Where Did All These Teen Activists Come From?

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Ana Ostrovsky at the San Francisco climate strike.  (Courtesy Alice Ostrovsky)

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I met Ana Ostrovsky at a big Climate Strike event in March of 2019. Thousands of students cut school and gathered in downtown San Francisco to show their solidarity with the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. It was one of 2,300 such strikes held in 130 countries that Friday.

At the time, Ana was a senior at Terra Linda High School. She looked like a hippie child, wearing loose striped pants, a yellow crop top and sandals. She was sporting a sign that read: "What I Stand For Is What I Stand On." Ana is a seasoned climate protester and activist, so much so that she almost decided not to attend that particular climate strike -- she was getting a little tired of protesting. But, ultimately, she decided she wanted to be in solidarity with other young people around the globe.

"I think it's a super powerful moment," Ana said. "Especially because people understand the [climate] science more now ... and that's exciting, because everyone wants a place to live that is clean and healthy."

Ana started her environmental activism younger than most -- in first grade. That's when she learned that polar bears were dying as climate change threatened their habitats. Ever since, she’s believed passionately that her purpose is to save the Earth. That feeling is even more powerful now that Ana is 18, on the cusp of adulthood.

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"If no one else is going to do it, then we’re going to make the change that we want to see in the world," she said.

In the last few years, young people have been demanding to be heard about the issues that matter most to them. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students planned and delivered what some called the largest student protest since the Vietnam War. Crowd estimates ranged from 200,000 to 800,000 at the Washington, D.C., March for Our Lives, and hundreds of thousands more participated in the 800 sister protests held all over the country and the world. Some of the most impactful speeches at the March for Our Lives were from student survivors.

“When people try to suppress your vote, and there are people who stand against you because you’re too young, we say: ‘No more!’ ” shouted Parkland survivor David Hogg that day. His message, specifically about changing gun laws, encapsulates the urgency a lot of young people are feeling about a number of issues that affect their lives and their futures.

Students are staging school walkouts to protest immigration policies, striking in solidarity with Greta Thunberg, supporting their teachers during their own school strikes for better contracts, and staging Black Lives Matter protests.

“These are young people who have been affected by these issues, these are youth who are concerned about their safety, their future,” said Jesica Fernandez, a Santa Clara University professor who studies youth movements. “They present a compelling story because of the lived realities that they are experiencing and live in. That can make it more real and palpable to adults.”

There are many moments in history when young people have made their voices heard about the issues that matter to them -- the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the East L.A. Blowouts, for example. But technology allows young people living through this moment to be heard by a much larger audience, Fernandez said.

Ana and her peers are increasingly using their tech savvy to mobilize protests and inspire older generations in ways that weren’t possible before social media -- generations that include people like Ana’s mom, Alice Ostrovsky.

Alice Ostrovsky is cynical about how quickly change will happen, but she tries to keep that skepticism to herself because she knows her daughter wants to change the world.

“We live in extremely demoralizing times,” she said. “And I think that's why the youth activism that's happened in the last couple of years is getting the attention that it is, and is resonating with so many people. Because we are frustrated, tired and depressed. But if serious amounts globally of young people motivate in a connected way, maybe there's a little bit of a chance.”

Learning to Make Change At School

Even though Ana is young, she’s not naive about how difficult and frustrating it can be to create lasting change and see one's activism pay off, especially as a young person who can’t yet vote. She can thank a magnet program at her public school for that.

Ana's activism motto is "Act locally, think globally," something she learned in her classes for the Marin School for Environmental Leadership. It’s a program that taps into the natural adolescent desire to make change and couples it with a curriculum designed to get kids out of the classroom, interacting with the real world.

Ana Ostrovsky waters chard in her school's garden.
Ana Ostrovsky waters chard in her school's garden. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

In her freshman year, Ana realized that there were grassroots sustainability efforts happening at many schools in San Rafael, but no top-down goals or leadership to unify those efforts. Nothing bothers her more than when individuals try to “recreate the wheel,” so she worked to start a sustainability committee at the district level that includes students, teachers, parents and district representatives. Their goal is to achieve the Green Ribbon School Standards, a distinction for schools and districts that show excellence in resource efficiency, health and wellness, and environmental and sustainability education.

"It's been very bureaucratic, and so it's moved very slowly forward," Ana said. "But in the last year, we have finally made strides."

For the first few years, Ana said the pattern was for students to do research on each sustainability sector where the district needed to make progress, present it to the committee, get a patronizing “pat on the back” from the adults, and then nothing would happen. Ana was frustrated by that.

"It's really demeaning, especially when adult men are looking at me and saying, 'Why are we doing this again? What is this for?' And I'm just like, 'Everything! Have you been listening the past three years?' "

At the end of four years of advocacy work, Ana is getting used to cumbersome bureaucratic systems. She and her classmates also evaluated the city of San Rafael on its sustainability goals and presented to the City Council. That presentation led to Ana and her classmates writing and proposing a city resolution that recognizes the importance of youth voices in future sustainability planning. She has also studied historical movements and tactics that guide her leadership.

"I've learned about framing and tactics, and that fear tactics are not the answer," Ana said. "And it's because of the real-world work that we do. I am able to talk to community members, and I'm able to talk to people who don't necessarily agree with me."

Ana still gets overwhelmed by the scale of problems like climate change, but when she starts to feel that way, she finds a concrete task that feels like it makes a small difference -- like planting a tree or working in the garden.

"The little changes that you make in your community that you can see and you can touch and feel -- that makes a huge impact, because your community will then be what other communities look to," Ana said. "You can be a leader and make a ripple effect."

A Community of Activists Helps Sustain the Work

Activism is not easy to sustain, something Ana knows as well as anyone. She says that for herself and her fellow students, participation in protests and other efforts ebbs and flows based on what else is going on in their lives. People are busy; she gets that.

When she starts to feel discouraged, Ana finds comfort in a group of other teen environmental activists who meet regularly to share ideas, raise money together, and offer solidarity. At one such meeting I attended at the San Rafael Public Library, Ana and a group of teens were making bookmarks out of paper bags that they planned to give away at a local educational farm.

When the conversation turned to the challenge of balancing school obligations with their commitment to activism, this group had a lot to say. Lori Gerstenfeld, then a senior at Redwood High School, was frustrated that her teachers weren’t more understanding about missing a little school for big protests.

"[Teachers are] very single-minded," she said. "'Here's what we're doing every day. If you miss it, there's no excuses, you still have to make it up' -- which I understand. But, I wish they had more flexibility."

That makes it hard to miss even a day of school, Lori said, because the work starts piling up. And while she understands that getting a good education is important, it can also feel hypocritical. On the one hand, teachers say the point of school is to gain knowledge and skills to impact the world. But when kids want to do just that -- impact the world -- they’re told to stay in class.

Another student activist, Jillian Hickey, said she's learned a lot of important skills from activism. She listed some of them.

"Being organized, which is what school wants you to be. Goal-setting, leadership development and becoming more confident in yourself. Public speaking. All of this is stuff we’re learning on the go, which I think school is trying to teach us, but it’s just so much slower at it."

These students aren't saying that school is unimportant. It's just rigid. And the message is always about pursuing their passions later. But by some estimates, the world will be feeling dramatic, irreversible changes due to climate change by 2030. Teens are starting to feel like there’s not that much "later" left.

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