Social Studies

Meet the Youth Climate Activists Who Are Leading School Strikes

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 12, 2019 9 min read
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Is climate change the next face of student activism?

It’s an idea that will be put to the test this Friday, when thousands of students plan to participate in the Youth Climate Strike U.S. They’ll be walking out of their schools to demand that policymakers take swift action to curb the effects of global warming.

Education Week spoke to three young people who are involved in the movement: two of the main organizers of Youth Climate Strike U.S., co-founder and co-director Isra Hirsi and communications director Maddy Fernands; and Adam Crellin-Sazama, a Boston student who will also be participating on March 15.

Both young women, at 16, are already seasoned activists. Fernands got her start participating in her high school’s “green team"—clubs in which students organize recycling and composting for their schools and spearhead petition drives, while Hirsi has long been active on a variety of issues, including LGBTQ and gun violence. Both had begun to get involved in local and state climate activism as well; Fernands actually served as a junior commissioner on the energy and environment commission in her hometown in Edina, Minn., and she and Hirsi have also volunteered with Minnesota Can’t Wait, an environmental group. But organizing a nationwide strike, alongside two other young women, is a project on another scale altogether.

Crellin-Sazama, 17, got interested in climate change when he was about 10. “I had this thick animal dictionary that I would flip through, and I started seeing how many were endangered,” he said. Research led him to the knowledge that many animal habitats were impacted by power plants, industrialization, and climate change, and the topic grew into a full-blown passion: “My buddy and I were 12 and had a lemonade stand outside the house and donated the proceeds to the zoo.”

For three years, he’s participated on the Boston Student Advisory Council—a student-voice initiative in the district that’s co-managed with the nonprofit Youth on Board. He and other Boston students have made climate issues one of three priorities for their work. Among other things, they’ve helped craft a model climate-change curriculum now taught by around 20 teachers in the city.

Friday’s walkout is part of an international youth movement, generally called Youth Strike 4 Climate, that began when Swedish student Greta Thunberg began skipping her Friday classes last August in order to protest in front of the Swedish Parliament. She has since become the face of the rapidly growing movement, admonishing international power players and heads of state for their failure to act swiftly to control climate change. Students in some 90 countries are participating.

Both Fernands and Hirsi credited Thunberg’s activism as the boost they needed to kick up their own work another notch.

“She has a very pointed message and a very consistent message of how our current leaders today will be looked down on as the villains” who didn’t act in the face of evidence, Fernands said. “Her voice and her goal—it’s just hard to ignore her.”

Fernands hopes that Friday’s large-scale action will attract general attention to the dangers of climate warming. “The biggest thing is an increase in numbers,” she said. “When you have thousands upon thousands refusing to go to school, you have a situation that people can’t ignore.”

And just as other recent acts of civil disobedience in the United States, like teachers’ strikes, have been powered by social media, Hirsi said she was tapped to become one of the co-organizers after 12-year-old Denver-based activist Haven Coleman, messaged her on Instagram. Coleman originally asked if she’d consider heading up a Minnesota strike.

“I said, ‘Is anyone helping nationally?’ and she said ‘No,’ and that’s how it started,” Hirsi said.

Some students, Fernands among them, have gone further to emulate Thunberg by striking every Friday, either by skipping class altogether or, as in Fernands’ case, one class that day. So far, Fernands said, her parents have been supportive and school officials have been relatively understanding, but she knows that pushing the envelope further could come with additional consequences.

“It’s the most powerful thing I as a student can do,” she said. “I am refusing to participate in maintenance of a societal system that has allowed this catastrophe to unfold.”

Rejuvenated Youth Activism

It is not a happy time for environmentalists generally speaking. The Trump Administration has rolled back several earlier environmental policies put in place under Barack Obama. And in 2017 the administration pulled the nation out of the Paris Agreement, in which countries pledged to take steps to limit climate increases by 2030 to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Above that amount, scientists say, the Earth will experience far more droughts, fires, floods, and global poverty as a result of climate change. (An alarming report from a United Nations panel says that the world may only have just a decade of action before the goal will become unattainable.)

In the United States, one of the key challenges to policy action is that climate change has become a distinctly political issue—even though nearly all scientists accept it as fact. Increasingly, this has also posed challenges for schools. Policymakers in New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, West Virginia, and Wyoming have all flirted with weakening language in their K-12 science standards on climate change, as have school districts in Florida.

Currently, about 75 percent of science teachers do address the topic, according to the National Center for Science Education, a national noprofit that supports the teaching of climate change and evolution in schools. The Youth Climate Strike U.S. platform demands comprehensive teaching of climate change in grades K-8.

Can students break the logjam on U.S. climate-change policy? It’s certainly a good theory given what students accomplished last year. In the wake of the March for Our Lives movement, states passed dozens of pieces of gun-related legislation, though much of it was incremental and observers continue to debate the overall impact of that movement.

And in a sense, there’s a full-circle element to the climate activism. Sweden’s Thunberg cited the Parkland students’ protests against gun violence when she began her school strike. Now, the most recognizable face of March for Our Lives, David Hogg, has Tweeted out his support to his hundreds of thousands of followers.

Will Climate Strikes Have an Impact?

This, of course, remains the big question. The students’ goals are ambitious, calling for the government to declare a national climate-change emergency, and for policymakers to adopt and flesh out the Green New Deal, a broad vision for environmental action introduced as a joint resolution in Congress. The platform calls on the country to become 100 percent reliant on renewables by 2030 and couples that goal with economic projects to create jobs and shift the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels, though policy details still need to be sketched out.

The economic proposals are important to underscore, because internationally, efforts to curb climate changes have been tangled up in debates over who they most stand to affect. (For example, the increase in fuel prices in France, partly linked to the government’s carbon-tax policies, helped give way to the “yellow vest” movement there. Among other things, those protesters argue that climate-change policies are being balanced on the backs of car-dependent commuters and lower-income people.)

That could be a looming tension in the United States, too—although, as the Youth Climate Strike U.S.'s platform points out, the cost of relying on fossil fuels is also borne by specific groups, including communities of color and indigenous people.

It remains unclear how K-12 educators and the public at large will respond to the protests.

In recent days, there has been some criticism of the recent wave of youth activism. In an aggressive op-ed, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio approved of how Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California dressed down young climate-change activists when they confronted her over the Green New Deal; he called for adults to support traditional civics education rather than to promote student activism.

“It is not condescending or dismissive to challenge kids’ youthful idealism; it is condescending not to educate them in how things actually get done and why they happen as they do,” he wrote. On social media, though, many other people have defended the students and criticized the tenor of Feinstein’s remarks.

In any case, while it’s true that any formal change in U.S. environmental policy is probably a ways off, it’s also true that few large social movements, from civil rights on down, have succeeded without public, performative demonstrations that focus the nation’s attention on such issues.

What’s more, Crelling-Sazama pointed out, climate issues are already poised to play an increasing role in national politics, including the 2020 elections.

“First of all, we are going to be the voting generation; I can vote in 2020. And Democratic candidates are thinking about this because they’re realizing how important it is to thousands and thousands of youth voters,” he said. “There are several candidates who are really ready to talk about this, and I think there are many voters who will make a decision based on it.”

There’s no official estimate of the number of American students who are planning to participate in Friday’s walkouts, but Fernands and Hirsi said they hope it will be in the hundreds of thousands. For those students who aren’t in a city or state with a protest, they can mount one in their own school; or if they’re afraid of being punished, they can briefly disrupt class or wear green to support the walkouts, they said.

School Ties

As the recent Fordham essay suggests, an increasing number of educators say schools must improve the dosage and quality of civics education—but divisions are rampant over how the new wave of youth activism should dovetail with school curricula. It’s therefore telling that the three 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. “You have to get the political will to do it and make it politically astute to do it. I think organizing and politics go hand and hand, and a lot of what I’ve learned in those classes about lobbying and successful policy work is stuff we’ve used as a movement,” she said.

But Hirsi said most of what she’s learned about lobbying and legislation came from her own research and lived experience. (And probably also her mom, who happens to be U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a 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.”

Massachusetts recently passed legislation to improve the quality of civics education; for Crellin-Sazama, though, those changes are coming a little late.

“I’ve had to take six years of math, but not a single year of government, which goes to show how little value is put on this crucial issue,” he said. “I think we also have a right. We are not learning what we need to to go out into the world and be active participants in our society.”

Photos, from top: Maddy Fernands protests at the Minnesota state house in St. Paul; Isra Hirsi calls to other activists during a rally. Photos courtesy Maddy Fernands.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.