It’s hard to say when 22-year-old Kevin J. Patel became an activist. Perhaps it started before he was born when his parents had to move from India to the United States because agriculture was no longer sustainable and they wanted new opportunities. Or maybe it started in sixth grade when he realized his classmates in Los Angeles didn’t know that food came from farms and land, not from the grocery store.
Or maybe he had always been an activist, or at least always intended to be. Regardless of when his activism began, Patel’s influence is clear. As a teenager, he played a major role in establishing Los Angeles County’s first youth climate committee. In 2019, he founded OneUpAction, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping marginalized youth stand up for the environment. He has also won accolades and won roles with several organizations, including the title of National Geographic Young Explorer 2020, a member of Ikea’s Youth Forum, and serving on the World Economic Forum’s USA 1t.org Stakeholder Council.
Moreover, when we spoke in this interview, Patel was about to graduate from Loyola Marymount College with a degree in political science.
Fast company spoke to Patel about the importance of youth activism. I caught him on his way home from class. Even filtered through the sounds of L.A. traffic, the strength of Patel’s concern for other people was palpable. He spent several minutes asking about my cold; after the interview he wanted to know who I was as a person. He made sure to mention partners and collaborators in his interview – so often we couldn’t list them all.
Patel’s email signature reads: “It’s normal that it takes me days to read and reply to emails. The capitalist culture of directness doesn’t really fit the lifestyle I want to lead.” Perhaps it was this ability to focus on what was important that made him who he is.
Fast Company: You became an activist at a very young age. how did you start?
Kevin J Patel: My parents really instilled that in me at a very young age. They emigrated from India to the United States. Even then, the agricultural industry was in decline due to the climate crisis, which caused constant floods and heat waves and all other natural disasters. Although they loved India, they had to move because they couldn’t earn enough money to survive. Growing up, we grew our own food, but I lived in a community in South Central Los Angeles that had food injustices and food shortages.
In the first semester of sixth grade, I realized that my community did not have access to healthier foods; I really wanted to do something about it. I started teaching my peers how to grow food. Many did not know that food came from farms and that they could grow their own food.
That all changed in the second semester of my sixth grade. I was playing outdoors, active and healthy, and suddenly I ended up in the hospital – I was directly affected by air pollution and smog. This has led me to really look at the interconnectedness of all these different issues, from food justice to pollution, and why we need to advocate for multiple issues and look at justice from an intersectional perspective.
FC: How has your activism evolved?
KJPA: Much of the work I’ve done over the last few years has been initiated by the climate change movement. In 2019, we started to see how other young people are passionate about climate change. During one of the first strikes in March 2019, I realized that many young people were driving two or three hours from different cities to protest. And I wondered why they couldn’t protest in their own cities and why they had to travel so far to be heard. I really wanted to do something about it.
I informed the mayor and set up a youth climate action council. He integrated it with C40, which is a collection of about 90 cities around the world. My friend Delaney Michaelson and I wanted to go one step further and cover LA County, which has 88 cities and 13 million people.
I’ve also noticed that the climate movement, especially the youth climate movement, lacks people who look like me. Many of the voices that have been amplified have come from white people and through-white people. I wanted to create a platform for young people who were BIPOC. We called it OneUpAction, for example step up your activities. But we’ve really transformed in the last three or four years where we weren’t just a platform for people with BIPOC. Now we are an organization that helps young people around the world implement and accelerate solutions in their communities.
FC: Why do we need youth activism?
KJP: I’ve seen so many young people coming up with solutions that the current generation and those in power now have never been able to create or create. The strength of young people is very much needed.
I also think we just need to work together across the generations to really make sure we solve these issues. So it’s not just about young people, but we also need to work with those who have been in space to make something happen and speed up solutions. I am a great advocate not only of young people, but also of intergenerational dialogue to create change.
FC: You’ve done so much – and you’re still in college. What does a day in the life of an activist look like?
KJP: Well, in two weeks I’m done! And I wake up like a normal person, brush my teeth, get ready, you know. . . do all the usual things people do, go to school, come back and spend a few hours doing homework and a few hours on my nonprofit. I reserved weekends for fun; I walk in the mountains, I take amateur photos, I run, I meet my friends. Burnout won’t get us anywhere. That was the go-go-go mentality for a long time. But I think that we often forget that we are human and we need rest and joy of life. And we need to bring joyful aspects into our lives. It’s not just about activism; it’s also about making sure you take care of your own body.
FC: What will you focus on after graduation?
KJP: Delve deep into OneUpAction’s mission to help young people around the world implement and accelerate climate solutions in their communities. Maybe some behind-the-scenes stuff to bridge the gap between business and the entertainment industry and media in general: how can we take these three huge sectors and integrate them in the fight against climate change and make something happen?
FC: What would you like people to know about activism?
KJP: Anyone can be an activist, whether you’re a business leader, a photographer, or you are [work in fast food]. We all have the ability to use our votes. We all have the opportunity to speak out on issues that matter to us in our communities. A common misconception about activism is that it only applies to activists or people who have been directly affected. But I believe that anyone can be an activist and you don’t have to be perfect. After all, we’re all human, right? You have a voice. Use it and become an activist. Go into your community and speak up for any issues you see. Because gradually this one action will have a dripping effect and create a greater lasting effect. Everyone has their part.