Generally, when we see or hear media about climate change, we’re faced with images of destruction: natural disasters, crumbling infrastructure, rising global temperatures, and falling levels of polar ice. And sadly, those are all realities – but there’s another reality, too. The communities coming together to envision, work for, and implement a better and brighter future. To close out Earth Month, we spoke to two people in our community about the role that connection, art, and joy play in the climate sector.
What follows is an abridged version of our interview with Andre & Amer, facilitated by CSI Spadina Community Director Stefan Hostetter. Stay tuned for the audio release of this conversation on Green Majority (CIUT 89.5 fm) later this spring!
Andre is the founder of Canadian Climate Challenge, a CSI Spadina member. Canadian Climate Challenge is a non partisan non profit organization, with the singular purpose of maximizing exposure and support of the community climate solutions enacted by some of our most important climate organizations and organizers, in their fight against the Climate Crisis.
Amer is the CEO and Founder of Future Meets Present, and he was previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at the now closed CSI NYC. Future Meets Present is dedicated to creating evidence-based hope by demystifying the main sources of GHG emissions and showing the progress that’s already happening within those sectors.
Stefan: We are talking about finding new ways to communicate climate and getting people engaged in the climate conversation who may not have been previously. By way of introduction, can you tell us a little bit about what your ventures do?
Amer: Yes. Beautiful intro. Great to see you and hear you again Stefan. Andre, nice to meet you.
Andre: You too.
Amer: This is awesome. And Canadian friends, nice to be speaking to you again. Let’s see. Okay, so my primer coat. I’m in New York City, in Brooklyn. The big circle for me is climate solutions, climate change, climate action. And then within that circle we have many smaller ones – design, entrepreneurship, events, futurism. So those are the spaces in which I dabble. In short, everything I do is to promote a vision of the future we want rather than the one we fear. And primarily we do it through events geared towards the general public.
Andre: I’m excited already, Amer. I think there’s so much overlap here, which I guess is why Stefan had the brilliant idea of bringing us together. So I’m Andre Forsythe. I’m the founder of Canadian Climate Challenge, which is a nonprofit that we founded in 2019 that started off being very focused on accessibility. At that time we created a calendar of all the events going on in the GTA to ensure that everyone could know what was taking place and find their space. We attended about 290 different events that year, which led to us realizing a hole. We were like okay, where’s the creative element? Where is music? Where is art? And that led to us launching our offshoot, the School for Climate. There we focus on the role of art in the movement to the future.
Amer: I love it. Oh my gosh. Well, I’m already having firework thoughts.
Andre: So being in New York, you mentioned events, and I think Toronto has a history of trying to learn from what great shit’s going on in New York and trying to like, make a Toronto version. So I’m intrigued to find out! When you’re talking about events that you’re creating, what does that involve?
Amer: I’ll have the same questions for you too actually! It was really emergent, but not foreign. Before I moved to New York, I was a DJ. I still am, been a nightclub DJ for almost a decade. Festivals and clubs, like, that’s all I did. It was amazing. And there was an original through line there for me, in terms of being on stage and DJing, and then raising awareness about social issues. My family’s from Syria, and the war started in Syria around late 2009, early 2010. And my platform was peaking. And so I used that stage to raise awareness. I would have t-shirts that said “free Syria” and all this kind of stuff, right? So those two paths integrated very early on back then. And then somewhere along the line, climate got on my radar and that’s what caused me to move to New York. And then the climate chapter started, and I DJ’ed New York City Earth Day’s after party two years ago this month. And I’m like, okay, cool. Like these paths are colliding, right. So that’s kind of how that origin story happened.
And now I run events large and small that kind of have the hype of nightlife because it’s positive energy, it’s future oriented, it’s solutions oriented, and we dive deep on various climate topics.
Andre: That’s very cool. So music is something we focused a lot on; visual art to start and then bringing in live musicians and music into the performance as well. Some focus on climate, some otherwise. So, I’m picturing myself at an event at a nightclub in New York and like social issues coming in there. So I’m trying to get a visual there. The type of music that’s always inspired me, I think of reggae, very all about change and the values in there and how much that is a big part of it.
When I think about hip hop, about change, and the values and the social values – and I’m talking early hip hop, when it’s really about change in talking to social issues and bringing visibility into communities. When we take those same words, and just had someone read them, it has no connection there, but because of that music, that’s what connected with me. Art, music, and creative ability to kind of reach past those barriers that we put up.
Amer: Yeah, this is super cool. And the way that those two worlds are colliding exactly as you’re saying.
So, the second to last week of September, every year in New York City, is the largest climate week on the planet. Happens at the same time as a United Nations General Assembly. So it’s kind of like our version of South by Southwest, with thousands of people in town. So we produce a big event during climate week. One, big, huge, 2000 people event. This year, we decided to do smaller events leading up to it; 30 to 40 people events, keeping them engaged throughout the year. We let the audience of one event choose the topic for the next one to test that engagement; let them choose and sink their teeth into it.
And so the last one that we did was two weeks ago, and we did it at this nightclub in Bushwick called The House of Yes. And people are like, “oh, it’s gonna be there? That’s amazing.” And the turnout was amazing. We had about 40 people talking about building efficiency in The House of Yes. We were talking about our values, we were talking about local law 97, we were talking about electrification and heat pumps. That’s what we were talking about in the House of yes.
It’s about taking it out of the conference room; integrating it, normalizing it. It’s not just about green stuff, it’s about the future. So yeah, what’s coming up for you as you’re hearing this?
Andre: So that’s one of the things we’ve definitely learned, and an exciting development for us, is that connection to community. Climate is the word that brought us all here today, and there’s a lot of weight and associations and history that come with that, including who is and who’s not connected to it.
One of our biggest projects that we’re working on right now is leaving the word climate out. As we’re talking about climate justice, there’s so many different layers and there’s so, so many social justice issues that people resonate with. And I think we have a history, specifically in our economy, of externalizing climate, putting the environment in its own box. The future is taking the environment back into our main focus, not as an external element that is separate from everything.
Stefan: So this is something that is personally of interest to me and also clearly from your last 25 minutes of conversation is something I think that both of you have some thoughts on, which is the role of joy in both activism and city building. I’m thinking about the role of joy in activism and the importance of sustaining people through joy; you know, rage is a great motivator, but joy is a great sustainer. And you can get started with rage, but it’ll be hard to maintain it without burning out. And so given that both of your work is sort of future facing, how do you think about the role of joy in what you do?
Andre: So I think joy is extremely important, and I think that’s one of the areas that we’re missing so much collectively – what are we losing?
The whole reason that I came to this work in the first place – and for those of us who can’t see us, I’m Black – so one of the things when I first came to climate work, one of the reasons why it resonated with me is because I constantly was like, okay, there’s all of these social issues that exist, but people can other them so much. Like, this is something else. This is someone else. I have enough on my plate, which many people feel like they do and many do. So that’s someone else’s problem. And climate for me became at first a fear like, oh wow, we have to deal with this.
But then the excitement for me came because this is a problem that we all have to deal with, each in our different ways. We all are gonna have to come together in our ways and then where we need to go is a reestablishment with our values, to create and to live better. And so as I learned those things, I’m like, hold on – why is this thing so framed in all of these losses and taxes, when it’s really that we need to go somewhere better.
So who and what is going to start communicating this better, painting a picture of our future? It’s not gonna be another 500 page report from the IPCC. It’s gotta be the music, the celebratory aspect, it’s gotta be art to create that vision of where we’re going. How do we create the vision of that community and get folks excited again? That is the kind of role that we are experimenting with, to see if we can build joy that way and if art can play that role. I think one of the key things to keep in mind is some ways are gonna work, some ways aren’t gonna work, but hopefully creating that space for one another helps inspire others.
Amer: Andre, I think the big theme that I’m hearing from you is that there’s an opportunity to live in the E, which is not something I got to do, but something I get to do. And that’s the whole framing of this decade, right?
That’s what I’m hearing from you and I operate the same way. And it’s so cool and this is such a great catalyst for a question, man. I love it so much. I’ve observed joy playing two roles. We can call it like a before and then an after, like a catalyst and then a sustainer, as you say. When I teach, we talk about this overarching theme, which is heartbreaks leading to breakthroughs.
We allow ourselves in the course to feel frustrated, to feel heartbroken, to feel upset, to feel sad, to feel angry about something, and we allow that heartbreak to be your compass, to be your catalyst and determine where your energy is of best service. Whether you’re heartbroken about the amount of plastic in the oceans or gender equality, you use the SDG framework to help a little bit, and it’s remarkable.
See we’re all Avengers, we have our different powers and our different lanes and we each hold a different piece of the puzzle. That is a complete vision of the future. And then we just, we keep the energy moving in that way. And then we go through a mapping exercise and look at our stakeholders – what population do you wanna serve? What’s their problem that they’re facing? What other organizations and startups are working on this problem? Can you map them out so that that big feeling, that feeling in your chest of anger, of confusion, starts to dissipate and you can see the drops of water in the clouds and you can begin to manage it and make decisions and make choices and have agency? And I think joy has the role of moving us towards that space.
Stefan: So we could obviously have this conversation for another three hours, but I do understand that people have other things to do. So if you can both give last thoughts you have that you’re pulling away from this conversation, and then also how folks can follow your work?
Andre: If I wanna leave with a final message… something I think is really important – f*ck austerity. If you take nothing else away, it’s that we are not going to take an austere approach into our future. This isn’t about what we’re cutting back on, it’s what we’re gonna create going forward. It’s what we’re gonna build and inspire others to join in on.
And that’s what we’re trying to do on a community level, on an industry level, painting a picture of an overall narrative on how those pieces come together for us to build what’s going forward. And it’s not just climate scientists or researchers or activists. We really are calling on musicians, creatives, poets, those who have history in climate and especially those who don’t have history with climate. Let’s get together and create this future that we’re excited to move towards.
Amer: Some takeaways – I think I could do one quick philosophical one, one quick tangible one, and one quick resource.
So philosophical takeaway… context creates. Honor context and recognize that that’s what we have the power to change. Just as a quick example, like I’m talking into this microphone, right? Like in the context of a tool, it’s a microphone. In the context of a color, it’s blue. In the context of materials, it’s metal. The context creates how the world occurs to you. And in the context of living in the E, as Andre is saying, in the context of living in the E, something we get to do, this is the most transformative, beautiful decade in the history of humanity.
Tangible one… what does behavior look like in the future? In a net zero future, it looks like renewable energy. So sign up for renewable energy credits if you don’t have community solar around your house. Talk to your landlords and ask them to electrify your building and replace your heat, your gas burner, with the heat pump. Look into products and services that honour a circular economy, take back programs, buy nothing groups, secondhand shops. Plant-based diets are the way to go. Compost everything. Try and ride your bike, walk, and go electric or public transit as much as you can. There’s some tactics right there.
And as my resource, I’ll direct people to drawdown.org, which is my source of truth.
Stefan: Thank you both so much. I think we just witnessed the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Thank you two for the conversation, and have a wonderful day everybody.