MN High School Student: Why I Joined the Largest Climate Rally in US History

The Will Steger Foundation was a proud partner in the Forward on Climate rally held in Washington DC on Feb 2013. We sent four delegates from our YEA! MN high school program, including this blog’s author, with the unwavering belief that even youth too young to vote have a powerful role to play in the climate movement.

ColeEver since I had first heard Bill McKibben mention the event that would become the Forward on Climate Rally at his Do The Math tour stop in Minneapolis last November, it lingered in the back of my head as something I wanted to be a part of. An opportunity for tens of thousands of citizens with a common concern for the climate to come together in our nation’s capital doesn’t come along every day. And with a critical decision about the Keystone XL oil pipeline hanging in the balance, it was especially vital that people of all ages and backgrounds turn out to demonstrate their opposition in solidarity. Other young people I talked to also indicated restless wishes of attending the rally, which gave me the impression that Forward on Climate was something bigger that had the potential to be a truly significant, even historic, event. With this in mind, I was unbelievably excited to be given the opportunity to travel to Washington DC with Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota (YEA! MN – a program of the Will Steger Foundation), an experience that proved to be both challenging and inspiring in a number of vivid ways.

groupThe YEA! MN delegation – made up of one staff and three high school students, including myself – travelled from Minneapolis to DC on one of two buses chartered by MN350. Upon boarding, I realized that the bulk of our time would be spent simply riding the bus, which in some ways could be just as interesting as the rally itself. It was amazing to feel a sense of shared mission with the familiar faces that surrounded me. And best of all, it took very little time before a guitar, banjo, and harmonica appeared – bringing us together even more over music before we arrived in DC. After a night spent onboard the bus, we were dropped off a few blocks from the Washington Monument, where the rally had already begun. Before making our way there, the YEA! MN delegation joined a larger group of Minnesotans at the Museum of Natural History to share bagels, coffee, stories, and signs. United under our blue banner, we proceeded together to the Monument, where droves of activists were already roaring like the sound of a jet plane. “Welcome, my relatives,” were some of the first words I heard spoken by Casey Camp, an indigenous community leader from Oklahoma. That alone gave me an overwhelming sense of connection with the crowd. Her words were accompanied by those of Van Jones, Crystal Lameman, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, and of course, Bill McKibben, who all managed to counter the cold weather with high spirits.

group bannerSoon enough it was time to march, and the hordes of us huddled beneath the Monument began to slowly drain into the streets. With our banner wrapped around us, the YEA! MN delegation moved forward as only four people out of the nearly 50,000 who had assembled. Chants and songs came in waves, such as “Hey, Obama: we don’t want no climate drama,” and “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Keystone Pipeline’s got to go.” But who was witnessing this unprecedented event? The streets surrounding the White House had all been closed off, preventing exposure to traffic; and while light media coverage made scattered attempts at documenting the march, there were very few reporters or camera crews to be found. President Obama, of course, never made an appearance – so who was hearing our message? Such doubts flashed through my mind as we passed the Treasury Building, but they did not prevent me from waving my sign (“WE ARE BETTER THAN OIL”) above my head.

rallyAfter our loop was complete, the marchers diffused, gathering again where we had begun for some final words and dancing. It was hard to grasp that I had been part of the largest climate demonstration in American history. And even though all eyes may not have been on us in that moment, I know that those of us who were there will always remember how it felt to be a single, vocal, powerful force. Maybe that will be the legacy of Forward on Climate – an event that inspired us, the youth of today, to continue leading the fight against fossil fuels and climate change. I returned from DC with renewed purpose, knowing that there are thousands of people out there just like me doing everything in their power to create a better world. And now, if it happens that Obama fails us on Keystone XL, I know I will not be afraid to try again, and again, until the change we need finally comes.

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Cole Norgaarden is a senior in high school and a Co-Chair of the YEA! MN Steering Committee. He joined the YEA! MN Steering Committee in 8th grade and among his many examples of leadership has testified in front of the MN State Legislature in defense of Minnesota’s moratorium on new coal plants.

A core program of the Will Steger Foundation, Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota supports a broad network of high school environmental clubs working together across the Twin Cities Metro Area to empower student leadership on climate change solutions at home, at school, and in the wider community.

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