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Pandemic Interrupts High School Students' Fight To Save The Climate

A group photo in the hallway of a school with 11 individuals.
Courtesy photo
Josh Gottlieb

Kalamazoo’s climate movement took off last year. Roughly a dozen local groups united to form a coalition and organized rallies and teach-ins.  They also persuaded the city and county governments to declare climate emergencies. High schools played a role, especially Kalamazoo Central, where a passionate teacher and his students had big plans for 2020. But the pandemic and the move to online learning has turned those plans upside down, as U-S climate activists prepare for a critical election.

Kalamazoo Central High School physics teacher Josh Gottlieb had an awakening in 2019. He heard a sobering interview with a journalist who writes about global warming. Gottlieb says as he listened, he went from knowing about climate change to fearing it viscerally. Last summer, Gottlieb told WMUK he owed it to his students and his own children to act.

“To keep my promise to them that I would protect them, and to do my job as an educator, I feel like it is my responsibility to do everything I can even if it feels scary and hard,” he said.

Gottlieb mobilized his students over the following months. They turned out for Kalamazoo’s climate strike, a big rally downtown, last September. Speaking to the crowd, his student Kearney Miller said young people are always fielding questions about their future.

“Maybe it’s time we start telling them what we’re doing now to make sure we have a future,” she said.

Gottlieb’s students also came up with a proposal to make the school district’s buildings more efficient. They won $10,000 in a national competition to help make that happen. The Central climate team also worked out an ambitious plan to register voters block-by-block ahead of the November election.

“It was going to be historic,” Gottlieb told WMUK last month, “and of course, completely derailed,” as the COVID-19 pandemic reached Michigan and the state closed the schools, then moved teaching online.

“I have had very little contact with students and that’s where I draw all of my energy,” Gottlieb explained.

A massive on-the-ground effort to register voters no longer seemed possible. Gottlieb said it was like he and his students ran full-speed into a wall.

“They are my communication channels and they are the team! And without them there is no team. And so I’ve felt impotent since then,” he added.

“I was getting really excited for everything going on. It just felt like it was all really picking up and then it just immediately died,” Miller said.

Central student Kendal VanDam said before the shutdown, the group did try to register a few voters at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

“We’re hoping the little work we did helps,” VanDam said. 

Local organizers have plans for keeping young people involved in the movement after the election.

On a recent Wednesday at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s Heronwood field station west of town, a group of masked and distanced students gathered outside. The Nature Center’s new Youth Climate Leaders program brought students together from high schools around the county this summer to learn about global warming. They’ll spend the rest of the year trying to get their peers interested in climate change.

A group of people wearing masks sits in an oval outside a building with stone walls. They are facing big computer screen and a laptop.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK
The Ardea Climate Coalition at the Heronwood Field Station last month. From left around the circle, Amber Hejl of the Nature Center; students Sarah Donovan, Emerson Wesselhoff, Elliot Spoelstra, Owen Quayle, and Kyli Schipper; and KCCC organizer Deb Freiman. Student Ella Parker and organizer Deirdre Courtney joined on Zoom.

This small group, which the students have tentatively renamed the Ardea Climate Coalition, is meeting in person. Student Kyli Schipper acknowledges concerns about COVID may limit other face-to-face gatherings. Still, she says if they build a web presence now, eventually they can invite more people to in-person events.

"Once it’s safe to, we can use whatever we’ve managed to establish during pandemic to kind of grow even more after pandemic," she said.

That’s likely to be well beyond November 3rd. But for some of Josh Gottlieb’s students at Central High, Election Day is still front and center. Kearney Miller and Kendal VanDam recently met to try to revive the school’s climate action group.

"We’re trying to hope we can still have an impact even this close to Election Day and just hoping we can make this important election help our future and the planet’s future," VanDam said.

They want to focus on voter turnout, even if all they can do is post on social media.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.
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