Sam Saxe-Taller may be barely old enough to get a work permit, but he has a bright yellow patch calling for “green jobs for all” pinned to his jacket.
He and his classmate Hannah Freedman, both Berkeley High sophomores, know that when scientists come up with deadlines for saving the planet, they’re talking about the survival of today’s youth.
“It’s our futures, and we feel adults have not really valued them, when they’re putting in policies that benefit the fossil fuel industry and benefit their own wages,” said Freedman, 16.
Saxe-Taller and Freedman organized hundreds of their BHS classmates to join the crowds of youth “climate strike” participants who skipped school Friday to march in San Francisco and pressure politicians to protect the environment. Similar demonstrations took place at several schools in Berkeley — and nearly 2,000 sites around the world — inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Students from at least five BUSD schools held protests.
Everyone should be joining the young people in the streets, said Saxe–Taller, 15.
“For me, one thing about the degradation of the environment, is it’s going to be oppressive conditions for all human beings. If we don’t take the environment seriously, then we’re not taking anyone seriously,” he said.
At 8:30 a.m. Friday, Saxe-Taller walked through the throngs of teenagers gathered in Civic Center Park, across from the high school entrance, while Freedman took up a megaphone to announce the availability of BART tickets for anyone who couldn’t afford them.
“I’m excited, this is huge,” Saxe-Taller said, looking around.
The crowd later headed en masse to BART, pouring into trains bound for downtown San Francisco. Other BHS students went straight to the city, where marchers, organized by Youth Vs. Apocalypse, protested outside Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s office. They then marched to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s.
Once the older kids cleared out of the Berkeley park, another student contingent — both the crowd and the kids smaller in size — marched into it.
Juniper Grace, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Washington Elementary, got the idea to organize her friends after watching a speech by Thunberg.
“She said, ‘Either we’re going to solve climate change or we aren’t,'” Grace recalled. “That moment was when I was like, yeah, I want to do this, I want to solve climate change.”
So far, she’s spread the word to her classmates and reduced her own carbon footprint.
“Almost every single day I scooter to school instead of driving,” she said.
At 10 a.m. Friday, she and seven of her friends marched the two blocks to the park — trailed by their parents.
“We’re always proud when students decide to stand up and use their voice to address an issue that’s important to them,” said Principal Katia Hazen in an email. “Because Juniper’s in elementary school, we’ve asked her family to sign her out if she needs to leave campus for this activity.”
The kids were joined in the park by older students who’d marched more than a mile from King Middle School.
All across town, students at elementary schools like Jefferson and Cragmont, and the private The Berkeley School, held their own climate demonstrations, some school-sanctioned and on campus. Malcolm X fourth-grader Moses Trujillo recently started the Polar Bear Club, a climate group that held an early-morning rally outside the school.
At Civic Center Park, Grace’s classmates deftly climbed on top of a fountain and held homemade signs aloft. Some noticed, with horror, crushed plastic water bottles and torn food wrappers littering the ground below, and got to work cleaning up the trash.
Unlike the younger children, the teenagers who missed class at Berkeley High won’t get their absences excused — and that’s the point, said the organizers.
“People are worried about absences, which I think is one of those problems we kind of have to have,” Saxe-Taller said. “One central part of the national strike platform is we’re doing this because striking from school will disrupt the social order and force people to listen to us.”
“The school doesn’t get their money when we don’t come,” Freedman added.
Both of the older students got involved in strike through the local social justice group Jewish Youth for Community Action, which has connections with Youth Vs. Apocalypse, a project of 350 Bay Area, and the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate organization.
The students said their San Francisco protest will likely focus on the Green New Deal resolution, a wide-reaching set of environmental and economic policy proposals, running the gamut from transportation infrastructure improvements and 100% renewable energy to affordable housing and higher education. A video of students from the Sunrise Movement confronting Feinstein about the Green New Deal in February went viral, drawing criticism of the senator’s dismissive response.
Freedman said she’s excited about the Green New Deal because it takes “economic justice and combines that with climate justice.”
“Climate change especially oppresses people of low socioeconomic status and minorities,” she said. “Those communities have generally been so much more affected by climate change than other communities, and yet they have less of a voice.”
Although they encouraged their classmates to leave school on Friday, Freedman and Saxe-Taller would like to see climate change come up more in class too.
“Sure, in my biology class last year we had a section of time when we learned about carbon dioxide and how gases are getting trapped in the atmosphere,” Freedman said. “But that doesn’t really prove the severity of the issue. One thing I think should be focused on more is climate history. Climate change is not a brand new thing. Sure, it is more impactful right now, with the biggest effects we’ve seen, but there are so many times in the past where climate change could have been stopped.”
In the fall, Berkeley Unified adopted a sustainability plan, aiming to incorporate environmental literacy across the curriculum and reduce waste and energy consumption in schools. The School Board tossed about $100,000 at the plan in November to help get it off the ground. Some classrooms have already gone “zero waste,” nearly eliminating the trash they produce. The district is also awaiting the arrival of eight new grant-funded electric buses, replacing old diesel vehicles.
For younger kids, there’s a fine line between teaching them respect for the environment and terrifying them, adults say.
If you tell the truth, “you’re going to say things that are scary for small people,” said Tom Price, Grace’s father.
Price, who works in the climate field, said he is both “proud and worried, honestly,” watching his daughter develop into an environmental activist.
“We should be panicking, we should be absolutely losing our minds,” he said. “The reason we’re not is because humans just aren’t designed to imagine problems this big, this systemic, this existential. What’s been inspiring is seeing children say, hey, this is a problem.”
One of the Berkeley fifth-graders who marched Friday didn’t seem too downtrodden.
“I came out here because, one, I love the climate, and two, I hate school, so it’s a great way to get out of school,” said Azi, 10, laughing. “But mostly because I love the climate.”