ITHACA, N.Y. –– Heads were turning as people drove down Green Street past Ithaca Sunrise Movement and Ithaca High School Green Team’s strike in front of City Hall Friday morning. Carrying signs and shouting chants, they demanded a stronger Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (IECS), informally known as the Green Building Policy.
“We just hope that Common Council hears our demands and votes in favor of a better and more just and equitable Ithaca Green Building Policy,” said 13-year-old Ruby Zawel, coordinator of Ithaca Sunrise’s youth members who are 18 and younger.
IECS is part of Ithaca’s Green New Deal, legislation passed in 2019 to “address climate change, economic inequality and racial injustice,” according to the city’s summary of the plan. The policy will require any new building in Ithaca to produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than required by New York State code and require new construction to be net-zero by 2030.
Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) discussed the IECS Wednesday night at a public city meeting after putting the plan on pause. The plan will now be sent to Common Council for final approval, marking the second concrete action taken as part of the Green New Deal – the first being the hiring of Luis Aguirre Torres as Director of Sustainability.
Friday’s strike was not only aimed at local legislation – Friday was a global day of action with Fridays for Future, an international climate strike movement started by Greta Thunberg in 2018. “We’re also asking our leaders – Governor Cuomo, President Biden, and the Senate and House – to pass comprehensive climate legislation as well,” said Magnolia Mead, a youth activist with both Sunrise Ithaca and IHS Green Team.
Sunrise made headlines pre-pandemic for their climate strikes, political activism and even putting up candidates for local government. However, in the last year, that iteration of Sunrise activists has all but faded from the public eye with a new generation taking over both in name and spirit.
The activists involved in the strike on Friday are all 18 years old or younger. “I think [involving youth is] really important because while Sunrise Movement is meant for younger people, sometimes the youngest people still don’t get to have their voices heard as much,” said Zawel. Before she joined Sunrise, she said there were barely any middle or high schoolers involved.
Anona Pattington, one of the co-presidents of IHS Green Team, agreed. “Everything we’re doing today is completely planned by youth activists and promoted by youth activists and I think it’s really impressive that so many young people are involved,” she said. “But also kind of terrifying that so many young people have to be involved because it shouldn’t be our job,” she added.
In addition to the strike, the two youth organizations created a Chalk Out for Climate, asking Ithacans to create climate-justice themed chalk art all over downtown Ithaca. “We’re just trying to get as many people involved and learning about things and thinking about climate justice as possible,” said Pattington.
Friday’s strike was smaller than past actions put on by Sunrise, marking a new chapter in the group’s local history. According to Pattington there were no more than 10 people at a time, everyone was wearing masks and they worked in shifts. “We made a Google form and had people sign up for [shifts] and then we put it into a spreadsheet, so that’s how we’re keeping track of things.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, both Sunrise Ithaca and IHS Green Team have had to create new ways to connect with the community through activism. “We meet virtually so a lot of what we’re doing now as a club is just having discussions about climate justice and inequalities that have to do with climate justice,” said Pattington.
The 18-year-old went on to explain a new photography contest the Green Team has announced. “We think that if people can appreciate nature, then they might want to protect it more, so we have a nature photography contest for students at Ithaca High School, which is going on on our Instagram,” she said.
Ithaca Sunrise Movement has also been meeting virtually for their monthly hub meetings. “We’ve been having meetings specifically to talk about a better Ithaca Green Building Policy, and we’ve been going to PEDC meetings…to [speak at the] public comment,” said Zawel.
The coronavirus pandemic has only pushed the youth activists to fight harder and louder. “Both the climate crisis and COVID-19 exacerbate one another, so it’s only become even more evident during this pandemic that we need to fight for climate justice,” said Zawel. “Both the climate crisis and COVID-19 impact low-income communities of color the hardest and COVID-19 has only made the climate crisis worse, so it’s made it more clear that we need to fight,” she said.
She also said that being intersectional with climate activism is key in the fight for climate change. She said they do this by “making sure the leading voices in the movement are from frontline and historically marginalized communities and making sure that it’s people who have experienced the climate crisis…who are in the lead in the fight for this.”
Being intersectional is key to a strong IECS, according to the activists. “We want it more equitable in all senses; written in a way that emphasizes climate justice,” said Pattington. “People of color, women, and poorer communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, and so we want the language to be very clear.”
“I’m concerned because I feel like we’re not realizing that the actions we take in Ithaca don’t just impact us, they impact the whole world,” said Mead. “We may not feel the effect of our fossil fuels…and carbon emissions, but [developing] countries feel it a lot more. That’s really unfair and unjust that the U.S. doesn’t take more action to stop that,” she said.
According to Zawel the strike wasn’t just for Common Council, but all Ithacans. They’re trying to reach, “all citizens of Ithaca to make sure that people realize what we’re doing and how it’s important.”
See below for other photos from the Chalk Out for Climate project.