Climate Activist Sophia Kianni on Activism and Mental Health with On Our Minds hosts Bree and James

By Simran Gupta

Sophia Kianni (22) is an Iranian-American social entrepreneur and activist. She is the youngest member of the United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and has received numerous awards and accolades. 

Recently, Sophia was featured in an episode of PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ teen mental health podcast On Our Minds. She spoke with teen co-hosts Bree and James about climate change, activism, climate anxiety, and social media. Here are some takeaways from their conversation:

Importance of resources in native languages 

Sophia started her nonprofit Climate Cardinals after she witnessed the impacts of climate change in her family’s home country of Iran. When she tried to discuss climate change with relatives, she realized that the majority of resources available were solely in English. “They know that climate change is happening. They can see the impacts on their communities,” Sophia said. “The real discrepancy comes in empowering them with these resources, with these statistics in their language.” Climate Cardinals helps translate resources from English into other languages to enable meaningful conversations about a better future.

Use personal strengths in activism

Young people often want to know how to get involved in climate change activism. “Looking at myself through the lens of like, what am I good at? Like what could I potentially do to actually help?” Sophia said. Building on one’s strengths and skills–from public speaking to behind-the-scenes organizing to writing letters to public officials–there are many ways to get involved in meaningful ways, depending on what you’re good at and are interested in. 

How to manage climate anxiety

Sophia acknowledged how seeing the horrible headlines in the news about climate change can be disheartening. Her frequent and up-close experiences with climate change lobbyists and corporations in particular have weighed heavy on her. Even so, she is touched by the involvement of young people from all over the world in making a difference. “If people were not scared about this, I think that actually would make me more anxious,” Sophia said. “But recognizing like there are incredible people who are working on climate solutions, like every single day, both students working on their spare time, but also professionals, people who are dedicating like resources towards this venture capitalist, etc. really helps.” So, while listening to the news can cause overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear, refocusing on all the work being done to create change helps a lot.

Focus on holding corporations responsible 

When trying to combat climate change, it can be easy to nitpick not only our own habits (like what we consume or our carbon footprint) but also the habits of friends and family members. Sophia admitted that shifting her focus from the smaller habits of individuals to the larger habits of corporations and collective communities was a big turning point in her role as an activist. “Being able to admit that I was wrong in the original way, that I was thinking about climate change and being able to focus on like educating people in like also a more positive and motivating way, I think has really helped me as an activist to feel less anxious about climate change and also feel more empowered to realize, like, I am a lot more knowledgeable about how best to use my time and energy,” Sophia said. She encourages others to also look at the bigger picture of climate change and its major players rather than criticize the individuals trying to be good global citizens. 

Social media and mental health

Sophia, who is on the advisory board of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, is passionate about mental health. She shared her experiences with social media, particularly as it relates to her identity as a young woman in the spotlight: “The amount of horrible things that young women have to deal with on the internet is, is really saddening and really, really heartbreaking.” Social media is popular now more than ever, so anonymity and desensitization allow more people to leave mean comments about others online. It’s important to remember for young people to know that it’s okay to reach out for help so that you don’t have to go through things alone. “I think the more that we can destigmatize, like talking about this as a topic, the more people will feel liberated to ask for help,” Sophia said.

Small changes make a big difference

Anyone and everyone is capable of being an activist. It’s important to recognize, though, that everyone has to start somewhere and even small changes in our actions and mindsets contribute to a larger movement. “I didn’t wake up one day and have like a nonprofit, working with the UN. Like, it kind of all started very slowly and I think encouraging people to begin their journey with a small step, like, no matter how small it may be, is what is really the most important thing to get more people involved,” Sophia said. She specifically encourages listeners to not let others’ opinions get in the way of how they choose to go about making a change. “Focusing on the good that can come from the work that you’re doing is, is really what’s going to continue to motivate you positively to do work that you care about. And that makes you happy and excited every single day.”

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