Editor’s Note: Taking climate lessons from the classroom to the community, Maryland students are becoming increasingly vocal, marching in protests, organizing rallies and challenging school and government authorities to act on their concerns.
Many were inspired by Greta Thunberg (a Swedish climate activist) who staged daily protests outside of the Swedish Parliament at 15 with demands that leaders pay attention to her pleas for the protection of the planet.
We profiled three Maryland teenagers this month, each one a leader among their peers who are seeking solutions to a global problem.
They are part of a growing youth movement. They are frustrated and impatient but they are empowered by the collective effort of their collective effort towards a more equitable future.
Early this school year, 8th-grader Rosie Clemans-Cope walked into Chad Lenz’ science classroom at Julius West Middle School on a mission.
She wanted Lenz to sponsor Fridays For Future, a student-led climate initiative modeled after Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s climate strike outside her country’s parliament.
“Watching her on television for the first time, I saw climate change as a big issue, and realized that all youth needed to get involved, and not just one person on their own,” Rosie said.
She had previously led a similar effort at another school years ago and was now trying it again at Julius West.
“Rosie was so strongly invested in something that is such a major world crisis that is not arguably getting the attention that it truly needs,” Lenz said. “It was amazing for me to have such a student come to me with such a program.”
As word spread, more students began to buy hall passes to go to the soccer fields for the weekly teach-ins and rallies.
Rosie, megaphone in hand, greeted over 100 students on a recent sunny December day. She was accompanied by volunteers who waved banners, took photographs and recorded videos to document the event.
“Hi, my name is Rosie,” she said, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Water is Life.” The hoodies are sold to support Indigenous efforts to stop oil pipelines, a cause she’s aligned with.
Rosie reported on the news from the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, Glasgow, and efforts by global emissions to reduce global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change.
“1.5 TO STAY ALIVE,” she shouted in a call and response.
Friday’s Future Meetings move quickly. They are centered on sea level rise and end with a message to the community.
“That hope comes from youth who are learning about climate change. Democracy is the key to that hope. That hope comes from you!” Rosie said, urging her peers to come back the next week. They listen, applaud, then return to school.
“What Rosie brings to the table is something to actually do and be a part of, and something that actually does get people thinking,” Lenz said. “I see she’s taking things beyond the classroom and giving students an outlet and an opportunity to learn more, and really further their interest and drive and passion to do something to help solve this problem.”
Rosie is named after Rosa Parks. Eleanor, her 18-year old sister, takes seriously the legacy of Rosa Parks. Eleanor was raised in a family that was deeply involved in social justice. “Our family goes back many, many generations of women standing on soapboxes organizing for unions in Chicago,” Eleanor said.
President Obama appointed Nancy Lessin, their great aunt and well-known activist for the United Steel Workers to a federal Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee seat.
“The kids come from a long line of women who have learned how to organize people to fight collectively for justice, and are not afraid to speak truth to power,” said Lisa Clemans-Cope, the girls’ mother. “So, when the kids get in a tricky spot, they call Aunt Nancy to hear about strategies used in past justice struggles, and to brainstorm.”
Rosie and Eleanor started their climate journey together. Rosie joined MoCo Students on Climate in 2019 outside the Montgomery County Schools Board, calling for an electric bus switch, allowing for excused absences for civic actions, and other demands that have gained momentum with the school board, according to Lynn Harris, who was the student’s supporter.
“We are already committed to completely transforming our bus fleet to all electric, and all the standard student attendance policy is being completely rewritten,” and it will include excused absences for civic action, “recognizing the importance of the work that they’re doing as advocates,” Harris said.
“We should really be paving the way for them to continue to effectively speak to these issues, whether it’s climate, gun violence, whether it’s pedestrian safety. They are doing all of these things, and we as a school system need to be celebrating the way that they are able to do it,” she said.
In late August 2021, the sisters joined Sunrise Rockville and the Extinction Rebellion’s Green New Deal Internship program to block traffic at a busy Rockville intersection and advocate for a Green New Deal in the county.
All were trained and ready to get arrested for civil disobedience, and Rosie and Eleanor were; Rosie’s citation eventually dismissed in a hearing before a judge this fall.
Rosie was 13 years old when she was ready to put her body on the line for justice.
“We are joining so many hundreds of years of people that have put their voices together with hundreds of others for their cause,” she said.
The growing number of youth movements around the world gives her hope for the near future.
Nodding in agreement, Eleanor adds, “Once we tap into that incredible resource of people power, there is no way we can lose.”