50 Years of Fighting: Jane Fonda talks activism with rising star Jerome Foster II
She’s an Academy Award–winning actress-turned-climate evangelist with decades of activism under her belt. He launched a climate strike and an organization dedicated to turning out the youth vote, all before his 18th birthday. The Fix crew at Grist brought together screen legend Jane Fonda, whose multiple arrests for civil disobedience in the last year have only crystallized her image as a seasoned protestor, and Jerome Foster II, founder of OneMillionOfUs and a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer, for a conversation about the past, present, and future of youth activism. Foster and other teenage organizers in the D.C. area helped inspire Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays movement, and the two have since collaborated.
Grist founder Chip Giller moderated the video conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. [Editor’s note: The conversation took place on Friday, May 29, before many of the mass demonstrations inspired by the death of George Floyd took place. We reached back out to Fonda and Foster for additional comment, which we’ve included below.]
Getting to work
Q.How did you start working together on the Fire Drill Fridays protests?
Fonda: Last fall, I called Annie Leonard, who is the executive director of Greenpeace USA, and I said, “I want to move to D.C., and I want to do something that’s going to raise the sense of urgency about the climate crisis.” Because I didn’t feel I was doing enough.
There were people, especially young people, who had been in D.C. for over a year protesting every Friday. And so we called all of the main climate strikers to a meeting, and that’s when I met Jerome. I was just so impressed because every Friday, all year long, he has stood by the White House and protested the climate crisis. I wanted his blessing for what we were doing.
I’m glad to say that he spoke at the very first Fire Drill Friday. He may be young, but he has a presence, an authority, a commitment, a passion — and knowledge. I’m just really impressed with him.
Q.Jerome, could you talk about your journey to activism? And your climate awakening?
Foster: I didn’t really know about climate change until I started reading nature books that my parents had gotten me. At the end of every single book, there was this looming ending that was like, “The climate crisis is coming! Be aware of it.” I was 5, 6, 7 years old reading these books, saying, “What is global warming? Why are people talking about it in such a catastrophic way? What is going on?”
In middle school, I started an Instagram page. Something inside me said, “I can’t just sit here and think about it myself and keep reading these books. I have to tell people about it.” Every time I got a like I was super excited. For three years, I was just Instagram-posting and doing social media however I could.
In 2017, I started with the People’s Climate March by organizing the Instagram page for them. After so many years of being on Instagram, I had a really good sense of how to work with it. And then I started The Climate Reporter, which is a blog about youth and climate activism.
I worked with Sunrise, Zero Hour, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and so many different organizations. And then I got an email from Greta Thunberg saying that she was starting her climate strikes and would love some people in the U.S. to join her. At first, a lot of us were like, “It seems really radical. No one will really pay attention to us.” But then after a couple of weeks, we thought about it and were like, “We’re going to join you.” After that, it just took off. The whole entire environmental movement had just shifted to a youth perspective because of Greta Thunberg.
A different sense of urgency
Q.Jane, what stands out about the young climate activists of today?
Fonda: I met a lot of young climate strikers during Fire Drill Fridays in D.C. Listening to them talk, I realized that this is their future we’re talking about — their future that, well, the fossil fuel industry has compromised. There’s a different sense of urgency from young people. Stemming the tide of the climate crisis is absolutely critical to their lives. And at the same time, they’re mourning. I sense the deep grief in a lot of them. I think we’re all carrying a lot of grief at what’s been lost, and what will be lost.
I was very touched, because I think when you enter activism, when you become part of a movement, it is a great antidote to grief and mourning. Don’t you think, Jerome?
Foster: Yes, exactly.
Fonda: Like, you’re doing everything you can. It helps alleviate the depression.
Foster: Yeah, it really does. I know so many classmates who were like, “This is devastating. I don’t want to have children. I don’t want to go out and enjoy my life, because I know that by the time I turn 30, I won’t [be able to] have the life that I want to have because so many cities and communities will be decimated because of the climate crisis.”
The climate strikes took all the people that were feeling that mourning, and feeling that grief, and told them, “Here’s a way to just go out and show people that there are a lot of people who care about this.”
Fonda: My experience in the last year with the young climate strikers, and young people in general who are activists, [is that] they’re much more serious, maybe because there’s so much on the line. They’re much more conscious of intersectionality. I feel that there’s a depth to young people’s activism today that is crucial.
Lessons from the Vietnam War era
Q.Jane, what did you learn about activism in the ’60s and ’70s, during the civil rights movement and the anti-war efforts, that might apply to climate activism now?
Fonda: I didn’t really become an activist until 1970, and it was pretty much focused on ending the Vietnam War. I had the good fortune to meet and fall in love with a brilliant organizer, Tom Hayden, who had been part of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Port Huron Statement.
The incredible thing that I learned from him: The anti-war movement had been quite violent in their protesting, and they had alienated a lot of what was called Middle America then. Tom realized that if we were going to end the war, we had to appeal to Middle America.
And so I remember — he had this braid all the way down to his waist — cutting off his braid, buying him a tie, a suit, and a jacket. It was the Indochina Peace Campaign, and we traveled across the country for three months, two years in a row, talking to Middle America and explaining why the war needed to end, and asking them to pressure Congress to cut off the funding of the war, and it worked. Revisionist history never gives us credit for what happened.
But that was a very important thing. Rather than dismissing or antagonizing people who don’t yet agree with you, go to them in a manner that they can receive, listen carefully from your heart, and then provide information that they may not have had. There was no Fox News then, but [you can still] give real information to people. It can work.
We’re realizing that in order to survive as a democracy, or to regain our democracy, we’re going to have to make the tent big enough to hold people who … voted for Trump, frankly — people who we don’t agree with, and who don’t necessarily understand the climate crisis, and persuade them to join us. And help them understand that the main focus has to be fossil fuels. We have to end the era of fossil fuels.
Lessons from the ‘The Hunger Games’ era
Q.Jerome, is there anything you’d like people from older generations to better understand about what you and other young climate activists are experiencing?
Foster: In 2018, we were organizing a lot of marches, and adults were coming in saying, “We can take this over. You guys ran the first one. We’re going to do it from now on.” And we were like, “Hold on. We’re working on the same team. This is our Earth, this is everyone’s Earth.” It’s the saying, “You don’t inherit the Earth from your ancestors, you borrow it from your children.”
One of the craziest things to experience as a young person [is knowing that] when you get older, your entire future that you’re studying for, cramming tests for is uncertain. You could have it all taken away with one crazy weather event caused by the climate crisis. And I think that’s something adults also have to understand.
Q.My 14-year-old daughter recently reorganized her books, and she has a whole category that’s called dystopia.
Foster: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent — it’s a whole genre that we grew up with. When I was 10, 11, and 12, all my friends were watching The Hunger Games, Twilight, all these crazy end-of-the-world scenarios and I’m like, “Why is this so relatable?” Now, when the climate changes, you’re like, “I know why now.” It’s crazy when you realize why you’ve been stressed out for so long.
About that red coat …
Q.Jane, you’ve previously talked about changing your consumption habits, like your now famous red coat, which may be your last clothing purchase. What inspired these changes?
Fonda: In the last decades, consumerism has become so important, it’s become people’s identity. You go out and shop to feel like you exist, to give yourself identity. That has to end. So I thought, “Well, walk your talk, Fonda.” I said, “I’m not ever going to buy any new clothes again.” And I’m not. I haven’t.
Foster: Same. I knew about “stop shop” for a while, but it took me a while to actually adopt it. It’s a lot harder than you think. I started wearing the blue shirt, and I was like, “So now I’m wearing this shirt all the time. I should just have a couple of other shirts that I wear.” Because I just go to school and go right back home. So it’s not like I’m doing that much.
Reflections on the protests inspired by George Floyd
Q.Jerome, what have you been feeling and thinking about with respect to the protests?
Foster: When I walk past a police officer, I’m instantly scared. I’m instantly saying, “How can I escape? What’s the escape route?” That shouldn’t be my thought process when I see someone who’s supposed to protect and serve us — and now brutally murders us on the streets.
We’re just so tired of living that way. Living in fear, constant fear, every time you walk out your door, that you can be killed at any time. It’s so real, it’s so visceral.
Q.Did you participate in the protests?
Foster: I went to the protest in D.C. on Monday. It was everyone: There were men, there were women. Every single race was represented: indigenous folks, white folks, Asian folks. All these people came together and said, “This isn’t even just black lives. It’s about black and brown lives. This is about all the different minorities.” That’s really hopeful for me, that we’ll continue to have this strong coalition of different people that are advocating for this.
Black Lives Matter is saying that our lives mean something. When I protested, I protested in my graduation suit. I protested with my Honor Society badge. I protested with all my gear saying that we’re graduating high school, graduating college. We’re doing some amazing things.
Q.Jane, as you’ve watched the protests unfold in cities across the country, what has most resonated with you?
Fonda: I am surprised and heartened by how peaceful the main protests are. It’s much more diverse [than protests of the past] — white, brown, black, young, old — this is different. It signals to me that, in the age of Trump, more people have had their eyes opened to violence against black people and injustice in general, including the COVID-19 crisis, which has affected many more people of color. We’ve seen that our essential workers are largely of color and more are needlessly being put in harm’s way.
The return of ‘I’ve got your back-ism’
Q.Coming out of the pandemic, do you think there are any lessons that could be applied to the climate crisis?
Fonda: I see a lot of lessons coming out, and they’re hopeful lessons. I think a lot of people, especially white people, are recognizing the level of inequality in this country in a very visceral way. I think there is a social solidarity that is happening amongst many, many groups of people. People making masks at home. People bringing food to their neighbors. People coming out of retirement to volunteer in a hospital. So many signs of a renewed sense of community: “I’ve got your back-ism.”
Also, I think people are realizing the importance of a strong federal government, the importance of paying attention to science and expertise, and the importance of being prepared. All of those things are relevant to the climate crisis. We need a strong federal government, and we need [to be prepared according] to the science. I think that’s going to help us going forward.
Foster: What really gives me hope is that we are waking up, finally. We’re waking up, and we’re seeing that the coronavirus crisis can transform what we’re doing in America. The pandemic could be a bridge to a new era of revitalization of our society and our economy. Because a lot of people are suffering. What we need to do is make sure we’re prioritizing resources for them, and this is a really great time to do that.