Connecting Swarthmore and Philadelphia Students: A Global Demonstration

An energetic buzz was in the air as students flocked to Parrish Beach at 10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 20. Large yellow signs with thick black lettering hung on the columns on Parrish Porch, reading "GLOBAL CLIMATE STRIKE" and "ORGANIZE VOTE STRIKE." Over one hundred students and members of the Swarthmore community of all ages gathered that morning for the Global Climate Strike rally hosted for the Swarthmore community primarily by Sunrise Movement Swarthmore. 

The Global Climate Strike is a week-long, world-wide protest organized by a broad coalition of groups, NGOs, unions, and social movements to call attention to the ongoing global climate crisis. On that Friday, in coordination with #FridaysforFuture, an initiative inspired by then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg in 2018, the Global Climate Strike began with over four million people joining the protest. The timing of the strike was intentional as it occurred three days before a UN emergency climate summit in New York.

Sunrise Movement Swarthmore, in conjunction with other environmentally-concerned organizations, organized a schedule for Swarthmore students to participate in the strike. The rally on Parrish Beach featured multiple presenters from groups such as Serenity Soular in Philadelphia, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and Sunrise Movement Swarthmore speaking about the climate crisis through personal anecdotes, chants, and other presentations. A voter registration booth was also set up to encourage students to register, emphasizing the importance of voting in elected officials who would prioritize climate change in their policy-making.

Swarthmore students & community members gathering on Parrish Beach for the Global Climate Strike. Photo by Erin Chen ‘23.

Swarthmore students & community members gathering on Parrish Beach for the Global Climate Strike. Photo by Erin Chen ‘23.

As organizers spoke about the global impact of the strike, protestors stood, cheered, clapped, and chanted. Hannah Pait ‘22, a Hub Coordinator for Sunrise Movement Swarthmore, said “We strike today to raise our voices in the climate crisis. To stand with millions of young people today around the world who are really scared and really angry.”

O., a speaker from Serenity Soular in Philadelphia, was one of the presenters who mentioned the intersectional nature of the climate crisis. O. spoke to how climate justice was a migration justice issue, an indigenous rights issue, and a racial justice issue, among others.

Multiple presenters mentioned the need for President Valerie Smith to release a Climate Crisis Emergency Declaration on behalf of Swarthmore College, asking protestors to sign a petition urging Smith to take this first step to address the climate crisis as an institution and join a movement. At the end of the rally, an announcement was made that at 10:34 a.m., while the protesters were signing the petition, President Smith declared a climate emergency on behalf of Swarthmore College. 

After the demonstration, protesters were directed to take the SEPTA into Philadelphia to join the larger protest outside of City Hall. Free SEPTA passes were available to students who were protesting.

Two boys, Toby and Toby, stand next to each other holding strike signs when they would normally be in class. Photo by Sandy Shen ‘23.

Two boys, Toby and Toby, stand next to each other holding strike signs when they would normally be in class. Photo by Sandy Shen ‘23.

Drawing inspiration from other young advocates like Autumn Peltier and Mari Copeny, multiple environmental groups poured weeks’ worth of time and manpower into the three-hour long strike in Philadelphia. To name a few, Climate Strike PA, Sunrise Movement Philadelphia, 350 Philadelphia, and Youth Climate Lobby deployed dozens of volunteers to facilitate the strike, whether it was signing in participants or registering voters. Because of their commitment to climate change awareness and action, nearly 2000 students, teachers, and union workers congregated in front of Philadelphia’s city hall to demand action from lawmakers. 

When asked about her motivations behind volunteering with Sunrise Philadelphia, Mayana Ashley-Carner, a 16-year-old Central High School student, highlighted her roots to climate change activism and why she was striking: “I know that it’s already affecting people in catastrophic ways, and it’s going to affect people in more catastrophic ways. Like my cousins, who came up from Florida when Hurricane Dorian hit - they’re climate refugees. By striking from school [and work], we will show the people in charge that this is changing our whole lives; we won’t go about business as usual.” 

As the hours passed, Ashley-Carner’s points became increasingly apparent: streams of strikers made their way in front of City Hall and waved signs protesting current politicians and bemoaning Earth’s predicament. However, not every sign made puns about internal corruption and global warming; many advocated for adaptations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal or for water quality and public transportation improvement.

Isaac is in seventh grade, but he was alone at the strike early in the morning to help organizers prepare for the rally. He stands in front of city hall wielding a sign that reads, "Global Climate Strike." Photo by Sandy Shen ‘23.

Isaac is in seventh grade, but he was alone at the strike early in the morning to help organizers prepare for the rally. He stands in front of city hall wielding a sign that reads, "Global Climate Strike." Photo by Sandy Shen ‘23.

In fact, both Ashely-Carner and Rachie Weisberg - a core planner of the climate strike and member of the Sunrise Movement Philadelphia - had larger plans in mind for Philadelphia: “Our work doesn’t stop until we accomplish our goals… [we are] calling for a municipal Green New Deal, to have net zero carbon emissions by 2030, to ban fossil fuel infrastructure in the city, and to have a just transition while doing all that because we know the workers are the ones who will lose their jobs [in the process].” 

To accomplish these goals, Sunrise Philadelphia has been endorsing two candidates for city council - Kendra Brooks and Nicholas O’Rourke - in hopes of creating a more environmentally-conscious, just, and equitable community. Because as commendable as it is to encourage students and workers to stop their day and strike for the climate, the ability to march is still based in privilege; there are many who cannot risk missing school or losing some of their livelihood. Having representatives committed to protecting and advocating their constituents, especially the most marginalized, is just another form of environmental justice. 

Fortunately, the Philadelphia Climate Strike and other environmental justice and advocacy groups have also been uplifting those who are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. Sabirah Mahmud, 16, had long been frustrated by the painful and deadly effects of climate change on her family in Bangladesh. She took it upon herself to organize the Philadelphia Climate Strike and, in a passionate address to the crowd, shared stories of family members who died because of increasingly dangerous Bangladeshi floods. Throughout the rally, more kids and adults stepped onto the stage and took the opportunity to be vulnerable, to be open, and to voice their worries for the future. In a bout of frustration, one young woman asked the crowd: “Why does it take a tragedy for action to be taken?”

Dozens of signs and posters are littered across the ground in front of Philadelphia City Hall for strikers to carry as they march. Photo by Sandy Shen ‘23.

Dozens of signs and posters are littered across the ground in front of Philadelphia City Hall for strikers to carry as they march. Photo by Sandy Shen ‘23.

Facilitated conversations on campus about intersectional perspectives on the climate crisis were scheduled for 2:15 p.m. as Swarthmore students returned from the rally, but many of the morning’s protesters were not present for the discussions. 

Approximately 15-20 students were at the conversation on Parrish Beach, despite Sunrise’s intentions to build off of the rally and continue discussions about how to make an impact and fight climate change, not just return to day-to-day life after an energetic protest. 

Supplemental readings about the climate crisis curated by various students and Professor Lee Smithey of Peace and Conflict Studies were provided and can also be found here. Discussion leaders talked about why they chose the particular readings, and the pieces ranged from the racist history associated with the environmental movement to information on the Green New Deal.

Student activists moderated conversation about what Swarthmore College and its students can do in the future to build a sustainable community. Topics such as institutional supremacy, improving and building on the climate emergency plan, land use, and globalization were discussed by students and moderators, taking on an urgent topic, but in a more relaxed setting than the frenzy of the earlier protests.

While rallies and strikes like the Climate Strike can demand political and infrastructural change, the true power lies in the opportunities for young advocates from all backgrounds to cherish and project their voices. There is still lots of hope to be found in the middle schoolers and passionate retirees who, realizing the strength within their words, strike for a more certain future.

Note: In an earlier edition of this article, we incorrectly named Isaac as Luke and said he was 7 years old, not in seventh grade.