Voices of Youth: Kalamazoo students wage Climate Strike to demand end of fossil fuel use

Editor's Note: The Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 

It's their future, so teens from area schools rallied on Kalamazoo's City Hall steps and marched to end the era of fossil fuels on Friday, Sept. 15.

It was part of the annual global climate protests begun by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

An estimated 100-150 students and adults gathered to march downtown. 

The atmosphere was like a pep rally as high school students painted signs like "This is getting hotter than my imaginary boyfriend!" and "There are no jobs on a dead planet."

Passion and persistence characterized many of the youth who attended last Friday's Youth Climate Strike.There were a variety of schools represented, but the majority were from Kalamazoo Central. They were missing the big homecoming pep rally at that moment – rumors were running among the students that the school wouldn’t allow them to attend the homecoming dance or game if they skipped, which had them a little concerned.

"It's sooooo coincidental that it's today," Amo Kostrzewa says. "We told so many people at school (about the strike), that's probably why they did it."

Later, in his speech from the city hall steps, Ardea Youth Climate Coalition spokesperson Elliot Spoelstra tells the crowd, “We walked out of school today because this is the most important thing, not a homecoming dance, not an absence on our record, but our future.

“We are here for something bigger than Kalamazoo…. We are here to send our local and national governments a message: We will not stand by as corporations and the winners of capitalism destroy our world, pollute our air and our water, while their endless mountains of cash continue to grow."

A couple of days before, Second Wave met with spokespersons of the group behind the strike, the Ardea Youth Climate Coalition, Mia Breznau (18, Mattawan High School) and Spoelstra (17, K Central), plus members Harper Horvath (Portage Central) and Olivia Scheinker (K Central).

"The theme of this year's strike is to end the era of fossil fuels," Breznau says. "I feel like, especially recently, we've really been seeing in-your-face impacts of climate change for the first time, so it's ground-zero time for fixing it, and getting rid of fossil fuels is the only way to do that."

Students gathered to make signs before marching for the Youth Climate Strike.This was the hottest summer on record, NASA and NOAA have confirmed. Climate disasters, from deadly heat in the South to wildfires in Canada and Hawaii, to intense storms all over, have been dominating the news.

But it may have been easy for some to overlook this in Southwest Michigan. Aside from some heat waves, and a few strong storms, many might think we had a fairly average summer. Things seemed almost normal, except for those days in late June when one needed a mask to breathe outside thanks to Canadian wildfire smoke.

Disastrous results of climate change hit in surprising ways, the youth of Ardea say. Breznau says she knows someone who became homeless from flooding. She has Lyme disease thanks to the tick population, increasing with warmer weather.

Elliot Spooelstra, Kalamazoo Central senior, and Mia Breznau, Mattawan High School senior, are spokespeople for Ardea Youth Climate Coalition.."Climate change is happening in Michigan, we just don't have the huge giant spectacle disasters that are getting the spotlight everywhere else," she says.

Disasters seem to be growing in the news, yet, "No one's asking, why," Spoelstra says. "When do we start to realize that it is climate change making these things worse?"

"We have to act now," he says.

One climate change myth: No one cares

They took their name Ardea from the genus of large heron, which includes Michigan's blue heron. 

The group was born out of Heronwood, the Kalamazoo Nature Center's Alamo education facility which teaches conservation to area high school students. 

Heronwood began a Youth Climate Leaders program, teaching youth how to educate and organize their peers to learn about and act against climate change. The Program "utilizes a non-partisan approach that presents science-based facts and encourages critical thinking," the website states.

Amo Kostrzewa and Olivia Cheinker, Kalamazoo Central seniors with Ardea Youth Climate Coalition.The program began in 2020, but because of the pandemic, attending students haven't been able to organize any major climate actions until this year.

It was this August when they decided, "Let's plan a climate strike!" Breznau says.

Horvath says, with a what-did-we-get-ourselves-into tone, "Did we just plan a protest? We did!"

They considered the strategies for effective protest.
"No civil disobedience," Breznau says.

"Because we are all just kids," Scheinker adds.

Stay on the sidewalks, no blocking traffic, no disturbances, no getting dragged away by the cops — they stuck to those rules Friday, and had a peaceful, well-behaved march.

Students marched through downtown Kalamazoo last Friday as part of the Youth Climate Strike.But will they know if they changed people's minds? Because of their protest, will people decide to not drive as much, to install solar panels, and to support defunding the fossil fuels industry?

The protest is not so much aimed at the older people who seem to complain on Facebook with every change. "There's always going to be those people, the not-in-my-backyard people," Breznau says.

"I think we just tune them out and focus on the people who are willing to do something to make a change," Spoelstra says. "Focus on the people who haven't made up their mind, maybe, or just don't want to take action." 

Youth, "especially in my school, they're aware of climate change, they think it's a bad thing," he says. But, "they can't really define it, they can't really talk about what's going on and how to fix it. So educating our peers is a great option."

Climate anxiety, the fear that their future is going to be bleak, is real with their generation, they say. It helps to do something, rather than nothing, to publicly say, "Look, we have this community here that cares about the same things that we do, and is willing to do this to save our futures," Breznau says.

She says she felt alone, being the only student at Mattawan speaking up about climate change.
Denise Keel, director of the Michigan Climate Action Network, speaks to the crowd.Scheinker says it's a big help to realize, "All these other people feel about it the same way I do?"

The teens say they've felt frustrated that it seems a lot of people don't take the issue seriously. 

A Nature study found that people of all political stripes tend to assume that concern over climate change, and support for changes in climate policy, is below 50%. In reality, that number is much higher, in the majority.

At the rally, Denise Keel, director of the Michigan Climate Action Network, addresses the crowd, "70% of us know that climate change is happening, and want to do something!"

So, what to do?

Scheinker says, "I think a lot of what, maybe climate anxiety and maybe those arising feelings that come from you and me or any other average citizen, is that we aren't doing enough. But realistically if you are doing something, that's enough."

Students marched through downtown Kalamazoo last Friday as part of the Youth Climate Strike.She adds, "And there's a big push from larger corporations with the idea that climate change is your fault, the individual's fault. When in reality it's not." 

Yes, individuals might drive gas-burning cars, and release CO2 from their methane-burning water heaters, but "it's really like 70 of the world's largest corporations are emitting most of the carbon into the atmosphere," she says.

"It's our future," Spoelstra says, "burned forests, flooded coastal cities.... The people who are contributing the most, they're in their mansions on the coast of Florida, and when the coast moves up, they'll just build another house further inland. But the people who can't do that, they're the ones who're going to suffer."

"I know that I'm doing enough... but I can't individually solve climate change. So that's why we do stuff like this," Scheinker says. The idea is, "It is a collective effort, and it can't be just you or me to solve climate change."

Eager to vote

Adults came out to the strike Friday who were concerned Michiganders from Bellaire, way up in Antrim County, to local parents.

Jeff Spoelstra arrived by bicycle to support his son Elliot. "I'm proud, and honestly, frustrated that young people feel compelled that they have to do the work. But here we are. It's going to take everyone to raise awareness and wake people up," he says.

Mia's mother, Elaina Breznau, says older generations could have spoken up more about climate change. "We all ignored it — well, we didn't ignore it. We knew it was happening. The people in power ignored it. But our voices could've been louder."

WMU professor Paul Clements and Jeff Spoelstra (Elliot's father) chat near the steps of City Hall.Western Michigan University Professor of Political Science Paul Clements says, marching with the teens, "This is a moment when the state has an opportunity to make up for years of lost time under the climate-denier Republicans and get some real legislation."

Democrats are in charge in Lansing, he points out, so there is "significant momentum" for bills supporting solar power, for example. "We want to see these bills move forward."

The City of Kalamazoo has adopted the Community Sustainability Plan, showing that "we're making progress, but the city, still, is not devoting significant resources to it." Clements calls for programs supporting "home energy efficiency, planting trees... adopting solar for the city's energy uses." 

Back at their earlier meeting, the students of Ardea say they want the city commission to know they're paying attention to the zoning code update, that they want more green spaces, and that solarization and electrification of HVAC in their schools are needed now. They'd like the city to back the Whitmer administration's MI Healthy Climate Plan.

Elliot Spooelstra, Kalamazoo Central senior, and Mia Breznau, Mattawan High School senior, are spokespeople for Ardea Youth Climate Coalition..Breznau says she's been reading the city's sustainability plan. "The goals in there are really good, but they're not being acted on," she says. 

Spoelstra says their march "is a form of political action — because you're 18, right?" 

Breznau says, with excitement, "I'm 18. I can vote this year!"

The strike is "right in front of City Hall for a reason. We want them to see us," Spoelstra says.

Though the Youth Climate Strike is over, many students believe the fight to end fossil fuel use has just begun.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.