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‘It helps a lot with climate grief’: Student organizers gear up for next week’s Minnesota Youth Climate Strike 

In a meeting room at the Danish American Center, members of the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike huddled up to change the world. 

Minnesota Youth Climate Strikers and The Peace Poets
Minnesota Youth Climate Strikers and The Peace Poets (left-to-right): Mari Hefte, Isra Hirsi, Priya Dalal-Whelan, Frank Antonio Lopez, Lu Aya.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

On September 20, thousands of Minnesota youths will march out of school and to the state capital grounds for MN Strikes Back, the second Minnesota Youth Climate Strike. Thursday evening, as participants in the Democratic presidential debated in Houston, the future looked bright in a meeting room at the Danish American Center off the Mississippi River, where members of the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike huddled up to help change the world for the better.

To be sure, the day’s news that Donald Trump had rolled back many of the Obama administration’s water protections had the teens ticked, and talking, and planning for action — for next Friday and beyond. “White adults in power have failed generations for years and years and years,” said Priya Dalal-Whelan, a junior at the Perpich Arts High School.

“I would say the defining issues for my generation are gun violence and climate change,” said Mari Hefte, a Minneapolis South student.

In advance of Friday’s global and Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, I sat down with executive director Isra Hirsi and other members of the group at their weekly organizing meeting, which doubled as a songwriting workshop with New York-based activist songwriters The Peace Poets.

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MinnPost: The walk-out and strike is a week from Friday. Tell me who are you and what do you want people to know? What’s most important about the strike?

Priya Dalal-Whelan: I go to Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley, but I live in South Minneapolis. I think the strikes are really important, because it’s a really great way to raise awareness about the climate crisis and how big of an issue it is right now. I also think it’s really powerful to see students not attending school for a day, just to fight for something that we all care about and also impacts everybody’s life. I think it’s important to take it into your own hands and also demand something when you know there’s a problem.

Isra Hirsi: I go to South High School. I was at the [strike] in [Washington] D.C. in March. It was a really, really inspiring moment. I think it was really powerful to see, I think we had about 4,000 to 5,000 people there on that day. It was really cool to see so many people come out; you could see the kids coming from the train stations, walking to the capital, and it was really powerful to see everybody come in masses together from their schools.

MinnPost: You launched it in Minnesota. How did you get the idea?

IH: I’m the co-founder of national and executive director of U.S. Youth Climate Strike. Nobody was doing the climate strike for March 15, protests existed in the United States, but they weren’t organizing a strike. And so somebody that followed me on Instagram, DM-ed me, asking me if I could organize March 15 for my state, and I asked her if she was doing it by herself, and she was, so I offered to help nationally, and from there we became the co-founders and we got another one from New York City, and we just hit the ground running. Now I’m the sole executive director of U.S. Youth Climate Strike.

MinnPost: Today Trump rolled back all these water protections … and you’re going to be at the capital next Friday. What would you say to the grown-ups who are entrusted with your future, and in particular the president?

PDW: I think it’s not a new thing that adults have failed us. Specifically, white adults in power have been failing generations for years and years and years. So every new thing is disturbing. Every new thing affects us, but I think it would be a mistake to say that this is something that hasn’t been going on forever. So I guess I’m sick and tired of people not acting for the interests of the country, the president not acting for the interest of the country’s future and their own children’s future.

MinnPost: On a day-to-day basis, given that you’re all here and fighting for change, how do the headlines feel? Is there a sense of despair, or hope?

PDW: The 2016 election happened my freshman year of high school, and the 2020 election will happen my senior year, and I see it very much as having defined my youth. This presidency and this fight has defined my high school experience in a way that it shouldn’t have. In a way that good government has no business doing. And it’s just something you get used to. End of the day, it becomes another thing that you’re thinking about, just like the test next week, or whatever’s going on with your friends. That’s the scary thing, that it just becomes normal.

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MinnPost: What would you say to your peers, or classmates, who don’t share your concerns or awareness? Why is it important to show up?

Mari Hefte: I go to South High School. I just think that there’s not really a huge point going to school for a future when the future is really up in the air and we don’t really know what’s going to happen. Our lives and the livelihood of everyone on Earth is pretty much in the hands of our government who’s been taking money from the fossil fuel industry and working for their interests. I don’t think the climate crisis is any individual’s fault. It’s systematic. It’s been happening because of the system that is in place, the system that works for the benefit of big companies. We need to make sure that they’re working for the actual people, and making sure that we’re not going to have a global catastrophe.

I think Friday is going to be really fun. It’s going to be a good experience for everyone. A lot of kids I talk to at my school, the number one issue they care about is climate change. And whether they have the time or energy or resources to actually do work on it, that’s not really up to them. So this is just an easy way to start getting involved. It helps a lot with climate grief, like people wake up and they can’t sleep because they’re constantly thinking about what is the future going to be like?

MinnPost: Peace Poets, what’s your mission here and next week?

Lu Aya: About a year ago, 350.org asked us to support the worldwide day of action that they called Rise For Climate, last September 8. The idea was to try and fill this really important movement with powerful music. It can make the movement more effective, more inspiring, more sustainable. For the last ten years, we’ve supported movements by writing easily learnable songs that could really poignantly express our message in a way that was going to both feel good to us, as those participating in the actions, rallies, and meetings, as well as help our movements to be better understood and received by outside audiences.

We write songs with community. Today we’re going to teach some songs as well as create some songs, and then depending on the interest of these young folks, maybe practice leading songs, because it’s an art within itself that can make an action feel really powerful.

Frank Antonio Lopez: The songwriting energy comes from the organizing meetings, in the hearts of people who are getting ready for direct action, so it’s a nice song but it’s not just something to be just listened to, or relaxed to. It’s more so intended for the purpose of motivating and gathering and remembering and definitely moving the hearts of people who otherwise might not be moved.

It’s just another tool for organizers and community activists to have in their tool belt, in the same way that all the artists around the world right now are creating incredible art that identifies not only the problems, but also gives solutions with a highlight on indigenous leadership, as well as conservation of waters and land and also the animals that are being affected as well. They don’t have someone representing them, so they need people to stand up for them, too.