“THE CLIMATE CRISIS is what’s to come for our generation; and [adults,] failing to realize that they aren’t dead yet, either turn a blind eye, or lay the responsibility of this human made crisis on the shoulders of children.” States 12 year old Ida Schenck, when she addressed the New Orleans climate rally in Jackson Square.
Three days later, eight New Orleanians stood far from home with over a hundred other dis- placed youth in front of Nashville’s City Hall. They had been banded together from Friday till Sunday, 8am till 7pm, inside of an old gymnasium on the outskirts of the city for the “Sunrise South Summit.” Sunrise is a movement purporting to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process. It’s 12 founding members – a group of college students “vowed to expose the corrupting power of executives on our politics.” Now, they rally across the nation; training young people on the principles of mass non cooperation, political alignments, moral protest, and much more.
“Children are exercising their democracy, even without the right to vote” stated Tulane senior Emma Hopkins.
It was a Monday Morning, and nearly all of those present were missing school that day. After singing and chanting their way through the streets of Nashville, the NOLA caravan now had a choice to make: go inside with everyone else, or start the seven hour car ride home. No one headed for the parking garage.
“My name is Elias, I’m 27, and I’m fighting to keep New Orleans above water”
“I’m going to keep coming back and you’re going to keep seeing my face all over this country” Ryan Travis, 19.
“I’m Kiu Min, I’m 23, and I’m fighting for breathable air.”
“My name is Emma Hopkins, I’m 21, and I’m fighting for a livable future.”
In a single file line, young people, ranging from elementary aged to past their college years, echoed similar desires and fears as they passed the livestreaming phone camera on their way into the huge government building. The silence of the mass of bodies was unexpected and tense in the regal space. Any school-teacher would have been beside themselves with pride, though no individual led the bright eyed Sunrise Movement. In fact, adult leadership is entirely abandoned in favor of a horizontal – group lead model. “There are spaces for adults to lead on these issues, what we haven’t had, until now, is a space for young people to have their voices taken seriously,” says Hopkins.
“My generation is always told to dream big, but how can we if our collective future is so small. My biggest dream right now is not for what’s to come in the future, but to have a future.” warns Ida.
“They are developing their own norms around how to get involved with activism. When you’re older it gets harder to go for broke because your thinking about all the reasons you shouldn’t do it.” says Rhiana Gunn- Wright, one of the lead architects of the Green New Deal. At her town hall on Tulane’s campus this past month, She praised the efforts of the Sunrise movement. “Youth have provided such moral clarity. You either do it now or you don’t do it and then live with that decision every day.” The distinction between a fear of the climate crisis itself, and a fear of doing nothing to stop it are hard to untangle for many of these young activists.
Ida’s worries are echoed across the country and the world. Life in the gulf south; however, offers a distinctive source of climate anxiety. “Cracked roads, abandoned houses, permanent construction, and visible segregation make flooding more dramatic every time it hits New Orleans. I don’t think people are intentionally ignoring the crisis. They know what is happening and have experienced its impact. What is lacking is the awareness and hope that we can face and solve this crisis” says Kyu Min.
“If 3.5 percent of a population gets active on a particular issue, that movement inevitably wins. There’s this supermajority of Americans who understand climate change is happening and want the government to do something about it. We need to translate that into active support.” says Sunrise educator Varshini Prakash. Though they haven’t reached their goal of 3.5%, Sunrise is quickly building its base, educating the public, and offering moral clarity and unmiopic solutions for the climate crisis – one sit in at a time.
Quietly, the New Orleans sunrise hub passed through security checkpoints and took their places. Group A had already entered – a group of about 20 individuals who had volunteered for the high risk position of rallying directly inside the mayor’s office. Thereby acquiring the high likelihood of arrest.
“One of the things I love about youth activists is that they very strategically use whiteness to protect themselves” says Gunn-Wright. The volunteers of group A recognized the privilege it takes to stand in such a position without fear of legitimate danger.
“I am privileged enough to be a stable and secure person to maintain the momentum of activism. I have time, education and security. I’m not under any pressure of being fired for climate activism. I face the least amount of consequences and have an average level or morality.” Kyu Min states, when she was asked about why she feels drawn to being involved in the movement. “What kind of person will I be in this moment? Will I be the kind of person that turns away and retreats and gets small? Or will I actually face these people who are oppressing me and fight back?” Prakash states.
“If I wouldn’t have to drive 7 hours back for my court date I would have volunteered,” Tulane senior Taylor Hodge comments. The muffled echoes of group A, swelled over them. Chanting, swaying, and stomping the ground, Group A seemed unreal and chaotic next to the mayor’s secretary. Professional looking men and women meandered through the halls, seemingly hurried yet somehow purposeless. Security guards looked on with mild amusement. Perhaps this was a normal old Monday here in U.S. politics.
“For the 20 year olds to have to be the adults in the room is a sad state of affairs” stated Anne Rolfes, director of The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to end petrochemical pollution in the state of Louisiana. Policymakers look at the Green New Deal and dismiss it as too broad or achingly idealistic. However these are the exact same reasons the youth across America are backing it.
“Middle-aged white people in positions of power, almost always white men respond to our platform saying ‘You just don’t understand the systems in place. You don’t understand this. You don’t understand that.’ No. What you don’t understand is that your incompetence, contempt, unwillingness to change, and lack of imagination is racking up a body count like this world has never seen before. You will never experience mass food insecurity, or have to hoard your freshwater sources. Societal collapse isn’t on your mind everyday, and you’ll be dead by 2050, but you want to tell me what I don’t understand” fumes Hodge – one of the organizers for Tulane’s divestment campaign known as Fossil Free Tulane.
“Perhaps children don’t know about politics, the economy, corporations and lobbying, and they shouldn’t have to. But they still understand that they want a livable future. That they want to have a society that is equal because that’s what we teach them to want.” says Hopkins. The youth are striking from school and marching on their institutions because they know inherently that everyone has a role to play.
“Do your research and educate yourself, see what is going on in your community. We started voicing our opinions and finding out the facts. A lot of people didn’t know what was going on, they thought they didn’t have a voice and they didn’t think they could fight the industry,” urges Sharon Lavigne, founder and director of Rise St. James.
Though they were striking in Nashville, the NOLA Sunrise members agreed that the skills they learned, to organize and strike so successfully, felt especially important to bring home to New Orleans. This however didn’t shake the harrowing realities they know are distinctive to the gulf south.
“50 miles away from Tulane University, some of the biggest corporations on earth are planning to expand and construct petrochemical facilities that would hasten climate change and assure that New Orleans sinks into the ocean.” emphasized Rolfes after a screening of The Women of Cancer Alley – a video production by the women of St James Parish. The 15 minute film highlights the reality of living in “Louisiana towns that have cancer risks al- most 50 times the national average and some of the most toxic air in America.” “The fossil fuel industry has taken our integrity. So many people who know that fossil fuels are bad have had to turn to them for work, compromising what they know is wrong.” says Lavigne
With toxic industries claiming to create jobs, while simultaneously killing off communities and stealing land, the issues of the climate crisis enmesh more fully in the gulf south. “Direct action is the only way we are going to get things done, it’s only rude here because of civility and ideas about how nice you have to be to someone to move them.” says Gunn-Wright. After returning from the Nashville sit in, Kyu Min emphasized that “You don’t need CV’s to be in the climate movement, everyone has the right to be there.” The youth of the Sunrise movement are showing the world that the in- tense fear, hope, and resolve found among its members is enough to incite real change in our communities.
Group A fell silent. The space swelled with a collective breath, then suddenly the cold building erupted in song. Over 120 or so kids raised their voices, full of fear and hope, directly at the newly elected mayor. If anyone’s voice wavered, it was lifted up by the mass of the others. The suited adults stopped in their tracks.
“Which side are you on now,
which side are you on?
Storms surge and fires burn
but you don’t hear the call.
Cause fossil fuels keep paying you,
does it weigh on you at all.
Does it weigh on you at all?”
This rendition of “Which Side Are You On?”originally written by Florence Reece in 1931, is one of many songs drawn from America’s rich history of protest anthems. Many hail from traditional black spiritual hymns, and their religious overtones still ring through loud and clear. Kyu Min reminisced on the power she could feel when singing as a group. The space given to artistic expression within the Sunrise Movement is “cementing the movement and motivating people.” Just as people sing hymns for salvation, these kids are singing for their lives.
Ida makes it clear, even at just 12 years old, that “Instead of only having hope, we need to hold the oil companies accountable for our losses and use our anger and fear as a weapon to demand a future from those who would trade it for mere profit.” Solving this disaster has to be multigenerational. Use your voice to demand a future.