As world leaders gather in Madrid for a United Nations summit on climate change, youth activists in Minnesota are trying fresh tactics aimed at transforming their rallying cries into action.
The strategy was on full display in the Twin Cities on Friday as students once again skipped class to push for changes they believe will mitigate the effects of global warming. This time, in addition to calls for national policies like a federal Green New Deal, activists focused their attention on state and local leaders.
Dozens of protesters camped out in the State Capitol beyond the building’s 5 p.m. close Friday, demanding that top elected officials, including Gov. Tim. Walz, hear their demands on fossil fuel divestment and blocking Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline project.
Earlier in the day, smaller clusters of students dispersed across the metro area to stage demonstrations targeting city councils, congressional offices and university presidents. Just after noon, about 100 activists filled the skyway entrance to Xcel Energy to urge the company to stop buying energy from a Hennepin County trash incinerator because of air quality concerns. Instead of waving signs and delivering fiery speeches, organizers led “teach-ins” on environmental justice during an afternoon rally at the Capitol.
“It’s easier to get stuff done when it’s specific,” said Lee Lang, a 15-year-old from south Minneapolis. “Instead of demanding the whole city or the whole nation or the whole world do something, if we target these companies individually, we can make a bigger difference.”
The demonstrations across the metro attracted considerably smaller crowds than a September rally, which drew thousands of students to the State Capitol steps. Organizers said the decline was expected, reflecting an effort to encourage deeper involvement from dedicated supporters. They hope the shift will increase pressure on elected officials.
“As we grew this movement we hoped that politicians would take advantage of us telling them what we wanted to see and what we hoped they would adopt policywise,” said Mia DiLorenzo, an Edina sophomore and organizer of state and local youth climate strike efforts. “But when they didn’t do that we decided we had to start pushing for those policies ourselves.”
By encouraging followers to become more politically engaged, youth climate activists are following a playbook that’s grown in popularity among grass-roots campaigns. Supporters of the Tea Party movement flooded town halls in 2009 to confront lawmakers over the Affordable Care Act.
Groups backing stricter gun laws regularly mobilized supporters to testify at legislative committee hearings. Training pegged to the 2017 Women’s March helped fuel a sharp increase in female Democratic candidates last year.
“It used to be protest was the end goal of a big movement,” said Dana R. Fisher, an author and University of Maryland professor who studies activism. “But nowadays marching on Washington or marching anywhere and having a strike is in a lot of ways the beginning of an engagement. Once you get someone to participate in a strike or participate in a protest, they’re asked to do so much more.”
Local organizers are doing just that. In recent weeks, the Minnesota Youth Climate Strike used its Instagram account to ask supporters to call statewide elected officials and urge them to pull state pension dollars from funds that invest in fossil fuel companies. “Tell Tim Walz to #divestfromdestruction,” reads the text above a photo of the DFL governor. An accompanying caption shares a sample script for the calls.
Organizers of Friday’s sit-in at the Capitol called it quits just after 8:30 p.m. without securing any clear concessions from top lawmakers. But they aren’t giving up. They plan to continue to press on divestment and other priorities, including passage of a state Green New Deal next year. While many of their members won’t be old enough to vote in 2020, organizers hope to hold more strikes on election days to encourage those who can cast a ballot to consider candidates’ positions on climate.
“You have to act on behalf of us,” DiLorenzo said of the message they hope to send. “We’re telling you, this is what we need you to do.”