How High School Students Are Collaborating to Organize Youth Climate Strikes

Insights + Opinion

From Left to Right: Elise Malterre, Ari Borzea and Liam Neupert. Ocean Heroes Bootcamp

By Ocean Heroes Liam Neupert and Elise Malterre

Young people are often told that they don’t have the ability to truly make a difference in the world. Not being able to vote can be a very powerless feeling. Youth are discouraged to be engaged in politics because, in theory, they don’t have as much life experience or perspective. We, Elise and Liam, wanted to challenge this idea, especially when it comes to climate change. With the impending reality of our earth’s demise, we took it upon ourselves to create a difference in Boise, Idaho, the place we both call home.

Elise: I have grown up backpacking, rafting, camping, and adventuring all through our beautiful state. From where I live now, I can be on a hiking trail in under ten minutes. Growing up with this exposure to the outdoors from a young age makes the idea of losing these resources something truly, truly terrifying. In the past few years, I have started working with organizations to conserve both on a local and global scale. I’ve become more and more passionate about ocean conservation and the effect that we have on coral reef destruction, ocean acidification, and plastic pollution from a land-locked state over 500 miles from the ocean. It breaks my heart to see the apathy of our population as the living world we take for granted rapidly dies. The oceans impact all of our lives, no matter where we live. This climate emergency we face covers all walks of life, so we all need to engage in combating and mitigating it from every angle, whether that is the food we eat, the clothing we wear, the land we live on, the vehicles we drive, or the bottles we drink water from. I have made choices on an individual level to go vegan, lower my consumption of all products, minimize plastic and other waste, ride my bike or walk whenever possible, and overall lower personal impact. This is really important, but I also see the need for large scale changes from governments and corporations to truly stop the destruction and begin to rebuild however we still can.

Liam: I haven’t really grown up in an “outdoorsy” family but I have always loved being outside and enjoying nature. When I was younger I was always outside running around, playing games, and just soaking up the sun and I still find it so necessary for me to take time almost every day to just go outside and breathe in the air. As I have gotten older and began to make my own decisions, I found myself looking into the different impacts that animal products have on the environment which led to my switch to veganism. I also began to see how terrible most of the industries we have today are. Because of this research, I quit fast fashion by only buying second hand and/or if I really can’t find something that second hand, I purchase through sustainable brands. I have also switched my personal consumption to as low waste as is accessible for me. For me, that means bringing my water bottle, coffee cup, and utensils wherever I go, but I also try to buy my groceries package free and work to educate others on individual impacts. All of these changes have been because of the urgency that is the climate crisis. We as youth haven’t been given a ton of power for voice, but we are the ones who are going to have to face the effects of the climate crisis at its worst.

Elise: We started hearing about Greta Thunburg around the same time as the rest of the world, as she skipped school to protest for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament in August of 2018. Suddenly, more and more climate strikes were beginning to gain momentum and attract attention. Organizations like Zero Hour, Fridays for Future, and US Youth Climate Strike were making headlines, and thus the youth climate movement was born and thriving. We decided to join the rest of the world to show our local and national politicians that climate action is critical, and we won’t sit idly by watching the continuation of exploitation of earth’s natural resources.

Liam: In mid-February of 2019, a local youth activist organization posted the news around the March 15th strike called on by Alexandria Villasenor on their social media feed. When I saw that people were finally getting together to create some action behind the climate crisis, I was ecstatic and quickly wrote back, “How can I help? Who is leading this?” and only after a few minutes received a message back saying “no one in Idaho had stepped up to put our name on the map, this could be a great opportunity for you!” Once I heard that, I quickly sent an email to the US Youth Climate Strikes saying I wanted to be the state lead for the climate strikes, and within the next few days, I had been added to the national slack team and shared google folder. I quickly realized that it couldn’t be done alone and I knew Elise was extremely passionate about environmental issues, so I told her there was no way she was not helping me with this, and of course, she happily agreed. From there, we began creating a team, getting logistics ready and striking every Friday, just as Greta does. It first started with me sitting alone on the steps but soon Elise and other members of our group began to join in.

Elise: As the weeks went on, more and more students joined us to strike on the steps of the Capitol, but our crowd was never more than five or six people. Generally, most of the interactions we had were with people in support, then one Friday, some high schoolers drove by at their lunch break and yelled, “F*** climate change. There’s still snow!” There had been so much support from our immediate circle of friends, family, and school, that we hadn’t faced must backlash until this drastic shift in tone. As our social media presence grew and we gained more attention, we had to face challenges of negative and often incredibly insulting comments on Instagram, more yelling at the Capitol as people drove by, or even stopping as they walked by to tell us how ignorant and uneducated we are. As we sat on the Capitol steps, politician after politician would completely write us off as they walked by. It is amazingly discouraging to be up against our people with adamantly opposing opinions, who have authority, a fancy title, and an incredible amount of doubt in your knowledge and capabilities. At the same time, this became our fuel to prove them wrong.

Liam: After Elise and I solidified that we were going to do lead the strikes I began to reach out via social media, posting on my Instagram story asking who would be interested in helping out. Within a day, we had made a team and the craziness that is planning a protest began. With a group of about 12, it had its difficulties: trouble communicating, low turn out to calls, and much more, but through it, Elise and I definitely found out how to pull our own weight and the weight of others. I was spending endless hours in and out of school working on things such as emails, press, permits, outreach, and just generally how to create a protest from the ground up.

After a month of hard passion-driven work, it was finally the day we had been waiting for, only about 3 hours of sleep but a ton of excitement for what was about to happen. In the end, our protest went better than we could have imagined. We had over 300 people turn out to support climate action, around 200 of those students. We had speakers from all angles, schools, races, identities, and we even had a local representative give a speech to show her support for the cause. The energy between us and the crowd was electric and you could tell we were there to make change. I can personally say that when I was speaking, I was buzzing and that was a feeling of passion and excitement that I have never felt before. Beyond our speakers, we also had letters for people to write to legislatures and had a local zero waste shop pop up to educate people on the impacts your individual waste can have.

Jason Sievers

Jason Sievers

Elise: We wanted clear objectives and action items, to ensure that the strike had a lasting impact beyond just a one-day event. We set up two letter-writing stations at the strike where anyone could write a postcard to a politician about why they demand climate action and acknowledgment of the climate emergency from our local government to be distributed across our legislative branches. Overall, I would definitely agree that it was a huge success. One of the security guards even said it was one of the most peaceful and well-organized protests he had seen at the Capitol! It was such an empowering feeling to be up on the steps speaking about something I, and so many others, are so passionate about. At one point, the microphone stopped working, so I had to yell half of my speech to a crowd of 300 people, half of which could barely hear me. The crowd remained so supportive (with the exception of a few hecklers) throughout the entire speech and the event itself. I was proud of my fellow citizens of Boise for standing up for what we believe in to make a difference. Following the strike, Liam and I were invited to speak to a group of legislators, were interviewed by our local NPR station, and were featured in Boise Weekly, Idaho Press, and Idaho News. Beyond that, there have been countless individuals that came up to us after the event, or messaged us through social media thanking us for putting in the work to make change. We have so many more people wanting to get involved to make the next strike even bigger and better. I am moving to New York for school this year, so the Idaho Climate Strike team will look different moving forward. I will continue to work with Liam on sustainability and conservation efforts, but my role will be changing very soon.

Liam: Since then, both Elise and I have been doing tons of work related to the climate crisis. We were both given the amazing opportunity to go to Vancouver for the three-day Ocean Heroes Bootcamp co-founded by actor Adrian Grenier’s Lonely Whale, Captain Planet Foundation, and Point Break Foundation, which equips kids passionate about our environment to create campaigns to reduce plastic pollution and implement them in their hometowns

As for next steps, I don’t know exactly what it will look like. As for personal projects, I am currently looking into ways to make the idea of low waste more accessible to everyone. I am also working to find an organization that I can really connect with for the work I want to help with related to climate. Of course, one big next step is the September 20th strikes that most states in the U.S. are doing. You can easily find out if there is one happening near you by looking up the Youth Climate Strikes and if there isn’t one happening in your area, I recommend taking on that challenge. Yes, it is a lot of work, but working on the strike is something I personally loved doing and I would recommend anyone who wants to get engaged in climate work to simply reach out to the organizations out there such as Zero Hour, Sunrise Movement, and the many more that exist out there.

Soon after the Climate Strike, whether related or not, we heard the exciting news that Idaho Power pledged to stop using coal, and rely solely on clean energy sources by 2045.

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