Shaking Up The Establishment - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

Manvi Bhalla has been shaking up the establishment since she was a teenager but in 2019 she took her activism to a new level. That’s when she co-founded a national climate justice organization ‘Shake Up The Establishment’ which shone a light on the environmental platforms of Canadian political parties ahead of that year’s federal election.

Bhalla has served as an advisor, leader and organizer for several community, social justice and environmental groups across the country. She has been recognized as one of the ‘Top 25 Under 25’ environmentalists and ‘Top 30 Under 30’ sustainability leaders in Canada. In 2022 she was honoured with the ‘Eco-Hero of the Year’ award at Canada’s largest environmental film festival.

She is a published health researcher who has worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and at the Universities of Guelph, Waterloo and Dalhousie. Now, 26 years old, she is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia where she also mentors undergrad researchers as part of UBC Climate Hub’s Climate Justice Research Collaborative.

In an interview with GTEC’s Bill Stovin, Manvi talks about what she has learned as an activist in the climate justice movement.

Transcript of Video

Bill – Manvi Bhalla, you’ve been active in the environmental movement for many years as a student, and one of the highlights of your activism that drew national attention was the creation of Shake Up The Establishment. Back in 2019, you launched a campaign to focus on environmental policies and political parties, candidates prior to the federal election of that year. Looking back, what impact did that initiative have on building awareness of the climate crisis and making politicians accountable?

Manvi – We’ve been talking a lot about the next election and in conversations about how we will organize efforts for the community around the next election. I think our first campaign, was what you described. We made the kind of the chart that provided non-editorialized perspectives from each party and the commitments of each party leading up to the 2019 federal election. The impact of that was it began so many intergenerational conversations across political divides and really set forth a huge cultural, kind of phenomenon amongst young people within Canada. I still get people coming up to me saying that was really one of their entryways into having those conversations with their family members and their community members.

The work since then has continued that trajectory of maintaining conversations about these issues. When we first started, we didn’t track very well because we didn’t know we’d be this big. Since then we’ve been more diligent in tracking it; we’ve definitely influenced thousands of young people across the country. And so, we try to use those strategies that really worked. And that’s what led to our most recent federal election campaign being called Not Voting F*ing Sucks, because it turns out that young people really want to speak their own language when it comes to getting out the vote. So we wanted to be authentic to that and that’s what led to that very interesting choice in campaign title. But that too was a very strategic kind of lesson learned from the impacts of the first campaign.

Bill – So you’ve said you’re going to be involved in the next federal election, if it happens this year or in 2025, you still feel that you need to shake up the establishment on the climate crisis?

Manvi – Oh, 100%. No question about it. I think the thing is that now more than ever, every year since 2019 if we even just used that as a timeline, young people have only become more and more aware of the urgency of the issue. And at the same time, the sometimes complacent approach of policy makers and others in leadership to favor profits or other kinds of factors into their decision making above the health and well-being of people and the survivability of the planet in the context of the young people who have inherited this.

There’s only an increasing sense that young people want to put their energy into organizing for change. And what that means is that Shake Up The Establishment acts as a medium to allow for young people to do that, providing them with the skills and training and community that they need to be able to channel that energy into ensuring that we hold policy makers accountable and we make consistent progress, given the timelines that are imposed on us by the climate crisis.

Bill – You’ve been an activist for about ten years or so. What sustains your passion for this work, this commitment as a community organizer?

Manvi – Yeah. We just wrote a book about it as Shake Up The Establishment after about two years of discussions because we were asking ourselves this question, how long can we do this? And in experiencing the rising cost of living and burnout and all these other things we have going on, how do we sustain the work? And so we just wrote the book it’s right here, actually, Practicing Rest, Recovery, Resistance: An Interactive Dreaming Journal. And we wrote it kind of as a love letter for climate activists, community organizers and engaged citizens offering the lessons that we’ve learned as an organization.

If I were to summarize it, I would say that it’s a combination of feeling like I absolutely have to, it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. Being within community, I think it’s a responsibility everybody has. But at the same time, the sustainability of it comes from an ethic of caring about myself, caring about others, ensuring that I’m taking care of myself as part of this process, which means that I’m investing in taking rest when I need to.

I always stay engaged. I feel I have a responsibility to stay engaged, but in upholding that responsibility, I also have to take care of myself so I can make sure I stay engaged for the long term. And I’m not just in it, reacting to one policy that comes out and then completely burning out from that process, but really finding a sustained way to engage long term because it’s a lifelong commitment to care about the world around you and do what you can to help it be the best it can be. So, there’s a fine balance in that.

Bill  – Well we know from various studies, internationally, national, that the climate crisis is having a negative impact on mental health, especially on young people. What’s been your experience? I know you’ve been asked this question many times before, but, share with listeners and viewers, your experience and that of your peers.

Manvi – I think we cycle through feelings of just immense sadness. We feel anxious. I have had so many conversations with people where they just feel completely helpless and I have to say that that’s a normal feeling. But I don’t like to dwell in that state for too long, personally.

I feel as somebody who’s neurodiverse or somebody who’s experiencing the world through, like with my ADHD, sometimes I feel it’s definitely impacted the way that I work in this space. And I’m definitely susceptible to feeling more anxious, more depressed in certain situations. And so just being aware of my own mental health and keeping my own mental health good outside of this work is a great way to ensure that in the context of this work, which can be really heavy sometimes, that I’m taking care of myself. For me that looks like spending a lot of time in nature.

Doctor Melissa Lem, who you know she’s quite big on being a doctor as part of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and prescribing nature. She’s been a huge influence on me personally as a mentor and as a friend who, she’s – I think – said that for people with ADHD, spending time in nature, 20 minutes in nature is about as good as medications can provide in terms of concentration. Learning more about how we’re spending time in nature, building relationships with community, finding actions that can help you feel a returned sense of agency over these uncertainties. All of these things can really help. But I would be lying if I said that there weren’t times when I felt really, really bummed out about some of the issues that I work on. And when that’s the case, sometimes you just gotta feel your feelings.

Bill – Right. Well put. I want to touch on your hopes and thoughts for the future. But before doing so, I want to get your thoughts about messaging that encourages individuals these days to do what they can to make our planet livable. What do you think about that approach?

Manvi – I don’t get asked about communication and I actually have a background in health risk communication and health promotion. So how can we talk to people in ways that can get them to do behavior changes that are good for them? I can say that for one, blame is the worst tool. Blame and fear and click baiting. I feel those are ineffective tools that lead to people feeling more and more like the whole thing is their responsibility to solve.

So, while I think it’s productive to offer solutions that individuals can take, like reducing waste or using public transport. There are very important individual actions, if they’re framed in constructive ways that bring people into the conversation. They’re way more likely to be adopted than if they’re presented as “you are responsible for this if you do this problematic behavior”.

We need to think about climate in all contexts of our lives. And so I want to see more and more climate communications that are community oriented around collective growth.  So if we can use health co-benefits as a framing, it’s really fantastic. If we say, if you are going to take public transit to work more often or active transport, you’re also helping your physical health. So for people it’s not just about reducing emissions, it’s also about what I get out of it.

Bill – So in that context, do you feel your generation has an added responsibility to address these climate issues, to even fix the climate crisis?

Manvi – I feel we completely take that on. I mean every conversation I have; people feel that it’s absolutely our responsibility. Even people that I talk to are not necessarily activists or organizers. I haven’t talked to that many people that don’t know about it. I haven’t had a conversation from anybody, even very young children up into older young adults, everybody across the board has some sense of awareness of the impending doom of this situation. Some feel positive about it, in the sense that they feel it’ll change within our lifetimes and be well within our control. Others don’t feel as optimistic. But, if the question is do young people feel this is our job, then it’s certainly one we feel we’ve inherited and must deal with regardless. And what that looks like is different for everyone.

Bill – The focus has evolved with your organization Shake Up The Establishment to one of focusing on climate justice. Talk a bit about that a bit more. What do you mean by that?

Manvi – This focus originates really from my personal history as an organizer. I haven’t always been an environmentalist in the most traditional sense. My experience originates from anti-poverty work, anti-racism, gender equality, food security, agricultural sustainability. Coming into the climate and environmental spaces when I did, I really felt that knowing with my public health background that certain communities are disproportionately impacted or are made vulnerable to having a harder time to adapting to changes in their environment.

When we were first wrapping up our 2019 campaign, we tried to bring this in a little bit, but the issue is the climate crisis or climate change doesn’t inherently implicate that. So we decided to move towards a climate justice approach, which in a very short summary, is that we view it as anything that affects social, ecological, political factors and exacerbates these inequities, and also that there are disproportionately affected communities. And we want to make sure that our response to the climate crisis and co-occurring environmental and biodiversity crises doesn’t leave anybody behind.

Bill – Right. So what gives you hope about the future for a healthier planet?

Manvi – The first thing is that in the many years that I’ve been working in organizing, I literally started when I was in grade five. I was very young and I remember just being so excited about learning about so many things and seeing myself as an active person who could help alleviate issues and just work with people to solve problems. And as I’ve gone through the various movements and through these various spaces, I’ve only seen the momentum pick up.

It was not cool to be an activist when I was young. It was so not cool, even in my undergrad years; I was very much the outlier. I was very outspoken a lot of the time. So I would say that seeing activists, they still get a lot of flak, but seeing that the public opinion is beginning to support that there are critical things that community organizing does that the public can’t provide, that the for-profit sector doesn’t provide. Seeing the value of non-profit and voluntary organizing efforts in improving the quality of life for people, that momentum of support has only increased over the years.

It’s what gives me hope because it reminds me that people are beginning to see that we are all connected, we’re all in community, and we all should take care of each other. And so that ethic of care is returning to our public consciousness. And it’s not so much about individualism and consumerism and materialism and individual gain over community benefit. So, that’s what gives me hope is seeing more and more people become activated as people that care about what’s happening around them.

Bill – Great. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks so much for your time.

Manvi – Of course thank you. Thanks for thinking of me.

(This interview has been edited for brevity.)

The book ‘Practicing Rest, Recovery, Resistance: An Interactive Dreaming Journal’ is available at Massy Books, and Iron Dog Books in Vancouver.  It is also available through Shake Up The Establishment’s website.

Proceeds from sales of the book will be re-invested in the non-profit organization’s projects.

Manvi-Bhalla-ThumbnailManvi Bhalla is a young environmental activist who has been responding to the Climate Crisis since she was in Grade 5. She is a founder and director of Shake up the Establishment, environmental and social justice organization.