Walk in the shoes of tomorrow’s leaders

Last year I participated in a community stakeholder group to provide input to the school district’s new strategic plan. During one of the early meetings, someone brought up the importance of student attendance. I was silent because there was no particular need to debate his assertion. Of course, student attendance is important.

But what’s more important? There are plenty of justifiable reasons why a child misses school. To contain and recover from an illness, to experience a unique familial or cultural event, and perhaps even to care for a family member in an unexpected moment of need. None of these “excused absences” came into my mind in that particular moment. My thoughts turned to the young people around the world being encouraged to skip school by the #FridaysForFuture movement and various other climate activism organizations.

It’s MLK Jr. Day as I write this article, so thoughts of civil disobedience, equality, and justice are front of mind. If people in history had done what society expected of them, would women have the right to vote today? Would the Civil Rights Act be law? In September 2019, after a year of school striking for climate and speaking about the fierce urgency of now, a Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg, sat on a panel at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Her frustration was clear for all to see and hear. “This is all wrong,” she said. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

She’s on the mark. How dare I? Because I am one of those who hopes the youth climate activists will wake up their parents, their grandparents, and the U.S. Congress.

When I was in secondary school in the 1970s and 80s, I didn’t have any reason to believe that given hard work I wouldn’t have a variety of decent career choices and a good life.

Today’s children face a much less clear future of destabilized job markets, debt-driven economies, rising health care and higher education costs, oh, and climate change impacts that have been baked in over the last 30 years by our inaction and GDP growth-focused governmental policies.

So if you believe that climate strikers are just kids goofing off and wasting your property taxes, please challenge yourself to walk in their shoes. Is school important? Sure. But even more important is pressing for life-saving change before it’s too late. There are times when our spirit knows what it needs and times when the right action is clear. We are all called to the fierce urgency of now.

This is the fourth article in a series on climate change. Beth Berglund is on the Board of Stillwaters Environmental Center in Kingston.