We Rise - A Book Review

On September 21st, 2017, International Peace Day, over 150 students and 25 educators gathered on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont to kick off a year of learning for sustainability. Using the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals as the framework, students explored opportunities to connect their learning, their communities, and action. As the gathering began, students listened to the words of a peer, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, in a recorded presentation from the 2014 Bioneers Conference. In the video, he called for us to take action and get engaged. In his book, We Rise, he asks us to do the same.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is a 17-year-old who leads the organization Earth Guardians and uses his voice through song and lyrical speech to inspire others in the climate movement and to connect social and environmental justice issues. A deep connection to his ancestral heritage and his home place is the foundation for a narrative that draws you in. He uses the art of storytelling to weave a narrative that informs you about the latest in critical global issues AND makes you want to get up and take action. Martinez offers, “Telling a story has always been one of the most powerful tools to wake people up,” (pg. 86) and he has done just that as evidenced by the current federal lawsuit he and fellow young people have brought against the Trump administration for failure to protect their right to clean air, water and a future.

At a time in human history where we communicate in 140 characters, storytelling is becoming a lost (and hopefully found) art. Martinez uses stories, interviews, and personal memories to navigate complex issues such as food justice and fracking. In Part I: Roots of Revolution, he talks about his personal story and in my estimation details how it is possible for a 17-year-old to be so inspiring!

Each chapter in Part II: The Movements and Our Opportunity to Turn the Tide can stand alone as a primer on a significant issue. For example, in Chapter 8: Future Food, he makes a personal connection to the reader and helps us see the connection between food systems and our everyday lives. He makes the issue accessible without taking away from the seriousness of what we are up against. As in other chapters he shares his story – ancestral and family values – that helped him see the importance of the issue. In Future Food, he talks about how his parents taught him about “maintaining a strong connection to our food culture,” (pg. 103) and relates an experience he had in Peru working alongside indigenous people to develop a food system infrastructure in line with their culture and environment. And he acknowledges that he isn’t perfect, how he is learning and making changes to his diet to bring his actions in line with his understanding of the issues. He uses the example of the dairy industry and its contribution to climate change from methane. Knowing how methane from cows contributes to the climate crisis, he questioned his use of dairy in his diet (Martinez is a vegetarian) and has changed to consuming goat-based dairy products from local farms. Again, his story and self-effacing approach connects and invites us to join him. He is brilliant at “calling in,” inviting us to join him in the revolution. As part of his invitation he shares knowledge and why food matters in the big picture of climate change and equity. Don’t worry, he doesn’t leave you hanging. He offers stories of agency and action. In Future Food, he shares the story of DJ Cavem and Chris Castro, solutionaries in the food justice movement, as well as ways to join the movement, whether it’s connecting inner city youth to the food they eat or turning lawns into gardens.

Throughout the book, Martinez uses interviews to deepen our understanding of issues. In an interview with Vandana Shiva he talks with her about GMOs and social movements. At the end of the interview he asks Shiva if she has hope and she responds, “You give me hope for the future. Intelligent, bright minds like yours can be hope for adults in a world where we live among many adults that don’t quite…aren’t quite there yet” (pg. 113).

Interviews with luminaries such as Van Jones, Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, and Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network support each chapter in Part II. The casual interview style Martinez brings creates the feeling you are sitting in a living room or around a campfire with them as they unravel a storyline that couldn’t have happened in any other way. The interviewees are a mix of well-known activists and emerging leaders who share their perspective on the current state of affairs. Notably, almost all the interviewees call on their sense of hope for the future as a catalyst for their ongoing work.

In Part III: The Game Plan, Martinez shares strategies for moving the work forward. Like an activist’s workbook, he lays out ideas for us to move from personal connection to action (local and global). He suggests stories as a way to create change. In a section called We use Our Stories to Affect Change he offers, “Our stories are what connects us, shifts perspectives, and builds understanding” (pg. 218). Let’s use this call to action with our students and connect to stories. Using Martinez’s stories and Marshall Ganz’s model (referenced in the last chapter), here are a few ideas for how to use this book with your students and build on their stories to create change in our schools and communities.

Using this book with your students:

  • Students’ Stories (or Story of Self): Have students develop their own narratives about what is important to them. Using the questions on page 226 as prompts, students can journal, dialogue, and use multi-media methods to begin to tell and document their stories. (Hint: educators should join their students in this activity too!) Use the narratives woven throughout the book as inspiration for what young people are doing around the world to tackle climate change and injustice.
  • Community Stories (or Story of Us): Engage in some community inquiry and listen to the stories of the neighborhoods where students live and learn. Make connections with community partners through guest presentations in the classroom or visits for your students to learn about what issues are important to them and the community. See page 227 for prompts. The interviews in the book are great examples of short student interviews that could be done with community partners, families, or other students. Use the interviews as fodder for starting your own community interview series.
  • Future Stories (or Story of Now): Ganz suggests establishing urgency and getting people connected to the issue. Work with students and community partners to tell the hopeful, visionary story of where you want to be on a particular issue, and then work toward that vision together. Use the suggestions in Part II to consider the types of action that resonate with you and your students. Martinez offers loads of great ideas, resources, and organizations to connect with for each issue.

Martinez closes with a sentiment that I shared with the students that joined together in late September: “There are more people who want a just transition than there are people who want to keep going with the same extractive economy that has been killing our planet. If we can use our differences to bring us together, rather than allowing them to divide us, we amplify our power. It’s going to take hard work to get there, and it will take all of us. Whether you’re a student, a teacher, or a fossil fuel industry worker, everyone has a role to play.” I’m in! Are you?

This article was originally published in the December 2017 Green Schools Catalyst QuarterlyThe Green Schools National Network, a 501c3 non-profit organization founded in 2008, works with educators, government and non-governmental organizations and agencies, as well as private partners to create broad-based initiatives and successful strategies aimed at fostering healthy, sustainable K-12 schools across the United States. Founded by principals, superintendents, and teachers, GSNN is devoted to accelerating student achievement through the implementation of green, healthy and sustainable practices as outlined in our GreenPrint® for Green, Healthy, and Sustainable Schools.

Jen Cirillo

Posted by Jen Cirillo

December 13, 2017


Hi Jen, Great review. I observe the Coming of Age in each new Undergraduate Class at The University of Vermont occuring more rapidly in worldliness, knowledge, and wisdom than their predecessor. Careers focused on social responsibility, sustainability, and fairness are replacing ambitions centered around self-aggrandizement (personal security and welfare). I have great hope and faith in the youth of today and the future. I will look for this young man's wonderful Book. Much wisdom can come from the Young. Sincerely, Jacques

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