On September 20, 2019, armed with our handmade signs and bursting anticipation for the Global Climate Strike, Sunrise Columbia and our fellow students on strike broke into song on the 1 train. Cue the uncomfortable shifting from the rest of the passengers on the train, the averting of eyes to stare out the windows into pitch black, and the few glances and smiles from those who enjoyed the liveliness. That day, we were the people who create a commotion everyone else pretends isn’t happening. The people who dare to disrupt what is supposed to be a typical, uneventful train ride to another day in the office. Yes, we were those people, and it made us feel powerful and proud.
Because at its core, that is what climate strikes like last September’s Global Climate Strike are about. Strikes are disruptive wake up calls. They are reminders that we can’t go to work, go to school, or otherwise live our daily lives as usual when our house is on fire. They are our challenge of the business-as-usual practices that have fueled this climate crisis, and our refusal to continue to participate in them. The greatest threat to our livelihoods, climate change, cannot be solved by doing what we have always done.
Of course, not everything about a climate strike is angry and full of doom. On that train ride to Foley Square, the starting location of the strike, our Sunrise songs weren’t indignant; they were hopeful and joyous. These songs, adapted from older union protest chants, civil rights movement songs, and even religious hymns, are fundamental to the work of Sunrise Movement. They amplify our voices, vocalize our values and our vision for a just future, and most of all, celebrate being together in this fight for the planet.
Whenever I go to a climate strike, it also feels like a celebration. There’s no comparison for the powerful feeling of shouting without restraint and hearing complete strangers answer your call, both of your voices unified in emotion. In the span of a few hours that Friday afternoon, I saw children giggling as they perched on the shoulders of their marching parents, walked next to Bill de Blasio and his camera crew for a few blocks, struck up a conversation with some elderly women who were marching alongside us, and cheered for the staff in an NYU building who had taped messages of support onto the windows and were waving frantically as we passed by.
In these strikes, the energy, the noise, the numbers — it is all so infectious. It is when the world’s journalists, helicopters, and authorities finally turn their cameras to us and listen to what we have to say. But the climate movement is so much more than a strike every few months. It’s more than chanting with a sign that will be in the trash in a few hours. While strikes may be the only events large enough to garner the attention of larger society, signs and marches and alone won’t solve the problem.
Strikes are only phase one: the action. Following Sunrise’s Act-Recruit-Train cycle, our process continues by absorbing strike participants into our movement and training them to be new leaders of climate justice. These new leaders start new hubs, bring in more community members, and prepare for even more actions. We can’t strike everyday, but building the people power needed to tackle the climate crisis and work toward a just transition is a daily endeavor.
That day, Greta Thunberg concluded her speech to our crowd in Battery Park with a reminder: “This is only the beginning.” For climate action groups like Sunrise Movement, strikes aren’t the result of our efforts. They are the beginning. They are a strategy to infiltrate the public consciousness and activate more allies into action and into our movement. Our songs and chants are about hope and unity because we aim to speak to future activists who haven’t found their way to us yet, and that includes Columbia students.
For many of us as students, we feel as if we are still on our way to becoming people who can contribute productively to the outside world. We may feel like we need more education and more experiences to make a true impact as professionals in our fields. But climate action and environmental justice address universal, basic human needs and values. Racial, social, and economic equality, the right to clean water and a healthy environment, the removal of the corrupting influences of dirty industry in our politics—we all want to see these happen, and we don’t need advanced degrees to know how to take action. We don’t have time to wait until we have advanced degrees when our planet is already dying.
Because what’s the use of a degree on a dead planet? Why give money to an institution that promises us a bright future but invests in fossil fuel companies that ensure our children won’t have one? This isn’t an endorsement to drop out of school; it’s a question as to why we are only studying when we have the power to do so much more: urge for divestment, talk with university officials who have much more influence than us, and otherwise use our position to advocate for change.
Under the weight of other classes and clubs, this demand to rearrange our priorities to address this critical moment can be a lot to ask. The existential crisis of climate change can seem like another suffocating burden for our generation to solve, but it doesn’t need to be. As my favorite Sunrise principle states, “Changing the world is a fulfilling and joyful process, and we let that show.” We let it show in the trains, on the streets, and in front of the news microphones, but we also show it everytime we talk strategy over a dinner of buns in Ferris, make a field trip out of visiting our senators downtown, play with the children who visit our big yellow sign in front of Alma, and laugh over having to lug ten-foot PVC pipes for a display onto the subway.
While social distancing for COVID-19 may keep us apart physically, this spirit lives on. If anything, this pandemic reminds us just how important it is to attack structural inequalities, empower frontline workers and communities, and work toward our collective health and liberation. The reasons why we strike—to protect our most vulnerable and out of hope for a healthier planet to live on—are the same reasons why we must all stay at home. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we may not be able to congregate and sing as we had hoped, but the digital climate movement continues as a space to battle isolation with communal learning and mutual aid. Let’s spread joy where it can be found, use our resources for good, and care for each other in the face of such dire circumstances. Indeed, it is what we—and the planet—need the most.