When reflecting upon her childhood in Bangladesh, Rebeca Sabnam recalls wading through waist-length waters to get to school. But when she moved to New York City, things changed.
Sabnam realized this frequent occurrence wasn’t normal. And, more importantly, it needed to change. Sabnam, now 17, is a staunch advocate for Cafeteria Culture, a nonprofit that works with youth to attain zero waste, plastic-free, and climate-smart schools.
Through her activism, Sabnam is committed to educating youths and amplifying Bangladeshi voices.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sabnam about her work, her journey with climate change, and her hopes for the future.
Edited for length and clarity.
EMILY DAO: To start things off, could you tell me a little bit about yourself? What’s your history with climate activism?
REBECA SABNAM: My climate activism really launched in fifth grade when Cafeteria Culture came into my class to encourage climate literacy/advocacy.
We learned about the detrimental effects of styrofoam on our health and environment. Then, we used that knowledge to march around our neighborhood and even rally at city hall! It felt wrong to be aware of injustices going on right in our own cafeteria but do nothing about them. When we all finally took action together, I felt empowered to have an active role in the future of my generation. This fueled my desire to continue advocating.
When it comes to climate activism, who would you say are your main influences and role models?
That would have to be Bangladesh. This beautiful country is constantly struggling to stay afloat and paying the price for a crisis they aren’t responsible for. A few weeks ago, a quarter of Bangladesh was flooded. But there’s barely any buzz about it. I refuse to let Bangladeshis be forgotten in conversations about climate solutions. So, I keep us in mind with everything I do.
What work have you done for Cafeteria Culture? How’s it progressing thus far?
Before schools turned to remote learning, the most I was able to get done was to gather volunteers. They were for the waste sorting system. My peers and I encountered roadblocks after roadblocks. It ranged from the lack of support from our administration to the fact that our school wasn’t even on the route for organics collections. To make matters worse, since New York went into lockdown, the budget for composting has been cut substantially!
Since I’m going to be a senior and schools will continue remotely, my hope for the coming school year is to lay the foundations for the zero waste system. So, when we do hopefully transition back to in-person instructions, my peers and I will be able to pick up back where we left off.
What do you think is the importance of targeting schools specifically when introducing these ideas of zero waste and sustainability?
Itthe way we deal with waste in school to the broader subject of the climate crisis. I hope that if these zero-waste systems and plastic-free lunches are successful in my high school, it will inspire policies that mandate them for other public schools. I also hope that this project reveals that there are more ways to advocate for climate solutions than striking (since that isn’t accessible to many low-income families).
During your education, do you believe you learned a lot about climate change? If not, what was lacking in your curriculum, and why do you think that should be changed?
The only time I learned about the climate crisis in school, aside from my work with Cafeteria Culture and personal research, was in my junior biology class. I think my teacher did a good job of giving us the general basics of the causes and effects. She even showed us a documentary. It was about how people living in frontline communities were affected. I thought it was a really important first step into exploring the interconnectedness of the various aspects of the crisis. However, I wish I saw more of that.
How does the climate crisis relate to gender equality? To colonialism, capitalism, racial injustice, poverty, or human rights? Learning about the climate disconnected from all these aspects makes our education incomplete. And so, conversations about climate solutions are also incomplete.
That’s another thing that I feel should be woven into the curriculum: conversations of solutions/actions we can take. I’m so grateful that I was able to receive education about climate as early as fifth grade and have activism tied into every aspect of it. This innovative approach allowed us to take direct action regarding the very things we were learning about in class.
What’s your favorite memory with Cafeteria Culture?
The first march I ever attended. It was just me and my fifth grade class marching and chanting around our neighborhood with puppets we made from the trash we recycled. I’ll never forget the sense of community I felt then.
So, you grew up in Bangladesh, a frontline community in the climate crisis, before moving to New York. Can you tell us about this transition for you? What would you say are the most obvious differences between the two countries’ handling of climate change?
When I was little, it was common for kids to go to and from school while the streets were completely flooded. My uncle would carry me and my sister on his shoulder in floods that reached his waist. It wasn’t until I came to New York that I realized that the routine of walking through floods was so normalized to me. But it shouldn’t have been.
One key difference between the U.S.A. and Bangladesh in regards to the climate crisis is that since Bangladeshis directly feel the effects of the crisis in every aspect of their lives, they treat the crisis with more urgency.
Climate is going to be a hot topic at this year’s election. At 16, you can’t yet vote. However, how do you encourage your fellow youth to be active in demanding environmental change?
Vote for the climate action you want to see! Demanding better policies through voting is one of the most effective ways to see meaningful change. It doesn’t make sense to go to strikes and do all these other advocacy work and not vote if you have the means to.
It’s easy to grow disenchanted with climate activism as a teenager, given its emotionally tolling nature. How do you stay motivated? What drives you?
While it’s definitely important to be persistent, it’s equally as important to take care of your mental health! It can be emotionally and physically draining to be an activist, so it is vital that we take breaks when we need them. These breaks allow me to clear my head and make sure I have enough energy to stay motivated for the next action I need to take.
I know that the road to see meaningful action is a frustrating one. But I also know that if we’re stubborn enough, our demands will be heard. And that’s what continues to drive me.
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