Sophia's Journey to Making the Climate Movement more Accessible
In this Changemaker Conversation, Sophia Kianni and Maddie Finn, Ashoka team member, spoke via video chat on a Tuesday evening in August 2020. Sophia was safely quarantined in her home in McLean, Virginia, but her passion for climate change activism was palpable.
Sophia graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in the spring of 2020, and while her cancelled graduation ceremony was a disappointment, she is making the most of her time at home before she starts online classes this fall at Indiana University.
On May 24, 2020 she launched a non-profit, Climate Cardinals, which crowdsources volunteers to translate climate change-related resources. In the first few months, the organization recruited over 5,500 volunteers and the student leadership team has grown to 14 directors.
It seems like Sophia is an overnight sensation with Climate Cardinals, but this isn’t the first time she has garnered attention for her climate activism. In November of 2019 Sophia joined climate activist group Extinction Rebellion for a week-long hunger strike in Nancy Pelosi’s office to draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis. Since then Sophia has been writing and speaking about climate change and the importance of young people’s voices in addressing the climate crisis.
Still, the seeds of her changemaking journey—thanks to supportive peers, encouraging family members, and her unending desire for a better future—were planted even earlier than the hunger strike.
Below is the conversation, edited for clarity.
What are you passionate about? What are you working on now?
I am passionate about climate change education, so right now I’m working on my non-profit: Climate Cardinals. We are an international youth-led non-profit and what we are striving to do is to make the climate movement more accessible to people who don’t speak English. We are translating climate information and sourcing climate information in over a hundred languages. We’ve grown to over 5,500 volunteers [since our launch on May 24].
It was really inspired by my own experience translating climate information into Farsi to educate my relatives in Iran. I realized that I couldn’t find any information online that was available in Farsi. I also realized that when I went to Iran and talked about climate change, they really didn’t know what I was talking about. They didn’t know what climate change was. They hadn’t really learned about it.
Two or three documents that [Climate Cardinals] has translated thus far have been glossaries. That’s what we’re doing—we’re building it up, starting with defining climate change terms for people. We want to build up people’s vocabulary and terminology. In order to educate people, we need to overcome linguistic barriers and come up with an interesting way to present this information. That’s what we are working together to do.
I also knew that climate change disproportionately affects people of color. That’s part of the reason why I believe it is so important to be able to educate as many people as possible, and empower a diverse coalition, especially of young people, to learn about climate change so that we have a representative view on how we need to tackle this crisis, from people who first hand have experience with its effects.
The thing is, Climate Cardinals definitely wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I really have been working on it since last year—coming up with the idea, strategy, reaching out to partners. Quarantine was just the perfect storm for me. I wanted to give my peers a safe opportunity to earn community service hours from home.
I realized that now is the time that I can finally start my non-profit. I just decided to go for it and do it. I’m so grateful—it’s given me so much to do with all my time and it’s given me so many opportunities.
In your work with Climate Cardinals, what specific moment are you most proud of?
There are honestly so many. I think that for me it was our first day when we first launched. I had no idea how many people would be interested in volunteering with us. I honestly thought that by this point I would only have 100 or 200 volunteers. I didn’t even know if I could get it that big, because I didn’t know that many people who were bilingual and interested in this, even among my friends.
And yet, when we launched on our first day, we had over 1,100 people sign up to volunteer with us, which was absolutely insane to me. It blew away any expectations I had. It was beyond my wildest dreams. My friend had made a TikTok video and that was the reason why we really blew up. I think on the first day [that video] got over 100,000 views. It was the reason why so many people signed up to volunteer with us. Today it has 350,000 views or something.
It showed me that this was something that people were interested in and people were interested in engaging with us. That was definitely my proudest moment: realizing that this small idea I had—that was just me educating a couple of my relatives—was actually so much bigger than me and beyond me. It was something that resonated with so many people.
Tell me more about your team members.
Yes, definitely! I now have a team of 15 directors—I don’t know how I could do all of this without them. It was really sudden; we grew really fast. It was mainly me and my friend Joe. I had asked him to come on as director of finance. Then he became director of operations because I thought “Oh my gosh, we have 1,100 people to manage, we need someone [to do that].” And then I quickly onboarded my friend Rohan. I just said, “Hey this is super random but if you are interested, you can be a director.” So, he joined as a director. He helped me and Joe sift through other director applications and email people, and we decided to onboard 12 additional directors. It was honestly such a crazy time—I was working 24/7 trying to manage everything. I was so excited and really overwhelmed…
Now I have a huge team. We have around 800 language leads, which are the people who help us manage volunteers and proofread information. We have a team of over 200 team members who help us with social media, partnerships, outreach, et cetera. Honestly, I could not do any of this without all of them.
When did this interest in changemaking in regard to climate change start?
It was definitely in middle school when I was talking to my relatives and when I saw that it was so polluted [in Iran] and my relatives didn’t really know anything about climate change. That’s when I started to educate them.
That’s also when I realized that as a young person, I could be more knowledgeable in a subject than someone much older than me, which was a very interesting and difficult concept for me to grasp. For so long I was used to listening to those older than me and expecting that they had all the answers. But for once I was the one that had all the answers and I was the one whose point was clear and correct. That’s really when I became an advocate. It was the beginning of my journey to become an activist, because I realized I had the power to make change on a micro level. Now I’m trying to implement that same change, just on a much larger scale.
Tell me a little bit more about what it was like to be a young person and telling your much older relatives about climate change. Maybe beyond the family, what is it like to be a young woman telling people to do things? There are a lot of preconceived notions about annoying young women who are actually the smartest in the room…
[Laughs.] That’s honestly how I felt my entire life. It’s a joke among all my friends and all my relatives that I never stop talking. Literally, I am like a radio.
I grew up really believing that my voice matters, and that everything I feel is valid. It’s because my parents always raised me that way. Obviously, there was a dynamic where they’re my parents, I have to listen to them—but, they raised me to be an independent thinker, to question them. I have been debating with my relatives and people around me since I was little. When I challenged my parents or when I wanted to argue a point, they never belittled me or made me feel stupid for questioning something just because I was a young girl. They always took me seriously and entertained my conversations with them. That was really influential in my life and my trajectory. I walk into spaces believing that my perspective matters. Because I believe that and I present myself in that way, it has made people take me seriously.
So, your family has been supportive of this journey?
My mom and dad both speak Farsi, I speak Farsi, my entire family is Iranian. They are super happy and proud. I think they are pretty shocked, too. They never expected this small passion that I had—me, annoying my relatives saying, “Look at the stars, you can’t even see them in Iran because the pollution is so bad. You guys need to care about this, blah blah blah.” Me, being the annoying brat that I was when I was 13. It really turned into me being an annoying 18-year-old. But this time I’m annoying thousands of people and getting my point across to them instead of pestering just my relatives.
It’s clear that you have an amazing platform and a lot of publications. How did you get to that point?
I wish I knew [laugh]. This all started with my hunger strike going semi-viral, which I never expected. I just went to D.C., I was ready to join [Extinction Rebellion] D.C., and we were going up the steps of Capitol Hill. We had met in Folger Park right before going into Nancy Pelosi’s office. There were so many journalists there, which really surprised me. I was used to working on climate action without any press attention. I was wondering, “Why do people care so much about this?”
There were only around 8 of us. After that happened The Lily did a piece about just me and how I skipped school to do a hunger strike at the Capital. After that I had so many people reach out to me, and that’s the reason why I guess Teen Vogue wanted me to write about my hunger strike. That really was the pivotal moment. That was a catalyst for all the opportunities I have had.
After that, when I was pitching to other people I could say, “I’ve been published in Teen Vogue,” and that made people actually take me seriously. That’s how I ended up writing for Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, et cetera. Without that first by-line it would have been a lot harder.
Did you always know you wanted to do something related to climate change activism?
Oh my gosh, not at all! I always change my mind and go with the flow to explore things. I’ve cycled through so many career options—I wanted to be an astronaut, then I wanted to be an architect, then I really wanted to be a regenerative scientist focusing on regenerative medicine. That’s why I went to TJ [a high school which specializes in teaching science and technology]. Now, I kind of want to study public policy and environmental science. But knowing me, I am never going to be 100% sure about what I want to do. I very much am a go-with-the-flow person. But no, when I first went to my high school, I had no intention of pursuing this career. I very much wanted to be a scientist.
What does changemaking mean to you?
It means going into the world and shaking things up and reevaluating how we go about our everyday lives. The changemakers that I have been surrounded by, and the changemaker that I hope to be, identify a problem and come up with a creative solution to it.
I feel like too often people think that to truly be a changemaker you have to start your own organization or reinvent the wheel. A lot of people feel, “In order to make a big change in the world I have to found my own thing—I shouldn’t just join somebody’s organization.”
But I think that it’s important to note that there is no point in starting your own thing if something like that already exists—especially when there are so many struggling organizations, like really small non-profits who need money and support. You can be a changemaker within an existing system.
Yes, if you come up with a solution to an idea that is novel and needs to exist, then yes, you should do your own thing and found your own organization. But it’s also so important to work within systems to make them better. Every small way in which you change the world matters—all changemaking is valid no matter the scale.
When was the first time you felt empowered as a changemaker? It could be super small or super big.
There have been so many moments. Oh, I know!
It was right after I did the hunger strike and I wrote about it for Teen Vogue. I was really adamant how [the climate crisis] was such a big deal and how people needed to take it seriously. One of my friends reached out to me and said, “I read your Op-Ed in its entirety and it really broke my heart to see how much you care about this and how this is getting worse and worse. You made me realize this is something we all need to care about.” She had moved to Chicago and was telling me that she is going to start an environmental club in her school because there isn’t one yet.
That made me so happy. My words had the power to change this individual’s mindset and make them realize how important this is, and to incentivize her to start making changes in her own community.
That was really crazy to me. That was before I had started my own non-profit or anything like that. It was just me working with Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future. And yet, this one action I did with them and the words that I outputted had the power to change my friend’s mind and compel her to act.
What is your advice for young people who haven’t had that first by-line or who are just realizing that they can be changemakers in their own spheres?
I would say to start small. I feel like so many people want to zoom to the moment where they are the founder and executive director of a huge non-profit. Or they want to zoom to the moment where they’ve been able to pass legislation. They want to get to this big moment where they feel like they’ve made it and they’ve made change.
But what they don’t realize is that it very much starts with the small actions. If I hadn’t been translating information for my relatives six years ago, then I wouldn’t be in the position that I am today. So even though you might feel like the small things you are doing are super insignificant and are not making a difference, eventually they will make a difference because they will influence your outlook on life and the way you go about things, and the opportunities that come your way. That’s the first thing I would say: starting small is really, really overlooked. It shouldn’t be because it has so much power.
Secondly, I would say to just email people. I slid into so many people’s DMs [direct messages] when I was first starting to be a climate activist, asking if I could work with them, stating that I could add value to their organization, et cetera. Just reach out to people—reach out to people like me, any climate activist who have secured opportunities that you are interested in and ask them if they could put in a referral for you or if they could give you more information on who is the best person to contact within the organization. If someone reached out to me asking if they could work with Climate Cardinals, I would say of course! That’s the same experience I had when reaching out to Extinction Rebellion and Zero Hour [two climate change activist groups]. That’s so overlooked.
To get where you want to be, just start small and reach out to as many people as possible.
It seems like you work a lot with young people or people your age. What do you think makes this generation different, either in regard to the climate crisis or in regard to changemaking as a whole?
I feel like this generation is a lot more progressive than previous generations. Honestly, part of that might just be because of social media. We all have so much access to one another. It’s so easy for us to communicate our thoughts and improve our perspectives. I feel like every generation is more progressive than the previous. We have so much compassion and humility, and care about one another.
I think young people are the future and I hope that the older generation takes us seriously. That’s why I am so excited that the UN decided to create this Youth Advisory Group on climate change. It shows that they are valuing youth perspectives and shows that a) [young people] know what we are talking about and b) that our sentiments are valid and that we have been the changemakers for so long, in every generation, which is why we need a seat at the table.