Faces of the Climate March: Wisconsin

Adults may be surprised about what is on the minds of teenagers these days. Sure, there are likely thoughts of weekend plans, the upcoming math test, band practice, and tomorrow’s basketball game, but many are also housing a much larger concern. On Sept. 20, millions of people walked out of their schools and places of work to participate in the Global Youth Climate Strike. The youth attending and organizing these climate strikes had much larger things on their minds than homework.

Sophie Guthrie, 19, rallied alongside the other youth leaders who organized the Madison, Wisc., strike. Guthrie is studying Environmental Studies and Political Science in her first year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but she has been involved in this movement long before coming to college.

Guthrie's introduction to the global climate change crisis was in her seventh grade science class. Her teacher’s lessons on how extreme weather patterns are linked to climate change sparked her interest in the topic, but Guthrie noticed these class discussions were often discouraging and rarely included good news. She felt the pain of the issues and decided it was up to her to do something about it. There was only so much she could learn in the classroom, so Guthrie worked on educating herself and her peers. In seventh grade, Guthrie was building momentum for what was to come.

The current environmental movement is unique because it has been erected by the voices and actions of youth. Now more than ever before, youth in high school and middle school are standing up to support this movement. Guthrie believes this change is less in the minds of the youth and more in the acceptance from society.

“There’s never been a youth who doesn’t care about what’s happening to them; it’s just that they’ve been told that they shouldn’t, so they don’t want to share their voice,” she said.

Like others, Guthrie is inspired by this momentum and power youth, like herself, have found. What starts with an individual, grassroots organizer can lead to rallying a community and initiating a national movement.

After organizing a city climate change march this past spring, Guthrie and her peers realized they needed a team to maintain the momentum of this movement. Guthrie helped found the Youth Climate Action Team (YCAT), a non-profit organization with members in city hubs all across the state. Having a formal non-profit status is important for this team of youth leaders because it gives members, many of whom are under the age of 18, the validation needed to sign forms such as permits. Since its formation in March, the team has grown to about 80 active members. Most members range from middle and high school to college-age, but recently, kids as young as fifth grade have reached out to join.

With such a variety in age and experience, collaboration has been key for this organization’s success. Without official experience, most members had to rely on learning activism skills from one another. The team also provides a sense of support and a source of energy for each of the members. Guthrie admits being a youth activist can be difficult at times.

One of the challenges is dealing with the emotions that this work can produce.

“A lot of us are always angry, and we’re always pissed that we’re doing this. Because it’s why do I have to be doing this? Why have I been worrying about this since the seventh grade? This shouldn’t be my job,” she said.

“It’s really just each other that keeps me going. If it was just me by myself, I would not still be working on this because burnout is real and people get burned out so fast. It’s allowing each other to take breaks but also helping each other back up after things happen.”

For the Global Climate Strike, the team hoped to localize Wisconsin’s events and initiate change at a local government level in order to most effectively tackle each community’s diverse set of problems. YCAT leaders established the united goal to push Wisconsin’s Gov. Tony Evers to declare a statewide climate emergency, and various cities, including Madison, were demanding their local officials to do the same.

In Madison, there were activities from sunrise to sunset. Guthrie explained this was intentional because they acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege to take the whole day off of work or school to strike. They wanted to make sure there was a way to get involved no matter what time or for how long people may be able to join.

Organizing a strike is hard work. Guthrie admits that most of the day was filled with stress and anxiety as she was pulled from one task to another, trying to make sure the day ran smoothly. There were moments, though, that stopped her in her tracks. 

“I saw everyone marching down the street, and it was this gigantic crowd...to see all these hundreds of people walking down, it was amazing,” Guthrie said.

The crowd was heading to a gathering in the streets outside of Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E), the city’s local utility company. Organizers ran teach-ins, tabling from environmental organizations, art construction, and more. From MG&E, the crowd marched to the capitol where there was a rally led by the Youth Climate Action Team. Following the rally, the crowd entered the capitol rotunda to continue voicing demands for climate change action until the building closed.

Guthrie hopes the day’s events will build awareness about the power structures, such as the power of MG&E, at work in Madison.

“This shouldn’t be about people going vegetarian or vegan or straws,” Guthrie said. “This should be about looking at the companies that are causing the majority of this damage and focusing on taking them down rather than fighting each other. A lot of these things that are holding us back from progress are these companies that are profiting off of our extinction.”

The threat of extinction is one that Guthrie takes very seriously. Outside of this movement, Guthrie explains that she doesn’t have many long-term plans.

“Climate change is going to decide what future I have, so I can’t plan for a future if there isn’t one.”

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