Ella Suring, a Berkeley High senior, takes notes about the climate-related projects that the students will develop in the next year. Suring, with the help of other students and a teacher, organized the Climate Summit held at Berkeley’s YMCA Teen Center on October 12, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera / Berkeleyside/ Catchlight

One afternoon in October, following North America’s second-hottest summer on record, a couple dozen Berkeley teenagers exchanged their schoolwork for something more pressing: climate action. Expo markers in hand, Berkeley High students etched notes on a whiteboard, shaping a plan for how they could make a difference in the environmental justice movement. 

The day-long event was the brainchild of Ella Suring, a 17-year-old climate activist behind a first-of-its-kind climate literacy resolution last year. Her vision for the climate summit was to bring together students from all corners of the high school who cared about the climate and organize everyone around a few, concrete projects.

“We are planning for the future of Berkeley High and in the surrounding community as well,” said Suring, who will graduate from Berkeley High this spring. “I came in a little apprehensive because … it’s not something I’ve done before. But I was so inspired by all of the students and what they brought to the table.”

Maddie Philhower screen prints tote bags with the message, “Bring your All,” during the climate summit. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley High has a smorgasbord of student groups dedicated to protecting the environment, Suring explained. There’s the Green Team and the Sunrise Hub, a Zero Waste Club, Bee Positive, a new beekeeping club and a new branch of an organization called Youth vs. Apocalypse. There are all sorts of other groups, too, not explicitly oriented toward environmental action, that are keen to make a difference.

In a school as large as Berkeley High, it can be challenging for all the groups to work together, but Suring wanted to try, hence the “Unite the Fight” climate summit, held on Oct. 12 in the YMCA teen center a block away from the high school. 

Working with the BHS climate teacher leader Aryn Faur, Suring created an application for the summit at the beginning of the school year and then hand-picked students from a diverse range of grades, ethnicities and experience levels in climate work. Her goal was concrete: to create “a working group of sorts” that will meet monthly, with subcommittees pushing toward different goals.

The summit featured speeches from teenagers Hannah Estrada and Aniya Butler from Youth vs. Apocalypse, a youth climate activist organization. Estrada talked about the intersection of race and class in climate justice and Butler, an Oakland high schooler, performed a slam poem on the topic, explaining to students how they could get involved. 

Students from the BHS Muslim Students Association also gave a presentation on the devastating floods in Pakistan that submerged a third of the county in water and killed more than 1,700 people, advising their classmates on how they could raise awareness. The co-leaders of the Native Student Union gave a speech about Indigenous land stewardship. Even “as the state of planet Earth becomes more dire … Indigenous people are continually ousted out of the conversation,” senior Rita Azul said during the speech.

Working behind the scenes to pull it all off was Suring, a curly-haired teenager with a passion for the environment and a penchant for getting things done. On the day of the summit, she shied away from the limelight, preferring to let others take the microphone, but she managed, with help of two friends — Zeia Bachrach and Shanza Syed — and a teacher, to pull off a professional-caliber conference.

Students made environment-themed pins during the climate summit. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Rita Azul and Emiliano Santana, co-leaders of the Native Student Union at BHS, gave a speech on Indigenous land stewardship. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The day culminated in a goal-setting workshop led by Suring, Bachrach and Syed. Students called out priorities for action while the facilitators scribbled notes on the board.

How could Berkeley High become a more sustainable campus? students asked. What about installing solar panels? How much energy does BHS use? Would planning an assembly during Earth Week be effective? Could someone investigate the measures in place to reduce the impact of climate change in the local community? Who are the biggest local polluters?  

Others wanted to see the environmental movement at BHS become more inclusive to reflect the way climate change intersects other forms of oppression. 

Earlier in the day, Butler, the youth activist and poet from Oakland Unified, had described climate change as the “result of foundational oppressive systems” and something that “exacerbates social injustice.” The idea stuck. One student suggested they reach out to groups like the Black Student Union. Another wanted to do presentations to teach younger students their perspective on the issue.

Eventually, the group whittled their priorities down to three areas:

  1. Supporting the climate literacy work that Suring spearheaded, including, potentially, a new, hands-on permaculture course at Berkeley High.
  2. Educating students, at Berkeley High and at elementary schools, about how climate change impacts everyone and has a disproportionate impact on certain communities.
  3. Connecting with Youth vs. Apocalypse on a campaign to divest California teacher pensions from fossil fuels.

By day’s end, the students had each chosen a group to participate in and walked away with a plan to meet on a regular basis to keep the work moving forward. As for Suring, she hopes the foundation she helped lay will be enough to leave an enduring mark.

“My goal this year is to leave a lasting legacy that will just survive longer than just the few years that I spent with activism in the district,” Suring said.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...