Student activists go to summer camp to learn how to help institute a ‘green new deal’ on their campuses

For 10 days this August, some 150 high schoolers from across the U.S. are descending on a sleepaway camp in Southern Illinois to discuss the fate of the planet — and what they can do about it.

The summer program is run by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led campaign to halt climate change. Its goal is to teach students the skills they will need to launch an effort this fall using schools as a lever for slowing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the green energy transition.

Known as the Green New Deal for Schools, the plan calls for making school buildings greener and safer, advancing high-quality, interdisciplinary climate change lessons, developing disaster plans for schools, providing free lunch for all students and creating pathways to green jobs.

“The Green New Deal for Schools is so important right now in the U.S., where our school buildings are crumbling, where our students are not being adequately prepared to face the realities of the climate crisis, where there are vast inequities across race and class,” said Shiva Rajbhandari, a Sunrise Movement organizer and a 2023 graduate of Idaho’s Boise High School.

The campaign is part of a growing recognition of the importance of schools and young people in the fight against climate change. Heat waves, wildfires, floods and other disasters worsened by climate change are disrupting classes, displacing students, leveling school buildings and contributing to student mental health problems. Some school districts have started to take the problem seriously, by adding more climate change education and investing in electrified buses, composting and renewable sources for heating and cooling. But climate change advocates say schools — community hubs that impart knowledge and rely on billions of taxpayer money — can do much more.

Young people, meanwhile, are significantly more likely than older Americans to be concerned about the problem. They’ve helped shape lawsuits, protests and movements designed to inspire climate action; some, including Rajbhandari, have run successfully for local school boards on climate platforms. Yet many of them receive little to no introduction to climate science in K-12 schools.

The Green New Deal for Schools is meant to focus this climate activism on the education system. At the camp in Benton, Illinois, students will learn about the plan and how to advocate for it, along with participating in typical camp activities like swimming and using the ropes course. Camp organizers hope they’ll turn their schools into centers for climate action and press school administrators and legislators for new policies and investments.

Aster Chau, a rising sophomore at the Academy of Palumbo in Philadelphia, had an awakening about climate change in world history class, when she was introduced to a book called “1,001 Voices on Climate Change: Everyday Stories of Flood, Fire, Drought and Displacement Around the World.” Learning about the warming planet left her feeling like she “was being suffocated,” she said. Signing up for her school’s environmental justice club and being connected to Sunrise, she said, “made me feel less alone.”

This past winter, she attended a precursor event to the camp in Philadelphia, at which students got an introduction to the Sunrise Movement and climate advocacy. This month, in Illinois, she’s part of the program’s art team. Students are making banners, stickers, signs and even a zine to help inspire action on climate change, she said.

Chau said she’s particularly troubled by the ways climate change is exacerbating racial and socioeconomic inequities in her district. Philadelphia schools are chronically underfunded, with notoriously decrepit school buildings; many, including Chau’s sister’s school, lack air conditioning. Some years, the district has had to let kids out early and delay the start of the school year because of high temperatures.

Meanwhile, some parts of the city that are predominantly Black and Hispanic tend to be hotter than whiter neighborhoods, because those formerly redlined areas tend to have dark, flat roofs and fewer trees. “It’s difficult to acknowledge, until you see it,” she said.

Rajbhandari, who plans to study public policy and math at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill this fall, said that racism — not politics or funding — has proved the biggest obstacle to climate action on the school and district level.

“Black and Brown students in our cohort have the toughest time getting their hubs off the ground because their principals are suspicious of the organizing they are doing and don’t want them to start a club, or their schools don’t have a model of student engagement that exists in many other public schools, or their school district is so dramatically underfunded,” he said.

In New Orleans, Gerard Isaac, a rising sophomore at New Harmony High School, said he sees that dynamic play out in his district. His current school, which he said is more racially integrated than those he previously attended, has a focus on environmental studies, but he said some schools have few activities and clubs beyond sports and band.

At the Sunrise camp this summer, Isaac said he hopes to focus on solutions to the climate crisis. He said he wants educators to emphasize solutions, too. In his freshman world geography class, he said, students sometimes felt overwhelmed by the climate catastrophe, leaving them depressed and despairing.

“It would leave a bad taste in their mouth, like they can’t do anything to help,” he said. Isaac added: “I literally signed up for an environmentally based high school, and I want to help.”

There are reasons to be optimistic. Rajbhandari said he’s witnessed a big shift in the level of advocacy for schools and climate since he attended his first Sunrise event in 2019, a protest at the Idaho state capitol. “There’s a ton of momentum right now for comprehensive action on schools,” he said. “The groundwork has been laid by students across the country working in individual schools. Now it’s time for a coordinated strategy, and to bring a more massive federal investment for states and at the federal level to decarbonize schools.”

This story about the Green New Deal for Schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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