Organizers across the country are mobilizing against climate change— but how do we do collective work when we're forced apart? By GARI DE RAMOS
When Laís Santoro was a senior in high school, she was worried. All of her extended family was in Brazil, breathing in the smoke produced by the burning Amazon rainforests.
“The air was so bad they couldn’t breathe,” she said. “They got black rain.”
Unable to sit still from the comfort of her home in the U.S., Santoro had to do something. Now an 18-year-old at Johns Hopkins University, Santoro is an active member of the youth climate movement. She is among hundreds of youth around the U.S. organizing Earth Day activities to fight climate change in the midst of a global pandemic.
One of the largest efforts to organize on Earth Day, April 22, is Earth Day Live. Earth Day Live was three days worth of live-streams amplifying indigenous leaders and youth climate activists, working on divestment from fossil fuels and voter registration efforts. Earth Day Live will be the largest online mass mobilization effort, according to Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
This national mobilization, however, wasn’t possible without local organizations. Santoro brought Earth Day Live’s three-day plan to Sunrise Hopkins, a chapter of Sunrise Movement she leads at her university. Gwen Weissinger, 23, is doing the same thing for her chapter of Sunrise Movement in Worcester, MA. Each chapter of Sunrise individually set up times with their local members to take part in Earth Day Live from home. But this wasn’t always their plan.
For Santoro, Sunrise Hopkins had been working with various student organizations to host an environmental justice festival – what Santoro referred to as a day of “hype action” – in the lead up to Earth Day. It would have been a day for 1,200 Johns Hopkins students to come together and pledge to strike and act for the climate. There would have been education, leadership building, music, and an intersectional approach to justice issues. That was, until Johns Hopkins University moved classes online for the remainder of the semester.
Weissinger and Sunrise Worcester similarly would have convened a large in-person event, bringing members of the Worcester community together and striking in front of City Hall. Now that Massachusetts has issued an extended stay-at-home advisory, Weissinger and her team decided to prioritize peoples’ health and change their Earth Day activities to be online.
“As local activists, we are itching to get out into our communities and connect with people,” said Weissinger. “We were looking forward to hearing their climate stories and inviting them to strike with us.”
With everything online, it’s harder for organizers like Weissinger and Santoro to make the connections they hoped for.
Some organizers like the Fridays for Future Massachusetts (FFF MA) team, however, were more prepared than others to organize online. The team, which is run by middle and high school students from all over the state, had always been organizing remotely through Zoom and Slack. So when they needed to cancel the art event they planned for Earth Day, they quickly switched their plans.
FFA MA made the switch while sticking with their original themes of showing solidarity with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose lands were revoked of reservation status by the federal government. On top of the art build, FFF MA will also be hosting an online poetry slam, a webinar to interview local politicians, and a mini-competition within their core team to see who can bring in the most friends and family into their movement.
Despite the ability to switch organizing efforts online, doing work in the midst of a pandemic is not easy.
“It’s draining to be home in a global pandemic while trying to save the planet,” said Santoro.
But organizers are also realizing they can find comfort with one another. Nidhi Inamdar, a middle schooler with FFF MA, has found herself “having a lot more free time” working with the team. For these organizers, there is something special about coming together to organize during a time of crisis.
“I see other people so excited about one event and that makes me want to work for as well,” said Alice Fan, a high school first-year with FFF MA. But Fan sees more than excitement. She also sees possibility.
“We have seen that we can mobilize for the coronavirus,” said Fan. “We listen to the science for coronavirus, so why can’t we listen to the science for the climate crisis?”
Organizing for the ever-present climate crisis in the midst of a global pandemic is not easy work, but it reminds people like Weissinger why they fight. Weissinger is spending her newfound free time holed up with her two nephews at home.
“I deeply want them to be able to spend their lives feeling hopeful about the future,” said Weissinger. “Love is a great motivator; I do this for them.” ✰
Gari De Ramos (she/her/hers) is an immigrant passionate about communicating politics and justice through nuanced and accessible journalism. She is a junior at Clark University studying Political Science and has recently come home from studying journalism abroad in Morocco. Outside of HALOSCOPE, Gari is a contributing writer for the Worcester Magazine and Telegram & Gazette, a staff writer for The Scarlet – her school paper, and digital content director for Our Climate Voices. In her free time, you can find Gari filling in her first coloring book, cuddling her dog, or daydreaming about a gender-swapped version of Hamilton: An American Musical.