On a sunny fall day in Grand Rapids, as millions of young people around the world rallied for environmental action, two high school students in a park were going over last-minute preparations for their participation in a global movement to stop climate change.
Siena Ramirez and Victor Evans figured everything was in place for the day, but this was the first big event they were coordinating, so they weren’t taking any chances. Siena and Victor are two of the three coordinators for Sunrise Grand Rapids, the local chapter, or hub as the Sunrise Movement calls them. The national initiative began just two years ago, in 2017, but has grown to include hubs in almost every state, including 10 in Michigan and the one in Grand Rapids.
The group’s goal is to build an army of young people who can make climate change an urgent priority across America. That includes putting pressure on elected officials to back the Green New Deal in Congress and to disavow donations from fossil fuel companies.
Siena, Victor and many more in greater Grand Rapids are part of that army. Their plan on this global climate strike day was to first hold a rally in the park, Westown Commons on the southwest side of Grand Rapids. They followed that up with a 1 ½ mile march to the office of Michigan Sen. Gary Peters in the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building downtown, where they planned to put the same pressure on him that their peers across the country are putting on their own elected officials.
Time to Make a Difference
For Siena, a freshman at Northview High School, and Victor, a junior at Kent Innovation High School, the day was a natural way to put their strong beliefs into action.
“It’s our first time organizing a strike or a protest,” Siena said, “and I’m excited, so excited. I believe it’s important for high schoolers to get involved in the strike to send the message that our generation may not be the causes of climate change, but we’re the ones that have to deal with it ultimately.”
Victor agreed. At Kent Innovation, he said, “people with passions go there; everyone is just into something.” For him that something is politics, and Sunrise allows him to get involved at a grassroots level in the political process.
“With Sunrise, I have the chance to actually make a change as part of a movement that’s just beginning,” he said. “I want to do the best that I can in most things. This is my time to make a difference.”
Anneke Spoelma, a freshman at Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, was one of the speakers at the rally. She also brought a strong call to action, based on a recent trip to Africa where she saw firsthand the devastating impact of climate change for local farmers.
‘Our generation may not be the causes of climate change, but we’re the ones that have to deal with it ultimately.’ — Siena Ramirez, student at Northview High School
“They understand (climate change),” she said. “It’s a fact for them. Scientists say climate change is real and human-caused. There’s a lot of personal actions we can do, like voting for people fighting climate change. It’s time for youth to come together and fight for the world we will be living in.”
Climate Change a Peace Issue
A day earlier, as hundreds of students gathered outside the Student Center at Grand Rapids Community College, English professor Maryann Lesert spoke about the link between climate change and peaceful social action.
It was an International Day of Peace event held Thursday, Sept. 19, the day before the Global Climate Strike protests. This year’s Peace Day theme was climate action.
Lesert, who is working to publish a book on environmental activism, stressed the need for all facets of the community and industry to join forces in combating climate change.
“Environmental action is the ultimate interdisciplinary subject matter,” she said. “It crosses everything — plants, animals, humans, land, water, sky, education, health care, public policy. You name it.”
International Peace Day, established in 1981 by the United Nations, is celebrated annually on Sept. 21 as a day for humanity to commit to peace above all differences and to contribute to building a culture of peace. Because Sept. 21 was a Saturday, GRCC held its event on prior Thursday so students would be on campus.
Lesert said environmental activism can be embedded into every career field.
“Work toward climate action isn’t work that’s separate from us in any way,” she said. “We are all part of our environments, and any work toward making the environment a better place for all is peace and justice for all people.”
She called for students — who will make up the future workforce — to embrace earth-friendly practices and move away from fossil fuels.
“Many of you will design, promote and install new green technologies. Some of you will draft green building projects and develop green communities.
“Finally,” she added, “those of you in business and marketing and economics and public policy, what will you do to ensure that our economic plans work toward justice and peace?”