Students Urge Leaders to Act at Youth Climate Strike

The front line of up to 3,000 Youth Climate Strike marchers on Sept. 20, in Chicago. Photo by Cheryl Scott.

The front line of up to 3,000 Youth Climate Strike marchers on Sept. 20, in Chicago. Photo by Cheryl Scott.

By Cheryl Scott

Students as young as preschoolers left class to make their voices heard at the Chicago Youth Climate Strike on Friday, Sept. 20. Yes, preschoolers. Some in the crowd expressed surprise when three Chicago preschool students stood up to speak at the Federal Plaza rally that day, which occurred after thousands marched there from Grant Park. Although these youngest activists were difficult to hear, the crowd cheered and said “aww.”

The message from other students who spoke or attended the rally was clear, though. The government and businesses must take action immediately to fight climate change or the youth strikes will continue.

“It is time to hear the deeply moving voice of the youth,” said Shayla Turner, a 17-year-old senior at Goode STEM Academy in Chicago. “We will stop skipping school when there is a distinct outline from politicians on how to solve the crisis.”

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, started the Fridays for Future school strikes last year. The global youth climate strikes on Sept. 20 occurred before the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York, where Thunberg spoke about the urgency to take more action on climate change.

Chicago activists echoed Thunberg’s message about the immediate crisis to be addressed. Aidan Lane, a senior at New Trier High School, urged the crowd to “do what is necessary to protect our planet,” because 200 species are going extinct every day and climate change problems will continue to get worse and affect more people in the future.

Emily Graslie, Field Museum Chief Curiosity Correspondent and one of many Field Museum employees at the strike, told the crowd that “. . . . yes, we should be panicking.”

In addition to acknowledging the climate change anxiety felt by activists, 30-year-old Graslie offered a message of hope.

“Ask yourself how you can use your talents to fight climate change,” Graslie said. “You might feel that hope is lost, but everyone here shows it is not.”

Twenty-year-old School of the Art Institute student Eliza Wagner discussed the event takeaways for leaders.

“I hope they notice that this is something people care about, they can’t continue to ignore it, and we’re going to keep on fighting for it and making our voices known,” Wagner said.

Other takeaways include not forgetting the communities who are hit first by climate change and getting involved in the movement after the rally, through joining an organization or voting, said Lina Avalos, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago.

Protesters at the Youth Climate Strike.

Avalos challenged everyone to join an organization and to “join my friends who are literally saving the world.”

Some Politicians Hear the Message

Although politicians were often the targets of the rally’s speakers because of their inaction on climate change, a few attended the event to support the youth.

Robert Peters, a Democratic member of the Illinois Senate in the 13th District, offered a message of optimism to protestors.

“We’re not going to just fight for our future; we’re going to win our future,” Peters said. “In 12 years’ time, we’re going to look back at this day and say how we turned the tide.”

He asked the crowd to take actions, such as making phone calls, meeting with elected officials and generally re-imagining the impossible.

Kina Collins, a community activist running for the Democratic nomination in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District, spoke about how diverse voices have sometimes been left out of the conversation, such as with Standing Rock or Hurricane Katrina. She advocated for environmental justice, a message that several speakers mentioned throughout the day.

Collins also encouraged students to vote or run for office when they are old enough to do so.

Adults Join the Youth

Despite the name “Youth Climate Strike,” the march and rally attracted people of all ages.

The Chicago architecture community supported the student movement, said Tom Jacobs, co-founder of Architects Advocate for Action on Climate Change. Jacobs called on politicians to create a zero carbon built environment by 2030, which is also a goal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 members marched with students at the strike as well. Erica Sanchez, a SEIU Local 1 member who works in the Chicago Public Schools, said she attended the strike with union members to fight for racial and environmental justice for herself, but also for her daughter.

“It is the youth who are leading the way,” Sanchez said. “Today, adults are joining them for the first time to build a multi-generational movement.”

For those interested in follow-up action, Extinction Rebellion is planning an event from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 7, at Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St., in Chicago, as part of a global event. More details here: