people oppressed by systemic injustices. Groups facing oppression are the ones who know best how to articulate such harm and seek healing and justice. 

By amplifying the efforts of the communities directly impacted, we take away paternalism and distrust and give historically excluded communities the agency to create the futures they need. When it comes to climate, we all face oppression, but it is younger and future generations who will bear much more of the burden for many more years.

Young people will have to live with the consequences of inaction long after the lawmakers who failed to act are gone. Amid the extreme political polarization we see today, I sometimes find it difficult in my advocacy work to convince lawmakers to care the same way I do. The young can bring new approaches and energy to important causes. The organizations that embrace this truth are at the helm of movements for climate activism and sustainability. Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) is tapping into youth energy and engagement in strategic ways to foster a greater sense of community and help bridge generational gaps on important issues via their Advocacy Corps.

I often wonder what might happen if we all asked ourselves what we could do to make a place better for the next beings who will be there. Just imagine what would happen if we all answered the collective call to steward the world ecologically and care for what we leave behind to future generations.

I graduated from Bucknell University in 2020 with a dual bachelor’s degree in theater and English literature. I have been working in new play development since 2014. I am also a passionate environmental and social justice advocate. Though it may initially seem difficult to find connections between politics and theater, the overlap is both surprising and useful.

I have found that my dual experiences and identities are actually not uncommon. A mentor of mine once emphasized that new play development is the embodiment of freedom of speech. This idea connected the dots for me: legislation impacts how we move through human experience while theater enables us to empathize with another’s experience. 

Like other young adults leveraging their talents to make a difference, I have found synergies in my work and activism that have great impact. Just as a play’s success hinges on public interest, politics can’t exist without an audience. Both are about spectacle, rhetoric, creating space, and community. The efficacy of theater and government depends on how audiences (or, in the latter case, constituents) are made to feel. As arts activists, we are speaking from our personal experience but also centering the whole of humanity in our work.

The Quaker teachings I grew up with have also been formative to me. I’ve found values that I believe are universal in terms of how we relate to one another and our world. These principles drive my work and activism today. Finding empathy to become a community is encompassed in Quakerism and key to actions that will restore the environment.

FCNL’s faithful advocacy and Quaker values are part of what enticed me to this work as an Advocacy Corps organizer. I am grateful for the platform and resources to collectivize communities and empower groups to push for legislative action on environmental justice: especially for Black, brown, Indigenous, and lower income communities that are systematically negatively impacted by the climate crisis. After all, we cannot expect to end environmental injustice if we continue to “other” our neighbors.

Liana Irvine

Liana Irvine is a freelance dramaturge and the outreach coordinator for Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists. With passions for environmental welfare, socio-economic justice, and communing for healing, Liana strives to embolden the under-visible. Focusing on new play development, Liana explores how theater serves as cultural news and how ecosystems function within their theatrical worlds.

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