Meet The Impassioned Teens Behind Today’s Climate Crisis Walkout In NYC
Thousands of NYC students are expected to skip school Friday and march from Foley Square to Battery Park to demand immediate action to address the climate crisis. It’s one of dozens of such events planned in 48 states and Puerto Rico, as well as abroad, that will kick off a week of protests and other activities, culminating with another strike on September 27th.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean last month to avoid the carbon impact of flying, will kick off Friday’s strike at a rally with other youth climate activists from the U.S. and abroad.
“The climate crisis here. We have to do something,” said 17-year-old Xiye Bastida, a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan and an organizer with the New York City chapter of Fridays for Future, the group organizing the event. “This is a global issue that requires action everywhere.”
“I never really realized, ‘Oh to strike on this scale you need a permit,” said 17-year-old Jade Lozada, a senior at High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. “And it’s children who are in charge of getting these permits.”
17-year-old Calvin Yang, a student at the Dwight School in Manhattan, and a member of the communications team, said he’d emailed hundreds of journalists, few of whom were interested in covering their cause.
“I had to send out press email blasts to all the roughly 600, 700 journalists [on my list], but only like 100 opened my email and only like four clicked on the link,” he said. “It’s very time consuming. Sometimes I just thought, ‘Is it really worth my time?’”
Those doubts have subsided, he said, and the media requests are now pouring in.
At a recent planning meeting in early September, about 60 students sat in rows of folding chairs in an Upper West Side church basement. An organizer at the front of the room, 18-year-old Shiv Soin from Edison, New Jersey, asked how many people were attending a planning meeting for the first time. Dozens of hands shot up–a sign their movement is picking up steam.
New York City’s local chapter of Fridays for Future started small last December; a few students began skipping school once a week, inspired by Thunberg, who was doing the same in front of Swedish Parliament. Through social media, the New York City strikers found one another, and have been striking together outside the United Nations headquarters for the past 40 consecutive weeks.
The students say they’ve been drawn to the cause for a variety of reasons. Some have terrifying memories of Hurricane Sandy. Others witnessed droughts, wildfires or floods in other places before moving to New York City. Still others have asthma and are concerned about air quality. They all are deeply concerned by the warming climate, and anxious that adults aren’t moving fast enough to avoid global catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.
“I think about how the generation before spent however long in this kind of malaise of complicity,” said 17-year-old Adam Neville, Baruch College Campus High School in Manhattan. “I wanted to have children; now I don’t know if that’s ethical or not to bring them into a world that is literally being destroyed.”
The group has three basic demands: end the use of fossil fuels, equity for “frontline communities” meaning indigenous communities, communities of color, low income communities who are often suffering the most severe impacts of a warming planet — and holding polluters accountable.
But they don’t have nuanced policy proposals about how to achieve these goals, and they’re not endorsing any particular candidates or political parties. Their goal will be to call on governments large and small–and everyone really– to make cutting carbon emissions a top priority.
“We need to switch to renewable energy, do it in a just way, and hold people responsible,” said 17-year-old Karma Selsey, a student at NYC Lab High School in Manhattan. “For me the main thing is that we really involve low-income communities of color in this movement because they are the most affected by climate change.”
Fridays for Future’s spokespeople, as well as the speakers slated to kick off Friday’s rally, are diverse and include indigenous activists around the world, as well as sons and daughters of immigrants from countries all over the globe. One of them, Colorado-based Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 18, has been protesting fracking, pesticide use in parks, and other environmental issues since he was a child. Another speaker, Vic Barrett, is a 21-year-old Honduran-American from White Plains and a fellow at the Alliance for Climate Education. Rebeca Sabnam, 16, is an immigrant from Bangladesh and New York City student who’s advocated for banning foam, plastic bags and reducing waste in school cafeterias.
But at the recent planning meeting, some students of color emerged feeling out of place.
“It wasn’t very [many] people of color,” said Kirsten Caton, a 16-year-old student at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. “It was very white. There’s definitely people who look like us who are interested in [climate change].”
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.