Xiuhtezcatl on the power of empowering your community.

In conversation with climate activist, author and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl. He uses his art, music, storytelling and activism to connect his generation and create change at the intersection of climate justice and Indigenous Sovereignty. Inspired by his mother’s own activism, Xiuhtezcatl has been a powerful voice in the climate justice movement since he was six years old. In 2019, he was recognized by Time Magazine’s The Next 100 Most Influential People list.

We had the chance to chat with Xiuhtezcatl about how to create positive change in the world.

“What are we doing if we’re not lifting up those around us?”

– Xiuhtezcatl

Can you talk about the responsibility that comes with having such a strong voice within your community?

In the last year, I have taken a lot of time to reevaluate my relationship with my own leadership and to the movements I organize within.

I’ve continued to see that our ability to build power to address the issues in our world come from uplifting and organizing our communities, not in the accumulation of recognition and influence of individual leaders. What are we doing if we’re not lifting up those around us? There are so many blessings I grew up with that helped me to get to where I am, whether it’s the community that I grew up in, having both parents in my life, being connected and having a relationship with my culture, with my ancestors, with ceremony.

What role do you think brands can play in creating change?

I think brands have a lot of cultural, political and social power, and with that comes leverage that can be used to either exploit consumers, employees, our communities and the land, or to help build a new paradigm that shifts away from these extractive relationships.

I think the cultural element is really important. Brands don’t really shape culture as much as they emulate it. Brands ride trends, and follow what is exciting for people to be talking about in that moment.

It’s uncommon to see brands go deeper than the performative, surface level actions of “solidarity.” As consumers we hold more power than we think. We must hold brands accountable and challenge them to have their internal practices match what they’re saying on the surface.

The industry standards are actually very, very low, you know, for corporations doing a good job. And that’s why it’s important for folks to stand up and raise the bar.

How important is it for a brand to communicate with transparency?

I think it’s really easy for brands to market themselves a certain way to appear aligned with whatever social causes are popular at the time. And I think it’s so much more important to do the internal work, and also being transparent about what that looks like, sharing the journey. It’s not like every party needs to be held to this perfect standard, because it probably won’t happen overnight. But transparency around the journey that these brands are taking to being more aligned in practice with what people are demanding for the streets. And that is, I think, a journey that everybody can hold themselves in greater account to work hard for and I think it’s great, there are some folks out there doing good work, but we can push further.

“Transparency around the journey that these brands are taking to being more aligned in practice with what people are demanding for the streets.”

What is the role of transparency in a relationship between people and brands?

The market is there, people want it, and people are ready for change. One of the biggest excuses I still hear at the front lines as a young changemaker when I enter meeting rooms or high-level sessions is always like the people aren’t ready. And it just blows my mind, because, you know, I’m out there on the streets and out there at community led workshops and people are more than ready for change. We’re waiting for it. And then we’re also leading it.

What does it truly mean for a brand to be transparent?

Brands and governments make bold statements about change on a big stage. But transparency includes how you’re making those changes. It includes the difficulties. Too often we celebrate only the good and there’s too few of that. Imagine if companies were transparent from the beginning. How much more powerful and accelerated could we make change?

What is the one thing you’d want people to take away?

I truly believe that young people can accelerate change. And right now we don’t have the luxury of time. We should see how we can empower young people more. As a young person at the front line there’s frustration because things are changing too slowly. There’s opportunity for good things we can implement today. We have to accelerate change. We have to start today.

“When we think about opportunity, we think it’s too far away in the future. But the opportunity is right now it’s today. It starts with what we can do today.”

– Melati Wijsen