Young activists gather a week before the September 20 Global Climate Strike in New York City to build artwork, such as banners or screen-printed scraps of cotton fabric for participants to pin to their clothes. This is one of the three art builds that took place in different NYC boroughs. Photo: Keri Oberly
Young activists gather a week before the September 20 Global Climate Strike in New York City to build artwork, such as banners or screen-printed scraps of cotton fabric for participants to pin to their clothes. This is one of the three art builds that took place in different NYC boroughs. Photo: Keri Oberly

Unimaginable

By Madalina Preda   |   Oct 7, 2019 October 7, 2019

Around 50 high-school and middle-school students were sitting in a circle on the floor of the basement of the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City. It was a Wednesday evening two days before the Global Climate Strike scheduled for September 20, and this was the last planning meeting between the core group of organizers and a few dozen volunteers. On the agenda was going over everyone’s roles, the route of the march and practicing the strike song, its choreography and the group chants.

“All the planning has been done in the basement of this building right next to Central Park. Every big thing that has ever happened started in a basement,” Ayisha Siddiqa, one of the core team organizers for the New York City climate strike, said to me in a post-strike interview. I’ve been in enough organizing meetings on barges off the canals of Amsterdam or in squatted buildings and farms across Western Europe to know what she means—there is a certain magic to unlikely spaces. As the late designer Tibor Kalman once said, “It’s always the freaks in garages who make things move forward.” In this particular antisocial space, these “freaks” were planning on sending a loud message to world leaders ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit—that change is coming whether leaders like it or not.

Ayisha, 20, is one of 15 young activists who put together the New York City Climate Strike on September 20. Her team estimates more than 250,000 people took to the streets that day. According to 350.org, the climate strikes held the week of September 20 and 27 around the world were one of the largest coordinated global protests in history. Organizers estimated more than seven million people joined the strikes in 185 countries to demand bold action on the climate crisis.

Sima Nisenbaum (left) and Azalea Danes (right) from the core team of organizers for the September 20 New York City Climate Strike and Yujin Kim  from Fridays for Future South Korea  discuss final details the day before the big event while being followed by an international news crew. Azalea, 17  , was the communications lead on the team and was responsible for sending out press releases and talking to media. Photo: Keri Oberly
Sima Nisenbaum (left) and Azalea Danes (right) from the core team of organizers for the September 20 New York City Climate Strike and Yujin Kim from Fridays for Future South Korea discuss final details the day before the big event while being followed by an international news crew. Azalea, 17 , was the communications lead on the team and was responsible for sending out press releases and talking to media. Photo: Keri Oberly

This is an outstanding achievement for any movement, even more so when its leaders are still in school. Yet, amid the hundreds of articles and videos about the strike, the clever protest signs and the inspiring chants, there is something that remains mostly unspoken—the work that goes into this activism.

One day before the strike, NYC organizers Ayisha Siddiqa and Isabella Fallahi and fellow climate justice activist from Los Angeles, Kevin Patel, are putting the finishing touches on some of the art signs. The young organizers say their activism is like a full-time job. Photo: Keri Oberly
One day before the strike, NYC organizers Ayisha Siddiqa and Isabella Fallahi and fellow climate justice activist from Los Angeles, Kevin Patel, are putting the finishing touches on some of the art signs. The young organizers say their activism is like a full-time job. Photo: Keri Oberly

“Activism is my second job,” says Ayisha. “I’m a new college student, and I go to classes and am also doing an internship. Every day, I spend at least five hours on educating myself on climate issues, planning what we are going to do next and promoting our work on social media.”

Other organizers I spoke with have similar stories. Xiye Bastida, 17, is one of the organizers from New York City. She started planning the September 20 strike as soon as she saw the call to action Greta Thunberg made in The Guardian back in May. Xiye spends up to 14 hours a week on organizing—she strikes every Friday, attends high-level meetings at New York City Hall and often participates in nonviolent direction action activities with Extinction Rebellion. Spencer Berg, 16, works closely with Xiye on organizing the strikes. He spends 20 hours a week on his activism. “I really wish I didn’t have to protest, but I know for a fact that I have to,” he says. Another teammate Olivia Wohlgemuth, spends 35-40 hours a week on organizing. “I will stay active and take to the streets until I see concrete and adequate climate action from global leaders,” she says.

Organizers Olivia Wohlgemuth and Natalie Sweet pass out climate strike flyers on the streets of Manhattan the night before the strike. Olivia started striking from school on a Friday back in March and has since convinced hundreds of students  from her school to join Global Climate Strikes. Photo: Keri Oberly
Organizers Olivia Wohlgemuth and Natalie Sweet pass out climate strike flyers on the streets of Manhattan the night before the strike. Olivia started striking from school on a Friday back in March and has since convinced hundreds of students from her school to join Global Climate Strikes. Photo: Keri Oberly

To put together these massive events, young activists hold meetings at home and sometimes take calls at school during breaks. This summer, the New York City organizers were lucky to have the basement of the Ethical Society at their disposal for two evenings a month, but many young activists don’t have access to their own spaces and rely on public spaces or coffee shops to host them. When they’re not in planning meetings, they text each other screenshots of songs they are listening to or links to articles about damning reports on the climate crisis with thoughts on how much “it sucks” to hear all this bad news. Other times, they confess to each other about missing homework or school.

Activist burnout and climate anxiety are two of the main topics that come up in my conversations with young activists. “I saw a lot of anxiety from those of us who were trying to manage workload at school,” Ayisha says. “Sometimes it felt as if the weight of the world was on our backs. We were struggling with writing our papers and doing homework, so we helped each other with schoolwork, and we set up a regen (short for regenerative) role to lead guided meditation sessions for activists to help with anxiety. So much sleep has been lost planning this—we really needed to be there for each other.”

Organizers Olivia and Isabella pass out climate strike flyers inside a deli in Manhattan the night before the strike. “I plan on organizing these strikes for as long as I possibly can,” Olivia says. Photo: Keri Oberly
Organizers Olivia and Isabella pass out climate strike flyers inside a deli in Manhattan the night before the strike. “I plan on organizing these strikes for as long as I possibly can,” Olivia says. Photo: Keri Oberly

This sense of community fostered by the strike organizers was palpable on the Friday of the Global Climate Strike in New York City. Activists, journalists, organizers, first-time and seasoned strikers, parents with small children, grandparents with nephews and nieces, and people of all ages and backgrounds gathered at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan. When one person kicked off a chant, it quickly spread through the crowd, like a wave of sound, until everyone was chanting in unison. There was palpable energy, worry, hope, anger and joy. I saw a sign that said, “Facing extinction,”and another one that said, “Heal the World”. I saw two primary school students squatting under a canvas banner hiding from the heating sun. Ayisha, Xiye, Spencer, Olivia and the other organizers were leading the march towards Wall Street, megaphones in hand, shouting, “What do we want? Climate justice. When do we want it? Now!”

I talked to them after the strike to ask them what it means that more than seven million people joined the largest ever climate protest in history. On one hand, it gives them hope, some said, that people are finally understanding it’s the time to act and that if they keep going, we will see change. But at the same time, some fear nothing good will come out of the UN Climate Action Summit that took place the week after the strike.

Organizers Natalie, Isabella and Ivy Jaguzny of This is Zero Hour travel throughout Manhattan doing last-minute trips passing out flyers, printing out speeches and getting snacks for the team. All core team organizers had a specific role and a co-lead to help manage the workload. Photo: Keri Oberly
Organizers Natalie, Isabella and Ivy Jaguzny of This is Zero Hour travel throughout Manhattan doing last-minute trips passing out flyers, printing out speeches and getting snacks for the team. All core team organizers had a specific role and a co-lead to help manage the workload. Photo: Keri Oberly

“People keep congratulating us, patting us on the back,” Ayisha says. “What happened on September 20 was not a test on whether or not we can get people to the streets or get them to care, but it was a way to show corporations and people in power that they have to answer to us because we are watching them. We are not here for attention, and we don’t want anybody’s vote. What we want is legitimate change.”

All 15 core team organizers celebrate on stage at the end of the September 20 strike where an estimated 250,000 people took to the streets. Photo: Keri Oberly
All 15 core team organizers celebrate on stage at the end of the September 20 strike where an estimated 250,000 people took to the streets. Photo: Keri Oberly

For these activists, seven million people is just the beginning. On October 7, they will join the International Rebellion, which plans to shut down major parts of cities across the world. They also want to get involved in more tangible actions on the local level, such as organizing clothing swaps as a protest against the dirty practices of the clothing industry and as a way to make more clothing options available for students who find themselves in financial hardship. Above all, they will continue to strike every Friday and invite everyone to join them. “I have no doubt that this movement will continue to grow,” says Olivia. “The potential for our impact is unimaginable.”

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