Climate strike message is ‘We don’t need a permission slip to defend our future’

More than 2,000 people filled the Washington state Legislative Building’s steps and spilled onto the lawn midday Friday for a youth-led strike demanding action on climate change.

Similar protests were scheduled across the country and world ⁠— in what’s collectively been called a “Global Climate Strike” ⁠— prompting students to skip school and make a statement.

“This is our time, and it’s our time to fix things, because the older generation failed us,” local high school student and strike organizer Elyanna Calle told The Olympian. “So now we’re taking action.”

Calle said Greta Thunberg — the 16-year-old activist from Sweden who sparked a movement in 2018 when she started sitting outside parliament in protest of a lack of action on climate change — inspired her to organize the Olympia strike.

Thunberg’s Twitter timeline Friday was filled with photos of hundreds of thousands of protesters at strikes all over the world: from Berlin, Germany, to Kampala, Uganda.

“We’re all just like Greta,” Calle said in her opening speech to the Olympia crowd. “Our voices are all just as powerful. We are here on the Capitol steps, and you bet politicians are listening.”

Several local and state officials, in fact, were among the strikers in attendance. Among them were state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, State Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, several members of the Olympia City Council, and Tumwater City Councilmember Michael Althauser.

“To see a turnout like this on a Friday morning is amazing,” Hunt told The Olympian. “It shows the people around here get it.”

Organizations that attended the demonstration included the Thurston Climate Action Team (TCAT), a non-profit created in 2009 to address climate change locally.

Tom Crawford, who chairs the organization’s board of directors, told The Olympian he’ hadn’t seen such a big turnout at a youth-led event since he helped found TCAT a decade ago.

Crawford also sits on the advisory work group for the Thurston County Mitigation Plan, a regional plan local government officials are creating in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The people behind the plan are collecting public input on what they should prioritize via an online survey through Sept. 30.

“Youth are showing amazing leadership with this climate crisis,” Crawford said. “We do what we can to amplify that voice, and make sure it’s heard by the city and county as they develop the actions needed to drastically reduce our carbon emissions.”

The movement, Calle said, is “youth-led and youth-organized,” and the main idea was for youth to strike from school. But, she noted, students invited adults “to strike in solidarity,” and many did in Olympia, either as chaperones or to support the cause.

Sarah Whinery pulled her daughters Nola, 9, and Maeve, 6, out of school so they could be part of the demonstration. When asked why she thought it was important to be there, Nola, who’s in fourth grade at Garfield Elementary, said, “Our planet’s dying, and I’m worried.”

In Seattle and other cities around the country, the strikes prompted calls for students to be excused from school to take part. But Calle said there wasn’t much effort put forth locally to make students’ absences excused.

“We don’t need a permission slip to defend our future,” Louisa Sevier, a junior who serves as Youth Legislative Officer for Olympia High School’s Climate Action Club, said in her speech to the crowd.

At least one school, NOVA Middle School, rearranged its school day to allow students to attend after more than 85% of the student body signed a letter, according to an email from a school representative..

A spokesperson for Olympia School District told The Olympian the district sent an email to families Sept. 17 explaining its policy for walkouts, including that classes would continue on a normal schedule and the typical policy regarding excused and unexcused absences would be followed.

“We are proud when our students want to exercise their First Amendment rights to express their views on a topic,” the email read. “...At the same time, we also recognize that some students may not want to participate in a walkout and would prefer to stay in class. We want to ensure that all students feel safe and respected, no matter what they choose to do.”

Across OSD, the district reported Friday afternoon that 31 elementary school students, 142 middle school students, and 186 high school students participated in climate strike-related events. Some of the middle schoolers, a spokesperson noted, stayed on-campus for demonstrations.

A spokesperson for North Thurston Public Schools wrote in an email to The Olympian that the district did not report any significant walkouts Friday. “If we had, schools would handle situations like this on a case-by-case basis in terms of absences,” the spokesperson wrote.

Via Romero and Giulia Patricelli, both juniors at Capital High School, said they were joined by a group of about 20 of their classmates. They said their absences were unexcused, but that their teachers were generally supportive.

A group of four girls in seventh grade at Washington Middle School said the fact that the strike was youth-led was a big part of why they were motivated to skip school and show up. Katie Randall, the mother of one of the students in the group, said the girls ran into their former teacher, who had encouraged them to be engaged and speak up for issues they believe in, at the strike.

“It triggered a discussion about why they attended,” Randall said. That teacher had planted a seed, she said.

The girls said they’d have to make up for the work they were missing while at the strike, and that the event inspired them to get more involved.

“It was really moving to be here,” Clara Randall, 12, told The Olympian.

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.