Meet Valholly Frank, the 17-year-old activist who sued the state of Florida for climate inaction | theRising
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Meet Valholly Frank, the 17-year-old activist who sued the state of Florida for climate inaction

Meet Valholly Frank, the 17-year-old activist who sued the state of Florida for climate inaction

Back in 2018, a group of 8 young activists, aged 12-22, decided they could no longer remain complacent in the fight against climate change. So, although the majority couldn’t even vote or drive, they still found a way to use their voice. In Reynolds v. Florida, the plaintiffs sued the state for climate inaction. Among them was Valholly Frank, a Native American climate activist and rising high school senior.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Frank and learn more about her background, her activism, and her firm belief that this generation will be the one that changes the world.

Growing up on the reservation: the experiences of Valholly Frank

When Frank recalls her days back on Big Cyprus Reserve, her voice grows
wistful. Frank, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, grew up on the northern edge of the Everglades. She recalls spending every day outside, enjoying the beauty of the Earth.

“I’ve always had a connection with the Earth and land. And I feel like I have a responsibility to protect the world and land. Because the Earth is constantly giving us everything we need to live, and for so many, there’s no remorse in giving back,” Frank said. 

However, the one downside was the long commute to school. Frank and her brother would wake up at 5am every morning to take a 2-hour bus drive.

Eventually, Frank and her family uprooted from Big Cyprus for a better education. For Frank, she says she never realized how amazing it was to grow up in Big Cyprus until she moved. She describes her new town as a “perfect bubble.” It was built on the Everglades, forcing Native Americans to relocate as they got pushed further into the land. In some of Frank’s classrooms, she says she can even see what is left of them.

“I think that’s one thing that makes me such an activist; we [Native Americans] understand where we come from, the lands, and how they’ve protected us over the years. We understand how Colonial and capitalist mindsets destroyed it before,” Frank told me. “They tried to kill us [Native Americans], then they tried to relocate us,” she continued. “They tried to force us off because they wanted it, and they gave us new land because they didn’t need it. And we’re still here fighting.”

Reynolds v. Florida

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For eternity, those words have been deeply and lovingly sewn into the fabric of this nation. But with Reynolds v. Florida, these young plaintiffs wanted to demand action for a different inalienable right: the right to a safe climate.

However, after a long 2-year battle, the “Florida 8” received some disheartening news: their case was dismissed. Although the judge expressed support and admiration for the teens’ activism, he cited “prejudice,” saying this was not an issue that could be resolved in court. Still, he urged the young plaintiffs to appeal.

Valholly Frank and peers keep fighting against climate inaction

Valholly Frank at climate rally
Dozens of youth show their support for the Climate Strike rally in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 20. (Photo Kevin Johnson)

Frank recalls feeling stunned as she heard the news over a 3.5-hour Zoom call.

“I wish he could’ve seen us. He was telling us, ‘Oh, but don’t worry. One day you guys can vote and make your own change.’ But only a few plaintiffs on the case can actually vote,” she said. “And even then, our system is so rigged, with the electoral college and everything. Sure, voting is important. But as long as there are still people against you and have gained so much being against you, the game is rigged against you⁠—the people trying to create change.”

Despite this obstacle, the group plans to keep fighting.

This case was backed by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that represents young people pushing for climate recovery. It also supported the landmark Juliana v. United States lawsuit, which similarly argued that the government was deliberately infringing upon their right to a safe climate.

“Even though I can’t vote and participate in these civic duties most adults can, I still have rights as a child. To life, liberty, and property. To clean water and air. And I still have the right to fight for myself and my people.”

Work in climate activism

Prior to the case, Frank says she never would’ve been so outspoken. During the lawsuit, Frank spoke at multiple climate rallies in Florida. Last year, she even flew to Madrid to speak at the U.N. Conference of Youth (COY).

Valholly Frank with Nancy Pelosi | Credit: Michal Fidler with Campus Climate Corps
Valholly Frank with Nancy Pelosi | Credit: Michal Fidler with Campus Climate Corps

Afterward, Frank attended the annual U.N. Conference of Parties (COP), which brings together activists, politicians, and business leaders. However, while she found the youth summit exciting and empowering, she said COP was a bit of a disappointment.

This feeling of disappointment surfaced during her conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. During their brief conversation, Frank asked about Extinction Rebellion, a radical environmental group. The group held a hunger strike in Pelosi’s office in an attempt to get a 1-hour conversation with her about climate inaction.

Two stayed for almost 14 days, losing around 20 pounds in the process. Nine strikers were also arrested during the process for “unlawful entry” after trying to get into the office’s staff rooms, which are not publicly accessible. Pelosi never met with the group. 

“You have to keep calling out these politicians,” she said. “Of course, it’s hard to take drastic action. But if they [politicians] don’t actually act and follow what they are saying, then what’s the point of having them in office?”

Following her encounter with Pelosi, Frank said she met Florida Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who was a “beam of hope.” Castor expressed her support for the “Florida 8”, prompting Frank to gift the representative a traditional Seminole doll out of respect.

But, Frank wasn’t alone in thinking the conference was just talking. COP took a radical turn when several young activists staged a protest, causing many to be kicked out.  

“It was such blatant silencing on their part,” Frank said. “And I loved being there surrounded by so many of my radical friends, but it was just another thing to be easily disappointed by.”

The power of the youth and the work that inspires Valholly Frank

Gen Z gets a lot of backlash for their radical ideologies and fiery streak. However, Frank believes Gen Z will “finally be the generation that creates the change that we need.” For her, the fact that a group of young activists would disrupt a prestigious U.N. climate summit with a protest just proves that.

Greta Thunberg speaks during the COP25 Climate Conference on December 11, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.
 Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Greta Thunberg speaks during the COP25 Climate Conference on December 11, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.
 Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

“I’m always so distraught by what’s going on in the world,” Frank said. “But seeing all these other activists doing great work alongside me–that’s where I keep my inspiration. That’s where I keep my momentum going. I take a step back and realize what change we have accomplished. And that always keeps me going.” 

Youth activists across the world have also taken the center stage. Voices like Greta Thunberg have amplified the argument for climate change, encouraging millions of teens and young adults to be more engaged and active. They’ve flooded the streets for protests, loaded politicians’ inboxes and voicemails with demands for action, and thought of other creative ways to contribute even if they can’t vote. For those who can’t yet vote, if anything, it’s made them even louder. 

Frank says she knows her and her friends, perhaps the most progressive generation in history, might sound crazy. She laughs, even calling them “classic fear-mongering leftists.” But, she says, what’s crazier is that people are still not taking this issue as seriously as they need to.

“The biggest argument I’ve heard against it is, well, where are you going to get the money from? And I think that that argument shouldn’t be as heavily focused on as the fact that if we don’t change drastically soon, that we’re all gonna have to pay a lot more than what this Green New Deal is going to cost.” 

The toll of teenage activism

As we near the end of our conversation, Frank tells me she’s about to meet with some friends. She wants to see them, obviously. But, on a candid note, she says she’s feeling lazy and tired. She laughs, “I’m already like 60-years-old.” 

While there are several press releases praising Frank for her staunch advocacy, very few emphasize how the weight of activism is a heavy one. Tackling such pressing, serious issues at 17, she admits, is exhausting.

She has made the climate her main priority, sacrificing extracurriculars and sometimes having to skip class to attend summits, rallies, and the like. Not to mention, maintaining relationships especially can be difficult, when climate advocacy becomes the greater bulk of your life and your main conversation point. Often, she says, she wears her friends out. 

“I’m really grateful for people who deal with me. Like, if you want to hang out with me, you’re going to have to come to a protest with me. It’s amazing, I’m slowly infecting my friends with leftist propaganda,” she joked. “When it comes to activism, it’s so hard to have a normal teenage life. And I get why people deny it because it’s so much easier to have fun as a child. But it’s never been that simple to me, at least.” 

Because at the root of it, no matter how aggressively or eloquently she may fight, she even says herself: “I’m genuinely just a child.” 

What the future looks like as Valholly Frank approaches high school graduation

And just like most other incoming high school seniors, Frank is approaching next year with uncertainty. All while trying to fight injustices, Frank is still trying to discover what she wants to do—who she wants to be.

As of now, Frank says she loves working with animals and is thinking about exploring a career path involving them. On the flip side, she says working a 9-to-5 job would be “unfathomable.” College could possibly be on the table, but again, there’s some uncertainty. Above all though, Frank vows to continue her work in activism

So, it comes as a surprise when she immediately dismisses the thought of going into politics. It’s too dirty and exhausting, she insists. Especially now, she says it’s so hard to find an honest politician, and that life is one she would never want to throw herself into. But, she does admit that if she ever were to become one, she hoped she’d be like AOC—a “public enemy” to Congress, and a fierce, outspoken changemaker. 

With the new young wave of politicians and politicians-to-be, there’s hope that positive change will be created. This new wave is promising, with people who are not yet worn down by the divisive, tiring nature of politics.

Not just for politicians, but people in general, the realization that change is slow and growing only more polarizing every day can deter you from participating in action, when it feels like it only leads to more inaction. There’s hope this new burst of energy from this new generation can change that. 

“I guess at some point, it just gets to you,” Frank says, before taking a pause. “Man, I hope it never gets to me.”

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