Local Youth Rally Around Environmental and Social Justice

Student climate activists led the climate rally at the Rhode Island Statehouse on April 29. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Student climate activists led the climate rally at the Rhode Island Statehouse on April 29. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A group of college, high-school and middle-school students aren’t waiting around for climate change to get worse. In fact, they went ahead and organized the recent climate rally at the Statehouse.

“I’m here because climate change is a big deal. And I’m also here because some people don’t feel that way,” said Kaylynn Polley, a high-school senior from Newport.

Polley was one of several members of the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition who planned the April 29 Statehouse event, and did it in less than two weeks.

Phoebe Roberts, an eighth-grader at the Lincoln School, said, “Rhode Island is changing and we have the duty to make the world livable for everyone.”

The Rhode Island event and dozens of others around the world were in response to the Trump administration's regressive environmental policies and denial that climate change is caused by humans. The day before the rallies, Trump’s continued his anti-environment agenda by expanding offshore drilling for natural gas and oil and removing references to climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

“I’m not surprised that it was young people that stepped up today,” said Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, 27, the second-youngest member in the General Assembly. “The leadership of every other generation has failed to right our course. We are the last generation that has the chance to save human civilization on this planet. Period.”

Regunberg said this political moment needs to join forces with movements advocating for racial, gender, immigrant and economic justice in order to defeat the influence of the fossil-fuel industry. Otherwise, babies born today will have a "'Mad Max Fury Road’ future to grow up to,” he said.

Regunberg said this apocalyptic future can be avoided. “There is a lot of work to do. There’s not a lot of time to do it," he said. "But the path is there. A better future is possible.”

Not everyone at the rally were students. Linda Kushner of Providence had to cancel her plans to attend the climate march in Washington, D.C., with her daughter and granddaughter. “I’m here today because I’m alarmed and disgusted with what’s happening with actions to destroy the planet.”

Michael Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice, said the labor movement and the environmental movement have much in common. But a class and wealth divide exists between the two causes, he said.

“It’s the way we distribute property and the way we distribute wealth in this system. We have to understand that unrestrained capitalism has poisoned us, and some of us (here) have benefited from that,” Araujo said.

The current economy, he said, is based on “greed, ownership and fear.”

A combined movement must take care of the most disadvantaged first and then address complicated issues such as pollution, Araujo said.

Economic and environmental justice occurs by expanding union membership, Araujo said. “Until we get a union density that is so great that we can flip a switch and we can shut it down when we don’t like what’s going on," he said.

Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, D-Providence, described the event as a call to action.

“It’s a 24-7 resistance,” she said. “We are going to stand up to Donald Trump’s war on climate and progressive policies that set out to save this Mother Earth."

Ranglin-Vassell urged protesters to write letters to elected officials about social-justice issues, such as a $15 dollar minimum wage, and environmental issues.

“Please stay engaged in the political process. ... The fight is on," she said. "The resistance is on and we are not giving up.”

Adnan Adrian Wood-Smith, president of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement, promised that the local Muslim community will do more to protect the environment.

“We are waking up realizing that we let some things slide in terms of our commitment to our tradition," he said. "We need to be serious about our commitment to all of humanity, our commitment to our whole global civilization.”

All speakers urged the audience of about 400 to sustain its momentum for change and attend the next public action, a march and rally for International Workers Day at Burnside Park in Providence on May 1.