ETHS student activists lead first Climate Justice Conference

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Daily file illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Students pressed city politicians about Evanston’s commitment to meeting climate goals at a panel during the Climate Justice Conference on Wednesday.

Aviva Bechky, Assistant City Editor

Student activist Emmet Ebels-Duggan said they wanted students to leave Evanston Township High School’s inaugural Climate Justice Conference feeling energized, educated and hopeful.

“Information is just so key to everything political, to every movement,” Ebels-Duggan said. “We want to talk about climate justice specifically, and how climate crisis intersects with other forms of injustice.”

Ebels-Duggan, the communications coordinator for ETHS climate activism group E-Town Sunrise, was among many student activists who worked with administrators to coordinate Wednesday’s all-day event.

About 50 students attended the morning workshops, and between 200 and 300 came to an afternoon panel with city politicians about local environmental policy. Members of student groups like E-Town Sunrise, Students Organized Against Racism and the Emerge Leadership Program organized the conference. 

Keynote speaker Josee Starr, the director of operations at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, gave a short speech about nature rights laws, which allowed the White Earth Band of Ojibwe to file a claim on behalf of nature in a tribal court.

“We have attorneys, advocates and guardians who are protecting nature,” Starr said. “As destructive as humans are, we have the same power to fix this because for the first time in our human history, nature is fighting back, and we are helping.”

School of Education and Social Policy Prof. Matt Easterday, a faculty mentor for progressive grassroots group Indivisible Northwestern, spoke afterward about building up systems for sustainable activism.

After the keynote speakers, students selected two workshops from six options on topics like environmental racism or art and expression in the climate crisis.

During a workshop Ebels-Duggan led about local environmental justice, participants wrote testimonies about their experiences with climate change.

“It’s encouraging to see how concerned students are, but also how aware they are of the real problems, and how nuanced their testimonials were,” Ebels-Duggan said.

Some testimonials will be read at the next City Council meeting, they said. Councilmembers will vote Monday on the Climate Emergency Resolution, which would declare a climate emergency and start a mobilization effort.

After lunch, students filed into the Upstairs Theater for a panel with Mayor Daniel Biss, Evanston Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt and four councilmembers to discuss the city’s commitment to the Climate Action and Resilience Plan. CARP aims to bring city operations to net-zero emissions by 2050 and prioritize sustainable infrastructure for vulnerable communities.

Members of Emerge coordinated the panel. Emerge Facilitators Hannah Finkelstein and Caroline Klearman said they wanted students to be involved in bigger-picture advocacy around climate change beyond their own choices.

“Kids can only change their individual actions,” Klearman said. “For climate change to slow down, what needs to happen is more government action.”

Emerge moderators and audience members pressed the panel of city politicians and officials about government failures to meet CARP goals, fund reallocations to CARP, ways to develop incentives for sustainable action for residents and what it means to treat the climate crisis as an active emergency.

“The tone of this conversation was the tone that I appreciate and agree with. It’s kind of, ‘Y’all haven’t done as much as we want you to have done,’” Biss said at the panel. “(But) there’s this giant list of things. They’re sort of all in process. We wish they were all a little bit further ahead, but they are moving.”

Lily Aaron, one of the conference organizers and the hub coordinator for E-Town Sunrise, asked why none of the councilmembers currently sit on the city’s Environment Board. 

“We should move to make that happen,” Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said in response.

She and Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) both said they would be willing to sit on the board, while Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said he would consider doing so but was overscheduled.

At the end of the event, organizers passed out fliers to attendees promoting action steps like contacting an alderperson about the Climate Emergency Resolution and attending E-Town Sunrise’s Earth Day Walkout on Friday.

Ultimately, Ebels-Duggan said they want to see the conference grow into a larger annual event.

“My first takeaway is I want to do this again,” Ebels-Duggan said. “The conference this year set a really good basis for what this could be in years to come. It could be just a really, really incredible opportunity for ETHS students to learn and engage with the climate crisis.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avivabechky

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