One of the most notable figures in climate and environmental activism through most of 2019 has been Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden whose weekly school climate strikes in front of Swedish Parliament quickly put an international focus on young people in climate activism. Her sharp condemnation of climate change deniers and extreme dedication to her cause including – becoming vegan and convincing her family to give up airplane travel – has inspired people all over the world to get involved in the movement to reverse the effects of global warming. Many Chicago youths are answering her call to action and making the decision to get involved themselves.
One of the newest chapters of Thunberg’s international movement, Fridays for Future (another of the activist’s efforts to broaden her message), whose chapters strike weekly against lack of action on climate change, has recently started in the city. Camille Petitcolas, a 16-year old climate activist, started Fridays for Future Chicago back in October and is one of those youths looking to follow Greta’s example.
“We are a climate activism organization, but it is a global movement started by Greta Thunberg and we strike on Fridays, most of the time,” Petitcolas said. “I’m not a weekly striker, but there are some people who strike weekly. And we are protesting for CEJA to be passed, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, as well as for Chicago to declare a climate emergency. And we are really looking to achieve certain goals but right now we are really focused on those two goals.”
In one of their first official meetings on Nov. 3, Fridays for Future Chicago hosted a fundraising event for a megaphone and other materials the group wants to use for the next international climate strike, Global Strike 4 Future, coming up on Nov. 29th.
During the climate strike, which starts at 11:00 a.m. at the Richard J. Daley Center, Fridays for Future Chicago will be having a clothing swap to protest fast fashion (inexpensive clothing that’s cheaply produced by mass-market retailers to follow current fashion trends) as well as wearing black and distributing ashes to protest the burning of the Amazon Rainforest earlier this year. The group will also be participating in another climate strike on Dec. 6 with a number of other activist groups, including Extinction Rebellion, Climate Strike Illinois and others.
In a space donated by clothing store RAYGUN, Fridays for Future Chicago decorated a parachute gifted to it from Parachutes for Planet while also accepting donations from RAYGUN customers.
“[The parachute] was sent to us by Parachutes for Planet, which is a another organization,” Petitcolas said. “It’s a not-for-profit that sends out these parachutes to environmental organizations. It sends the parachutes to those organizations, and they’re able to decorate them and wave them at [climate] strikes. So, it’s a fundraising and painting event.”
Petitcolas only recently got involved in climate activism. She attended her first strike back in September, participating in the Global Climate Strike with some of her friends and hundreds of other Chicagoans, marching from Grant Park to Federal Plaza. It was that day, Petitcolas says, while she marched, sign in hand and alongside dozens of Chicagoans fervently chanting, that she felt moved to take a greater role in the movement to fight climate change.
“My first strike was Sept. 20 and I just went and met a few friends and it just made me feel so good to actually do something,” Petitcolas said. “It made me feel like I was actually potentially making a difference in the world. It was something that I’ve never really felt before and I was like ‘I want to do this more.’”
Although it hasn’t been long since Petitcolas began striking, her life has already been changing in big ways. She now helps Fridays for Future USA, the national offshoot of the original Swedish Fridays for Future group, on a regular basis. Petitcolas organizes strike dates and serves as the Fridays for Future Regional Coordinator for the prairie states including Illinois. Petitcolas does this all while attending the Lycée Français de Chicago school, a French international school here in the city. She says that although maintaining a balance between school and her activism has been a lot of work, it’s also been a fun time so far. Petitcolas plans to attend college after graduating from high school and wants to study psychology and climate science. However, she also believes good grades aren’t the matter all that much in the long run.
“I just I think if you’re a youth, you need to know that your straight A’s won’t matter if you’re dead [from the climate crisis],” Petitcolas said. “That’s my big thing. Like, people are telling me I gotta keep my grades up. I gotta keep my straight A’s. But Harvard’s not gonna care if I have straight A’s if there’s a climate crisis happening.”
Erin Barker, one of Fridays for Future Chicago’s founding members has a similar view on the importance of getting involved in activism as a young person. Barker, while being a 20-year old college student studying journalism and public relations, regularly strikes with Fridays For the Future Chicago and originally became an activist for gun control. She says she’s not ready to give up her freedom of speech just to go into the media field. To her, changing the state of the world is more important.
“As journalists, we are told that we’re not supposed to have an opinion,” Barker said. “We’re not supposed to have emotions. We’re not supposed to have feelings about what’s going on. Of course, as an activist and as a journalist, I’m very open about having an opinion because this is stuff that affects my life. It might affect my niece’s life, and my cousin’s life. It affects everybody. So I’m just really glad to be in the position that I can open up and be, like, ‘hey, I’m a journalist but I’m also an activist and I’m also a human.’ Things needs to change. Something needs to be done.”
Petitcolas also hopes that Fridays For the Future Chicago can bring awareness to lesser known environmental issues in the Chicago and Illinois area, including light pollution and harvest issues due to the cold season starting earlier. Petitcolas’ mother Kelly had her own ideas on the environment issues specific to Chicago. She says Chicago’s public transportation system could be developed more to make it a more viable option to Chicagoans. Using vacant lots for community gardens was also an idea she mentioned.
To her, it’s important that people in her generation to listen to young climate activists like her daughter and the members of Fridays for Future Chicago. She says those that are the most critical of young activists have a clear misunderstanding of what the movement is about.
“I think it’s unfair because they’re not going to be here in 20 years,” Kelly Petitcolas said. “Maybe they will, but not in the same way where these are. These are guys going to be here for the next 60 years, and they’re going to have to [deal with it] and they’re kids are going to have to deal with it. So I just think that people need to quiet their thoughts and give their give their expertise on how to get a movement started. But if it’s not going to affect them directly, I think they need to be quiet.”
And the younger Petitcolas agrees.
“I think that the youth are the people who are going to live through whatever tragedies the climate crisis will cause. So I think we are some of the most passionate people in the climate movement, but I don’t think it’s necessary [to have just youth involved]. I think it’s really important for the youth to be at the head of it while still supporting adults being in our movement.”