This story is part of the 2020 Project, a special men’s health project that examines the lives of 20 different 20-year-old men across America. To learn more about the others, click here.
EIGHT YEARS AGO, Kevin J. Patel was in his sixth grade classroom when the chest pain started. His heart was beating fast and it was difficult to breathe, so he told a teacher.
“I thought I was fine,” says Patel, “but everyone else freaked out.” The school nurse called the paramedics. Doctors later diagnosed Patel with arrhythmia, a condition in which the heart beats outside of its normal pattern. The cause wasn’t that simple. Patel did not smoke or use drugs. He did not have obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure. He was 12 years old.
So Patel was looking for reasons this might have happened, and an answer was right around him: where he lived in South Central Los Angeles. Research classifies neighborhoods like his as “victim zones” – places where residents, often low-income and / or colored people, live near highways, factories, and oil wells. Here inaction and damage to the environment have led to arrhythmias that trigger smog. And that has to change, at least in Patel’s mind.
So he started to protest. Patel led marches, asked for government officials, and demanded climate justice from anyone who would listen. However, there was one thing he gnawed throughout the process: “I haven’t seen many people looking like me.” The University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability surveyed no more than 2,000 environmental nonprofits in 2018 and found that more than 85 percent of their employees were white.
That’s why in September 2019, while taking classes at a local community college prior to his freshman year at Loyola Marymount University, Patel founded OneUpAction, a nonprofit that helps marginalized youth improve their environment. (“One Up” because you have to take action in your community, and then you have to take action and do more, he says.) OneUpAction draws on youth-led chapters around the world that address various challenges. Sometimes it’s so easy to post a photo of a plant and your hands stained from the planting. sometimes it’s bigger, like planting trees. With donations and grants, OneUpAction has planted more than 4,000 trees in sacrificial areas.
OneUpAction’s work comes at a difficult time. According to a 2019 year, the majority of teenagers are scared and angry about climate change Washington Post– Kaiser Family Foundation survey. However, 54 percent of the young people surveyed also stated that they felt motivated. This could be one reason that OneUpAction has created 62 chapters in 32 countries.
And Patel is getting on with himself. A year ago, he spearheaded the Los Angeles District Youth Climate Commission, which will work with the district government to ensure youth outlooks shape local environmental policy. “This gives young people a voice and a place at the table,” he says. Patel says change can happen, but not by itself and not without representation that includes BIPOC communities and those on the front lines of the crisis.
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