Students Strike for Climate Action

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Cia Roth ’20 speaks at a rally at Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago on March 15. (Photo by Owen Ziliak)


By Will Foster ’20

Nearly two-dozen Payton students joined hundreds of Chicago teens in skipping school on March 15 to attend a downtown rally calling for action against global warming, as part of a worldwide youth “climate strike.”

“If there’s anything I’ve learned in high school, it’s that if you procrastinate you will fail,” Payton student Katherine Norquist ‘20 said in an impassioned speech at Federal Plaza, drawing laughs and cheers from the students gathered. “We are here not because we want to be, but because decades of neglect of one of the greatest challenges we face have forced us to be.”

The Chicago demonstration and the concurrent protests in more than 100 countries were inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish activist who began protesting in front of her country’s parliament building in response to climate change last August. In addition to Norquist, Payton students Ella Marden ‘19 and Cia Roth ‘20 also spoke at the Federal Plaza rally.

“Teenage activism … lets politicians know that if they want to get our votes in a few years, they have to pay attention to the issues we care about,” Roth said after the event.

On the federal level, climate policy has been sluggish in recent years. President Donald Trump controversially withdrew the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate accord in 2017, arguing that future climate change would be modest and did not justify pollution reduction measures that could harm the economy. In early 2019, the climate debate on the federal level has centered on the Green New Deal legislation championed by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.

Norquist connected the issue of climate change to broader environmental problems. “In our city, environmental racism has contributed to wide inequities in pollution and contamination between the predominantly white North Side and the predominantly black and brown South and West sides, where the city’s problems have been dumped for far too long,” she said. “So environmental issues are not vague and distant topics. They transform the lives of all of us in some way or another.”

During her speech, Norquist trumpeted the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which has been introduced in the Illinois legislature and aims to transition the state to 100% renewable energy by 2050 — “specifically investing in communities of color and low-income communities,” she added. “So contact your state legislator. Make them understand how much this matters.”

The climate activism on display in March from Payton students and their peers was reminiscent of the gun violence walk-outs held almost exactly a year before, in March and April 2018. A walk-out in March 2018 that was sanctioned by the Payton administration involved the vast majority of the school’s student body. Payton students left school at 10 a.m. and stood around the block, arms linked, for a moment of silence, joining schools around the nation in honoring the victims of the Florida school shooting a month before. A smaller number of Payton students participated in a second — and more overtly political — walk-out in April that called for more gun control.

“Walkouts or strikes tend to be particularly effective strategies for teen activism,” said Esther O’Leary ‘20, who co-organized the April walkout. “A walkout or strike causes a major disruption, both because they take up physical space and because students not attending school will always get the attention of people in power.” O’Leary did note that other forms of activism are also crucial for teens. “Educating others on the issues even by word of mouth is an extremely important form of activism,” she said, “as is activism through art.”

The national March for Our Lives campaign that garnered headlines in 2018 “primarily focused on changing gun laws, but there are already strict gun laws in Chicago,” O’Leary explained. “Gun violence in Chicago stems from systemic racism, so we focused our protest on the creation of opportunities in low income communities of color, but used the April 20 date because it was already a well-known event.”

It remains unclear how effective the gun violence protests were. “I feel like the demonstrations succeeded in representing the anger and opinions of teens throughout the country,” O’Leary said, “and part of the objective of the walkout was to provide teens who are usually silenced a platform on which to voice their opinions and experiences. I also think we caused a major disruption, so people in power noticed us. However, we had a very specific agenda and explicit policy requests that were heard by people in power, but no implementation occurred. I think that’s one of the dangers of teen activism, that adultism makes it very difficult to generate lasting change.”

“This energy can be channeled to create change if it is harnessed properly and if we are genuinely listened to,” O’Leary said. “I think we’re on our way there, but adults have to step up.”

As for climate change, the fight continues. “Older generations either don’t believe in [global warming] or don’t see it as an issue because it doesn’t affect them,” said Grace Killackey ‘20, who also attended the rally last month. “That means the only people willing to fight climate change are teenagers. So we have to do everything we can.”

A second climate strike is planned for May 3. “We are the people who will be inhabiting this world in 50 years,” Norquist said. “What will we have to say for ourselves if we do nothing while change is still possible?”

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