Juwaria Jama has spent just 15 years on the planet, but in that time, she says she has come to believe it’s in trouble and is determined to do something about it.
Jama, a self-described environmental activist from north Minneapolis, banded together with several thousand like-minded young people who emptied their classrooms on Friday to rally at the State Capitol in St. Paul for government action on climate change.
The demonstration was part of a coordinated global movement partly inspired by the activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who has staged weekly demonstrations under the heading “Fridays for Future” over the past year.
Thunberg is expected to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York on Monday.
Jama said she and her peers around the world will continue to pressure lawmakers to enact climate policies that will save their lives.
“I’m overjoyed to see this large turnout, but this isn’t where it ends,” said Jama, one of the leaders of Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, the group organizing the St. Paul protest.
Throngs of young people filled the steps of the Capitol to listen to speakers, chant and carry signs, some of which read “Let me Live” and “Our House is on Fire.”
They called for legislation at the state and local level in Minnesota to reverse climate change. They also called for a halt to Enbridge Energy’s planned Line 3 crude-oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
Isra Hirsi, a 16-year-old student at Minneapolis South High School — and the daughter of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — is a founder and leader of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, one of the groups that helped organize protests around the country. Hirsi said Friday that she believes the movement is gaining ground because it has expanded its focus to address the impact of climate change on communities of color.
“I am stuck in the middle of this crisis,” she said. “No matter where I stand or you stand, the crisis hits us all.”
Some protesters said they were inspired by the work of activists such as Thunberg and wanted to do their part to speak out about climate change.
Others said the protest was about the science of climate change — but also about advocating for racial justice and equity in climate-related policy.
Abigayle Reese, a student at Concordia College and an organizer with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, urged fellow students to “reach out to people in power and make them get the job done.”
“They have power, they can make a difference, but they choose not to,” Reese said.
Soraiya Myers and Mira Seeba, both 16, drove to the protest from Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley.
They estimated half their school planned to come to St. Paul. Schoolmates spread the word by speaking to classes about the plan and sharing news on social media.
Myers said she hopes the march inspires people to make changes in their own life that promote sustainability. She said she transitioned to a vegan diet last week after watching videos online about the impact of large farms and the consumption of red meat on the environment.
“We are losing a lot of wildlife, and weather is crazy,” Myers said. “There has to be something done.”
A day before Friday’s climate rally, Minnesota legislators announced the formation of a Climate Action Caucus in response to the demonstrations and other calls for action from policymakers. House DFLers said they will work with Minnesotans on a bold, comprehensive plan to fight climate change and create “a future in which we all thrive.”
Several school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, sent notices to parents before Friday’s protest, telling them that school leaders were not endorsing the event but respect students’ First Amendment rights and would not discipline them for walking out of class.
Meanwhile, the state’s largest school system, Anoka-Hennepin, had no walkouts in any of its schools, district officials said.
But both Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, whose students were among those leading the charge at the Capitol, told students who left school to join the protests that they would not be able to return to class later on Friday, nor would they be allowed to participate in any after-school activities — including football games or homecoming events scheduled for Friday.
Those consequences didn’t sit well with Michelle Courtright, a parent of students in the Minneapolis district and owner of Fig + Farro, a restaurant in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood that serves an entirely plant-based menu and frequently hosts climate change-related events.
Courtright said she was disappointed students were being forced to choose between demonstrating about climate change and attending homecoming events — and she offered them a deal. Students who joined the protest could get a free latte or soda at the restaurant Friday, while adults could receive a free beer.
Courtright said she supports the students stepping out of class to speak out about an issue that will affect them throughout their lives.
“The kids have every right to do this,” she said. “They are disproportionately affected by climate change.”
Daphne Brown, 47, came to the Capitol to learn more about climate change and was blown away by the magnitude of the event.
“I had no idea that [climate change] was such a big part of the fight,” Brown cried out. “I’m glad I came, and I will be back.”
Activist Jess Sundin said she came to the rally to support her 15-year-old daughter, Leila Sundin, a sophomore at Minneapolis’ South High, who cut school to join the historic event.
Jess Sundin was also at the protest representing Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a national group fighting for issues such as climate change.
“I don’t care about that,” Jess said about her daughter’s unexcused absence. “The absence from school is a way to make a statement, and the climate crisis needs that kind of attention.”