Is climate change the next face of student activism? It is, if Maddy Fernands and Isra Hirsi have anything to say about it.
They are two of the four young women leading Youth Climate Strike U.S., the stateside offshoot of an international youth movement that began when Swedish student Greta Thunberg started skipping school on Fridays to protest climate change on the steps of the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm.
As Education Week went to press last Friday, Fernands and Hirsi were gearing up to join thousands of American students, and their peers in more than 90 countries, who were walking out of their schools to demand that policymakers take swift action to curb the effects of global warming.
At 16, both young women are already seasoned activists. They hope their March 15 day of action will attract general attention to the urgent danger of climate warming. A United Nations panel says countries may have just a decade before warming leads to catastrophic damage and human costs. In the United States, such an action is also squarely political: The Trump Administration has rolled back several environmental policies and pulled the nation out of the Paris Agreement, an international climate-control agreement.
“It’s the most powerful thing I as a student can do,” Fernands said. “I am refusing to participate in maintenance of a societal system that has allowed this catastrophe to unfold.” The students’ goals are ambitious. They include calling for policymakers to adopt and flesh out the Green New Deal, a broad vision for environmental action introduced as a joint resolution in Congress, to shift the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels.
Their work also arises as an increasing number of educators say schools must improve the dosage and quality of civics education—but are divided over how the new waves of youth activism that have propelled the March for Our Lives movement and the climate strikes should dovetail with school curricula. Tellingly, the young people reported strikingly different experiences on their civic preparation for this moment.
Fernands fondly recalled watching CNN and analyzing polling data in her math class, and she spoke positively about what she picked up about the messy political process from a government course.
But Hirsi said most of what she’s learned about lobbying and legislation came from her own research and experience. (And probably also her mom, who happens to be U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat.)
“School hasn’t really taught me that much,” she said. “I understand there are three branches of government but that’s pretty much it.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Climate Strike’s Young Activists