A handful of students joined over at least 60,000 other protesters, according to the mayor’s office, last Friday in downtown Manhattan for the largest environmental strike in history to protest the lack of action taken to address the increasingly alarming state of the planet.
The activists assembled in Foley Square at noon, where speakers such as Chief Sachem Hawk Storm of the Schaghticoke First Nations spoke about the importance of resisting climate change in indigenous communities. The march to Battery Park officially began at 1:15 P.M., and the strikers arrived at the park at 3 P.M., where Jaden and Willow Smith, climate change activists, performed.
“The purpose of the climate strike [was] to create a disruption and show our leaders that we [would] not be standing by complacently anymore,” Natalie Sweet (11), a member of the New York City Core Organizers team, said. “We can now see world leaders, including the ten major Democratic presidential candidates, speaking out about [climate-related] issues they haven’t before, which is really empowering.”
The New York City Core Organizers team had been planning the strike since August and had a concrete list of demands in mind, including a halt to all leasing and permitting fossil fuel extraction and the transformation of the economy to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2030, according to strikewithus.org.
“I think that climate change is one of the biggest issues that our world is facing right now, because regardless of where you live and who you are, the destruction of our world poses a threat to you,” Dalia Pustilnik (10) said. “When I had the chance to participate in a student-led strike, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a stand.”
Greta Thunberg, the co-founder of FridaysForFuture, and Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, also spoke at Battery Park about the importance of raising awareness about the declining environment. Both of their organizations are dedicated to resisting climate change through political and social activism, and Thunberg is credited as one of the first youth activists to spread international awareness about the dire global environmental situation.
At the end of the rally, the fifteen members of the core team sang the strike song, which they wrote with an organization called Peace Poet, to the tens of thousnads of people in attendance. “It was nice to celebrate all that we’ve done,” Sweet said. “It felt like a culmination of all of our work, even though we know this isn’t the last step we’re going to take.” The ceremony closed with a speech by the local indigenous delegation around 5 P.M.
Sonja Cooper (11) attended the strike to connect with people with similar ideologies and priorities as her, she said. “This [felt] like a great way for me to meet people who are energized and inspired by the idea that we can cause tangible change and improve the world.”
Pustilnik said it felt incredible to be surrounded by such deeply passionate people. “Even just taking the subway, every stop we’d see more and more students pile on the trains. It was obvious that we weren’t alone,” she said.
Other attendees, including Eliza Bender (12), were drawn to the strike in part because of the health complications brought forth by climate change. Bender, who is more prone to heart palpitations during hot weather, said that she has become increasingly worried because of the recent rise in global temperature.
“Obviously, the ramifications of climate change are much more massive than me feeling uncomfortable when I walk around the city,” Bender said. “But [the strike] really made me think about how many people our age have developed asthma, or had some part of their life inhibited, by the physical effects of climate change.”
Samantha Tsai (11) said she felt inspired by the sheer number of people gathered in one place. Tsai was most impacted by hearing young people, specifically Isabella Fallahi and Kevin J. Patel, members of the environmental organization This Is Zero Hour, discuss their personal experiences with the lack of climate-oriented action from the government, she said. “They spoke really well––even better than some of the adults.”
Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein thought students could learn an enormous amount from attending, she said. Bender, for example, said that she left the strike with a newfound understanding about how climate change affects indigenous communities most severely, and the importance of identifying their land as native territory.
“I feel pretty clearly that our generation has failed to solve this problem, so it’s on this generation to shout the loudest,” Levenstein said. “Attending can help our students understand that even if they don’t have the right to vote, they have the right to express what they believe in.”
If the school received confirmation from a parent or guardian that their child would be attending the rally, the school granted them an excused absence, Levenstein said. This policy, though, is not different from any other day, as a parent or guardian can always call in an excused absence; all the administration did was ensure that the parent body knew that the school would be understanding if their children did choose to miss school, she said.
When students come to the administration expressing an interest in attending a march or a rally, the school wants to meet that need, Levenstein said. “Our students were clearly motivated to get involved in this, and we support their right to express their opinions.”
Horace Mann students weren’t the only ones with official support. Due to persistent demands from four members of the core team, the Department of Education decided to grant an excused absence to any New York City student who wished to attend and had parental consent, Sweet said.
Though excited about the event, Levenstein did have concerns about potential chaos, as she knew some students would not be comfortable in a situation as overwhelming as this one, she said. She predicted that many students, even if they support the cause, would not go, a choice the school also understands, she said.
Alex Nagin (10) was embarrassed by the lack of the school’s students who attended the march, he said. “When I asked my friends if they were going, they said, ‘Oh, I have a test, et cetera,’” he said. “The fact that climate change isn’t a bigger issue to the student body is alarming.”
Pustilnik said that she was surprised by the low turnout from the school’s students. To her, the turnout personally felt disappointing, but she understood that many students had assessments or parents who did not sign off on the strike, she said. “It was a viable option for me, and for that I’m grateful,” she said.
English teacher Jacob Kaplan also recognized the difficulty of leaving school to go to the strike, he said. However, Kaplan, who has previously attended climate awareness events, was surprised when only one of his students went to the strike.
On the other hand, Fieldston’s students had the option of either going to the strike or participating in the day of climate education on campus on Friday, member of Fieldston’s environmental club Sophie David (10) said. Moreover, all of the high school students were assigned articles concerning climate change to read and respond to on Wednesday night, and they discussed their reactions to the articles on Thursday during their science classes. “There’s no end to how much you can learn about climate change,” Turner said.
At Horace Mann, certain classes also incorporated discussions about the climate. Frankie Dogmarci (9) said that in her biology class, she learned about how too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can cause heat to be trapped, and Hannah Moss’s (9) biology class talked about the strike and why she and her peers did not attend the march.
“My impression is that the faculty at [the school] are acutely aware of and concerned about the climate crisis. It’s certainly something that is talked about and worried about among the faculty,” Kaplan said. “How could it not be?”
Nagin believes that the school still has a lot of progress to make to understand the urgency of the issue and the importance of pursuing solutions, such as reusable items and environmental education, within the student body, he said.
“I want to be able to tell my little brother that I did everything that I could to stop the [climate change] emergency,” Nagin said, “and that means protesting and exercising my rights to make sure the government knows that I’m not going to stand their inaction because they want to receive funds from the fossil fuel industry.”