These young activists are striking to save their planet from climate change

On Friday, a cadre of teens (and a pre-teen) are leading a nation-wide strike to get climate change into the national conversation.

Photograph by Sarah Blesener, The Washington Post/Getty
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Alexandria Villasenor, 13, skips school on Fridays to strike in the name of climate change. Every week, rain or shine, she sits on a bench in front of the United Nations, in New York City with her signs, bringing attention to the issue of climate change. Villasenor and other young activists from across the country are organizing a global school strike for climate on March 15.
Photograph by Sarah Blesener, The Washington Post/Getty

One Friday in September, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg set herself up outside the Swedish Parliament with handmade signs and a message: Climate change is here, it’s threatening the future, and the grown-ups in charge aren't taking it seriously—so now I, Greta, will go on strike for the climate. Someone had to do something about it, she told reporters later, so why not her?

Since then, her movement has swept around the world. From Poland to Colombia to Australia, thousands of young people have spent their Fridays striking in the name of climate change, signposting their activism with the hashtag #FridaysforFuture. Some step outside their school buildings for just a moment; others throng together, marching through the streets by the thousands. But they’re all pushing for the same thing: Meaningful action to stop the specter of climate change that looms over their young heads.

In the U.S., the climate strike movement has grown slowly and steadily over the past few months. Now, young activists are ready to make their big, national public debut: On Friday, March 15, young people across the country will gather at over 120 #climatestrikes, showing up to demonstrate their commitment to bringing attention to what they see as a global climate crisis.

The organizing effort in the U.S. rests on the shoulders of three young women: 13-year old Alexandria Villasenor of New York, 12-year old Haven Coleman of Denver, and 16-year old Isra Hirsi of Minneapolis. In just a few months, they’ve leapt headfirst into the world of climate activism—and have helped push climate change to the forefront of the national conversation.

The slow build begins with a bench

Alexandria’s Bench, as Twitter and Google Maps geotaggers have named it, stands on the easternmost fringes of Manhattan, a few long strides away from the entrance to the United Nations. A chilly, damp wind sweeps off the East River, whipping the flags of the UN's member states that fly above the bench. The countries represented by the snapping banners have signed onto the Paris Agreement, the climate accord signed in 2015 that aimed to keep global temperatures from warming more than two degrees Celsius. Only one, the U.S., has since decided to leave that international agreement.

Alexandria Villasenor, 13, first arrived at what'd later become “her” bench on a dreary, drizzly Friday in December 2018, wrapped in layers of warm clothes and with two handmade signs in hand ("COP24 FAILED US" and “SCHOOL STRIKE 4 CLIMATE” written out in thick black permanent marker). She'd heard about Greta's weekly strikes in Sweden, and she wanted to join the movement, too.

That Friday, and the next and the next, she sat stoic on the bench for as long as she could stand the cold. Sometimes she’d tweet about #FridaysforFuture or climate facts she'd learned. Other times, someone would glance at her signs and do a double-take. “You should be in school,” she heard often enough. “Go study to become a climate scientist if you care so much.” Some days, adults talked at her. Rarely did anyone talk with her.

She knew the cold and the criticism were going to be uncomfortable—but in a way, that was part of the point. She was out to make a stand about climate change, no matter the personal cost.

And Alexandria had always been focused, disciplined, and clear about how to get her point across. When she was ten and her family lived in Davis, California, she had presented her parents with a fully-fleshed out plan for a summer vacation trip to nearby Half Moon Bay, which was possibly her favorite place on Earth. She had thought of everything: hotel recommendations, places to eat, even a sketched-out itinerary (horseback riding was pre-approved). She loved the beach, in all its wildness and beauty. She also knew how to make her case.

But last fall, when she was back in California for a visit, she saw the state she loved go up in flames as the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people, raged across Northern California. Smoke from the fire triggered her asthma—even a few minutes outside made her lungs hurt. She could barely find a flight on which to escape home to New York.

When she got back to New York, she learned about how California's changing, drying climate had helped fuel the flames. She started sitting in on classes that her mother, Kristin Hogue, was taking at Columbia University, where Hogue was enrolled in a program that focused on the intersection between climate change and human society. Alexandria soaked in presentations on everything from the physics of the jet stream to plans for designing rainwater capture programs in Costa Rica. The two did homework together, and Alexandria asked more and more questions.

Alexandria has never known a climate unchanged by human activity; it's possible that no one alive today has. But within her lifetime, the planet has experienced five of the hottest years ever recorded. As Alexandria was planning her dream vacation to Half Moon Bay, global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations passed 400 parts per million, a concentration not exceeded within at least the last three million years

And the forecasts for the future? Even more dire. By the end of the century, supercharged heatwaves could render some parts of Asia seasonally uninhabitable. Rising seas and more powerful storm surges could drown some low-lying island nations in the South Pacific. Within the U.S., the impacts of climate change, from the wildfires Alexandria experienced to the climate change-fueled Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Florence, are already playing out.

Realizing just how devastating future warming could be to the planet—to her future—was life-changing. “A lot of people don’t like to hear the results of all the science we know about now,” Alexandria says. “When I first started learning about it, I almost started crying, because this isn’t yet taught to the general public. There’s this fear that we know so much and we’re still not doing anything about it.”

So when Alexandria spent Friday after Friday in her chilly, lonely protest, she told herself it didn’t really matter whether anyone paid attention. She was confronting a massive global problem that touches everyone, everywhere, and is already affecting the world as she knows it. A little discomfort seemed like a fair price.

The band comes together

But people were, in fact, paying attention—like 12-year old Haven Coleman, who saw Alexandria's tweets and Instagram posts from her home in Denver, Colorado.

Haven was no stranger to climate activism. She'd been speaking out about climate change for two years, ever since a middle-school social-studies teacher laid out the reality of environmental destruction to her.

“I just loved, loved, loved sloths,” says Haven giddily. “Loved them! And I got so, so sad when I heard that they might die because of us,” after she learned how deforestation in the Amazon was threatening sloth populations. She went down a research rabbit hole. To save sloths, deforestation should stop. And if deforestation stopped, it would also help with this other huge problem she was learning about: climate change. As soon as she started learning about the ways climate would upend the world as she knew it, it was like she didn’t have a choice, she says. It was activism by necessity.

Ever since, Haven has worked with the Climate Reality Project—Al Gore's climate advocacy group—to spread the word about what exactly a changing climate meant for kids like her. She runs education sessions in schools to teach other middle schoolers about the issue, and in 2017, she confronted a climate-denying Colorado congressman at a town hall.

So when she saw Alexandria, Greta, and other young people climate striking? It seemed like a logical next step. Soon enough, she had started her own Friday strikes, setting up near the broad stone steps of the Denver Capital Building and building out and idea for a big, national strike.

Soon, Haven looped in 16-year old Isra Hirsi, of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Isra was a practiced organizer, steeped in political activism from the time she was small. Her father works as a policy aide in local government; her mother, Ilhan Omar, was recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (and has attracted media attention for her controversial comments about Israel). For years, Isra had attended marches with local youth groups such as iMatter. By 2018, she had coordinated with more than a hundred local students to protest U.S. gun violence.

At the same time, she started getting interested in environmental social justice issues. She had joined her school's recycling group and through that experience started learning more about the environment. At the same time, she was reading about lead contamination in Flint, Michigan's water supply and the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline. Isra realized that environmental issues such as climate change and social justice intersected in a million different ways. Before she knew it, Isra was working with iMatter and another youth advocacy group, Minnesota Can’t Wait, on a proposal calling for the state to produce net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Isra was thrilled to join the team, which could make good use of her organizing acumen. “It wasn't our parents, it wasn't any adults: this whole thing is all run by middle school, high school, and college students,” she says. “We're doing this all by ourselves—it's literally just us, working really hard, because we understand the impacts of climate change and we really have to do something about it."

A few weeks later, Haven and Alexandria connected, and the conversation bloomed. Alexandria had been also been planning something bigger than her chilly, solitary strikes: She wanted to organize a national event that would focus adults’ attention and give young people something to coalesce around. As they typed, they realized it made sense to join forces.

The strike approaches

With the team assembled, its co-leads talked constantly: text messages, Instagram, email, and video conferences. They brokered deals with their principals to check their phones during lunch, and they enlisted their parents to help manage the stream of texts and emails pinging their phones.

With each passing day, the project branched and morphed with dizzying speed. A collaborator built them a website. Kids started volunteering to organize strikes in their hometowns, in almost every single U.S. state. Organizations including the Sierra Club and 350.org offered support. “Every three days, the world changes, something enormous in the planning changes. It’s that fast-moving,” says Alexandria's mother Hogue.

Most of all, they organized. It was hard, but it was also filled with an almost giddy fizz. Alexandria and Haven, some of whose friends hadn't joined them in protest, found community amongst those who did. Isra, meanwhile, was reaching out to her network of young activists, including 16-year old Maddy Fernands, now the Youth Climate Strike's press director. Suddenly finding themselves surrounded by a group of capable, forceful young people who cared just as much about the climate crisis as they did—that was a balm. That was motivation.

The growing team soon hammered out a set of demands, asking for a range of different things relating to climate change. They wanted action on a Green New Deal, government policy that would address climate change and climate justice; they wanted mandatory, scientifically precise climate change predictions in government decision making; and more. Crucially, all three co-leaders recognized that they’d gotten only a cursory education on climate change in school, if at all, and that a sticking point for many young people they knew was that they just didn’t know about climate change. So they also demanded that educational curricula from kindergarten through eighth-grade must include discussion of climate change and its impacts.

“We spent a whole section of science class learning about atomic structures, but I got only a rudimentary understanding of climate change from school,” says Maddy. “It’s really insufficient, that we only talked about it for a second, compared to the magnitude of what climate change is doing to the world right now.”

Grown-ups could have fixed this problem, say the organizers. But instead they’d left the problem to future generations. And they weren’t even going to teach them about it? It was insult piled on planetary injury, the young activists felt.

More and more volunteers joined the team, offering to take charge of strikes from coast to coast and beyond. At the same time, attention to the march grew. Alexandria went on television to talk about the strike, and the floodgates opened up. Two weeks before the planned March 15 strikes, over 110 people joined a planning call, chiming in with typed-out questions and linking together as teams.

What should I do if I can’t make it to a strike, asked one participant. “Bang on a pot in class!” Haven said—and make sure to tell people why you’re doing it!

“It’s going to be super-duper epic,” Haven said to the group, as she flashed the map of the planned strikes onto the screen. “Can you believe it? Look at this map—it’s amazing! We will not be ignored!”

At this point, the signs are made; the states are organized; the speakers are scheduled. What’s left? The marches themselves. On Friday, the co-leads hope that thousands of students will do whatever they can to bring attention to the demands of the Youth Climate Strike. They won’t be alone: Similar strikes are planned around the world.

But for the co-leads—and for kids across the world—this one day of strikes is only the beginning. They’re learning to coordinate with other groups, plan more strikes, and reach even bigger audiences. “When I first became aware of climate change I felt hopeless,” said Alexandria during the planning call. “Now, I feel so much more powerful.”