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Earth Day rally 2022

Young activists mark Earth Day 2022 at a rally in Washington.

Gemunu Amarasinghe

Chicago-area youth tie climate change to schools

Students from the Chicago Climate Youth Coalition used Earth Day to push for more green policies in Chicago Public Schools.

High school senior Jelena Collins talks about the coalition, its objectives with CPS, and the growing climate change activism among young people.

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MELBA LARA, HOST: Friday was Earth Day. And despite the weather, dozens of people gathered in downtown Chicago to push for more green policies in Chicago public schools. It was the theme of a youth organized climate strike. Jelena Collins is a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School. She’s also the founder of the Chicago Climate youth coalition. Jelena, welcome.

JELENA COLLINS: Hi, thank you.

LARA: Tell us more about what you’re asking Chicago public schools to do.

COLLINS: We are asking Chicago public schools to basically follow through on the climate policies that they just wrote and passed. And we want to just make sure that the CPS administration is adequately investing in these policies, and that they know that there’s a community here in Chicago holding them accountable. So the policy outlines some solarizing and retrofitting, redoing of HVAC systems at CPS schools. And also, we’re hoping that they include some kind of update on climate curriculum and environmental justice curriculum in the future.

LARA: And this climate strike was for students all across the Chicagoland area, why the focus on CPS?

COLLINS: We were focusing on CPS because it’s sort of the district that sets the precedent for the other suburban school districts. It seemed like it made more sense to have a very specific call to CPS, and then hope that that was echoed and sort of felt through other Chicago area school districts.

LARA: And can you tell us a little bit more about the climate youth coalition? Why did you start the group?

COLLINS: So the idea that I had when I was founding the group was that I wanted to connect the people that were leading all of these different environmental clubs at Chicago Area High Schools, that they could sort of share inspiration and ideas, successes that they’d had with one another. Because I didn’t like the idea that all of these clubs, were working as separate entities, but still had a common goal. I felt like everyone would be more productive if they worked together. So I wanted to build that community.

LARA: We’ve seen all over the world, young people very involved in what’s going on with climate advocacy. And you said, sometimes when you’re doing the work, you’re the only young person in the room, what’s that experience like for you?

COLLINS: It’s definitely a little weird. I feel like I’ve gotten very involved in the adult side of environmentalism. And I don’t entirely know why. So yeah, like you said, I am often the youngest person in the room doing the work that I’m doing. I think it gives me kind of a unique perspective. And it makes me stand out in a way because I’m not the same as all the other adults that are taking part in these conversations. But at the same time, I am objectively less educated and less of an expert on these topics than most of the other - if not all of the other people - in the room when we’re having these conversations. And so it can be a little frustrating just because I think some adults are less inclined to take a high school student seriously than they are their colleagues.

LARA: And what about your classmates, a lot of young people feel really discouraged about climate change and very depressed about the world they think they’re going to be inheriting. What do you say to them?

COLLINS: I don’t know what I’d say to them, because I feel the same way. I think that there is value in taking action. And I think that we need kind of a cultural transformation. It’s not just changing policy that needs to happen. It needs to be a priority that everyone shares. Because I think that right now, we just don’t have a culture of sustainability that’s been around for very long, and that’s been super strongly developed. And that is something that I think that young people can contribute to because they can be a part of that whole movement and shift towards just leaving more environmentally healthy lifestyles.

See ongoing stories from WBEZ and the Local Media Association, and listen to interviews with experts about climate change topics in our region.

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