Between September 20 and 27, over 6000 protests took place in 185 countries as part of the Global Week for Future. Students walked out of classes, workers went on strike, and millions gathered to demand climate justice and take action against corporate greed and negligence. These strikes, which were part of Greta Thunberg’s historic Fridays for Future campaign, shared the common goal of raising awareness about the dangers of fossil fuels. According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists agree that it is still possible to avoid climate catastrophe if we can dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2030. This reduction is only possible if we increase the share of renewable energy sources (hydroelectric, solar, and wind), while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
When we learned that students and workers worldwide would be striking for climate justice, we felt that Uni High students should take part in this historic effort. We reached out to several student activist groups from the University of Illinois to ask about their plans for the strike. Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS) invited us to participate in planning a local event. SECS, the University’s oldest and largest environmental action group, works to “maintain the stability, integrity, and beauty of the natural world, promote and participate in the sustainable food revolution, and pursue clean energy on and off campus.” You can find more information about SECS on their Facebook page or by attending their weekly meeting at the campus YMCA. The President of SECS, Abbi Pstzroch, led the organizing committee and welcomed input and advice from high school students.
The SECS climate strike supported the global movement’s overarching goal of reducing carbon emissions while promoting clean energy, though we also focused on state and local goals. We protested Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker’s inaction against fracking, which he has publicly denounced but has yet to take action against. Additionally, Pritzker hasn’t realized his promise to help pass the Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). The proposed CEJA is comprehensive energy legislation that aims to help Illinois transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050, with a focus on developing wind and solar power while keeping costs low. The CEJA would also help electrify public transportation and support clean energy workers across the state as the economy transitions. Despite the overwhelming advantages for workers, consumers, and our climate should the CEJA be enacted, Pritzker hasn’t meaningfully pushed the legislation because of pressure from coal and natural gas companies, who only care about their profits. The governor’s failure to support the CEJA demonstrates how corporate greed halts environmental progress and harms everyone involved.
The SECS strike also hoped to pressure the University of Illinois into divesting from fossil fuels. SECS has taken action in the past to encourage divestment, including rallies, strikes, and petitions signed by hundreds of students. They have successfully passed divestment resolutions through the Student Senate and the Academic Senate—though the University Board of Trustees is reluctant to divest from environmentally irresponsible corporations, because then they would feel pressure to divest from all the shady corporations they have historically supported. The Trustees also cite concerns about how UIUC’s actions could affect the other two University of Illinois campuses, though these excuses fail to address the fundamental issues at hand.
Previous events had shown that marches and rallies were effective as forms of protest on campus, so we agreed to organize the strike as two separate marches, followed by a massive rally. University students and community members gathered by the Undergraduate Library before marching around the main quad. Inspired by the success of the GEO strike in 2018, we adopted their marching tactics, in which protesters divide into small picketing groups around strategic buildings. Meanwhile, Uni High students congregated outside the Siebel Center, before marching around the Engineering Quad and eventually meeting up with the Main Quad group. Students from Urbana High School and Campus Middle School for Girls joined the march to make one final loop around the main quad.
The march was followed by a rally in front of the Alma Mater. We wanted the rally to be held in a prominent location, where people could easily stop to learn about our cause. There were a few information booths set up near the Alma, allowing participants to sign petitions against fracking and get stickers from environmental organizations. We planned a short program of speakers to kick off the rally and provide a variety of perspectives. The Uni student organizers, Anya Kaplan-Hartnett, Erin Minor, and Jenna Lee, began by speaking about their frustrations with our current economic and political system, which serves to exploit both people and the planet. Then Kathy Bustin, a German climate activist visiting the US as part of the Re-writing/Re-righting Cassandra Project, delivered an inspiring opening speech about the need for action. Reverend Florence Caplow from the Unitarian Universalist Church spoke about the connections between spirituality and protecting the planet, and confirmed her church’s support for the movement. SECS President Abbi Pstzroch concluded with the message that our energy has to continue past the strike in order to make lasting change.
After the planned speeches, we opened the floor to community members. Several representatives from campus socialist organizations spoke about the need for system change in order to combat climate change. Students from Campus Middle School for Girls emotionally articulated their fears about growing up with the threat of ecological catastrophe. Liberty Gibb from Urbana High School explained her personal commitment to environmental justice. University students studying environmental studies spoke about the imperative to learn about our complex climate and find sustainable solutions. The wide range of speakers confirmed our determination that the climate crisis can only be faced through collaboration.
After the rally concluded, a group of students remained to stage a series of “die-ins” at the crowded intersection of Green and Wright Streets. Students would race into the intersection during the pedestrian crossing period, quickly pretend to die, and then run back to the curb before car traffic continued. The die-ins sparked conversation between onlookers and protesters, and forced passersby to notice our cause. We made sure that everyone remained safe, while also making a powerful statement. Several students also recorded interviews with the participants following the strike, which facilitated conversation about future actions.
Organizing the strike showed us the amazing support and enthusiasm this community shares. We received support from the Prairie Rivers Network, the Sierra Club Prairie Group, and Fossil Free UIUC while planning the event. Local publications such as Smile Politely and the News-Gazette published articles about the strike, which helped garner greater local attention. Smile Politely also produced a short video featuring some of the strike organizers and participants, which is available online at http://www.smilepolitely.com/culture/illinois_students_participate_in_global_climate_strike_week/.
We were inspired by the collaboration between campus and community, which allowed participants of all ages and perspectives to join in one unified display of solidarity. While we marched, millions of others worldwide were standing with us. In the face of climate catastrophe, our local climate strike showed us that this community is ready to fight for justice.
Anya Kaplan-Hartnett is a senior at Uni High. She has been involved in organizing the 2018 teach-in for gun control and the 2019 strike for climate justice. Anya interned for Betsy Dirksen Londrigan for Congress last year and hopes to continue learning about local politics in college.