Young people have had enough of dire climate predictions and presidential candidates saying they have a “comprehensive” plan for dealing with climate change. Young people have had enough of bipartisanship and pessimism when it comes to climate policy. Young people have had enough of environmental racism going ignored and communities of color being ravaged by disasters without adequate government relief. Today’s climate crisis has spurred a generation of young leaders to dive headfirst into activism instead of waiting for people in power to curb carbon emissions, invest in renewable energy sources and address environmental racism.
One such young leader is Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg. By standing outside the Swedish Parliament last summer with a sign with bold, black letters reading “STRIKE FOR CLIMATE,” 15-year-old Thunberg became a rallying point for a growing culture of youth activism focused on climate action. This is just one facet of a global movement to strike school every Friday, dubbed Fridays For Future. According to a press release by Fridays For Future, over 1.6 million strikers from all seven continents participated in her first global climate strike on March 15, 2019. Global marches now take place nearly every two months, and activists tune in to Greta and other climate organizers’ social media posts to keep updated on the movement. Other features of the movement include Earth Rising, a nonprofit founded by 14-year-old New York City striker Alexandria Villasenor, and Zero Hour, a youth climate activism platform created by 17-year-old Seattle striker Jamie Margolin.
Influenced by the work of these young leaders, Vassar students sought to match this energy though promoting environmental awareness on campus. With the next Fridays for Future global climate strike occurring this Friday, Sept. 20, Vassar Students for Equitable Environmental Decisions (SEED), Vassar Greens and the Sunrise Movement will be spearheading a day of events. The coalition planned activities from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., including blocking Main Drive, rallying from the Chapel Lawn to the College Center, hearing from Poughkeepsie City Council Member Sarah Salem and enjoying a live music performance from the Mid-Hudson activist band Tin Horton Uprising, which features some Vassar professors. The organizations encourage the entire Vassar community—teachers, faculty and students alike—to skip class and join them for the strike. “To those that doubt the power of collective action and expression, I say: the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s, the 1961 Freedom Riders and the National Women’s Party picketing the White House in the 1910s all had a positive impact on the political movements they were fighting for. While they did not completely solve the issue, they spearheaded a step in the right direction for change,” Kathleen Nevius ’23, a new SEED member, said.
Member of SEED and coordinator for Vassar’s Sunrise Movement Melissa Hoffmann ’21 stated that Vassar’s climate strike strives to spread the conversation, alert local politicians and pressure Vassar to further prioritize carbon reduction and sustainability. Leaders of Vassar’s strike decided that creating noise on campus and actively engaging with students who have not previously called themselves activists would be more impactful than traveling with a smaller group of dedicated activists to the city. The active community on campus would grow, and thus, gain strength in numbers for the collective climate movement as a whole. “If we can mobilize 3.5 percent of the population, or 11.3 million people, by getting them to be actively involved in peacefully disrupting civil society, we can win a Green New Deal and other policy changes necessary to transform our economy and society,” Hoffmann said. “Past peaceful social movements that have had this amount of people or more have never failed.”
Fellow SEED member Joe Wiswell ’20 echoed Hoffmann’s sense of emergency. “We can either let a few oil executives tear our world apart or we can get together and make a world that’s better for everyone,” he said. “There’s an opportunity right now to make a more just world and an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.”
Today, the College is presented with the opportunity to support the strike and demonstrate that the climate crisis extends far beyond Main Gate. As an academically rigorous institution, Vassar has a workload and class pace that does not make skipping school an easy choice. However, according to Carlos Espina ’21, president of Vassar’s Student Association (VSA), President Bradley has officially voiced her support for the Global Climate Strike, and Safety and Security will be present to ensure the execution of a peaceful protest. Other, larger-population municipalities have formally supported the climate strike movement. New York City recently granted amnesty for all those participating in the Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike, a major accomplishment for the climate activism community and exemplar for other cities and institutions (Common Dreams, “Holy Smokes, This Thing Could Get HUGE’: NYC Public Schools to Let Students #ClimateStrike,” 09.12.2019).
Support has been called for not only from Vassar’s administration, but from faculty and staff on all levels. SEED’s open letter to Vassar professors states, “As you know, Vassar, as an institution of higher learning, has the ability to influence change and bring more people together over this issue… We ask for you to cancel your classes and to respect the decisions of students that choose to strike.”
Some Vassar administrators stand in support of the mission. New Director of Sustainability Micah Kenfield is in favor of the student climate strike and hopes to implement sustainability plans at Vassar. “Speaking broadly, I’ve been impressed by how well everyone I’ve met at Vassar already recognizes that climate change is something that impacts all of us.” Kenfield continued, “I think we’re all working toward the same shared goal.”
The strike’s main goal, to increase the visibility of the urgency of the climate crisis, has personal implications for some students. Hoffmann shared a personal story, saying “I’m striking because I fear for my sister’s future… [She] likes to joke that if she hears me say ‘We are in a climate emergency’ one more time, she will leave the room,” she said. “But soon, the climate emergency will not let her escape to another room. It will challenge her and it will devastate her… I cannot protect her from what is happening. I can, however, strike. And I will strike and strike again until my government tells me it cares about her future.” Hoffmann, like others her age, shares a common call of urgency.
This Friday, Sept. 20, at 10 a.m., Vassar’s climate strike begins and ends on the Chapel Lawn.