New Voices for the Climate Kids: Growing the movement after the Sept. 20 Climate Strike

  • Crowds gathered by Alexander Calder's "Flamingo" for the culmination of the Sept. 20 Climate Strike.

    Crowds gathered by Alexander Calder's "Flamingo" for the culmination of the Sept. 20 Climate Strike. Courtesy of Emma Zimmerman

 
Submitted by Emma Zimmerman
Updated 10/8/2019 8:16 PM

On Friday, Sept. 20, activists of all ages spanned westward from Grant Park, barricaded by police officers, and serenaded by the shouts of thousands. Above the crowd, a 2-year-old's pigtails bobbed in unison with the marching feet. The oceans are rising and so are we, claimed the green construction paper sign, clenched tightly in her fists.

Two-year-old Bowie had traveled to the strike from Wheaton, along with her 6-year-old brother and their mother, Amber. Unlike past climate strikes, both adults and young children appeared especially present at the Sept. 20 event, adding to the vigor of the seasoned high school and college activists. In fact, Amber and her young children hardly stood out.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"If I don't teach them to stand up now, there's not going to be anything left for them to stand up for," explained Amber, who had spent the entire one-hour drive into the city explaining climate change in terms appropriate for a 6-year-old -- in polar bears, in bumble bees, and in the rising tide of the family's favorite beach.

"I spent the whole time explaining to them why this is important, what our government is doing, and why this matters to the whole world, not just us," she explained.

Deer-eyed above the crowd, 2-year-old Bowie didn't seem so sure about this whole climate activism thing. Yet, perhaps her out-of-place, deer-in-the-headlights demeanor alluded to the very importance of bringing a 2-year-old to a climate strike. It's devastating -- devastating that parents must explain the demise of the world as they know it in 6-year-old terms, let alone in 2-year-old terms. It's devastating that the people who have to deal with this destruction are young enough to only understand it in bumble bees and polar bears.

And what if you and your child live in a neighborhood comprised predominantly of low-income, people of color? Then, you skip the bumblebees and polar bears. Instead, you must explain why, simply because of the color of your skin, your child has likely already experienced unfair environmental impacts, such as the polluted air that they breathe and the coal plant down the street. When we see a pigtailed 2-year-old clutching a protest sign, it becomes more real: this is not right.

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Yet, the attendance of such young children presents another, more positive fact: their parents must come along, too. It seemed that mothers, the people who stereotypically bare the majority of child-care responsibilities, were especially present on the streets of downtown Chicago that day. The significant presence of mothers perfectly follows the historical legacy of mother activists throughout time and place.

In the late 1970s, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo met every week in a Buenos Aires Square, demanding the military government release information about their kidnapped children and other loved ones. In 1979, the Mothers of Laleh Park gathered to protest the disappearance of family members, caused by the fundamentalist regime that had taken power in Iran. Most recently, mothers of the DREAMers, the thousands of undocumented individuals who immigrated to the United States as children, have risked deportation to camp outside congressional offices and demand equal rights for themselves and their children. Mothers are powerful.

So, we recognize the devastating power of innocent toddlers at climate strikes, and the historical power of mother activists. Yet, there's another reason for mothers, and any adults for that matter, to join the climate fight: The kids are easy to disregard. It's clear when speaking with most high schoolers at a climate strike, or listening to any of Greta Thunberg's speeches -- these kids know what they're talking about. Still, politicians backed by fossil-fuel money will continue to disregard these children on the basis of age. Just look at the breath and amount of accusations Greta faced for her activism -- from accusations of her parents' manipulation to condemnation of her physical appearance.

Not every fossil fuel-reliant politician can relate to a childhood passion for climate activism. But almost all politicians are parents, or aunts, or uncles, or grandparents, or caregivers in some regard. They can relate to the passion of a mother who simply wants to protect her children and ensure they enjoy a livable future. The relentless passion and aptitude of the youth-led Sunrise Movement is certainly inspiring. However, perhaps caregivers can play a helpful, intermediate role. Perhaps, when the politicians won't respond to the calls of the children, they'll respond to the parents.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tammie, a mother from Oak Park, played the intermediary role at the Sept. 20th march. When Tammie's 7-year-old daughter watched an HBO program on youth activists, she began creating her own protest signs and expressing her desire to become an activist. Tammie decided the Sept. 20th strike would present the perfect opportunity to put her daughter's dreams into action. So, she brought both her 7-year-old and her 4-year-old along for the event.

"I was a little nervous about bringing them, but I've been to a couple of other marches that seem to be OK for kids," explained Tammie. Still, Tammie was invigorated with hope upon seeing so many young kids at the strike and hoped that more adults would follow their lead.

One group in attendance was particularly aware of the power of both young children and their caregiving adults. Representatives from the Chicago Childcare Collective (ChiChiCo) had set up a pop-up child-care station by the Flamingo Structure in the Loop, the final destination of the march. There, toddlers sat on blankets, playing with toys, and blowing bubbles into the crowded air. The volunteer-run ChiChiCo supports the participation of parents, especially mothers, in racial and economic justice work by matching volunteers with community organizations and supervising kids while their parents participate in activism.

Ellie, an organizer with ChiChiCo, explained how the pop-up child-care area played a dual function at the Sept. 20th event: to ensure that the youngest people felt included in the event, while simultaneously aiding in the participation of their parents.

"We see this as being essential to any social justice movement … When families, and especially women with children, aren't given the space, the movement is missing critical voices."

The various movement-growing potentials of different age-groups begs us to make climate activism as accessible as possible. To all who have not yet participated in climate activism, I challenge you to consider what critical perspectives your voice might bring to the movement.

Join them -- attend a meeting of the Chicago Sunrise Movement hub or visit their Facebook page to learn about upcoming actions. Then, ask yourself what other critical perspectives are missing from the movement. Challenge us to create avenues for those voices to be heard as well.

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