Last Friday, the Civic Center BART station was filled with wide-eyed and smiling kids. The students were on their way to participate in the San Francisco Youth Climate Strike, a march organized by the nonprofit Youth vs. Apocalypse to demand urgent climate action. Around the world, there were more than 2,500 similar events in more than 163 countries.
“It’s so cool to see so many youth excited,” Hannah Estrada, an organizer with Youth vs. Apocalypse and a student at ICA Cristo Rey Academy in the Mission, told me. “We need to educate ourselves to what’s going on.”
Unfortunately, many young students were unable to attend the lesson in environmental activism and civic engagement. San Francisco Superintendent Vincent Matthews prohibited teachers from taking students, citing school district policy. Parents and teachers protested, and 2,000 people signed a Change.org petition calling on the school district to reverse its position. But there wasn’t time to change the policy before the strike.
“We support the right of our students to express their views in a peaceful manner, including their constitutional right to peacefully protest,” Matthews told me. “Per our existing district policies we cannot excuse a student’s absence from school when civic engagement includes missing class.”
While the school district’s support is appreciated, it absolutely needs to change the policy. The decision unfairly impacted young students whose parents couldn’t take them.
But Matthew’s decision did offer an opportunity for older students — a chance to break a rule for the right reason, and learn something about their own values at the same time.
Despite San Francisco’s reputation as a hub for social activism, students at Lowell High School in the Sunset typically choose class over protests, marches and strikes. According to a poll conducted by Lowell’s student-run newspaper, fewer than 35 of 131 respondents said they would attend the Youth Climate Strike last Friday. In March, only 25 Lowell students — under 1 percent of the student body — attended a similar strike supporting a Green New Deal.
Christy Vong was one of the students reluctant to attend the strike. The junior and co-president of the Lowell Eco-Club has almost perfect attendance. She didn’t see a point to missing class and disappointing her parents, who often tell her to quit her time-consuming role with the Eco-Club and focus on her grades.
“I think a lot of people don’t take part and just go with the system, to be a student going to class and not disrupting order because they haven’t been exposed to this kind of activism,” Vong told me.
Right before the march, Vong decided to attend. Riding the bus to the Civic Center, she witnessed enthusiastic middle school students and environmental activists. It was different than what she expected. The passion and positivity Vong experienced solidified her values as an environmental advocate.
“The lasting impact of going on the strike is that the unity of thousands of passionate young and old people was so strong it motivated me to continue my advocacy,” Vong told me. “It gave me a clearer purpose.”
It’s one thing for a seasoned-San Franciscans to protest and march. Most of us know that social activism can affect meaningful change.
But feeling a clear sense of purpose at such a young age is a powerful thing. When Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who inspired the Youth Climate Strike, began skipping school to sit outside the Swedish parliament in 2018, she didn’t have permission. She defied her parents, teachers and the system that told her to sit at her desk and wait to take a stand. She decided breaking the rules was worth it, and it turns out millions agree.
The school district must change its policy so more students can experience social activism. But it’s also good to let students define their own values. If we’re going to address the climate crisis with the urgency deserves, we need more people who are willing to take risks for what’s right.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com