Gen-Z climate activists call out Greta Thunberg's celebrity status: ‘It’s really dangerous to deify individuals’

Greta Thunberg is a leading climate change activist, organizing and energizing people around the world. But other Gen-Z environmentalists are bringing attention to the fact that the 17-year-old Swedish teen, who became an internationally recognized figure after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, isn’t the only voice in the movement that needs to be heard.

“It’s a weird thing because I think the U.S. in general plays such a huge role in the kind of mainstream of what people see across the globe,” Tokata Iron Eyes, a 16-year-old Indigenous youth leader from South Dakota, tells MAKERS following her appearance at the 2020 MAKERS Conference. The media, she points out, has “not been covering all of the activists of color and all of the activists coming from low income communities who have been doing this for way longer.” However, the teen makes clear, that’s not “to discredit any of Greta’s work. It’s just to say that we are not covering what we should be.”

Environmentalists, Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru and Tokata Iron Eyes, shed light on the dangers of deifying an individual activist. (Photo: Getty Images)

Iron Eyes, who at 12-years-old was protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and became the subject of a viral video, went on to explain how the attention paid to specific activists often drowns out the voices of marginalized communities. “Even when I was working with Greta, in local news and stuff they would always get my name wrong or they just wouldn’t put my name in any of the media at all,” she says.

Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, another young activist of color who joined Iron Eyes on the 2020 MAKERS Conference stage, adds “it’s really dangerous to deify individuals” when it comes to this issue in particular. “Climate change, environmental degradation, the environment, this is the most inclusive thing that there is. It’s everything brought together. So I think it’s important to say, ‘OK, we can find hope and feel empowered by other folks but deifying them isn’t what we should be doing,’” Gatheru says. “We should be seeing ourselves in their fight and begin to say, if they can do it, I can do it. And this is a community fight, community resilience. And that’s more important than just lifting up one person.”

Still, Iron Eyes and Gatheru recognize that Thunberg’s influence is still beneficial to the cause of climate change as a whole.

“It is so good that Greta came when she did because if she hadn’t, I don’t know where we’d be right now,” Iron Eyes admits. “Because the voices that were speaking the loudest were people of color, and sometimes, and especially in America with the state of things that we’re in with 45 [referring to President Donald Trump], no one was listening to us and here comes Greta, a nice, young, white person and her message was heard. She made the voices of all other young activists heard as well. And so, it definitely is a win, and she’s definitely made sure to recognize the work of those around.”

Gatheru agrees, adding, “There’s always privilege that is associated with even us having this type of platform.” She continues, “So it’s really important to really identify the folks that tend not to have access to these platforms and providing them tangible access to be able to speak on a stage to different folks and really be able to story tell.”

Watch Iron Eyes and Gatheru’s full session below:

Read more about the 2020 MAKERS Conference