Climate Kalamazoo: 'What can I do about climate change? I’m just a kid.'

Editor's note: Climate Kalamazoo is an ongoing, occasional exploration of our community’s response to the global climate crisis. This is the first in our series.

Flip through to the end of February’s local, free Good News Paper, and you might be surprised to find the headline: The Climate is Changing, Why Aren’t We? Author Judy Smith, a Heidelberg University student, acknowledges it can be hard to fathom the scope and implications of climate change. These include an overwhelming sense of responsibility and threats to financial security and social norms. 

These threats (and others) are getting harder to ignore. All manner of social norms are being upended, including the unprecedented mobilization of young people demanding greater action on the climate and ecological crisis, including here in our community.

Many of those voicing demands are very young. Taped to the window just right of the main door at El Sol Elementary a hand-made sign compels us to STOP CLIMATE CHANGE! Down one corridor, a bright yellow, wall-mounted, poster serves as a reminder of a few of the kid-friendly ways to make a difference: turn off lights, turn down the heat and wear layers, for example. 

Making a difference turns out to be the mission of El Sol’s Climate Change Club, a group of high-energy 4th and 5th graders set on accomplishing a growing list of initiatives under the guidance of music teacher Stephanie Measzros, the club’s advisor. The idea for a club began with two students, Arianna and Oceanne. They were the youngest speakers at the day-long Global Climate Strike and rally on September 20, 2019 at the Arcadia Festival Site in downtown Kalamazoo. That experience, and the desire to do more in their school led them to approach Measzros last fall with the idea of starting a club. In a few short months, the Climate Change Club has conducted a building-wide conservation assessment and is in the early stages of planning the implementation of many of their findings.  

In January, with assistance from their advisor and students at Kalamazoo Central High School and Western Michigan University, club members drafted a Climate Action Resolution. It was submitted to the newly formed Michigan Chapter of Schools for Climate Action (S4CA), a national nonpartisan, youth-adult campaign that mobilizes students and others to speak up for climate action. The El Sol resolution states, in part:

We declare climate change an issue of human rights, social justice, and equity, which impacts children the most. We encourage all teachers’  unions, school clubs, school leadership groups, PTOs, and education support organizations to pass climate action resolutions similar to ours, and we call on Congress to enact climate policies to protect current and future students.

What else do these impassioned 4th and 5th graders want us to know? Here are a few things they have to say:

“I believe that we are trying to take action and do things so people are aware of the climate and that it’s changing.”

“I joined the Climate Change Club because I feel like we’re digging our own graves here.”

“I think (17-year-old climate activist) Greta (Thunberg) has really good inspirational quotes. How Dare You? tells that most children, teenagers and elementary kids are working to change the Earth when a lot of the adults are just talking about money problems and bills and taxes.”

“Our most important animals are going extinct.”

“If I didn’t have this Club, I would be silent.  I would be by myself just thinking about the climate. This is helping me get the word out and be part of the action.”

Art by Bonus Saves seen at the Sept. 20, 2019 Climate Strike at the Arcadia Festival Site.

These sentiments are surely shared by many of the teens that hang out in the Kalamazoo Public Library. Lead Teen Librarian Natalie Isham hosted an early winter brainstorming session, in partnership with Western Michigan University undergraduates with Students for a Sustainable Earth, to get input from local youth on development of a social awareness calendar. Isham says her outreach around the Library’s Reading Together 2020 book,  We Are the Weather,  is sometimes met with: “What can I do about climate change?  I’m just a kid.”  

With ferociously loving advocacy, Isham points out “these kids know more about the world than we give them credit for. They know exactly the kind of world they are inheriting.” 

Young people are often “indoctrinated by school, parents and other authority figures in their lives to sit down, shut up, and just listen,” Isham says. “Many of these teens are close to graduation. We ask them to make long-term plans that will affect the rest of their lives: college, trade school, jobs or the military. Yet we don’t want to hear their opinions on climate change. Greta Thunberg, the teen that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to speak to world leaders, reducing her carbon footprint in a very real way, was ridiculed relentlessly by adults for being outspoken.”

Many teens, Isham says, “are granted little agency and have virtually no income, but they have the time, passion, and knowledge necessary to make a difference. That’s the purpose of 30 Days to Make a Difference … TEENS! The group that met here came up with these actions. Change can happen on a large scale. Imagine the kind of world we can create with them, for them, when adults take the time to learn from kids.”

All are invited to download a copy of the 30 Day calendar here, and support youth in this initiative beginning Feb. 27, 2020. Unplug, Meet-Up and Clean-Up, go Meatless on Mondays and much more at readingtogether.us and #30DayDifferenceKPL

Donna McClurkan is a mother, garden farmer, chicken whisperer and climate activist. She is never not thinking about climate change.

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