Between September 20 and 27, an estimated 7.6 million people and 3,000+ businesses participated in the Global Climate Strike in 185 countries around the world. Inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, the strikes took place on Friday September 21 and September 27. Some journalists suggest that it may have been the biggest international environmental protest ever!
In St. Louis, hundreds of protesters including dozens of WashU students, staff, and faculty gathered outside St. Louis City Hall to hear from local speakers before marching through the streets to the Arch and back to St. Louis City Hall.
St. Louis native Brianna Chandler, first-year student at WashU and Associate at the Office of Sustainability, had the chance and responsibility to serve as the Master of Ceremonies at the St. Louis’s climate strike on Sept. 20. In this interview, she recounts her experience and share insights on climate activism.
How did your education influence your engagement with political and social justice issues?
As a native Saint Louisan, I have had the opportunity to engage with a multitude of issues that affect my local community and the nation at large. I attended Nerinx Hall High School, a private Catholic all-girls high school in Webster Groves, MO. Despite the stereotypes surrounding religious schooling, Nerinx’s educational environment was different. We were founded by a group of religious sisters, called The Sisters of Loretto, who were dedicated to “Working for Justice and Acting for Peace” through advocating for immigrant rights, environmental stewardship, women’s empowerment, and marginalized communities at large.
My sophomore year of High School, I was afforded the opportunity to visit their home base in Loretto, Kentucky, an expansive farm and retreat center. It was here that I first truly and consciously felt connected to the earth and learned about the Sisters’ numerous protests, many of them environmentally centered.
In the past few years, I was privileged to be connected with similarly minded students that valued civic engagement. However, this network extended outside of Nerinx as well. This led me to being able to organize marches, rallies and community service projects focused on topics I was passionate about.
How did you become involved with the St. Louis Climate strike?
Over the summer, I assisted four local teen organizers (Sunny Lu Shengyhi, Claire Stolze, Fatima Bucio, and Ulaa Kuziez) in planning an educational rally for immigrant justice. Later on, Fatima asked the group if anyone would like to help plan the St. Louis Youth Climate Strike, since she would be unable to contribute as much. I volunteered and got in touch with the other strike organizers. Situations like this are often how I become involved, someone asks and I say yes!
What was the planning process like?
Social media is key in community organizing. I was first added to a Facebook group and from there a Group-me. Shortly afterwards I attended an in-person logistics meeting, where I met two WashU seniors, Allie Linstrom and Grace Tedder, who were involved in the strike as representatives of the local chapter of Sunrise, a national movement to stop climate change while creating jobs.
Did you meet any challenges along the way?
The group involved with the organization and execution of the march was mainly composed of adults affiliated with local environmental organizations. Given that it was the youth climate strike, I expected to see more youth at this meeting. When I did not, I advocated for a committee composed solely of high schoolers and college students. From that point on, I did my best to serve as a liaison between the youth committee and the larger general committee of organizers.
The evening before the march, I spoke with a friend and expressed concern over a lack of indigenous inclusion in the planning process. My understanding of the subsequent conversation was that gaining indigenous representation was going to be difficult and that there was fear surrounding minimal indigenous representation being interpreted as tokenization. However, the conversation was short and I feel that it was not given the time and nuance it needed. Furthermore, I felt that there was a lack of representation in the core-group of organizers, since I was the only person of color.
That said, our speaker line-up was more reflective of the St. Louis community and they addressed issues pertinent to our region.
What was the day of the strike like?
When I wrote my introductory speech the morning of the strike, I tried to emphasize the importance of uplifting marginalized voices and acknowledging the fact that the St. Louis Climate Strike committee has a lot of work to do in this arena going forward, when planning actions.
In addition to all the amazing youth speakers (Claire Stolze, Emilio Rosas-Linhard, Myles McCarthy, and Eva Kappas), I really enjoyed hearing from Cori Bush, native St. Louisan, activist, and community organizer who is also running for local office. She spoke about environmental racism and the reasons why people of color are sometimes less engaged with climate justice issues despite being the most affected.
Another notable speaker was Jenn DeRose, manager of “Known and Grown”, a program of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment focused on “supporting a thriving, local, equitable, food system within 150 miles of St. Louis”. Jenn spoke about the importance of food access and the harm of industrial agriculture.
Overall, the energy of the crowd was amazing and everyone seemed very engaged.
Why does it matter to get involved with climate justice activism?
It matters because WashU is currently investing in fossil fuels, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and a major cause of air pollution. Even though most WashU students will only be in St. Louis for four years, receiving a WashU education is a great privilege that sometimes comes at the expense of local Saint-Louisans. Therefore, students have a responsibility to hold WashU accountable for how it is investing in the community. If the institution continues to invest money into the fossil fuel industry, WashU’s funding of environmental racism research can only be labeled as performative. However, I’d be remiss if I did not note that there are numerous students, staff, and faculty working hard to make St. Louis a more sustainable and equitable place.
Climate justice is not just about “fixing” climate change. It is about addressing climate change in a way that centers the most affected communities.
Eco-Trust, a non-profit organization working to create innovative solutions to climate change related problems, says the following: “Frontline communities are those that experience ‘first and worst’ the consequences of climate change. These are communities of color and low-income, whose neighborhoods often lack basic infrastructure to support them and who will be increasingly vulnerable as our climate deteriorates. These are Native communities, whose resources have been exploited, and laborers whose daily work or living environments are polluted or toxic.”
Centering frontline communities looks like uplifting the voices of climate-justice advocates from those communities, rather than advocates that already have lots of media attention, learning about how environmental racism shapes communities, and being conscious of how you can best be an ally given your various identities and privileges.
A final thought you want to share?
If you’d like to get involved, don’t be afraid to say “Yes!” Say yes to committing to educate yourself further, say yes to taking the forefront, say yes to being held accountable.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Office of Sustainability or its members.