Despite its reputation as a hip and trendy area of New York City, Brooklyn has long been a victim of gentrification and income inequality, ranking first in NYC for the total number of children living in poverty. A born and raised Brooklynite, youth activist Mayana Nell Torres witnesses these issues firsthand and uses her voice and her art to support, build resilience, and bring awareness to her neighborhood. She works with local mutual aid organizations and worked as a poll worker for early voting during the November 2020 US presidential elections. At the same time, she has taken part in the 2019 UN climate summit, attended marches against fossil fuels in the nation’s capital, and is the outreach coordinator for SustainUs, a climate-centered organization founded by young people for young people – to amplify their voices and create leaders in the fight for a sustainable future. In this way she shows her commitment to and understanding of the importance of action at the local, national, and global level.
I asked Nell-Torres about her activism work, her unique perspective as an artist, and how she balances her college life with her work in the community and within the climate justice movement.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Words or phrases in brackets are the interviewer’s addition.
Tell me a bit about yourself, who you are and what you do.
I am a born and raised Brooklyn artist. I would say currently visual art. I like to say multidisciplinary because I come from a background of music and instrumentals, and I went from that to visual [art], so it all kind of informs how I see art. I am a college student. I major in peace and justice studies and history with a minor in environmental art and social practices. I work with climate orgs, and I’m deeply invested in climate solidarity, global solidarity with climate change, and climate education. I feel that with art, it comes [down] to making things digestible to allow people to be connected into the movement and not disconnect through eco-anxiety or fear of not being able to do anything.
That leads to the second question: I think especially for the area of social justice, art tends to take the backseat, and may be overshadowed especially by direct action, protests, lobbying etc. As an artist, in what ways do you think that art as activism helps bring change?
In a lot of ways, I feel like [activism has] a foundation of art: you look at the movements, you look at direct action and you see signs and you see banners and you see that a whole part of preparing for movements or direct action or marches is [about] having art team. I think that it not only helps getting people activated — having things to say and [creating] things for them to use in the day [of the march] — but it’s also helpful when the art gets amplified, post-march. I think every March has a “day” movement and then it has the ripple effect that happens after it — through social media, through the news, through spokespersons for organizations, and I think art has a big role in making that [response] so strong. It’s also at the foundation of community and how we connect and how we see each other, and I think without [art], the movement wouldn’t be authentic. A movement is a mirror of the community, and the community foundation is art, so I feel like it’s embedded into who and how we view the world.
You’re also a community organizer — what do you wish people knew or knew more about community organizing as a practice.
I was actually talking to someone recently about this: I was talking about how a lot of community organizing gets put to the side — it’s seen as not an impactful thing. [The response is] like, “Oh, we need policy change.” That is so true and so real, but, a lot of the time, the community is the one who is hit the most and the community is the one who is coming to support each other when the policies are not doing their job. So, I think it’s important to always go from the ground-up, and community organizing specializes in that and also specializes in mutual aid and acts in ways to support each other [so that] we get direct support and don’t get left out in [the] privatization of support or anything else.
Community organizing is [important] for us to be able to see active and direct healing from the current issue — if it’s racial justice, climate justice, or any injustices that communities that are marginalized by the government may face. [It’s] a way for us to be able to support each other in a journey that’s a lifetime [of] work. Policy change doesn’t happen overnight, but you can see communities literally come together other overnight to support an issue or a crisis that happened. [During] the pandemic we saw communities come together: in Brooklyn in New York City, there’s refrigerator [that provides] food for people who don’t have access to food — and this was a community action, not a governmental action. So, I think this shows how we can be at the forefront of change for each other before the government takes action.
How do you think people from the other side of the world or even just another neighborhood or state can express their solidarity or help a specific community or for a specific issue?
That’s a good question. I’m still actually thinking about that daily because a part of my job is amplifying [voices] and one of my jobs is completely based on global solidarity, as I’m from the global north. I think it comes with one, listening and digesting what [communities] are saying instead of not putting [your] attention to the people who are affected the most within that issue. I think it’s [about] centering the stories and centering the lives of those who are impacted — whatever the event: if it’s this pandemic, if it’s a climate crisis, if it’s a racial injustice act — and then figuring out what the community needs: mutual aid, financial support, unification, or if it’s art, maybe you need to share the art.
A lot of it, I think, within our time period, can [come from] social media in a way, because you’re able to amplify [people’s] actual words and art and [this] has a ripple effect can lead to more change. So, [we should] amplify and center their stories, and then obviously if you have the financial ability to donate anything you can, that’s also a way [to help]. If it’s an event that has something you can learn from, you [can] use that as education to amplify as well. I think sometimes we sometimes look at events as solo things when they can actually tell a story by looking at them together. Being able to say, “Hey, this is happening here and it kind of reflects what’s happening in my town,” or “I kind of see this happening in my school — maybe I should be having this conversation with my family or in my classroom or making it last beyond than just that event, ” because that’s how we create change.
I found out about you through Sustain Us. Could you tell me a bit more about the organization — who you are and what you guys do?
Sustain Us was my first active climate org that I was invested in. I [have been] invested in the climate movement since my junior year of high school, when the US withdrew from the Paris agreement, and I was in AP environmental science that year. [Sustain Us] was my introduction to collective change instead of [just] focusing on individualism, because at the time I was very into recycling — I still am, but [at the time] that was my only understanding of what I could do. I didn’t understand that there was also direct action, mutual aid, and education — so many things!
After I got to college, I found out about Sustain Us through a social media post. They had a deadline for their UN climate delegation, and I applied the day it was due. I just applied thinking, “Why not?” It ended up being an [introduction to] the work I do now, [and] I’m very grateful to Sustain Us for that. [The organization] is youth led, focused on global solidarity, and [involved] with empowering and supporting youth throughout the United States in climate action, climate education. In a creative way we definitely center art [in] different forms to create climate action and a narrative of what the youth of the States feel towards the United States government and within a context of global solidarity.
You were a delegate at the 2019 UN climate summit — how was that experience?
It was amazing because it was my first time understanding how much bigger [climate activism] was than just the Paris agreement. I was just like, “I see it here!”
The youth that came together at this event are so powerful. I realized how much we had alike: [despite] being [from] different parts of the world, we still have these morals and a deep urgency to know that [the climate crisis] is something that has to be dealt with now and not tomorrow. [It] was an amazing experience — I met people from Brazil, from Africa, and from south America, [who] were coming together [to say,] “This is enough.”
Considering the recent COP26 summit, how do you think the conversation and sense of urgency about climate change and climate policy has changed, especially with COVID, in the last couple years?
I feel like there’s, a, more of a “tap in” of the everyday person, and I think that has a lot to do with social media and with the ways we are allowed to engage in social movements through just our own individual ability.
I feel that there [have been] so many more zoom events and so many education events and so many wellness centers that were coming out of the pandemic through zoom and through the internet and allowed people to tap in and have more urgency towards [the climate crisis] than ever.
Sometimes though I feel [that] the the complicity of […] the US and other Global North powers is still so impactful on our ability to make change. As we see at [COP conferences], these powers [are] still not holding corporations accountable.
But then you see [other actions], such as the indigenous movement in Brazil that is looking to sue President Bolsonaro for genocide — you look at these actions that are happening and you see that they can create a precedent to really hold corporations and governments accountable. So, I like to stay positive because I think that hope is an action that we can radically practice daily.
The part of COP that I thought was most impactful were the people who were doing action around it, who said, “This is not enough, and we’re not gonna stop because our future depends on it.”
How has COVID impacted, if at all, the work that you do — either in community organizing or attending events and protests or conferences etc.?
I would say a lot. What worried me a lot too was being separated from community in all [the] ways that we were — I think it allowed this sadness to overload my ability to tap in. I think [this experience] really goes into eco-anxiety and the lack of [action] of the government [makes us] feel like we’re not doing enough and that there’s no possible hope to have. [The feeling that,] “we can’t even do anything, why even try,” was very big during the pandemic, and I think communities need to be together to be able to combat that.
I was very impressed with how creative we were in finding ways to connect. For me, [it was the fact that] I’m a college student and I do art, so I thought, “I can make postcards and sell them and donate to organizations who are still doing the work.” That was my way of “tapping in.”
So [COVID] did impact [my work], but I think still now we are finding innovative ways to rekindle what we had pre-pandemic through virtual events, through newsletters, through sing-ins, through marches (now). I feel like we’re coming back together, but I did think [the pandemic] had an impact on people feeling like they can’t do anything when they are so limited to the four walls of their household.
How can young people resist the feeling of hopelessness or burnout when it comes to combating Climate Change (as well as other social issues that have been in the public eye in the last couple of years)?
That’s big. I remember when the IPCC report came out in August, I thought, “great, we’re gonna have people shut off.” I remember Antonio [Guterres, UN Secretary General] saying, “we’re in code red.”
This is conversation that have already been having, but I think that the ways that corporations and use [this rhetoric] to say [that] the individual needs to change more than [they] do. The more I see that we need corporate change to be able to see real change, I have more hope because I feel like we’re able to do that, but I can also see how people can feel limited by that. That’s when I like to point out that every small action still does something for the bigger [picture], and I think that [by] intertwining collective action leads us somewhere. I feel like a lot of the times we think, “Oh, this is so small, why am I even doing this?” or “I’m just telling my best friend about this, what is this even doing?” But I think that the more people we tap into the movement, the bigger their actions will get the bigger will be the impact.
Even looking at the, the UN climate summit when I [realized that] this is a global conversation: it’s not just happening in my town and it’s not just happening in my school — it’s happening all around the world. The more I see that, [the more] I know I’m not alone, that it’s a lifetime work, and that there’s more than just me invested in doing that work to make sure that we all can get to a place where we’re seen and supported and [have] climate resiliency and climate contingency plans.
[The answer is,] I think, tapping into the collective, knowing that we’re not alone based on the global conversation, and acknowledging small actions as much as big actions. [To] some extent, it is also realizing that movements happen in waves.
Thinking about local elections to local actions — they all happen in intervals to get us to a bigger picture. I was thinking about this recently because there was a taxi [strike] in New York City. This is a movement that been happening for a long time, and they finally got to a good outcome, [but] it took [action] at the grassroots level, at the political level, and at the academic level. There are so many levels to the actions that you can tap into that led to the win that [the movement] had. The more you see that, the less alone and incapable [of change] you feel.
How do you balance being a student with your activism and art?
Before it did feel a little easier, I think because, as we all know, the pandemic has taken a whole toll on how we view school and how school is happening for us and leads to high levels of exhaustion and burnout. A lot of the time, I handle it all by understanding that I am allowed to take breaks, that the actions are not all on me, [and] that I [can] “tap in” where I can and where I can’t, I can tap in later. Everything was smoother in the summer, and then as soon as the school semester came in [I realized] I can’t do as much art as I would love, but I can do it on my breaks and still use it as a way to process school.
Also, because of my major, everything seems to interconnect. I’m working on peace and justice in school, I’m trying to do peace and justice within organizational work, and I use art to bring peace to myself and to help me view and understand communities better and myself better. That’s a balance centered [on] my truth and all of it is still [based on] how I function or see the world.
It has a lot to do with balancing, allowing breaks to happen, and understanding that I “tap in” differently when I’m in a school semester than when I “tap in” [during] the summer. [There’s] also the blessing that a lot of my work is remote because it is so global, [so] I take a lot of calls and [engage in] digital amplification throughout the semester. I’ve had a great opportunity to go to the People versus Fossil movement in DC in October, which was an in-person action. [The event] had zoom call planning, [so] there’s still [the] ability to tap into your local community while you’re in school, during weekends.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects, conferences, or protests — is there anything specific that’s coming up that you’re preparing for?
Even though I am in school, I am still embedded within action, [such] as with the People Versus Fossil movement that happened in October — that was fun to plan, and I took photographs of it, so I had to do lots of editing of the photography after.
I would say a lot of [my work now] is art-based. I think a lot of people have taken art to another level with film, [for example,] or with other ways of engaging people and a lot of what I’m doing right now is amplifying that and figuring out the ways in which I can help bring it to youth or bring it to different spaces so that it’s digested by more people.
I’ve also been very tapped into painting and finding ways in which I can use my own words to say things. I think a lot of times we get fearful of, “What are my words gonna do? Who am I to say anything?” I think through academic writing and having to write all these papers, I [realize that] I do have words and I have a lot of them. My recent project [has been] writing a lot and then embedding the writing into paintings or artwork.
Lastly, is there anything you want to talk about or that you would want people reading this article to know about –about you, the work you do, or in general about climate activism?
I didn’t think about this question. <laughs> It’s always a question that you have at the end of applications: “What else do you want us to know?”
One thing that I think about is that we’re forever evolving. I think a lot of the time people are afraid to say something, because they’re afraid they’re gonna get it wrong. That’s embedded in perfectionism and our fear of getting it right or not doing anything [at all] or “going big or going home.” I think those mentalities can debilitate us in the movement. [It’s important] to remind yourself that you’re able to take action and also grow in that action. Look[ing] at all the things I’ve been able to do even in the last few years, which are so small compared to people who have done this work for years, [I still manage to say], “Oh, I see how I’ve grown from that to this,” or “I see how I’ve learned from this action and came prepared the next time.”
Remind yourself that you are still able to grow within the movement, that you’re still able to change, that you can take part in bringing urgency by being a full human being who shows up in their truth, and less by showing up in the way that you think you’re supposed to show up.
I think that is also a corporate and a very capitalist mentality of saying, “It’s your fault. Show up in the way we want you to, or you’re a horrible human being.” — [this] is not true because if [this] was the case, then there wouldn’t be [so many] people who care about this movement want to see a better future.
Remind yourself that you’re able to grow still and that your voice is important no matter who you are and what your experiences are, because someone will resonate with you or feel empowered by your visibility and vulnerability.