As Waters Rise, a Movement Surges and Youth Rise to Meet the Call
by Norah Vawter
I spent the Sunday before Mother’s Day (May 5) at the third annual Mother’s Day Climate Rally, which I helped organize and was co-sponsored by 21 different local groups. The largest gathering of climate action groups in our area this year. I was struck by the number of people who braved the rain to listen to rousing speeches by brave young activists and state legislators, all of whom are literally changing the world; to listen to social justice rock from local band M4TR; and visit the tables of environmental groups.
This is community activism at its best, a special gathering. And it wasn’t just because I’d spent months planning the thing. No, it was the intensity on the stage and the power of community on the ground.
Our keynote speaker was 13-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, co-founder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, who’s been school striking in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York for 21 weeks. She’s just started her own nonprofit, Earth Uprising. She said, “I see a world where human beings live in harmony with the earth. .... I see a stable climate system where fossil fuels are kept in the ground and their emissions are zero. ... We have to start imagining a new future now in order to make it come true.”
After the rally, I asked her about her next steps. “We'll be getting more radical,” she said. “We are going to take more direct actions. We're going to continue to strike. It's already working in places even though it's taken some time.”
Alexandria’s mother Kristin Hogue, a graduate student in climate science at Columbia University spoke about motherhood being inherently political, and I felt like she was speaking right to me. (I have a six-year-old son, and I think a lot about protecting him but also teaching him to be a person who makes a difference.) “When you teach your child how to stand up for truth, you are teaching your child how to be an activist. ... And when you teach your child to stand for those in oppressed communities when they can’t stand for themselves, you are teaching your child how to be an activist.”
Later, I asked her what she’d say to parents who were not supportive of their children being part of the climate movement or striking. She answered, “You can be supportive later when it's really bad, or you can be supportive now, this problem is not going away.”
Not every young activist is working on the national stage. Many are working at the local and state levels, and their work is equally powerful. High school student Wendy Gao advocates for the Solar on the Schools program in Fairfax County and has seen the tangible effects of her activism. She told the crowd, “Earlier this month, our Fairfax County government announced that they would seek bids to install solar panels and more than 200 school and government buildings. So my peers give me hope, but [so do] my Fairfax County government officials and most of the people that are sitting in this room today... We can save our earth together.”
Mitra Kashani, George Mason graduate school student, campus and Sunrise activist, spoke about gains at the state level, and being motivated by the science (which scares her) and the natural world (which she feels a special connection to). When I asked why we needed big, bold solutions like the Green New Deal instead of smaller, incremental changes, Mitra said, “I'm going to go all full-on AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] here. That answer would have been great 30 years ago, or 20 years ago. Today—we've waited too long. We have to have ambition. We can't do piecemeal solutions anymore. We have to ascend to the scale of the climate crisis.”
I felt inspired. But I felt grounded by the community of activists around me. There was this mixture of warmth and camaraderie, optimism, anger, and frustration, and then some optimism again. We were this big, messy family, determined to work together, to cheer each other on. As Alexandria chanted, “Our Future! Our Earth!”
Rally co-sponsors: 350 Alexandria; 350 Fairfax; 350 Loudoun; Chesapeake Climate Action Network; Climate Reality Project—NOVA chapter; Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions; Food & Water Watch; Greater Prince William Climate Action Network; Green Muslims; Herndon-Reston Indivisible; Moms Clean Air Force; Mothers Out Front; Network NOVA; NOVA Climate; Our Revolution—Alexandria; Our Revolution—Arlington; Our Revolution—Northern Virginia; Sierra Club—Virginia Chapter; Sierra Club—Great Falls Group; Sunrise Movement; Virginia Student Environmental Coalition—GMU chapter.
About the Mother’s Day Climate Rally: Mother’s Day has its origins in the Mother’s Day Proclamation, written in 1870 by abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe. In the wake of the civil war, Howe sought to mobilize mothers around the world to protect future generations of children by outlawing war. The Mother’s Day Climate Rally renews the holiday’s activist spirit by mobilizing people to act on the most important issue of our time, the climate crisis.
Norah Vawter is a writer, editor and fiction writer. She's been published in The Washington Post, OtherWords, Posh Seven Magazine, Scary Mommy, JustBE Parenting and others. Norah earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at George Mason University and a B.A. in English at the College of William and Mary.