What’s On Your Ballot?: Inkza Angeles Bautista, Climate Activist

Inkza Angeles Bautista is a 19-year-old climate activist who believes that Indigenous wisdom can bring us back to harmony with the earth. (Beth LaBerge)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot?,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

Rude awakenings are an important part of justice-making. In early September, Californians woke to a shocking burnt-orange sky, one that made it difficult to distinguish between day and night. But how many connected the sky’s shade to systemic injustices of the past—for example, the attempted erasure of regenerative Indigenous knowledge?

Luckily, the earth provides opportunities to cherish what we once took for granted, like clear blue skies and hummingbirds. One hummingbird visited climate advocate and youth organizer Inkza Angeles Bautista as we met at Fruitvale Plaza for this interview.

Bautista has spent the past four years participating in the PODER Youth organizing program, and she is also the Climate Justice Alliance’s new Youth Articulation and Organizing Fellow. Raised in San Francisco's Mission District, Bautista says that her family provided her the tools she needed to speak truth to power. Her name also reflects her rich cultural background: her parents “took the Ink in Inca and the Za in Zapotec and they put it together ... so, it means two communities united by love.”

I talked with Bautista about her take on the upcoming elections, about casting her ballot for president for the first time and her vision for a more just world.—Maddy Clifford

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As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in the United States today?

I am feeling so constrained. This is a super crucial moment in time. This is the first year we’re ever gonna go into an election with a pandemic, and with this crazy climate chaos going on and so many other things. There’s two different sides to this election and it’s honestly two different sides of the same coin. Our U.S. government is a joke. There is no true democracy and that is something we need to continue to fight for—like, true people-power democracy that’s from the bottom up. I feel like there’s a worse candidate and there’s a worser candidate, so I feel really constrained.

Inkza Angeles Bautista: ‘it's important to get young people involved because sometimes we forget about the knowledge that they hold, the power that they hold.’ (Beth LaBerge)

So I feel a little bit hopeless in that political realm, but hopeful in other realms. I definitely think people are mobilizing in a way, and uniting. When we look at the Black Lives Matter movement, when we look at the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement, there are so many movements of people that are united together and really getting the knowledge so that they can start to be autonomous. There’s so much people-power. So much potential to build. People are working in a way that’s like: “Forget this ‘democracy.’ We need to really start a revolution and create our own democracy because this system is trash. There is nothing to salvage from it.”

Is this your first time voting for president? What excites you about this process? What might feel discouraging?

Yes, this is my first time voting for president; I am 19 years old. I’m excited to cast my ballot. It’s an important stepping stone in a person’s life, when you get to fill out a ballot and be like, “My voice counts.” And I have mixed emotions about that too. It feels discouraging when I think about the reality that regardless of, sometimes, a majority of people voting for certain candidates, certain propositions, certain policies, a lot of the time we still get overthrown by the money. Capitalism always plays a role in this. Big industries have so much leverage in the policies and the politicians who get chosen. So I just be feeling like, “Is my voice even really being heard?” But I can tell you last year when I filled out the ballots for local policies, I did feel some type of power. So I’m making the action of putting in my ballot, putting in my piece.

The Schools and Communities First Initiative is something that I’m excited about—bringing funding, resources and also having more of a democratic process in choosing administrators. I really am a lover of education even though I’m not a school person myself. The kind of schooling that we have here, it’s very traditional, it’s very rigid. I think we don’t focus enough in on honoring the diversity of people ... we have very little funding, especially in public schools, for arts and we approach education like everyone is exactly the same.

Have you seen any opportunities for us to reimagine the way that we educate?

With the pandemic, those differences in the way that young people approach learning and how they learn have been so present. And so it’s super crucial to meet students right now halfway, because of all the chaos in the world. But we should be doing that not only because we’re in a pandemic—in schools we need to be doing that too. I’m in college, and [educators] are doing better than they would if I was in the physical school at City College [of San Francisco]. They’re checking in on our mental health, sometimes they let you slide, or they’re trying to be understanding of situations going on in the house. The system needs to be for students, about educating young people and people being passionate.

Inkza Angeles Bautista: ‘We need to really put our game faces on and fight for to protect our earth. We only got one.’ (Beth LaBerge)

What can politicians do differently to encourage and involve young voters? What are you noticing about young people and the voting process?

We need to be super intentional about integrating young people into the voting process. Because sometimes they don’t want to take that first step, so we have to meet each other halfway. I think some of the ways we can involve young people are anything from going out into the streets, which we have been doing ... I’ve been doing some phone banking for different propositions and the people that I call up are usually adults. Because we’re not targeting young people.

There’s so many ways we can engage youth—through art, through the digital world, Instagram, memes. And it’s important to get young people involved because sometimes we forget about the knowledge that they hold, the power that they hold. As a young person I feel that too. I enter spaces and they’re just like, “Well, your wisdom is not valid here.” And that’s messed up because my knowledge is valid. It's important, it's crucial. And that’s what I think all young people are: they’re crucial to the democratic process. They need to start young and learn about this stuff young so that they can be more informed as they grow older. And a lot of the time we don’t have access to that.

One of the biggest issues for young people is one you’re really involved in, which is the climate crisis we’re facing. I think all of us really had real grounding when the sky was orange. What was that like for you?

It was apocalyptic. I woke up and I was in shock. I was like, Did I wake up in the night? And I opened my windows and it was pitch black and dark red.  How many centuries of pollution does it take for us to get to this point where we’re experiencing all the negative consequences? Especially as youth. Decades and decades and decades of human population, which is so crazy. I remember getting on Instagram and everyone was posting it, everyone was Snapchatting it and I was just like, oh my goodness, this isn’t a joke. Everyone has been saying “2020, this and that,” everything in this year. No, it's only gonna get worse if we don’t make a change. This is a wake-up call.

And I think in terms of urgency for young people, we’re the ones who are gonna stay here the longest. And it’s so scary to think about the fact that we’re gonna have to mobilize super fast and take on the struggle to fight climate change. Sometimes I think, is it even worth it having kids? What kind of world are my nieces, nephews, everyone who is going to be born in the following generations—how are we gonna survive? How are we gonna fight this?  There’s so much urgency. It's such a crucial moment. Sometimes I feel really scared and really hopeless. And other times, days like today I think the earth is showing us that there are wake-up calls. She’s still here, she’s still fighting, so we need to fight too. We need to really put our game faces on and fight to protect our earth. We've only got one.

Inkza Angeles Bautista: ’Indigenous peoples have so much wisdom and so much knowledge on how to take care of the earth.’ (Beth LaBerge)

Centuries-old Indigenous knowledge is starting to be recognized in more mainstream circles as the core of combating the climate crisis—for example, they just lifted these laws that banned Indigenous groups from engaging in burning practices that would help make fires less lethal. Does that give you hope?

Whenever I feel hopeless I always revert back to my Indigenous roots and practices. Gardening is one of those things that really connects me to mother earth, and it’s something that I know that my ancestors have practiced for thousands of years. Indigenous peoples have so much wisdom and so much knowledge on how to take care of the earth, which is why it’s so crazy that our Indigenous peoples from all over the world—from Asia to Africa to all of the Americas—all of our Indigenous practices were stripped from us. We’re still, to this day, fighting just to be able to practice some of them. We knew how to not only be in balance but in a regenerative relationship with the earth, and that’s what we need to find our way back to, a practice of give and take.

We need to revolutionize the way we live our lives, the way we consume. The way we are living right now is in total disharmony. We need to give back land and full stewardship, full rights to practice ancient, Indigenous ways. And the saddest part is we’re losing time because some of our older generations are dying. That knowledge is in short supply, because sometimes it’s not being handed down. Cultural celebration and cultural preservation is such an important and key role in the regeneration of our species as a whole.

After the election—no matter how it goes—what are your hopes and goals for the country, and for the Bay Area?

I’m a community organizer on a city level, on a community level, and on a national level—[especially now through my work] with the Climate Justice Alliance. What I envision for the future is a just transition, and that really means revolutionizing the way we eat, the way we play, the way we transport ourselves, the way we consume. A just transition from the type of extractive economy that we have, and by economy I mean "the way we manage home." Really being super radical—dumping out the old ways that are toxic, that are not doing any favors to anyone in the world. Capitalism and consumer culture need to go.

I just envision our most vulnerable, our most, first- and worst-impacted communities thriving. When those communities are reached, when they’re thriving—not only people but animals, plants, plancestors ... when all of those communities are thriving then we’ll know we made a just transition. That’s what I envision.

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This interview was edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Inkza Angeles Bautista here