To My Grandfather: My Introduction to Climate Organizing

To My Grandfather: My Introduction to Climate Organizing by Lily Gardner - Photo by Sonja Lippmann

Part One:

My grandfather never said “we should have,” he always said “we will.” So does my mother. But I spent the first 15 years of my life stuck in the former, unable to embrace this zeal for possibility.

I am Generation Z, a generation that has grown up with the climate crisis at the forefront of our consciousness, a generation for whom time is fleeting. I have grown up bearing witness to the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, to forced climate migration, and to environmental racism. All of us have. It explains our skepticism for inherent optimism.

The first time I learned about the climate crisis in school was in the seventh grade. We dabbled in conversations about our society’s contribution to global warming, but focused mainly on the facts of our reality. Ice caps are melting as oceans become more acidic. Crops are failing due to changes in temperature, disease, and extreme weather. It seemed that we had all come to the same, startling conclusion: climate change is not just happening, but accelerating, and decisive action must be taken to stop it.

But on the final day of the unit, we were met with a different reality. Complaints that our education was one-sided and partisan had streamed in from families of oil and gas executives. They claimed we lacked a nuanced understanding of the myriad explanations for the climate crisis. And so we sat, watching as Dr. Ivar Giaever denied everything we had just learned, beginning to sow seeds of disbelief in our minds.

I had no particular interest in climate justice at the time, no obvious reason to spend the remainder of my day furious at the man who invaded the sanctity of the science classroom. Yet I was angry. I cared about the truth, and this, I knew, was not it. This single lecture had gone against every other fact we had learned.

My science classroom was not the first time I was faced with the stark reality of systematic climate denial. I grew up in the heart of it. I spent my elementary years in Salyersville, Kentucky, a tiny little town deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. This is “coal country.” But by the time I was born, the coal industry had fled. I just watched, standing in the storm of inequality left in its wake. The extraction of natural resources is concurrent with the extraction of opportunity. Our land has been destroyed and our community has been left with crumbling infrastructure, an opioid crisis, and an economy with a future that feels uncertain, at best.

But my home is defined by much more than its strife. It is a community of perseverance, filled with many of the kindest, most generous, and most interesting people I’ve ever met. It is a place defined by the smell of soup beans and cornbread and coleslaw more than the ashiness of coal; sounds of the laughter that accompanies family reunions, not the shrill of strip mining. And when I close my eyes to think about my little white farmhouse at the end of Maple Street, it is surrounded by the oldest mountains in the world, standing stronger than ever.

Part Two:

When I think of my grandfather, I think of his garden. The two were inseparable, at least on the weekends. At a young age, I was taught the proper angle to snap the pea so it would fall into my bucket below. He was a man who, despite his deep devotion to architecture of the built world, cared deeply about the beauty of the natural. He instilled values of conservation in his children, and later, his grandchildren.

But I quickly realized that kind of environmentalism was not possible for Eastern Kentucky. It was an ideology characterized by preservation for the natural world out of a sense of duty, aspirations that are simply unattainable in communities where land equates to livelihood. For too long, the environmental movement has failed to recognize the nuance of its most vulnerable communities. The question of an abstract ideal of environmentalism is not at the forefront of the mind of a man forced to choose between his health and putting food on the table.

For 11 years, I lived in a house down the hill from the farm where my father was born and raised. When I was in middle school, I became a part of the “brain drain,” joining the flock of passionate people able to leave the mountains in the name of education or opportunity. We moved to Lexington, Kentucky. I started school the next week.

One day, scrolling through Twitter as political correspondents tried to interpret the progressive wins of the 2018 midterm election, I found Sunrise Movement. I was drawn to the young people willing to challenge the Democratic establishment after a big win and demand action for our generation.

I had never heard of a Green New Deal. But as I listened to them sing the songs of Kentucky coal strikes and heard the words “Just Transition,” I understood that this was a movement far greater than my grandfather’s garden. Eastern Kentuckians have been calling for a Just Transition, a shift from an extractive to regenerative economy that prioritizes workers over profits, for decades. And for the first time, I understood that climate justice organizing and fighting for Appalachia are intrinsically intertwined.

On December 9, 2018, I climbed into a van of strangers and drove the eight hours to Washington, D.C. On December 10, I planted my feet in Representative Steny Hoyer’s office and demanded a Green New Deal. It was only two weeks after hearing about it for the first time, a result of many long conversations on the phone and a bit of blind faith. Seventy-five Kentuckians went to that action—we were the most represented state.

The work began as soon as we stepped foot back into the van, plans for first meetings and actions hatched as we wearily drove home, spurred by the feeling of power in the wake of a direct action. I had never experienced anything like it. It didn’t matter how committed to organizing I was before walking through the doors of the Longworth House Office Building, when I emerged, I was ready to take on the world—or in this case, Kentucky’s elected officials.

For three months, I watched as Senators and Representatives from across the country signed onto the Green New Deal Resolution. And for a fleeting moment, I allowed myself to hope. Perhaps it didn’t actually matter that my Representatives and Senators refused to listen to their constituents. The momentum to implement bold climate action would grow, with or without them, or so I thought.

The second week of February, I was at the doors of Senator Mitch McConnell’s field office in Lexington. I had ridden the bus from school and convinced a friend’s mom to give me a ride to the nondescript building, joining the few who had braved the torrential rain. His plan was to rush a Senate vote on the Green New Deal. Ours was to deliver a letter from young constituents imploring him not to. We were kicked out within minutes. In Louisville, they went from office building to office building, hoping for a chance to speak with him. He wouldn’t look any of us in the eyes.

So young Kentuckians showed up in Washington with hundreds of people. We shouted and sang and asked our Senator to listen. A few weeks later, the resolution was killed, the unstoppable wave gone in an instant. My optimism was shattered.

Part Three:

I am a conglomeration of cultures: an Appalachian Ashkenazi Jew, the collision of two communities who know that a good meal can solve any dispute. We know that action in the face of injustice is not an option, but a moral imperative. I am of resilient peoples; admitting defeat after only one fight was not an option.

A year later, I returned to the Senate to fight for the Green New Deal, this time accompanied by hundreds of middle and high schoolers. Our signs were different, the message the same. Senators: step up and fight for our futures, or step aside. Twenty middle and high school students were arrested that day as “courage, my friend, you do not walk alone” echoed through the halls of the Visitor Center.

We thought that this action would be one of many in the weeks and months leading up to Earth Day 2020. For half a year, I’ve been working to support middle and high school programming in Sunrise. In January, we held our first middle and high school only training for 50 people. In February, we hosted a summit for almost 200. In March, direct actions led by my generation were going to begin popping up across the country. In April, the country was going to be met with a mass mobilization. Instead, we’ve moved our meetings to Zoom and actions to livestreams.

The COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of the dire consequences of disinvestment in the public’s well-being and systemic perpetuation of injustice. Millions are losing their jobs, and the health care contingent upon them, while our government continues to prioritize bailing out corporations, putting profits over people yet again. The current crisis is exacerbating existing inequalities, drawing stark divides along the lines of race, class, ability, and immigration status. And I am acutely aware of the fact that this is not the first or last time our generation will have to reckon with a crisis and its deleterious effects.

Now is the time to envision a society that works for everyone. In the midst of our collective grief, I am encouraged by the workers demanding protections and due compensation; by the mutual aid organizers working relentlessly across the country to rebuild strong and resilient communities; and by my generation calling for economic and social justice to be top priorities as we rebuild. We have the solutions; now is the time for bold and decisive action.

In the meantime, organizers across the country will continue with our virtual meetings, phonebanking, and collective learning. I’ve been busy teaching Sunrise School, an online learning opportunity with classes on everything from the basics of building a movement to a crash course on the Green New Deal. I’ve been planning actions with unknown possibilities and phone banking for climate justice champions running for office in Kentucky. I’m not sure how long we’ll be dancing with this virus and even more uncertain about what life will look like after. I know only that I will be relentlessly fighting for a just relief, to stop climate change, and to build a world of shared dignity for all.

My grandfather was my first teacher, although I’m not sure he ever consciously occupied that position. He was a man who grew up on Long Island, yet made himself at home when he came to visit us in Eastern Kentucky. He valued the songs of Woody Guthrie as much as the musings of Heidelberg. My grandfather never said “we should have,” he always said “we will.” So does my mother. And as of late, I do, too.

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Lily Gardner is a junior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a director of Middle and High School Support work for Sunrise Movement. She also serves as the state policy director for Kentucky Youth Climate Strike, a hub coordinator of Sunrise Lexington, and is on the Youth Climate Strike Coalition.
Accompanying photo: “Down the River” by Sonja Lippman