Photo by Gabriele Holtermann Gorden/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
By Rachel Janfaza
In the past, students have jumped at the idea of a snow day, going as far as putting spoons under pillows or wearing pajamas inside out in hopes of a school cancelation. But now, with the impending doom of climate change, students are worried that beyond the occasional Nor’easter, climate disasters could grow in size, frequency, and scale. They’ve started striking to raise awareness about the climate crisis, and this Friday is set to be their biggest turnout ever.
On Friday, September 20, students have planned to walk out of school all around the world; in the US alone, over 1000 strikes have been registered in all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. It’s no secret that the day is set to be the largest single day of youth-led climate strikes yet. The New York City Department of Education will even excuse school absences on Friday with parental permission to honor the strike, and businesses are following suit in solidarity.
“The number of strikes goes up by like, 20 an hour,” Future Coalition founder Katie Eder told MTV News, noting that strikes are registered in big urban centers as well as tiny rural communities. “Breaking 1000 strikes nationwide would be insane, but awesome.”
The movers and shakers behind Friday’s strikes is a group called the US Youth Climate Strike Coalition, an alliance of eight US-based youth-led climate groups who came together thanks to the work of the mobilization organization, The Future Coalition. Inspired by the UN Climate Change Summit, which will take place in New York City on Monday, September 23, the September 20 strikes will kickstart a week of climate action by and for young people in the US, with sister actions around the world. Organizers hope that Friday’s strikes outperform the prior largest US climate action, The People’s Climate March, which saw over 100,000 participants during the Paris Climate Agreement in September 2014.
The youth-led climate justice movement has been gaining momentum in the States for months and has only picked up both speed and urgency as the climate crisis grows increasingly dire. In July 2018, Zero Hour held a march with about 1,000 people in the pouring rain in Washington, D.C. But that event also came with some hurdles beyond the downpour.
“When Zero Hour got started, there was no big umbrella for climate action or youth organizers,” Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old co-founder of the organization, told MTV News. “We tried to connect with as many people as possible, but it was difficult.”
Less than a month after that march, Greta Thunberg started to strike outside of Parliament’s Riksdag building in Stockholm, Sweden. Her protests, inspired by the belief that there’s no point in attending school if our global future is uncertain, launched the Fridays for Future global movement. Since then, students all over the world have been striking on Fridays in solidarity. On March 15, 2019, about 1.4 million young people in 123 countries ditched school in demand of climate action.
Just over a year since Greta’s first strike, The Future Coalition has led a charge to unite a number of those youth-led groups. Eder founded the group when she and other activists began recognizing that while that many of US groups tout a slightly different mission, they are all dedicated to the same cause: fighting climate change from its root causes in the United States.
With that realization, The US Youth Climate Strike Coalition united online in June 2019. The group includes eight youth-led organizations: Earth Guardians, Fridays For Future USA, Extinction Rebellion Youth US, International Indigenous Youth Council, Sunrise Movement, Youth Climate Strike, and Zero Hour. To mark their formation, the Coalition put forth a series of five demands directed at world leaders and elected officials: They want leaders to commit to a Green New Deal, are demanding that federal governments respect both Indigenous land and tribal sovereignty, and hope that environmental justice and a just transition serve as a backbone to any and all climate policies. They’re also asking the people in power to protect and restore the earth’s natural biodiversity, and invest in sustainable agriculture processes that help fight current food insecurities and set future generations up for success.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it,” Jamie told MTV News. “We’re a bunch of young activists who have been doing this [organizing with regard to climate justice] for two and a half, or in my case, four years. The Coalition is an umbrella that helped.”
Rose Strauss, a 20-year-old Sunrise activist, agreed. “This is the first strike we have all collaborated in this intensive way,” the University of California, Santa Barbara student and organizer from the Bay Area told MTV News. Strauss began working with Sunrise about a year and a half ago and now serves as part of the US Youth Climate Strike Coalition’s distribution committee, which is responsible for supporting hundreds of strikes and securing permits and press in big cities, small towns, and specifically at schools — everywhere young people are.
For Strauss, coming together with other organizations has helped to make the youth-led climate movement more dynamic. “We are a lot stronger fighting to stop the climate crisis when we all work together,” she explained.
Isra Hirsi, 16-years-old and one of the Coalition’s youngest organizers, agreed. “If we’re all fighting the same fight, it’s important to discuss together and use all of the ties we all have to make the most change possible,” Hirsi, the founder of US Youth Climate Strike, told MTV News.
The September 20 strike was announced early this summer and activists worked tirelessly to get the word out. After weeks of online planning — which included conversation via Instagram direct messages, Google Docs, Slack channels, and hours-long video conference calls — the US Youth Climate Strike Coalition met in person on August 22-25, 2019 in Iowa, a remote campsite rented for the weekend by the Action Together Network, a progressive adult-led group that works to help grassroots activists.
“It forced us to unplug,” Jamie told MTV News about the weekend, which featured plenty of idea-sharing and brainstorming, but no cell phone service or WiFi. And while the group had previously been strangers, “It was like meeting old friends again,” she added. “When you do so many phone calls and conference calls, it’s not like, ‘Oh let’s do ice breakers.’ It’s like, ‘Hey you’re that person from Instagram.’ It was a very nice community.”
“It was amazing to see so many people I had been talking to or organizing with online for so long in person. That was powerful,” Isra told MTV News. “Being able to actually organize in person instead of through email or weekly calls was really helpful and we got more things done.”
It was in Iowa that the group began to discuss their series of demands, which took hours of back and forth to agree upon. In fact, while the group brainstormed the demands in person, they didn’t fully agree upon the final set until a roughly five-hour-long phone call with all members of the Coalition a few weeks later.
“We all have different theories of change,” explained Strauss. “When you’re organizing, it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. That felt like a lot of pressure. People had different opinions on the demands for the strike. It took a long time.”
“We have a lot of strong-minded people,” added Jonathan Palash-Mizner, a 16-year-old organizer with Extinction Rebellion Youth US who joined the demand debate over the phone. “Activists tend to be set in their ways.” He added that the five-hour phone call was “really interesting because you see all these sides to the argument you would never see and come to compromises you never thought you would make. That divergence of opinion, the debate, and conclusions that arise from it give us more effective demands and help us build richer and stronger messaging.”
While the young organizers might be the driving forces behind the September 20 strikes, they were sure to include adults in their organizing process. “We are calling on adults to join us,” Lana Weidgenant, a 20-year-old Zero Hour activist told MTV News. “That includes adults that have been watching from the sidelines and also adults that have been organizing on climate for 20 to 30 years.”
In addition to making a point to UN leaders with major turnout on Friday, the organizers are hoping to use the day as education. “I want to see really big turnout as well as a lot of new faces,” Isra told MTV News. She also sees the movement as an opportunity to provide an “extensive education throughout the strikes and making sure we are using the platforms and this space to educate folks.”
Weidgenant sees the Coalition’s work on the strike as just the beginning for a continued united front. “Moving forward, we can’t just have these separate movements. We need everyone,” she stressed. “We need organizing goals and expertise and adults that are willing to plug-in and be supportive of the youth climate calls for action.”