Isra Hirsi Is 16, Unbothered, and Saving the Planet
Outside First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, a Black Lives Matter poster hangs, wilted in the sun, above a crowd of Minnesotans waiting eagerly to enter. The group is an unusual mashup: mostly teenagers and those who would qualify for the senior special at IHOP, both cohorts outfitted in political pins, caps, and T-shirts. As I sit on the steps of the church, a man with salt-white hair hands me an informative flyer about the Green New Deal. It’s as if whatever activism bug bit the flower children has come out of hibernation to infect Gen Z.
Inside, an environmental justice event hosted by U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar is about to start. The venue is packed, and a local pop-punk band called Butter Boys has just finished its opening set. Juwaria Jama, a 15-year-old activist scheduled to speak alongside Omar, nervously walks over to the pew to chat with her friend, fellow teen activist Raina Meyer. After, a middle-aged white woman leans over to Meyer with a giddy, starstruck look on her face: “Was that Ilhan Omar’s daughter?”
She’s referring to Jama, who is Black and wears the hijab. But Jama looks nothing like Isra Hirsi, Omar’s actual daughter.
Isra, meanwhile, is standing in the back of the church, awaiting her cue to give the closing statement. When it’s time, she introduces herself as the co-executive director of a group called U.S. Youth Climate Strike, leaving out her relation to Omar. The climate crisis, she tells the crowd, “is the fight of my generation, and it needs to be addressed urgently.”
On stage, Isra reads off her candy-colored phone through tortoise shell glasses. Her wrist is wrapped in a green scrunchie that matches her striped green and blue tee. She speaks quickly but confidently, just as she does off-stage. She’s 16 (though her bright eyes and soft complexion make her look arguably younger), but she doesn’t smile or stutter nervously through her words. She hasn’t been doing this long; she’s a natural.
It was only this year, in January 2019, that Isra founded the U.S. Youth Climate Strike—the American arm of a global youth climate change movement—alongside 12-year-old Denver activist Haven Coleman (who has since stepped away, making Isra the sole executive director). In March, the organization’s largest strike inspired an estimated 1.6 million students across 120 countries to skip school in order to demand action on climate change from adults in power. Since then, she has organized locally and nationally for environmental justice with a focus on carving out space for young people of color within the movement. Most recently, she’s been rallying students to participate in the global climate strike on September 20, during which she’ll be speaking at the Minneapolis march.
Since January, Isra’s advocacy has awarded her both positive and negative recognition from inside her school’s hallways to the pages of Time magazine and Jacobin and the tweets of presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
But Isra isn’t impressed by attention—her family has had more than enough of it in the past couple of years.
U.S. Youth Climate Strike launched the same month that Isra’s mother took office and quickly became the country’s most scrutinized congresswoman after achieving a series of historic firsts: becoming the first Somali-American legislator in the U.S. in 2017—and then the first Muslim woman (alongside Rashida Tlaib), first person to wear the hijab, and first Somali American in Congress in 2019. Today, Omar is the most famous Muslim woman in America, the embodiment of representation realized.
This puts Isra in a tricky position: She’s both a symbol of supposed racial and religious equality in the U.S.—the kind that makes white women grin proudly at Black Muslim girls that aren’t even her—and a teenager trying to figure out who she is in the wake of her mother’s own colossal assertion of identity, all while staring down the serious task of literally saving the world. Faced with the pitfalls of imposed national visibility (harassment, safety threats, tokenization, bullying), she’s challenged with figuring out how to channel that attention to the thing that actually sets her apart: her vision for environmental justice.
A year ago, Isra didn’t have a sense of climate urgency, though she’s been active in local social justice movements ever since she attended her first protest at six years old. Later, in middle school, she was mainly focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. At age 12, alongside her family and thousands of organizers, she helped shut down the Mall of America to demand justice for Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old Black man who was killed in 2015 by two Minneapolis police officers who were never charged with his murder. Entering high school, the fight to end gun violence had Isra’s attention, particularly in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.
At the time, climate activism didn’t feel that important to her, relative to other issues—partially because it was never framed that way. “Gun control and climate change are [considered] white issues,” she said when I met with her in Minneapolis, “Black lives, police brutality, whatever, are not.”
It wasn’t until she joined a high school environmental club during her freshman year that she learned how, at its core, climate change affects communities of color the most. Black people, for example, are almost twice as likely as other residents to die during a heatwave in Los Angeles due to segregation and a lower likelihood of having access to air conditioners. And a 2018 report by the EPA found that people of color are much more likely to live in communities affected by environmental pollutants, as well as more likely to develop health complications as a result.
Isra earnestly described her arrival to climate consciousness as “really, really late in the game.” She was 15.
She quickly made up for lost time, determined to build an environmental justice movement in which young people of color could see themselves. Raised in the city for most of her life, Isra doesn’t care all that much for nature. She’s not into hiking, though she did go camping once (mainly because it was a free trip). Her advocacy has nothing to do with a deep love for the outdoors and everything to do with the communities disproportionately hurt by climate change—not because their favorite rafting river is drying up, but because their drinking water is poisoned and the air they breathe is killing them. To her, this is the only climate advocacy that makes sense.
“[They’re] talking about how much they love grass and their lakes—I can't connect with you on that,” she said of white-led environmental groups. “So it's a subtle We don't want you here because they talk about things, knowing people like me can't relate.”
Her values are clear in the scope of her initiatives. This spring, with her sights set on 2020, she worked toward putting climate change on the agendas of presidential candidates—despite the fact that she still won’t be old enough to vote on Election Day. Meanwhile, she urged her school district to grant Eid al-Fitr as an official holiday (although she said she met with the superintendent multiple times, it has yet to happen). And on social media, as she recounted her efforts, she began amassing a following by making intersectional activism seem accessible.
At home, things were changing fast, too. Her mom’s new job meant she was now away in D.C. the majority of the time, though the effects of her new position in Congress were very much felt by Isra, her younger brother and sister, and their father in Minnesota. After only a few months in office, the Omar-Hirsi family had to relocate to a safer, more discreet, and, to Isra’s dismay, whiter neighborhood, due to safety threats against Omar and her family.
It's 4 p.m. on a hot Ramadan day and Isra is dragging her feet across a bright green lawn in Minneapolis’s Gold Medal Park. By the time she gets to me, her shoulders are slouched over in fatigue beneath her tight curls, which are pulled half-up in two small, baby blue ties. She doesn’t seem particularly excited to be spending her evening with a journalist; after all, people like me have been blowing up her phone for months. Turns out she’s also had a rough day.
“We did a seminar during seventh period about hate speech,” she said, shaking her head. “It just went horrible.”
Isra was leading the seminar with a few other classmates when students in the audience began sending in live, anonymous questions through an online forum that quickly turned cruel, as things often do when teenagers meet digital anonymity. “We have free speech, why can’t white people say the N word?” asked one student. Then, they began specifically targeting Isra and another girl on stage. “Isra is so white-washed,” someone in the crowd wrote. “This girl needs to get off the stage, she's so annoying,” wrote another.
To the average 16-year-old, the experience might have been devastating, and Isra admits that the comments from her classmates—who she described as usually pretty “woke”—caught her off-guard. But after recounting the story, she quickly shrugs it off. For better or worse, she is accustomed to public harassment.
Plus, Isra is remarkably self-assured and logic-driven for a teen, something her mother has noticed too. “I’m constantly inspired by her drive and tenacity—and how she unapologetically shows up in the world,” said Omar in a statement about Isra. “She has poise and wisdom that is beyond her years, and it makes me feel blessed every single day that she was gifted to me as my first-born.”
Since joining Congress, Omar has been the target of relentless defamation campaigns, which rely on anti-Black Islamophobia, and often come for Isra, too, flooding her DMs despite the fact that she’s a minor. When she checks her phone between classes, in addition to national organizers blowing up her notifications, she expects to find messages from strangers telling her to “go back” to a country in which she’s never lived.
Things got really bad in April, when Donald Trump tweeted a strangely edited video of Omar’s face layered over the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks, causing a surge of death threats, which she was already receiving. Several politicians denounced the president’s actions, and Omar’s supporters began tweeting #IStandWithIlhan.
At the time, Isra was immersed in U.S. Youth Climate Strike’s mission to get every presidential candidate to agree to attend a climate debate. While the country rallied either for or against her mother, instead of keeping a low profile, Isra chased down presidential candidates to confront them in person about whether or not they’d sign on to a live discussion on the climate crisis.
“I feel like it's a weird thing to say… [but] it doesn't really impact me,” Isra said of the way her mother has been targeted. She pauses between words, apparently wary of coming off as cold. After Trump’s video, she recalls taking a moment; she didn’t think attacks against her mother would get this bad. “But then I was just like, It's whatever. She said she was fine. I can move on."
The word that Isra uses over and over again to describe this time in her life is “weird.” It was weird when people at school approached her to see how she was coping; it was weird when her principal told her to tell her mother that the school stands with her; “It’s kind of weird when you're getting text messages like, ‘Are you okay, is your family safe?’ and, in reality, I'm completely fine,” she said.
Isra has been the subject of heightened attention and teasing since age 13, when her mother became a state representative. Much of it is harmless, if annoying, like when her social studies teacher starts class by saying, “Isra, you’ll know what happened in Congress this morning.”
“It’s like no… I don’t,” she said.
Other comments are less innocent. “The criticism I receive [about] my mother was never really in my face until today,” she said, referring to the hate speech seminar earlier where one student went so far as to call Isra an “incest baby” based on an inaccurate and Islamophobic rumor about her mother’s marriage history.
But this spring, the taunts Isra faced began to change their tune. As the world anticipated and then watched the magnitude of the youth climate marches around the globe, their eyes turned to the teens who made it happen, like Greta Thunberg and Isra. And as she became more and more well-known, the teasing shifted to being about her (or the “PC police” as some students call her) and her accomplishments—rather than her mother’s. Ironically, though, that shift is what she’d long been wanting: to be seen for who she is—not who she comes from—and most of all, for what she has achieved.
In Mid-August, Isra published a post on Medium grappling with the resentment she’s built up around her mother’s fame. “For months, I was frustrated with her presence in my work because I felt like it caused me more harm than good,” it reads. “I didn’t want to be known as Ilhan Omar’s daughter, I wanted to be known as myself.”
But it isn’t only Omar who’s had a presence in Isra’s work; Isra has been influencing her mother’s work too. “The urgency in which she expresses concern for the state of the world is what fuels me to do the work that I do, whether it is climate change or gun violence prevention,” Omar said.
Eventually, who she was and how people saw her began to overlap, and her reach and influence grew of its own accord. Even back in April, days after Trump’s video tweet, Barack Obama tweeted at Isra recognizing her work as a climate advocate. He did not mention Ilhan Omar.
No earlier than 8:51 p.m., the sun finally shows itself out for the day. We’re breaking our fast at an Italian restaurant of Isra’s choice across the street from her favorite Target in downtown Minneapolis. The restaurant is fancier than it looked online, and Isra laughs at her last-minute decision to change into white Crocs.
At the table, I tell her about the woman at the church who confused her with Jama. She laughs. “We look nothing alike!” she says in between bites of mashed potatoes and pasta, two of the few foods she actually eats. (She is a self-described picky eater, and told me, among other things, that she finds ketchup spicy.)
This particular brand of white person—the type that worships Omar and, in the same breath, perpetuates the very biases she’s fighting against—is very familiar to Isra. “I live in a district where everybody is obsessed with my mother,” she said. (She’s right; Omar won 78 percent of the vote in her district.) But, time and time again, it was this type of clueless white person that Isra encountered in the homogenous environmental clubs and organizations she joined before leaving to co-found U.S. Youth Climate Strike.
“They would invite us to events just so we could be the tokens,” she said, explaining how she and other people of color were treated in these supposedly progressive activist spaces. “They would compliment us on our speaking, just so that we would want to do it again.”
Isra is used to being paraded because of her identity. It seems that because of that experience, she’s developed a clear sense of how she’s perceived and the labels that both propel her forward and hold her back, often at the same time. “I don't get to walk into a room and call myself a climate activist without being a Black activist, a Muslim activist, a feminist,” she said, her tone indifferent and matter-of-fact. “My identity has kind of forced me into this box. You're that one intersectional person and it's like, Oh look at Isra, this Black, Muslim, climate activist talking about Black people, just because I happen to exude those identities when you look at me.”
On top of that, she’s been hyper-aware of being seen only through the context of her mother. “I have to prove to the world that I'm not doing what I'm doing because of her,” she said. That can be frustrating, given that Omar is hardly involved in Isra’s organizing. “A simple retweet that I don't ask for, but that's all. I started doing these things without even telling her,” she said. Proving to others that her advocacy work was of her own prerogative became a task in itself.
“I live 2 lives- that of a climate justice organizer and that of a politician’s daughter,” Isra wrote in her August Medium post.
Perhaps this double life is part of why Isra seems adamant about not preoccupying herself with the promise of representation. She understands that her mother can exist as a Congresswoman who will be written into American history books, and at the same time, that her visibility alone could never be enough to cure a country whose inner workings are inherently racist. Plus, in her own experiences, the line between representation and tokenization has been worn so thin that it’s hard to know if it exists at all.
Despite the eyes on her back and people’s preoccupation with how to label her, Isra has been laser-focused on pragmatic organizing efforts that have paid off. At the end of April, she got presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang to agree to a climate debate by confronting them face-to-face, but the Democratic National Committee disappointingly refused to host the debate for which she and her co-organizers at U.S. Youth Climate Strike had been pushing. In September, however, the efforts of their grassroots work were realized when a debate on climate change featuring Democratic presidential candidates aired on CNN.
In yet another performance of premature wisdom, Isra ends her Medium essay with a realization: that her proximity to the most polarizing woman in Congress is, in fact, a privilege that she’s taken for granted. “I want to find ways to recognize this new privilege as a net positive in the spaces that I exist in,” she wrote, “while at the same time learning when it’s my time to step back and pass on the mic.”
This summer, Isra got to reap the benefits of that privilege, spending two weeks in Congress with her mom. When we’d spoken at the beginning of summer, she told me she was interested in going into politics one day—maybe even running for president—potentially after law school. Today, that aspiration has been tempered. If she absolutely had to go into politics, she said, she’d definitely stop at the local level. Her impression of Congress?
“Really, really childish.”
[Leila Ettachfini is an Associate Editor at VICE Media.]