by Kermit M. Hovey, Jr.
Thousands, including 160 Wisconsinites, 100 alone from greater Madison, traveled across the country to the Forward on Climate rally in Washington, DC. Each had a story. Intriguing among them were those of three high school age teens and their parents from the Madison-area who bussed, marched and protested together on that bright, partly-cloudy, freezing Sunday, February 17, 2013.
They gathered with crowds to rally in the shadow of the Washington Monument to call on the country and the government to take urgent action against climate change. Bill McKibben, 350.org founder and event co-organizer, and Michael Brune, Executive Director The Sierra Club, another event co-organizer, shared the event stage with politicians, celebrities, activists and Canadian first-nation representatives.
Each speaker reminded them that business as usual can not continue in the face of growing climate change threats and environmental degradation. With speakers and other ralliers, they urged that Obama block Transcanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline and thereby keep extremely polluting toxic Canadian tar sand oil from pouring into the market to further damage the climate, economy, and public health.
They and others swarmed into the streets with their signs, chants, and in some cases costumes, to visibly and vocally demonstrate their concern. Grim reapers, statues of liberty, astronauts, and just chilly bundled-up citizens of all ages streamed from the staging area down the streets to the White House – and then back again. As they and fellow protesters strode to the event stage at the end of the march, McKibben declared over the sound system they had made history with 50,000 attending the largest climate focused rally in U.S. history.
The three parents and teens took time to share stories of how they had helped make and influence history as their bus rolled from Washington, DC back to Wisconsin on that cold, dark Sunday evening.
Terry Ross notes how she encouraged her daughter, Madison East High School senior Scout Slava-Ross, to come in part to carry on a generational tradition of advocating social justice. “There were a lot of us here today, and that was important, but personally I thought it was important for my daughter to have the experience of being in Washington, DC with thousands of people trying to make their voices heard about a cause that is really important. In my experience, I came to Washington with my mother back in the 70′s for an important rally for the equal rights amendment, and it was the first of many. And it was really fun to bring my daughter and do this together for the first time.”
Scout recalls her positive response came in the context of an active and activist relationship, “My mom was the first one who mentioned the Forward On Climate Rally to me, and that is how I first knew it was happening. I’ve always done a lot of stuff with my mom, especially in regards to the environment and things like this march. We used to be in a street theater group together, so I trusted her when she said it was going to be a big deal, and I think that she was right!”
Scout saw her contribution as one piece of a greater whole. “I accomplished something that everyone accomplished, just one more person at the rally where each one of us adds. Just another person makes it another person bigger. A lot of individual efforts together is why something like this can really happen. I also accomplished just being able to come to a rally in DC.”
In a slightly different way Susan Kiernan’s plan to attend the Forward On Climate Rally inspired her daughter, Madison West High School Freshman Laura Kienan to come.
“I was originally coming alone,” Susan said, “When I told Laura that I was getting on the bus she said ‘Can I come?’ She said that this issue of climate change is important to me too.”
Laura elaborates, “I feel that climate change is an important issue for me and my generation. I really like the environment and I want to ski and play in the snow 30 years from now and that’s important. I just wanted to be part of a big movement, and I think we sent a strong message to President Obama and I hope he responds.”
Susan describes their shared desire for climate change action, “I hope we sent a very strong message to President Obama in this show of force that we had here today. This is I think the defining issue of our time, and the time for action is now. This is urgent and I hope that he sees that we are in this together and that we want to support him in making the best possible decisions to heal our planet.”
In something of a role reversal, Monona Grove High School senior Ellen Albright inspired her father Bill Albright to protest. “Over the summer I joined 350Madison to get more involved with climate activism, and when I heard about the climate rally in DC, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to practice this activism. My parents weren’t too keen on the idea of me going to DC by myself, so I decided to take my dad along with me. Also, over the summer I introduced him to some of Bill Mckibben’s writing and really got him interested about this idea as well. So, It was a very cool experience to bond with my dad over this issue and see our generations working together on climate change, ” Ellen explained.
Bill’s involvement in science education may have something to do with Ellen’s awareness, but he agrees she nudged him from passive science to political action. “For the last 15 to 18 years I have been aware of climate change. I taught it in high school, in earth science… So while I had that interest from a science standpoint and being a scientist, it was really my daughter Ellen that sparked my interest in becoming active politically and socially.”
Ellen enthuses, “I think I had a personal achievement today of re-inspiring myself to continue fighting against the climate crisis and participating in environmental activism. I also think that I was part of a very important movement to pressure President Obama to not approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Before I left for Washington, one of my teachers shared an interesting piece of rhetoric with me that in the 1960′s civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy and asked him to give them political support for their civil rights agenda. He told them that he did support them but that they would need to get out and make him propose comprehensive civil rights legislation. So, I went to Washington knowing that President Obama wants to act on climate change and that he means to act on climate change, but I went to make him act on climate change.”
The climate crisis struggle, hope and opportunity doesn’t end with parents such as Bill, Susan and Terry or their generation. It continues with the younger generations represented by their children, Scout, Laura and Ellen along with other students and young adults at the Forward on Climate Rally. This new generation not only takes inspiration from its elders to act, but inspires their elders to act against climate change, “the defining issue of our time”.