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Brandeis students strike for climate justice

Among the thousands of people gathered in Boston City Hall Plaza for a national climate strike on Sept. 20 were close to two hundred Brandeis students—some skipping class for the day to show their support of addressing climate change. 

The strike was one among a national series of protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old activist leading the national strike ahead of the Sept. 23 U.N. Climate Action Summit, where she gave an impassioned address, telling world leaders to take action to reduce the impact of climate change. 

Back in Massachusetts, students boarded one of four 10:30 a.m. buses to Boston, some dressed in black at the request of protest organizers and Professor Sabine von Mering (GRALL, ENVS, WGS,) who organized the buses. Von Mering spoke about the reason she helped organize Brandeis students to attend the protest.

“There’s a number of reasons why we do this,” said von Mering in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot after the strike. “The people in power need to see that we want them to act…We’ve made that abundantly clear now, and we know there is the U.N. Climate Summit on Monday, and they can now say, ‘Look, millions around the world told us that we need to act.’ We gave our own politicians the marching orders.”

On the bus, students learned different chants in preparation for the march. The ride into Boston was fun and empowering, said Maryam Chishti ’20, and a blend of students from all disciplines—not solely environmental studies majors, said Leah Sagan-Dworsky ’21—joined in on the protest. Von Mering also saw many students she had never met before at Brandeis.

Some students came because they wanted to protect future generations, like Chishti, who hoped to improve the environment for her children.

“I want to have children and make sure they can live full and successful lives,” said Chishti. “I’m not going to go on with life as it is…[I’m] putting my foot down.”

Others were motivated to attend the march due to personal experiences with climate change. Gabi Burkholz ’21 skipped her morning class in order to attend the march. Originally from California, Burkholz shared a story where a forest fire almost burned down her summer camp. Burkholz said the disaster could have been completely preventable if measures had been taken. 

“One class for a good cause couldn’t hurt,” Burkholz said. “My generation and the generation after me—we shouldn’t have to live at risk of climate catastrophe. It is fixable.”

And one student said that regardless of anyone’s personal experience, climate change should be an important issue.

“You can’t be a person and have this not hit home for you,” said Elyse Hahn ’20.

Students arrived in Boston around 10:30 a.m., before the march took place. The students listened to many speakers describe the threat of climate change and the importance of activism. 

Gina McCarthy, the former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, encouraged the crowd to demand change, saying, “If the United States doesn’t want to act as a whole, then we will make them.” McCarthy encouraged the youth to be proactive in the fight for climate justice instructing the crowd to “Pull up their gender neutral pants and do something.” 

Another speaker, Jermey Ornstein, from Sunrise Movement—a movement of young people fighting to stop the climate crisis according to their website—spoke directly to his peers.

“We are holding up the weight that falls down to us [children] that our elders failed to carry,” Ornstein said. 

Ahria Ilyas, a member of Youth on Board—a group based in Somerville, MA that trains student leaders, according to their website—also spoke to the crowd where she said that the youth must pick up the pieces of a problem they did not cause. 

Protestors marched from Boston City Hall Plaza to the Massachusetts State House around 1:30 p.m., and Brandeis students joined in chanting: “The people are rising, no more compromising” and “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Climate Change has got to go”. And just a few minutes into the march, the crowd started singing “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. 

During the march, The Hoot spoke to Libby Williams ’20, an environmental studies major who said that the Sept. 20 protest was the largest she had seen compared to previous climate protests she attended. 

As throngs of people marched past Boston Commons, many flowed into the State House. Others gathered in the commons or dangled from lamposts to take photos of the crowd or climbed on top of the wall in front of the State House to lead chants. 

Brandeis students gathered in the shade in front of the State House to wait for the afternoon bus back to campus, though some stayed for the rest of the protest. Von Mering—leading students in a handmade polar bear costume—walked students back to the two returning buses. 

Von Mering said the total order of the buses could cost upwards of $2,000 but was confident that different departments could chip in to cover the cost. She also emphasized that Dean of Students Jamele Adams and other Brandeis administration members were very helpful in arranging transport for students. 

In speaking with students on the way back to Brandeis, von Mering said that she felt students had found a new community on campus.

“I was asking them on the way back what was the most impressive,” von Mering said. “One person said [it was] to be in that crowd together and shouting and feeling that you’re one. You’re together in this, you’re not alone in this.”

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