Eighteen-year-old Amalia Hochman is a challenging teenager to get ahold of.
As a senior in high school, she’s busy, but not with extracurricular activities or studying for chemistry tests. Hochman is consumed by her work as a Sunrise Movement youth organizer. After returning from a national training session held last week in Durham, North Carolina, she’s now home in Boston, planning additional sessions and region-wide strikes.
“I am going to be out and about all day doing strike stuff today but could be on a call if it would be ok that I’m multitasking. If that doesn’t work then I might have some time tomorrow afternoon,” Hochman said in an email two weeks ago, after several failed call attempts.
By “strike stuff,” Hochman was referring to the national Dec. 6 climate strike, where young people from dozens of climate movements rallied at Capitol buildings or city halls around the country, demanding elected officials back drastic environmental overhauls. When we finally got to talk, it was clear she had a lot on her plate.
“I was sitting down with someone who’s staff at Sunrise National over the weekend, and I was telling her, ‘I’m holding down logistics and I’m a trainer, and I’m helping to run the action afterward,’ and she just looked at me and said, ‘Amalia, what are you doing? You need to take a few steps back because that’s not sustainable and you need to take care of yourself more,’” Hochman said.
“I feel like because this crisis is so urgent and feels so urgent, it’s so hard to not just go, go, go. I feel like we’re all kind of holding ourselves accountable in that way.”
But taking breaks are necessary to effectively engage in climate organizing. After Swedish 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg was named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year last week, she told reporters in Turin, Italy, “I will be home for Christmas and then I will take a holiday break because you need to take rest. Otherwise, you cannot do this all the time.”
Increasingly, and as the climate movement gains greater momentum, experts question the impact advocacy places on the youth leaders taking ownership of the issue — sometimes as young as middle school-aged. Those on the frontlines of this crisis are growing up quickly as the activism begins to influence their education paths, participation in school and social lives — all while the threat of existential climate change and the lack of a foreseeable future looms overhead.
“On one hand [student activists are] learning a lot from doing this sort of bottom-up grassroots organizing, and that’s exciting, but on the other hand, they’re kids. Some of them as young as ten or eleven, and it’s creating anxiety,” said Natalia Linos, executive director of the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.
“Realistically, they’re not the ones making the decisions. The decisions are being made still by the regular forces, so it creates an unjust or unfair expectation.”
How The Crisis Has Affected Students’ Lives
Hochman completed her high school courses online a few months ago and is now considering a move to one of the nation’s swing states ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Or she’ll move to Philadelphia, where a number of national Sunrise Movement leadership is based. Or Washington, D.C., where she may be able to better influence policy. Really, Hochman said, she’ll move wherever she can be most effective.
“I have the resources; I’m able to not be in a super stable situation or be in school … I’m able to figure out my own path, which I’m super lucky to do,” she said. “And I think because I have that privilege, it would be extremely irresponsible of me to not work full time on ending the climate crisis.”
The struggle looks similar in Iowa, but with the added factor of presidential candidates constantly coming through the state.
Iowa Climate Strike organizer Lydia Pesek began the Iowa branch of the U.S. youth climate strike at the beginning of the school year, with plans to expand across the state.
At 14, as a freshman in high school, she’s put together 18 main organizers and about 20 student ambassadors who work on outreach at their schools around the Des Moines area. She also introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders in front of the Iowa Statehouse before the Des Moines climate rally on Dec. 6.
“It’s definitely changed my life a lot. It’s definitely a big-time commitment,” Pesek said, noting she ordinarily spends 10 to 15 hours a week on climate-related items during normal weeks, but closer to the strikes, it’s probably closer to 20 or 25 hours.
She’s also on her high school swim team. So, from the beginning of the school year until October, she was swimming four hours a day and starting the Iowa Climate Strike.
“I just did what needed to be done and manage my time as well as I could,” she said.
Pesek has missed about five days of school for strikes, but said she’s also become more politically active since getting involved in climate activism, and has missed a number of school days for various other events. Pesek’s parents are supportive of her activism, though they said she couldn’t strike every week.
“Which I definitely get,” she said, “but they’re very supportive of the strikes. “They take me to all the strikes I go to.”
Her friends have come to a couple of strikes, though their parents don’t always let them miss school.
For Isha Kalia, a senior at Linn Marr High School in Marion, mixing her organizing life and normal life was most hectic when she and a few peers organized an event hosting Democratic hopeful Julian Castro at their high school.
“The planning behind a lot of that event instead of focusing on homework, I was more talking to teachers, trying to market the event,” Kalia said. “I spent a lot of my time on that, more than I did doing typical high school things.”
Kalia said she’s pleaded with her parents to miss some school since the event, for various political gatherings or votes. While they haven’t let her skip classes, she said the climate crisis has impacted her educational career in that she’s thinking of adding a sustainability or environmental science minor second major to her plan to focus on business in college.
The Mental Health Of Youth Organizing For Climate
Victor Ugo, founder of MANI, one of the few nonprofits providing mental health care in Nigeria, talks often about eco-anxiety — the feelings of grief, anxiety and depression rooted in the fact that catastrophic climate change is on the horizon.
The concept is a normal phenomenon, Ugo said, much like getting anxious about a perceived impending doom in any scenario. Whether to have children at this time in history is a good example of this eco-anxiety.
“Maybe because it would be untenable to think about bringing kids into a world that’s getting more and more uncomfortable to live in, or even the hopelessness that comes from learning that the world isn’t taking this as seriously as one might have hoped they would,” Ugo said.
But the realities of the climate crisis make the issue, and the impacts or organizing a bit more complicated.
The severity of the crisis has been reinforced by the latest United Nations climate report. Just before world leaders gathered in Madrid, Spain, last week at COP25, or UN climate talks, the report found that despite promises from almost 200 nations to address climate change, global emissions are expected to keep climbing, with threats to shatter the threshold of 2°C.
“The summary findings are bleak,” the UNEP report said. “Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global [greenhouse gas] emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required.”
Jason Snell, an adult Sunrise Movement leader in Cedar Rapids, compares what youth have to do for the climate crisis to the children of an alcoholic parent.
“It’s almost like in an alcoholic home, when the parent is not paying the bills and not cooking or going to the grocery store, the kids step up,” he said. “That’s something that Greta has spoke to, talking about the responsibility of adults and how this generation of young people have had to grow up much faster than they would otherwise because that responsibility gets passed on.”
Thunberg often talks about how she and her fellow activists are picking up the slack in regard to the lack of action on the part of policymakers.
“I do think that we need to acknowledge that we are failing as adults. So while we applaud and support the action, I think we also need to recognize that it is because adults, politicians, policymakers and even civil society groups that are not youth-led have failed,” Linos said.
Ugo also found that a lack of swift government action on climate issues can create worry for young people.
“In the case of climate protesters and strikers across the world, especially in the west, some of them may experience worry and struggle from the lack of support from their various schools and/or individual governments and policymakers,” Ugo said.
Planning For An Uncertain Future
When Hochman was in school taking classes, she remembers an instance when one of her Spanish classmates was asked by their teacher to use the future tense of a verb. The classmate wouldn’t; he said he didn’t see a point, that they didn’t have a future.
“I stopped going to high school this year because I didn’t quite have time to go, but also it didn’t really make sense to, because if I don’t have have a livable future, this education means nothing,” Hochman said.
“And so I’m in the process of applying to colleges, but in my head, I, like, don’t actually think I’m going to go because I don’t think that’s what makes sense. What would I need a college education for?”
The youth climate activists said their peers usually fall into two groups: those who are actively organizing and supporting the cause, and those who have deemed the issue too large to tackle.
“How people react to this is based on what exactly concerns them about climate change. For some, it is the non-assurance of the future and future generations, as well as plants and animals existing on earth. For others, it’s about how these changes affect their own health,” Ugo said.
Kalia said she falls into the first category. She sometimes doesn’t even think about the magnitude of the work because she busies herself so much.
“I think because this is such a big thing, how we don’t have a future, sometimes it doesn’t even click with me. I do get nervous about it, but I put it in the back of my head, like I’m not going to think about it in a scary way,” she said. “I prefer finding climate solutions instead of spending my time feeling really anxious about it.”
But Kalia and Hochman also acknowledged that some of their peers have to watch their siblings after school, or work jobs. In that case, the crisis may seem too out of reach.
“I think for so many high schoolers, it’s hard to put that much time and thought into this one thing. We have other stuff going on; it’s not a priority for a lot of us,” Kalia said.
Students like Kalia and Hochman often take ownership of the issue on behalf of their peers who aren’t in the social or political position to advocate.
“I have been impressed by the way the UK and the US climate movements are also recognizing their privilege and trying to ensure the voices of the global south, who do not always have the same freedoms and whose communities will likely be impacted more, are heard. And they’re very articulate describing inequities – both intergenerational and between the global North and global South,” Linos said.
Finding A Community In Activism
Snell said he was recently in Berlin, Germany, where he spoke about climate grief and climate stress with organizers of Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement, about and the need for young people to find a community within this work.
“[Climate organizing] is the kind of activity that can increase the bond with people as they do it together, and it’s something that can be so lonely and crushing if you do it alone,” he said. “[It’s] important to do climate organizing with people … If I have at least one political pal that I can buddy up with, it’s so much easier.”
As part of its training, the Sunrise Movement encourages people to listen to each other more effectively, Snell said, because feelings that come up while dealing with the crisis are intense.
“It’s really heavy, it’s about the survival of an entire species,” he said.
Kalia was striking with friends on a recent Friday night. She’s lucky, she said, because her climate and social lives easily mix.
“On Friday nights, I’m assuming a lot of high school students hang out with their friends, but we’re going to do a climate strike. But the good news for me is that a lot of my friends are passionate about the climate, so I’m kind of able to combine both of these different aspects because I’m able to involve my friends in these climate events,” Kalia said.
Hochman said she has also found a supportive community in the Sunrise Movement.
“There’s something super special about the community that we’re building. And I think something that Sunrise does really well is about how we’re not doing this alone, because I think the climate crisis is super isolating and I think people can really hide inside themselves,” Hochman said. “It’s too hard to handle on your own, and some of the people I’ve met in Sunrise are my favorite people in the entire world, and who I know I’ve called on when I’m super stressed out.”
Sunrise messaging also allows organizers to take breaks, or have other volunteers rotate in to help. Snell said taking care of mental and physical health is prioritized in the movement.
“Taking care of yourself has to be the top priority, always staying well-fed, well-slept. Don’t get too tired or run down, because it feels so compelling to do the work because it feels very very urgent, and it is urgent, but if someone gets burned out, that’s not good for anyone,” he said.
By Isabella Murray