Indiana Youth Move Mountains

April 26, 2021

This article was revised on 4/16/21 and updated to include the Muncie Climate Resiliency Resolution. It was previously titled, “How Indiana Youth Are Making A Difference In Climate Change.”

Across the globe, young people are increasingly taking up climate activism. With Greta Thunberg as arguably the most recognizable face of the current climate movement, youth passion regarding climate change is undeniable. Grassroots campaigns are popping up across the United States and the world, and they are beginning to make significant changes to their communities.

Often organized through schools or connected by social media, these young activists advocate for recycling programs at their schools, organize climate strikes, communicate with their elected officials and spread awareness. These actions are not confined to overwhelmingly liberal states, nor are they exclusive to big cities and privileged communities. Right here in Indiana, youth leaders are changing the way Hoosiers think about the climate.

On March 19, 2021, students from across Indiana gathered at the Indiana Statehouse for a climate strike, part of a global call for strikes to raise awareness of the climate crisis and demand action. The strike was organized by the Indiana youth group Confront the Climate Crisis. Students gave speeches and recited chants, but they also delivered a letter to Governor Eric Holcomb, declaring a climate emergency for the state of Indiana and requesting a meeting to express their concerns to him. Governor Holcomb’s office did not respond to emails and calls inviting him to comment on the issue.

Above, Rahul Durai, a high school student from West Lafayette and a member of the Confront the Climate Crisis group, spoke at the March 19 rally.

Not only are students taking time to protest, to strike and to bring attention and awareness to the matter, they recognize that policy action will require working with their elected officials. This, they believe, is the only way to create meaningful and lasting change.

Climate emergency declarations are another example of a visible change to climate policy in Indiana. In three Indiana municipalities, Porter, Chesterton and West Lafayette, youth led the effort to declare a climate emergency. In Marion County, students at Shortridge High School are working to draft a climate emergency declaration.

The efforts at Shortridge are led by Lizzie Perkins and a passionate group of other Shortridge students, and are supervised by social studies teacher, Troy Hammon. This is the first-ever climate emergency declaration in Indiana at the high-school level, a huge step for the Hoosier climate movement. I was able to sit in on some of their meetings and correspond more closely with Perkins and Hammon, who cleared up some of my questions.

A climate emergency declaration, Perkins informed me, “is essentially a commitment the school makes to taking future climate action.” In addition to recognizing the threat of climate change and promising further action, the declaration establishes a Student Environmental Action Corps in order to tackle climate challenges.

For Perkins, this would mean climate literacy built into the Shortridge curriculum, climate action events organized by the Action Corps, a comprehensive recycling program and solar panels to reduce the school’s carbon footprint.

Hammon stressed the importance of the Action Corps bringing increased climate literacy.

“Too many still argue about whether the climate is changing. The science is there and real. If it’s man made, natural or a combination is no longer the debate,” Hammon said.

This declaration would provide the mechanism and power for Shortridge students to make the changes they’ve been advocating for.

The challenges in completing the climate emergency declaration were numerous. The project took months, with most of the process consisting of extensive research on the specific impacts of climate change on youth and minority groups. This was important because it directly linked climate change to the community the school serves: students.

Hammon noted that working on the project virtually slowed down the process even further. However, when I asked Perkins what the students’ greatest challenge was, she responded, “Our biggest challenge has been coordinating school-wide collaboration. It is [the goal] that the resolution initiates school wide change and activism. This means creating connections between the different groups, clubs and subjects at Shortridge.”

The Shortridge Chalk Out on March 17th. Shortridge High School is the oldest public high school in the state of Indiana, with many prestigious alumni, including Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Lugar.

To get the word out about the declaration at Shortridge and drum up support, Shortridge students were invited to a “chalk-out” March 17, when they filled the sidewalks outside the school with messages about the climate.

The students received support for their declaration from their principal, and they also held another chalk-out April 14 to gather further, more widespread support of the declaration before the official signing on April 22, Earth Day. Their hope to start a movement through Indianapolis Public Schools and beyond.

Indiana youth are working to slow the climate crisis in other ways as well, including inspiring their municipalities to adopt climate-friendly policy. On April 5 in Muncie, Indiana, a student-led group called the Muncie Climate Coalition unanimously passed a climate resiliency resolution. And like Shortridge’s climate emergency declaration, it calls for the formation of a committee to address climate-related issues. In this case, the committee would work at the city level to reduce Muncie’s greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2022.

Several high school members of the Muncie Climate Coalition spoke at the hearing, expressing their reasons for supporting the resolution. They recounted the burden they feel as young people to reverse the damage done to our planet, the uncertainty of their futures due to climate instability and their fears of pollution impacting their air and water.

Julie Pichonnat speaking at the hearing for the climate resiliency resolution.

Julie Pichonnat, a junior at Indiana Academy in Muncie, testified about her experience as a climate-concerned student and why she supports the resolution.

“My generation is expected to save our species and to undo all the damage and pollution and build a sustainable future,” she said. “Every day we as a community don’t address climate change, we tell people that they don’t matter. Sustainability is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. I support this resolution because it says that I matter and that you matter and that Muncie matters.”

City councilman Ralph Smith spoke near the end of the hearing about the impact those students had on him, saying they had changed his vote from a “no” to a “yes.”

“I considered all the talk [in the community] and the little bit of email traffic [from Ball State], but when it comes to this, [the students] are the most important people in the room, and if [they] hadn’t been here tonight, I still may have been a ‘no’ vote,” he said.

In addition to youth voices, the resolution was made successful by the bi-partisan support the group gathered. Andrew Pilot, a senior at Indiana Academy in Muncie, who also spoke in support of the resolution, told me,
“The biggest challenge… was making this a bi-partisan effort. Muncie is a more urban area, meaning it leans left; however, these types of things work best when we have support from both sides of the aisle. Therefore, we needed to find wording that would not compromise the bill but still maintain the same impact.”

In fact, Muncie’s city council is a majority Republican council, so support from both sides of the aisle was absolutely necessary.

Jason Donati, who leads Muncie Climate Coalition, concurred when he emphasized the necessity for community input. He explained that over the last 10 years, his group has been inviting Muncie residents to lend their voice to the climate change conversation.

Muncie is just the most recent municipality to pass a climate resolution with young people in leadership roles. Over the past four years, Carmel, Indianapolis, Lawrence, South Bend, Goshen, Bloomington and West Lafayette have all passed similar policies in youth-led efforts. It’s important to note that in half of these cities, either the mayor is Republican or the city council has a Republican majority — or both.

The Muncie Climate Coalition before their hearing, Jason Donati, right.

This bi-partisan collaboration is at the heart of many of Indiana’s most successful youth movements because activism is effective only when it has the support of community members.

The Muncie Climate Coalition reached out to Muncie residents to make their resolution stronger. The Shortridge students organized chalk-outs to drum up support from their school and surrounding community. Confront the Climate Crisis conducted a Lit Drop to spread awareness in their communities and organized a state-wide strike at the Statehouse to show climate-concerned Hoosiers that they are not alone.

In a time ruled by Zoom calls, virtual events and distant gatherings, Indiana youth have been reaching out more than ever, across the aisle and into their communities. Their efforts have yielded impressive change because they understand the urgency of climate change, they recognize the powerful nature of community, and they know the power their voices hold to change Hoosiers from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ on climate action.

This article was originally published by the U Post of University High School.

Indiana Youth Move Mountains