“It’s definitely been a little hectic,” 17-year-old Rufus King High School senior and climate activist Ayanna Lee told Wisconsin Examiner.
As an executive director of the Youth Climate Action Team, it’s Lee’s responsibility to help organize strikes and marches for her home city of Milwaukee. On Friday, Sept. 20, students nationwide are joining the worldwide Peoples Climate March to demand immediate climate action by leaders in government.
“Our house is on fire,” reads a YCAT page on the worldwide action, “lets act like it.” The phrase took the globe by storm after 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg organized climate strikes every Friday in her own country. Dubbed “Friday’s For Future,” the teenage political movement, which started in 2018, spread like wildfire to other countries. Thunberg has spent the past year touring the world and pressing the issue of climate change at the United Nations, and to leaders in countries around the globe. Despite bringing her work to the United States, Thunberg said that talking to President Donald Trump would be “a waste of time.”
Lee and her contemporaries are following Thungberg’s lead, and have worked tirelessly preparing for the big day. “I’m a high school student, and our other organizer, Laurin, is a college student,” said Lee. “So we’re both very busy.”
Organizing youth marches, especially during school days, is a two-front battle. On one hand, Lee says, she and her colleagues must contend with the city of Milwaukee. “It’s really hard to communicate with City Hall and articulate what you need from them,” says Lee. Whether it’s obtaining permits, or simply navigating the city’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.
Then there’s working with school districts to make sure students who want to strike are able to. Lee told Wisconsin Examiner that even getting climate and eco-related topics into their curriculum was difficult. “MPS (Milwaukee Public School district), particularly, was a bit of a fight to get this into our classes officially.” Lee herself is in an exclusive, college-level class for environmental sciences.
Part of the districts’ concern is the third Friday count, the day schools in Wisconsin take attendance to determine the amount of funding they get, which happens to fall on the same day as the climate strike. It is possible for schools to submit attendance data from the days before and after the third Friday to count their full attendance, but districts have to plan for that.
“We want to make sure that it is easy for everyone, and that our schools are receiving the money that they need to keep going. So we set up a few meetings here and there with school board, teachers from MTEA, who have been helping us out a lot. We talked to the superintendent about bringing environmental issues into classrooms.”
There were some ways to work with the administration and teachers to allow students to be politically active. “At my school, specifically, we had to organize a field trip,” Lee tells Wisconsin Examiner. Many schools, in fact, took this approach, so “we had to figure that out, and get things approved.” Lee says that this year, she’s noticed an “awesome” surge in participation from elementary schools. She is sympathetic to schools’ budget concerns. “We don’t want to make it harder on our district,” she says, “harder than it already is.”
Last year, hundreds of people marched and rallied for climate action in Milwaukee as part of the People’s Climate March. Held just two months before Tony Evers won the governor’s race, the rallies had a particular focus on green jobs and transportation.
“Now it’s time for Milwaukee to take a step toward a better future with local clean energy and local jobs,” said Ted Kraig, a member of Citizen Action of Wisconsin and a leader of the group’s Green New Deal issue team, in a Sierra Club press release. “We need Milwaukee to chart a path to 100% clean energy with a jobs plan that ensures the economic benefits help the economically distressed neighborhoods that need it most.”
Assembly Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) added, “For decades, the fossil fuel industry CEO’s have known, and lied, about the reality of climate change. The injustices we have seen inflicted on the most vulnerable, primarily poor people and people of color, through the extraction of fossil fuels will be magnified 100-fold as climate change accelerates.”
Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump backed out of the historic Paris climate agreement which the United States joined during the Obama Administration. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the issue of climate change, and suggested that it was a hoax during his 2016 campaign.
But climate action has taken center stage among Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Getting people to care about the climate crisis, however, hasn’t been easy for Lee and other youth activists. Even as massive wildfires rage in the Amazon and the Arctic is undergoing collapse, Lee still encounters people who say, “the climate has always been changing,” or simply dismiss the concerned teen activists. “Yes, the science says that the climate has been changing,” she said. “But it’s not supposed to be changing at the rate that it is.”
She feels that people who disregard the crisis are, “not well informed on the issues, and don’t really know what they’re talking about.”
A challenge and focus for Lee has been getting more minorities involved in the climate movement. Not only because, in her experience, “a lot of the climate movement is made up of white people,” but because the issues will affect communities of color first. People who are both at risk of destructive weather events, and the impacts of environmental racism are on the leading edge of the climate crisis. Nearly twice as many people were displaced by weather than by conflict during 2019, the Independent reports.
Researchers warn that we have less than 12 years to limit the catastrophic effects of current climate trends. Teens in some parts of the world are so distressed by the crisis, that many are pledging not to have children of their own.
The Youth Climate Action Team is circulating a petition calling on Gov. Evers to declare a climate emergency. July was the hottest month recorded on earth in history, beating out 2018’s July, which also set it’s own records at the time. Democracy Now’s most recent headlines include a slew of climate news, including massive floods and hurricanes worldwide.
“We’re making time, like this is our priority right now,” Lee told Wisconsin Examiner, speaking of her fellow activists. “It’s something very important and very concerning.”