On Monday morning, instead of taking a quiz in AP Economics, 17-year-old Sophia Kianni was standing in a mostly deserted park in Washington, D.C., not far from the Capitol building. It was chilly outside, and gray. She said her parents weren’t “happy” that she was skipping school, “but they’re really happy about what I’m doing and what I believe in.” They supported her cause, she said, which was to demand that lawmakers take action on climate change.
Kianni, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Va., was taking part in a hunger strike organized by Extinction Rebellion, the environmental group behind the recent worldwide traffic-blocking protests. Throughout the course of the next two hours, Kianni would give multiple interviews to national media outlets; recite a speech outside of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office; and get in a verbal confrontation with an older white man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. But it wasn’t such an abnormal day for Kianni. An activist with Fridays for Future — the group founded by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg — Kianni’s last few months have been “crazy” with her activism work, she said.
That work amounts to “many, many hours,” Kianni explained. This week, in addition to the hunger strike, she has various video calls, a meeting with Zero Hour —another youth-led climate action group — and she’s arranging a campaign with a sustainable clothing brand. That’s on top of four AP classes and college applications. (She hopes to study public policy and sustainable business, and “securing a scholarship” is a priority, “so there’s a lot to think about.”)
Even when other protesters started trickling into the park, Kianni was by far the youngest, and one of the only women. She’s part of a growing cohort of young women making waves at events like these. As The Washington Post reports, teen girls are increasingly leading the climate movement; in a recent poll conducted by The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 46 percent of girls said climate change was “extremely important” to them personally, compared with 23 percent of boys.
Indeed, the reason Kianni first got involved in climate activism, she said, was a factor of her gender and her race — she’s Iranian American. After a trip to Iran where the pollution was “so horrible that I couldn’t see the stars at night,” she started educating herself, and her family there, about climate change.
“We know that people of color are most likely to be affected, and you rarely hear women on the front lines,” she said.
She added: “If you’re talking about an issue like the climate, you really need to have people being affected talking about it.”
And more women are speaking out. Thunberg alone seems to make headlines every week: Recently, she rejected the Nordic Council’s 2019 Environmental Award, saying that the “environment doesn’t need a prize.” Actress Jane Fonda, too, has been garnering headlines for her weekly protests at the Capitol, where she has been arrested more than once. Extinction Rebellion hoped Fonda might show up at their hunger strike, too, which has been in the works for months.
Kianni isn’t directly involved with Extinction Rebellion — which, as the Guardian reports, makes more aggressive demands than other environmental organizations — but she was happy to speak at the event.
So here she was, at 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, skipping school.
The protesters’ task that day was to kick off a week-long, worldwide hunger strike. (So far, about 300 people globally have pledged to participate, according to the group.) The D.C. chapter’s plan was to meet at Folger Park, just blocks away from the offices of House and Senate members, and stage a sit-in at Pelosi’s office. In a letter, they demanded that the Democratic House speaker from California speak with them for an hour on-camera “to discuss the greatest global threat in human history.” Pelosi’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Huayra Forster, a 29-year-old advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights, was the only other woman among the strikers at the D.C. event. Originally from Peru, Forster said the issue of environmental justice was particularly important to indigenous communities.
“My grandparents farm pineapples and coffee, and because they’re in the food industry, I know that the climate crisis is super important, because they’re growing food for the world,” she said.
Eventually, one of the Extinction Rebellion leaders called to get everyone’s attention: It was time to head to Pelosi’s office. Before setting off, leaders doled out Trader Joe’s brand multivitamins and calcium supplements to everyone who had pledged to fast.
As the group stated on their event page, hunger strikes have been used as a tactic by various peaceful protesters, including by Marion Wallace Dunlop in Britain’s women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s. As the BBC points out, hunger strikes have no direct effect on a target; rather, protesters themselves suffer in hopes that “the moral force of their actions, or the publicity value” achieves something.
Extinction Rebellion isn’t encouraging protesters younger than 18 to do the full hunger strike, which is slotted for seven days, so Kianni planned to fast for a single day instead of the entire week. She also doesn’t advocate for students to miss too much school, she said, but this felt like a warranted event “because of the potential opportunity to meet with Nancy Pelosi.”
“We are the ones whose futures are really at stake and we’re the ones who have a right to decide what’s right for us,” she explained as she made her way through security at the Longworth Building, where Pelosi’s office is located.
Soon, the protesters had stationed themselves outside Pelosi’s office. One by one, they stood in front of reporters to talk about why they were striking. They were mostly under 30 and they mostly expressed the need to protect the generations to come; some got choked up, and others visibly cried. Forster read a poem she’d written about food marketplaces in Peru, while Kianni spoke about how young people like her wanted more than “empty promises.” At the end of each speech, protesters stepped onto a scale to weigh themselves, drawing attention to the fact they’d pledged to fast.
Then they settled into Pelosi’s office for the sit-in portion of the event. There, activists were confronted by Ben Bergquam of Frontline America — a “national organization to restore USA identity” aimed at “exposing the left and mobilizing the Christan conesrvative remnant to rise,” according to its Facebook page. Bergquam, standing next to Kianni in a red MAGA hat, started questioning the science behind climate change and invoked the California wildfires.
“I have a question for you,” Kianni interjected, facing Bergquam. “Are you a scientist?”
“I am not,” he replied.
“Are you a peer-reviewed journal?” she asked.
“I am not,” he replied. “Are you?”
“No, but I’m quoting peer-reviewed research,” Kianni said. “So I’m advocating on behalf of scientists … and their research shows that we have to meet net-zero emissions by 2050. You can have your best interests at heart, but none of that means anything if it’s not backed by facts.”
The group soon ended the press portion of their event; they announced their sit-in would stretch until 5 p.m., or whenever security kicked them out, and would continue the next morning.
After the exchange, Kianni called the interaction “good.” She said she has friends who are Trump supporters and Republicans and that most people “have their hearts in the right place.”
Earlier that day, Kianni had been talking about how fulfilling work like this has been for her. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been happier,” she’d said in the park, standing in the cold. “I feel like I’m making a difference and the things that I’m doing will ultimately be beneficial.”
Two hours after first showing up at the park, the 17-year-old found a corner in Pelosi’s packed office to drop her bag. Some of her other Fridays for Future friends were coming later that afternoon, after school, and she was looking forward to that.
In the meantime, Kianni was hoping that “everything would die down” enough so that she could squeeze in some homework time.