Environmental activism has a new face. The protesters are young, diverse — and overwhelmingly girls.
“Something different is happening here,” Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist, said of the crowds at the climate strikes last Friday.
In a survey of more than 100 U.S. organizers of the climate strike and nearly 200 participants in the Washington event, Fisher found that 68 percent of organizers and 58 percent of participants identified as female. People of color made up at least 33 percent of the protesters in Washington — a proportion that almost matches the racial demographics of the United States.
These findings jibe with results of a recent poll of American teenagers conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll found that 46 percent of girls said climate change was “extremely important” to them personally, compared with 23 percent of boys. At least twice as many black and Hispanic teens participated in school walkouts on climate change than their white counterparts, and girls were slightly more likely to have attended a walkout than boys.
The female leadership of the climate strikes represents a significant change for a movement that has traditionally been dominated by white men, Fisher said. A 2014 study by the Green Diversity Initiative found that people of color made up about 12 percent of staff members and leadership at nongovernmental environmental organizations and foundations. Thirty percent of top positions in these groups were held by women.
But those numbers may be starting to shift. A follow-up survey in 2018 found that women constituted 52 percent of senior staff and 40 percent of board members at environmental NGOs, though people of color represented 21 percent of both groups.
The more diverse crowd at Friday’s strike reflects a sea change that has been underway since the Women’s March in January 2017, Fisher said. Women are at the helms of many of the progressive activist organizations that have sprung up in recent years, including Indivisible and the Sunrise Movement, she noted.
Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab and a speaker at the New York climate strike, said she was “amazed” by the diversity at Friday’s event.
Johnson, who is 39 years old and black, has long felt that perspectives like hers were sidelined in environmentalism — a reflection of the overall marginalization of women and people of color in society. But movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too “have opened a lot of doors for new people and new voices,” she said.
“It’s amazing now to see the climate movement be this nexus for all these different awakenings,” she continued.
The icon of young climate activism is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who sparked the school strike movement when she began protesting alone outside the Swedish parliament more than a year ago.
When the soft-spoken teenager appeared at New York’s climate rally Friday, the crowd reacted as if she were the headliner of a rock concert. Tens of thousands of schoolkids waited for hours in sweltering heat to see her speak and yelled her name in unison as she took the stage.
Teen girls of color have been at the forefront of the climate movement in America. Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old executive director of Youth Climate Strike, has spoken about how her identity as a black Muslim woman drives her activism. The teenager-led environmental justice organization Zero Hour was founded by a Latina high schooler, Jamie Margolin.
“Maybe women can just see things that men can’t,” said Alexandria Villaseñor, a 14-year-old who has been protesting in front of the United Nations since December and helped spearhead Friday’s strike in New York.
“I can’t imagine a lot of boys following Greta’s lead in the way that teenage girls in the U.S. have been,” said Johnson, who spoke at the New York event. “You need this willingness to be part of a collective, and to just do what you can with no guaranteed outcome and no even clear rules, and it has been these girls stepping up to try to figure that out.”
Half of the people who attended Friday’s protest were college age or younger, and a full quarter of them were under 18. Fisher said she’s never seen so many young people at a demonstration.
They didn’t come from nowhere. Eight in 10 D.C. climate strikers said they had attended another strike or demonstration; nearly 60 percent had attended the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence in 2018.
The strikers were also remarkably civically engaged; the vast majority of organizers and just under half of the D.C. strike participants had contacted an elected official in the past year. More than 60 percent of organizers had participated in a direct action like the Shut Down DC protests that blocked traffic Monday — a number Fisher called “ridiculously high.”
“Since … the day after President Trump’s inauguration, the message has been very clear for left-leaning Americans that they can’t sit on their butts and wait for change,” Fisher said. “I think young people have really heard that message, and it was especially clear after the Parkland shooting happened."