ETHS students walk out to call for sustainability coordinator, intergenerational advocacy


Jorja Siemons/The Daily Northwestern

Nearly 150 Evanston Township High School students walked out of school to call for an ETHS sustainability coordinator Monday afternoon.

Jorja Siemons and Lily Carey

Holding a sign reading “Witherspoon: this is your legacy,” Evanston Township High School senior Ethan Schaefer stood among a crowd of nearly 150 students and Evanston residents Monday afternoon.

His sign called on Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, who is set to retire in June, to increase the school’s focus on climate action. The sign spoke to a broader call among students for concrete sustainability initiatives — practices Schaefer and his fellow marchers felt the district had been complacent in enacting. 

“(ETHS administrators) keep making empty gestures, but haven’t done anything substantial,” Schaefer said. “The fact that we don’t even have a sustainability coordinator shows that they are deeply, deeply lacking at an urgent time.”

Student organizers from ETown Sunrise, a local chapter of national climate revolution organization Sunrise Movement, led students in walking out of school Monday to demand just that.

Joined by residents throughout Evanston, protesters marched 1.3 miles from ETHS to Fountain Square downtown. There, the crowd came together, calling for administrators to hire an ETHS employee dedicated solely to sustainability measures and programs.

“We need somebody who’s going to be in ETHS…to continue doing what we’re doing,” ETHS senior and ETown Sunrise leader Lily Aaron said. 

Aaron said that work must continue even after current seniors graduate. Many of the most vocal ETown Sunrise advocates are weeks from graduating ETHS after years of advocacy work throughout the school and city.

Aaron said the coordinator should be a trained, full-time professional tasked with working with students and administrators to enact procedures that would reduce carbon emissions at ETHS.

ETown Sunrise member Sari Oppenheimer, another organizer of the protest, told The Daily that ETHS hired its first sustainability coordinator a few years ago. However, she said the role wasn’t comprehensive enough at the time, and it hasn’t been filled in the years since the departure of the original coordinator.

Filling this role again now, she said, will help bring climate action to the top of ETHS’ agenda. Oppenheimer and others say they feel student sustainability concerns have largely been overlooked.

ETHS senior Freddie Alexander Watson said students have been organizing climate walkouts since his freshman year, but not much has changed in their aftermath.  

Watson said he got more involved in the protests during his junior year, shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeing the rate of COVID-19 casualties motivated him to get more involved, he said, because it exposed how important it is to take care of the Earth.  

Despite the severity of this problem, school and city officials often listen but do not make concrete changes, Watson said. 

“The people in power — they see us as a nuisance,” he said. “As a child, I remember asking a lot of questions and no one answered them. They just told me to shut up.” 

Organizers emphasized the importance of fostering “intergenerational” connections through the protest. Members of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, a local climate advocacy group, and Chicago Area Peace Action, an organization supporting human rights initiatives throughout the region, joined student protesters to structure the final meetup in Fountain Square.

Catherine Buntin, the co-coordinator of CAPA’s climate advocacy group, stood beside a table stacked with cookies and water next to the crowd with two other CAPA volunteers, ready to “fuel” marchers. 

After the speakers concluded, CAPA and CGE volunteers joined ETown Sunrise leaders in holding up posters with QR codes, which linked to an email template for students to send to ETHS administrators to demand action.

Several residents also met student protesters at school, walking alongside the crowd while wearing neon vests to help direct traffic and keep students safe as they walked along Lake Street. 

Evanston resident Adam Vaughn marched with students while beating a drum, providing a rhythm for their chants of “ETHS, do your job!”.

The protest even included some of the youngest members of the Evanston community. As protesters marched past Penny Park, students and teachers from Dewey Elementary School lined the street, waving colorful hand-drawn signs and cheering on the crowd.

Upon reaching Fountain Square, the crowd was joined by two Northwestern students: Communication junior Lucy London and Communication sophomore Jordan Muhammad. The pair spoke on behalf of Fossil Free Northwestern, a group advocating for the University to divest from fossil fuels and emphasized the connections between their movement.

“With Fossil Free, a big part of (our mission) is divestment, but it’s also about what larger changes need to happen,” Muhammad said. “Coalition and solidarity is an essential part of that, and making sure that we are always thinking about people younger than us and bringing people closer to us.”

As the protest drew to a close, organizers passed around chalk for protesters to use to decorate Fountain Square with climate-themed messages and artwork.

Standing among a sea of students writing messages like “Stop Killing Our Planet” and “We Deserve a Future,” Aaron reflected on what she hopes ETHS organizing will look like as they work to inspire the next generation of student climate activists in Evanston.

“We’ll continue to show back up here and in other adult-dominated spaces to make it clear that we’re not going away,” she said. “It’s very crucial to understand that youth anxiety is driven by adult inaction.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @JorjaSiemons

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