Teaching high school English in the midst of the climate crisis is an exercise in contradiction; every moment spent inside the classroom feels like it is in tension with the climate justice organizing taking place outside the school walls. I’ve often asked myself, “What’s the point of trying to prepare my students for college and careers when the very existence of our world is at stake?”
Yet even as this contradiction has become intolerable, forcing me to reckon with the ways in which I, as a teacher, am complicit with the status quo, it has also helped point to a way forward, one where I use my classroom as a space to interrupt business as usual and help students organize to take action. In the process, I have discovered that when students are given the opportunity — and the time — to organize for environmental justice, they develop confidence and begin to see themselves as leaders in the fight for the future of our planet.
By the end of the 2018–19 school year, I was feeling a sense of urgency. I knew I could no longer backburner talking about the climate crisis as I had done in years past. I not only wanted to start teaching about climate change, I wanted to more directly support my students in organizing against the looming catastrophe. But I wasn’t sure how.
Over the summer, Carolyn Norr, an adult organizer who works for Youth vs. Apocalypse (YvA), contacted me about the possibility of starting a chapter of the youth-led climate justice organization at Oakland Tech, the high school where I teach. My conversation with Carolyn provided the spark and focus I was looking for. “If the job of schools,” she told me, “is to prepare students for the future, then the central task of schools in this moment is to equip students for a climate-challenged future and to fight for their right to a future.” I was sold, and agreed to help form a club.
In August, when the school year got underway, I invited Carolyn and Isha Clarke, a senior at MetWest High School, to talk with my classes about the climate strikes planned for Sept. 20, 2019. As an organization led by youth of color, YvA wanted to reach more Black and Brown youth in Oakland and support them to feel empowered to participate in the strike. Isha, who had garnered national attention for her role in confronting Senator Dianne Feinstein over Feinstein’s refusal to endorse the Green New Deal, was already a well-known student activist by that point.
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Isha and Carolyn’s presentation was compelling. It involved showing two short videos — the “Brother Earth” climate crisis explainer featuring Boots Riley, and a more general call to join the strikes — as well as personal testimony from Isha about how and why she got involved doing climate justice work. The content of the presentation, which was direct, concise, and persuasive, clearly struck a nerve with my students. Most of them have had limited to no classroom education about climate change, and although they intuitively understand the stakes, due to the simple fact that they are teenagers living in the age of social media, school rarely provides an avenue to channel that understanding (and, frankly, frustration) into action. Hearing one of their peers speak so passionately, and then being presented with an opportunity to do something, seemed to inspire them. On Sept. 20, most of my students chose to participate in the strike.
In an effort to build on that energy, Carolyn and I organized an initial lunchtime meeting in early October to start the process of organizing a chapter of YvA at our school. Carolyn suggested I reach out to three students in particular, each of whom had shown interest during the August presentations, and invite them to attend the meeting. I spoke with each of these students individually at the end of class, and asked them if they wanted to help start a YvA club at Tech. All three said yes. From there, Carolyn and I traded emails until we landed on a date. I informed the students and told them they could invite two or three friends, but not to open it up to anyone else, as we were still in the underground, “invite-only” stage of organizing. The decision to use a “club” approach instead of a “curriculum” approach was based primarily on logistics: I have classes of 32 students, and in addition to the size, not all of those students are inclined toward organizing or activism. Although I plan on teaching about climate change later this school year, helping students explicitly organize seemed better suited for a club.
About a month after the Sept. 20 strike, Carolyn and Isha returned to Tech to help lead the initial meeting. They brought lunch along with them, which was a small but important gesture. Seven students attended; all of them female, and all of them students of color. I recently asked a few of these students what motivated them to get involved.
One of my students, Dinah, told me, “When I’m 80, I don’t want my kids or my grandkids to have to suffer because we destroyed the planet. I don’t want that. Also, my dad has asthma, and during the wildfires, he had to buy an expensive mask just so he could breathe on his walk to BART, which he needs to take so he can get to work. That bothers me.”
Another student, Imani, also shared the personal impact of the climate crisis: “My grandmother had a respiratory condition, and she needed a machine to help her breathe. But when the power outages happened last year because of the wildfires, her machine wouldn’t work, and she died. I was like, because the power had to be cut, my grandma is dead? And the power being cut was caused by the wildfires, which are caused by climate change. People need to understand like, ‘This is it, bruh.’ If we don’t do something now, it’s over.” For so many young people, averting a climate catastrophe is both a moral and personal necessity.
The initial meeting, and a subsequent one, took place in my classroom on successive Tuesdays during our school’s 35-minute lunch period. Both meetings began with a check-in question to build community, followed by a discussion of YvA’s current campaigns and what the Tech chapter might want to focus their efforts on. The energy during both meetings was positive, and students seemed excited about the work they were embarking on, even if it wasn’t yet clearly defined. But by the end of the second meeting, it became obvious that a 35-minute lunch period just wasn’t long enough to get work done in a meaningful way. Dinah, when asked about the lunchtime meetings, described the challenge bluntly: “Once we finish eating our food and answering the check-in question, we only have 15 or 20 minutes to actually plan and discuss.”
I knew from my own experience with union meetings how difficult it can be to accomplish anything when you’re crunched for time. So at the end of the second meeting, I suggested we begin the following week’s meeting during lunch, but then continue through 4th period, the period right after lunch and also my prep period. This would give the students about an hour and 40 minutes to plan and strategize. I told the students I would contact their teachers and get them excused from their classes (having strong relationships with my colleagues was essential to making this possible), a suggestion that produced lots of enthusiasm and zero pushback.
At the third meeting, which took place the following Tuesday, the benefit of securing additional time became immediately apparent; by the end of the meeting, the students were in the process of contributing to a protest planned for that Friday outside the offices of Phil Tagami, the developer pushing to build a coal terminal in Oakland. To understand how the students got to that point so quickly, allow me to provide some background on YvA and the No Coal in Oakland campaign.
By the time my students began meeting, YvA was already deeply involved in organizing against the coal terminal. According to Carolyn, “Before YvA was a formal group, it was a campaign called Youth vs. Coal, and has been one of the main forces opposing the coal terminal for the past several years.” A few days prior to the meeting, it was revealed in a news story in the Guardian that the coal companies had been trying to influence Oakland elected officials and Black community members to support the terminal project. To maintain pressure, YvA students from schools across Oakland began organizing an action for that Friday in front of Tagami’s offices in downtown Oakland.
And so at that third meeting, my students leapt right into the fight. Once Carolyn explained the situation and the basic parameters of the action, she asked the students if they wanted to get involved. The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Carolyn then asked them what specific things the action should include, and what they wanted to take responsibility for planning and executing. As the students began to brainstorm, Carolyn got up from the circle and stood in front of my whiteboard, recording their ideas. After a few minutes of discussion, Dinah suggested they paint a large mural on the sidewalk in front of Tagami’s office. The mural would have two eyes looking at the building, with the phrase “The Youth Are Watching” around one eye and “No Coal in Oakland” around the other.
Reflecting on this idea a few weeks later, Dinah said, “We wanted Phil Tagami to know that we’re watching and we’re not clueless to the fact that people like him are messing up our world.” From there the students worked on coordinating logistics, making arrangements to attend the action, and spreading the word via flyers and social media posts.
On Friday, Nov. 8, the Tech students helped stage the action outside Tagami’s office. The action itself, which took place after school, was small, but it was powerful. There were signs, speeches, students banging on drums, and of course, lots of chants like “Hey Tagami, look around, we say no coal in the town!” and “Rise up! Get down! Leave the coal in the ground!” For the mural, high school students like Dinah and Imani worked with some of the younger YvA students from other schools to paint it on the sidewalk in front of Tagami’s office. Dinah said, “It was cool watching our ideas come to life. Not only the eyes, but seeing how much the younger students there wanted to be involved with the painting. It was super dope.”
“And we did a good job too!” added Imani, laughing. “Everyone painted inside the lines!”
During the speak-out portion of the action, Imani also addressed the crowd, which was a high point for her. “Getting the chance to speak publicly was awesome,” she said. “I felt like Isha! It was so empowering. And hearing other kids speak, it showed that people are really here and are committed to the work we’re trying to do.”
A few weeks later, Dinah got the chance to speak publicly, this time at an action that is part of YvA’s campaign against BlackRock, a huge investment management company responsible for financing enormous fossil fuel projects. She told me the experience “makes me want to get involved even more. Hearing myself say the things I said, and hearing the things other people said made me want to work harder to fix this problem. I’m always talking about how this issue is going to mess up our future, but actually hearing the words come out of my mouth and out of other people’s mouths made it even more true and more real.” Carolyn says this is a common experience of students who start organizing with YvA: “Most of our leaders did not consider themselves organizers or activists or environmentalists prior to connecting with YvA.” The experience of taking action gives students both the confidence and internal identity to become leaders.
While Dinah and Imani may have participated in climate protests like the ones described above regardless of whether we had a club at Oakland Tech, it seems clear that their larger contributions of speaking out and planning a mural were a direct result of being given the opportunity — and time — to do something. “Because lunch is really short,” explained Imani, “having the extra time was really important. We didn’t have to rush through everything. With the extra time, it was like, let’s sit down and actually think about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”
Dinah concurred with this assessment. “To be honest,” she said, “the lunch-only meetings kind of stress me out, because we’ll make a list of things we want to get through, but then we don’t get to most of it.”
Yet when given sufficient time and support, students have unlimited potential to contribute to movements for justice and societal change. And so the question becomes how to reconcile the tension between the demands of traditional schooling and the desire and imperative to organize against problems like climate change. Perhaps the best solution to this tension is the simplest one. “I think it would be really cool if we were able to make YvA a regular part of the school day,” Dinah told me. Imani sounded a similar note: “If YvA was an actual class, it would be really helpful to us getting things done."
Providing such a space inside schools might seem daunting, but it’s really just a matter of schools and teachers making it a priority. There are a number of options for how it could work: One way would be to have an elective class co-taught by a teacher and an organizer. Another would be to offer a political action seminar that takes up a different issue and campaign each year as determined by student interest. A third possibility would be for schools to structure their day around internships, similar to MetWest, the school Isha Clarke attends. Students like Dinah already recognize the need for such classes and opportunities. “Learning regular school subjects is important, but knowing what’s going on with your planet, who’s responsible, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how to fix it, is way more important than practicing algebra equations or writing another essay.”
While there is still a need for a well-rounded curriculum inside public schools, schools and school districts should be thinking about restructuring the school day so young people have the time and space to prepare themselves for a climate-challenged future. In the meantime, teachers must create spaces during the school day for students to do the work that can’t be put off until tomorrow. Teenagers coming of age today will disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change, and cannot wait until they are adults to take action. If educators don’t help them confront what can only be described as the most pressing social, economic, and political issue of our time, then all of our efforts as educators to help them lead healthy and meaningful lives in the future will be in vain.
The good news is that young people are ready to fight for that future. The question for us, as educators, is are we ready to clear out some space for them to do the work, and then join the fight alongside them?
Heath Madom (email@example.com) teaches English and an elective class called Law & Society at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, California. Prior to teaching, he spent 10 years working in the labor movement, mainly with SEIU and AFSCME.