ARTICLE

The Youth-Led Global Climate Strike and Celebrating Student Action

This Friday, students worldwide will strike to demand action on climate change. Educators should take the opportunity to support student learning and action.
Photography by Getty Images/Sarah Silbiger

On Friday, September 20, youth across the United States and across the world will strike, demanding that adults in power take action to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. The strike promises to be the largest of many that have occurred each week for months, with adult-led organizations joining an existing coalition of youth-led groups that have been on the forefront. 

The strikers’ demands within the United States—according to strikewithus.org—include:

  • A “Green New Deal” that accomplishes “100% clean, renewable energy by 2030.”
  • An honoring of treaties that protect Indigenous lands and sovereignty. 
  • Plans that acknowledge “communities on the frontlines of poverty and pollution” and welcome refugees displaced by the effects of climate change. 
  • The protection and restoration of worldwide lands, oceans and forests.
  • And a shift of investment priorities toward “farmers and regenerative agriculture” and away from industrial or corporate agriculture.

Regardless of an educator’s views on which policies could best address climate change, this massive youth-led movement and moment present opportunities to enhance student learning and agency. Here’s how to take advantage of them. 

 

Recognize Youth Agency and Leadership

Supporting and building capacity for student action is a central pillar of Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards. From the civil rights movement to recent youth-led movements to stop gun violence, we have asked educators to learn from young people’s activism and to instill students with an understanding of their power and value. Role models beget role models.

The Global Climate Strike offers an avenue toward both goals. Educators can introduce students to young people around the world who have truly been at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice—and made a difference in the face of apathy. Perhaps most famously, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has helped inspire global action and conversation through her activism. She just traveled by emission-free sailboat to the U.S. to testify before Congress and take part in this week of action, all the while pushing back against the stigma surrounding Asperger’s syndrome. But Thunberg isn’t in this work alone. And educators should consider introducing students to the diverse coalition of young people calling for climate justice. 

For example, young Indigenous activists have long led from the front on these issues. The protests and activism at Standing Rock began with a group of young Indigenous people called ‘Water Protectors.’ Before Thunberg, activists like Earth Guardians Youth Director Xiuhtezcatl Martinez spoke before the United Nations, served on President Obama’s youth council and became a named plaintiff in a lawsuit that charges the U.S. government with denying youth life, liberty and property through the failure to protect them from climate change. 

The coalition behind Friday’s strike includes groups like the International Indigenous Youth Council, a group founded by women and two-spirit people who met at Standing Rock. Introducing students to these activists provides them not only with examples of youth agency but also with examples of contemporary Indigenous people and issues often absent from curricula.

Even as schools often ignore the historical and contemporary contributions of young people, these activists have inspired and garnered the attention of lawmakers and influencers worldwide—and that’s an important lesson to pass on. Too often, students receive the message that their opinions don’t matter, that their actions and activism are without consequence. But the environmental justice movement—just like movements for civil rights and an end to gun violence—illustrates the opposite. The changing conversation around climate change, from the ‘Green New Deal’ to efforts by many nations to curtail carbon and fossil fuel emissions, has a lot to do with the demands of young people. That power is worth acknowledging and applauding. 

 

Support Student Action 

Students in your school or classroom may want to participate in Friday’s strike. No matter your feelings on the efficacy of walkouts, your support of student action can take many forms. And it can have many benefits. 

For students interested in or curious about the Global Climate Strike, educators can turn this into a learning opportunity. Discuss the demands being made by youth activists. Connect their methods of action with your curriculum. Push students to think more deeply about why young people are choosing to walk out in the middle of the day versus holding the march on a weekend; what purposes might disruption and disobedience serve? Helping students develop their abilities to see problems and possible solutions, to judge the efficacy of collective action, and to make historical connections is not an extra-curricular diversion—it’s helping students build transferable, interdisciplinary critical thinking skills. 

For some educators, support will also look like permission. This might mean forgoing punishment and acknowledging that there are things more important than coming to school. New York City Public Schools, for example, granted its more than 1 million students permission to participate in the strike if they have parental consent. For others, support might look like a lesson in civil disobedience. As one school leader wrote on our site, there are supportive ways to illustrate the history of moral decisions attended by consequences. A student can weigh the value of a cause versus the value of not receiving a referral slip. Whether you march alongside your students, provide them with context or provide them a lesson on consequence, make sure your action is grounded in support of their power, not a display of yours. 

Support can also go beyond the strike. This is an opportunity to let students lead from within and to connect the message of Friday’s strike with their immediate school community. Educators can embrace this movement as a chance to have students examine their school and classroom in terms of environmental justice and sustainability. A science or math teacher, for example, may have students figure out how much energy and fossil fuel their school is using and devise solutions to lessen the environmental impact. Any teacher can work with students to develop environmentally sound classroom practices. 

Illustrating how students can change their micro contexts will open the door to their understanding of how they can improve their macro contexts. 

 

Talk About a Social Justice Issue Defining Your Students’ Futures

That context is important. In the United States, the issue of climate change has become so divisive—and so often framed as belief versus disbelief rather than an impending crisis—that many educators hold the subject at arm’s length. It is yet another controversial topic that can lead to pushback. And thus it’s often not part of the core curriculum.

But Friday’s strike is big—too big to ignore. There are tips for teaching about climate change for almost any subject. There are resources for teaching about climate science. There are historical connections to be made to the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. And the Green Earth Book Award lists might help educators find engaging books for students on topics of environmentalism and the effects of climate change from a number of perspectives. 

But it’s also a social justice issue. The effects of climate change are already acutely and disproportionately felt by Indigenous people, people in vulnerable geographic locations, people experiencing poverty and people in poor health. This lesson plan from The New York Times can begin to help students understand climate change as a present and inequitable danger. 

More fundamentally, Friday’s strike illustrates how much this issue matters to young people today. If students have the courage to plan and take action, educators can at least have the courage to support them.

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.