Mikaela Loach, 23, is a medical student at Edinburgh University. But alongside her studies she is on a mission to demystify the world of activism and build movements that are inclusive, accessible, and effective in the long term.
Through her Yikes! podcast alongside co-host Jo Becker, she breaks down the meaning behind concepts like “intersectionality” or “climate justice” — ideas that might not be immediately clear to those who have not spent a lot of time in online activism spaces. It helps their “lovely community” of listeners gain the confidence to take action and join in.
Meanwhile, over on Instagram, she’s helping her 90,000 followers break up with fast fashion by showing how easy it is to make sustainable, ethical choices — which, she argues, are intimately connected with racial and climate justice too.
“Fashion is often connected to empowerment — if you wear a great outfit you feel good, you feel empowered,” Loach tells Global Citizen. “But if your empowerment is causing the oppression of someone else, is that real empowerment?”
“If I wear something I want to empower the person who made it too,” she adds.
For #EarthDay, we spoke to @MikaelaLoach, a 23-year-old climate activist and medical student, about why it's 𝙞𝙢𝙥𝙤𝙨𝙨𝙞𝙗𝙡𝙚 to divorce the climate crisis from racism.— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) April 22, 2021
Next week, we're chatting to @BirdgirlUK — watch this space! 🌍 #LeadersOfTomorrowpic.twitter.com/krF1eDss3O
It wasn’t always the case that Loach drew such a clear line between lifestyle choices and activism around wider issues of race and the environment. But it all fell into place when she was a teenager. The connections between the two issues have since become the defining aspect of her work, she says.
“I first started going to marches when the refugee crisis was all over the news a few years ago. I got really into migrant and refugee rights and volunteered in the camp in Calais,” Loach explains.
“Separately, I started to learn more about the impact of lifestyle choices," she continues. "I watched the True Cost documentary about the impact of fast fashion on garment workers, for example, and became more aware of how my purchases would affect others.”
“Then I learned about veganism and the animal industry and became a vegan,” she continues. “But then one day I realised that these things were really interconnected: the climate crisis is connected to the refugee crisis, and they are both also connected to racial injustice and the legacies of colonialism.”
Loach’s background has also played a part in understanding these connections too. “I’m mixed race, and I was born in Jamaica and brought up in the UK, and growing up, my parents really wanted to instill in me values both from Jamaica and from the UK,” she says.
“They were keen for me to learn the histories of the two countries, and through them I learnt a lot about the legacy of Britain’s colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade," she adds.
Loach goes on to say that, as she grew up in a mostly white area, in Surrey, she found her peers weren’t necessarily being taught about this history of Britain, nor how the legacy of colonialism affects the modern world. “At school we learned about racial justice movements like the civil rights movement, but we were always taught these movements were in the past,” Loach continues.
“The attitude was ‘thankfully liberation has been fought and won and we don’t have to do anything!’” she laughs. “Of course, I began to see that just wasn’t true.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Loach regularly took direct action approaches like camping outside Westminster with Extinction Rebellion in October 2019, to demand politicians listen and act on the climate crisis. She also campaigns with Climate Camp Scotland, another direct action organisation.
This activism, along with her impact in engaging tens of thousands of other young people in these topics of racial and climate justice, earned Loach a nomination for the Global Citizen Prize: UK’s Hero Award, presented by Vodafone — a Global Citizen Prize award category that celebrates activists who have been a hero for their local and national communities in 2020.
Fatima Ibrahim, co-founder and co-director of the UK’s Green New Deal movement, was announced as the winner of the award on Dec. 8; while Mya-Rose Craig, a bird expert and environmentalist, also received a nomination alongside Loach.
An absolutely key lesson that the UK should learn from this pandemic is how essential tackling social inequalities is for health. Austerity & the subsequent exacerbated inequalities have been as big a factor on the death toll as the short term responses (e.g. lockdown).— Mikaela Loach (@mikaelaloach) November 24, 2020
“I was really surprised, and really honoured to be nominated,” Loach says. “I have lots of warm fuzzy feelings about it.”
The nomination, along with her growing platform — her Instagram account following has soared this year — is making Loach feel hopeful that the conversation around climate is improving. “I feel hopeful that people are getting more interested in the idea that you can’t solve one issue — the climate crisis — without achieving racial justice too,” Loach says.
“I used to talk to people, only a couple of years or so ago, about how we need to talk about anti-racism in the climate movement. But sometimes people would say that talking about racism was ‘diluting the movement’, and that we didn’t have time to deal with racism and the climate emergency,” Loach continues. It’s an attitude that she really wants to shift.
Loach is also eager to tackle the idea that exceptionalism is the only path to participation in activism. “You don’t have to be Martin Luther King,” Loach says. “Activists are normal people like you and me.”
“The majority of liberation work has been people doing the really boring admin work that goes on behind the scenes, and we’ll never know their names,” Loach continues. “I always think of Indigenous land rights activists and how they’ve protected the world for all of us, and we won’t know their names usually."
Speaking of liberation movements and the importance of collective action, Loach reflects on the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer, and how they demonstrated the power of social media in modern movements to spark action all over the world.
"Those became the biggest civil rights marches the world has ever seen,” Loach says. “But it also showed the limitations of social media — in that we saw lots of people suddenly care about racism, and then forget about it a few weeks later.”
“Something I’ve been thinking about how, in this COVID-19 era — because even with a vaccine it’s going to be a long time before things get back to normal — is how do we sustain engagement online?” Loach continues. “We can’t rely on shock value alone.”
One way people who became more engaged with learning about anti-racism during the summer could perhaps continue their work by taking a second look at items they use every day — such as their clothes — and thinking about Loach's approach of empowering the people who make the clothes, as well as the wearer.
Those workers, often women of colour in developing countries, are paid a pittance and work in dangerous conditions to make clothes quickly and cheaply enough for the ruthless fast fashion market. It may seem a daunting task — where do you start? But Loach has some fantastic tips for anyone who wants to switch to more ethical fashion choices.
“Remember, the most sustainable choice you can make are the clothes you already have,” she says. “They are already there, so try restyling what you have and it doesn’t matter if they come from fast fashion companies,” she adds. “The main thing is you re-use them.”
“Next, if you are going to buy something, go second-hand," she continues. "Or if it's new, try giving yourself two weeks before you buy it — see if you still want it then, and if you do, only get it if you’ll likely wear it at least 30 times.”
It’s the same with her approach to activism: it’s little steps, putting in time, and helping when you can.
And it’s seeing ordinary people do amazing things that makes Loach feel hopeful about 2021. “There’s a quote from the author Arundhati Roy that I really like: ‘A better world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing’.”
She adds: “I definitely feel sometimes, especially in activist spaces, that it's really possible for a better world to be close by.”
Join Global Citizen on December 19, 2020, to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize here.