Activist Jerome Foster II Shares the Valuable Lessons Congressman John Lewis Taught Him
Jerome Foster II started his activism journey when he was young. Long before he joined Gap's Be the Future campaign, the now-18-year-old developed a "deep connection" with the forest near his home. This connection to nature sparked his interest in protecting the environment, and as he got older, his passion for advocacy grew. He started going to protests in Washington DC and interned for organizations like Citizens' Climate Lobby, Sunrise Movement, and Zero Hour.
This professional experience served as a playbook for Foster's dedication to public activism. When he wasn't working, he participated in a sit-in at Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. He joined the first-ever Youth Climate March in DC and contributed to Youth Lobby Day. He was selected by National Geographic to journey to Iceland for two weeks, where he documented the entire island in virtual reality to show how climate change is impacting the country in different ways, from tourism to invasive species to glaciers disappearing.
"After I came back, I was really transformed by the experience of seeing, firsthand, how devastated our environment was due to lack of knowing or lack of care for our environment and lack of care for the people," he told POPSUGAR. "For the same people that are at the front lines that are being impacted right now by this [coronavirus] crisis. That really lit a fire under me to continue to make sure that our government is not disconnected from what's going on in the environment."
Foster returned from this expedition and applied to be an intern in Congressman John Lewis's office as a junior in high school. Every week, Foster held a climate strike outside of the White House in the morning before starting work for the representative. Then, he'd fulfill his duties as an intern, delivering co-sponsor letters and getting firsthand experience in the inner workings of the House of Representatives.
"We're just seen as victims of this crisis and not people that are their constituents."
"That was really transformative because . . . I really understood how climate justice isn't the only movement," he explained. "It's just one of the factors that have been a part of the systems that we've seen, whether that's gender equality or racial equality or climate justice or gun violence prevention." Foster realized that "all of these different movements" are relevant to the youth of America, even if politicians aren't taking the issues seriously because "the young person doesn't vote."
"We're just seen as victims of this crisis and not people that are their constituents," he said. This paradigm shift prompted Foster to launch OneMillionofUs, which he describes as "an organization that combined all these movements to make sure that we aren't leaving any out." It's not a climate organization, or a racial equality organization, or an immigration organization — the movement encompasses all of these issues, and so many more.
On how the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed activism in 2020
Foster is quick to admit that the ongoing pandemic has made activism more difficult. "It was really detrimental to so many different movements," he said. He had big plans for 2020: a bus tour, a virtual reality lesson at the Apple Carnegie Library, TED Talks. But despite plans changing, he isn't despondent. Instead, he's embracing social media — like his fellow Gap Be the Future activist, Alexandria Villaseñor — to get the message out there. In a world oversaturated with live streams and podcasts, Foster is also leaning heavily into virtual reality to engage his peers in a unique way.
On what motivates him to keep raising his voice
Foster isn't tempted to slow down. Instead he calls this time "a ticking clock" — whether a pandemic is happening or not. "We see it as a point where adults aren't taking enough action to take climate change seriously, so we have a responsibility as young people to do that," he said. "There's no other thing that we're focused more on, because in 20 years when these feedback loops start to kick in, and then we start to see our environment continue to degrade itself, we'll see that our entire childhood was the only time that we had to fight for this."
"We're asking for older generations to fight for us and to fight for our future."
"With COVID-19, when we talk about these things, we're seeing that young people have sacrificed their education to make sure that our elders have a livable future and can live lives that are great for them," he continued. "Climate change is the reverse of that. We're asking for older generations to fight for us and to fight for our future. We ask that you sacrifice a little bit to make sure that we have decades to also live healthy and clean. That's the duality of climate change and the climate crisis; sometimes you have to sacrifice to make sure that everyone has the quality of life that they deserve and need."
On the standout life lessons Congressman John Lewis taught him
Foster speaks fondly about his experience as an intern for Congressman Lewis, who passed away last month. As we talked about youth activism, Foster recalled how Lewis was dedicated to the civil rights movement as a college student. "He always said that young people have the energy and young people have so much power when they go out and organize," he told me. Foster read Lewis's graphic novel March, and recalled a moment where the congressman emphasized the importance of organizing at a young age.
"He knew that high school students will have a better impact when we went out on TV because we're young people," Foster said. "When I talked with him, he said that civil rights are human rights, and human rights are environmental rights. He told us that so many, many of these movements that we talk about are intersectional. All these movements are intersectional, and for young people that aren't at the table, they aren't given the ability to do anything."
On his advice for other teens looking to get involved in activism
Taking the first step into activism can be intimidating, so Foster encourages other young people to reach out to local government officials or organizations whose values align with their own. He said even a phone call to Congress can make an impact. "While [interning for Congressman Lewis] I had to tally every time someone called us," he shared. "And say 10 people call us about we need to co-sponsor the Climate Education Act. If 10 people call that day out of 30 people that called [total], that would send a signal to the environmental staffer to say we need to make sure that [Lewis is] co-sponsoring these bills and that we are working to do this."
On what adults can learn from young activists today
For Foster, the disconnect between adults and young people boils down to communication. He wishes adults would talk to kids about what their communities are going through, and what their experiences have been. "I think that the adults can also talk about the mistakes that happened in the past," he said. "Like why the environmental movement of the '60s and '70s didn't transform our society in the way that we thought we could. Teach young people about what they had seen and what they have learned over the years because young people can learn from adults as well . . . We don't have all the answers."
On how activism creates a community
Foster has created a network of connections through his work. He protested outside of the White House with Greta Thunberg, he interviewed Jane Fonda about environmental activism, and his organization, OneMillionofUs, gathers other young people who are interested in speaking out.
"Activism is the best way to create community because we're not here for a job. I've met people in activism that started out being musicians, people that started out being artists, people that were writing poems," he told me. "We're just one family that is organizing and making sure that we're there for each other."
"It's amazing. It's been the best experience that I've had in my entire life being a part of the family community."
On his message for fellow first-time voters
Foster is eager for the chance to participate in his first presidential election after turning 18 this year. He's hoping his activism will encourage others to cast their first ballot too. "It starts with registering but ends with showing up," Foster said. "Mail in our ballot or show up at the polls or fill out an absentee ballot."
"Whether we vote today or don't vote today, these policies will impact our future. If we don't vote, we won't be a part of the movement. We won't be in the politician's mind when they are making policy decisions," he explained. "We need to be, as we need to be present at the polls and make sure that our voices are heard."