The Last Generation: Meet the Leaders of the Youth Climate Strike US
On March 15, spirits are high among a group of friends in Washington, D.C. Isra Hirsi, 16, Haven Coleman, 13, and other teen girls sprint to the lawn of the Capitol Building after a morning meeting at a nearby cafe. They laugh as they walk and chant, “Whose planet? Our planet!” They appear to be a group of normal teenage girls taking selfies on their way to meet other friends. In reality, they are nationwide organizers of the Youth Climate Strike US.
These teenage girls represent a women-led climate justice movement that both inspires and makes adults in power uncomfortable. These aren’t just teenagers with passionate political opinions. They are teenagers setting the tone for a climate justice movement in the United States, a youth movement that could finally confront the U.S.’s role in climate change. They define themselves as the last generation that can effectively stop climate change.
By the time the press conference starts, these two girls and their friends have already gathered other organizers, discussed permit details for the event, taken note of the media outlets present, and tracked down the itinerary of speakers for the rally that day. On the walk to the Capitol lawn, one of the organizers’ mothers says to me that she is in awe of her daughter’s ability to hold her own on long calls with other organizers, potential sponsors, and various nonprofits. She jokes about following her daughter around to various meetings and paying for her daughter’s airfare to be in attendance in D.C.
As adults watch youth wage war against a world of people who refused to act sooner, we experience discomfort as we wonder what we could have done along the way as well and what exactly we are capable of now. Famed writer and earth-lover Edward Abbey once said, “Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.”
The cruel truth is that Earth is in the process of becoming uninhabitable under an environmentally destructive political/economic system. The comfortable delusion is that we are safe to ignore it or that more cannot be done.
The movement of youth climate strikers began in Stockholm, Sweden, last August with then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg. The young activist decided to strike weekly from school to demand that her government take serious action to address the devastating effects of climate change. A large catalyst for Thunberg was panic over a recent UN report that concludes that the world has 11 years left to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5˚C (2.7 ˚F).
As Greta and other activists began striking in Australia, Austria, Germany and numerous cities in other countries, young people in the United States started work of their own. In December 2018, Alexandria Villaseñor started weekly strikes in New York City outside the UN. She connected online with Haven Coleman, the 13-year-old activist from Denver, Colorado, and Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old who had been trailblazing in her own right with coalitions like MN Can’t Wait. The three decided to work together and co-organize a national strike by coordinating via emails, phone calls, and apps like Zoom before even meeting each other in person.
They were inspired by the Green New Deal resolution, a collaboration among a young activist group called the Sunrise Movement, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. The resolution aims to address climate change in the next ten years by creating millions of high wage jobs, to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and create a green economy.
My own introduction to politics as a black teenager began with listening to lectures by a high school teacher about the evils of economic inequality, ranting to my parents at the dinner table about how much needed to change in the world, and being scolded by my mother, a woman who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica to have a better life, about how grades should matter more than political ideas at such a young age. To me, these teenagers are inspiring because they have formed their opinions without the oversight of domineering adults and by learning through the internet.
Hirsi noted that her own sense of intersectionality, a term that was coined in a 1989 essay written by Kimberlé Crenshaw, made being a part of political groups like her school’s green team difficult because their political discourse didn’t venture beyond a group of white teenagers talking about camping, instead of issues like water quality in low-income communities. She then became involved with organizing against the Line 3 pipeline, which would go through Anishinaabe territory and could endanger three of the continent’s major watersheds. Organizers against Line 3 join many other groups across the world in asking that climate justice be central in environmental organizing (in 2002, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice defined climate justice as the right of communities dependent on natural resources to not be put at risk by the commodification of nature by corporations). In America, this call to action couldn’t be more urgent. According to a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal published earlier this year, Blacks and Hispanics bear a disproportionate burden of air pollution that comes from white communities.
“One of my motivations to continue in climate justice is that I might be one of the only black women that [white climate activists] encounter, and that is really important. These people don’t really care about me, but I care about me and my people,” stated Hirsi, “So I will stand here and advocate for them until they all realize that we need to do something about [climate change]. It’s an ongoing problem of diversity and equity in climate activism. It makes those spaces even harder to navigate.”
Much of Hirsi’s inspiration for organizing comes from movements across issues, both past and present—the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock. The promotion of the Youth Climate Strike US by other high school aged activists, like David Hogg of March for Our Lives, a movement started to end gun violence after the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, highlights the importance of solidarity and children’s involvement in social movements past and present. In 1963, thousands of black children were trained in nonviolent tactics by civil rights movement leaders and walked out of classes, far and near, to meet in Birmingham, Alabama. As they peacefully marched for days on end, local police sprayed them with fire hoses, hit them with batons, and even put some children in jail. In the end, the images of children being brutalized circulating in the media pushed the city of Birmingham to end legal segregation.
Hirsi is a black teen using her voice in the often whitewashed arena of environmental politics and like many young activists of the past, grew up attending rallies with her family. Her mother, Ilhan Omar, is the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. Omar’s strong progressive political stances have given voice to the ideas of many young people. On March 15, she was the only politician to address the strikers in front of the Capitol building. The more I talked to Hirsi, the more I wondered what I could have done at her age if my political fire had simply been encouraged more by the adults around me.
As more young people arrived at the Capitol lawn, tens of thousands of teenagers were gathering for youth strikes in over 100 countries worldwide. Teenagers on the lawn brought parachutes with different messages about addressing climate change, painted each other’s faces, took selfies, and talked energetically about steps moving forward. Some young activists demanded that the government fund a green economy, pass laws that hold corporations responsible for environmental destruction accountable, and that voters support the Green New Deal.
When the strike ended and the crowds dispersed, I looked on with warmth as some of the organizers’ parents vehemently reminded them to text them their whereabouts after the strike. I side-stepped numerous times while chuckling as I tried to remove myself from the background as the strike organizers shared video updates with their collective thousands of social media followers. At an open mic, I cringed sheepishly to myself as they sang songs from the early 2000s and the recent adaptation of A Star Is Born.
As Havana Chapman-Edwards, the 7-year-old who calls herself The Tiny Diplomat, got on stage to address the crowds, a woman who organized the open mic spoke to me. “I’m really glad I set this up for them to decompress and have fun,” she said. “Her mother told me she often leaves these rallies sad after talking about so many depressing things.”
I recalled the same sadness in myself when leaving class after my high school teacher’s lectures. I often wondered, “What can I possibly do to effect any sort of change against all the odds?” I realized that many of these children and teenagers are on a similar path to discovering their own solutions to the world’s problems, just during a different time.
Seeing the news about the Green New Deal being voted down in the Senate without any hearings or expert testimony just weeks after the D.C. strike, I wondered if striking peacefully on the Capitol lawn did not pressure politicians to pass environmentally responsible legislation, then what more must be done?
Although a different movement, I kept thinking about how Black Lives Matter, a movement started by queer, black women in 2013 to address the systemic violence against black people in the United States, gained much more notoriety after clashes between black people and police during protests after the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police officers. While rioters’ actions were heavily criticized, BLM was able to achieve some of its goals, ranging from ousting problematic state attorneys like Florida’s Angela Corey in 2016 to the Department of Justice allocating $20 million to provide body cameras to police officers. Those moments of tension in the streets confronted the political power structure.
Whether climate justice through the Youth Climate Strike or addressing systemic violence against black people, both movements have fought for human rights. Both must survive and achieve their goals if I and others like me hope to see a better world.
“This isn’t the end for us,” Hirsi said. “We will make sure that we change the public view of climate change and also change our politicians’ minds because we will be on the street and fighting for this for months, if it comes to that.”
The youth organizers are already planning the next national strike (May 3 across the U.S.) and looking at ways to get young people involved in the upcoming elections. “We plan to make climate change an essential debate topic in the 2020 election,” says Karla Stephan, the 14-year-old National Finance Director of the Youth Climate Strike US. “We’re launching a petition to all the 2020 presidential candidates to have an environmentally themed debate. This debate will be a huge step in the right direction to get the conversation on climate change more visible on the national and international level.”