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Philly students rally against climate change in Center City, won’t be punished for missing class

The demonstrators shouted chants of “We believe Bill Nye, climate change is not a lie” and “Stand up, fight back" outside City Hall.

People march at the Youth Climate Change Strike at City Hall on Friday.
People march at the Youth Climate Change Strike at City Hall on Friday.Read moreBAIDI WANG / Staff Photographer

Bundled in a bright-pink and purple parka and holding a homemade poster taller than her 6-year-old body, Devi Johnson surveyed the chanting crowd outside City Hall on Friday.

“I made my sign; it says, ‘Let’s race to recycle this place,’” she said proudly, propping up her Magic Marker art of a smiling Earth. “I love the animals," she added.

Upset that her classmates aren’t recycling, the Philadelphia first grader regularly brings home trash from school lunch and picks up litter around her neighborhood, said her mother, Kendra. So, when the chance to join a Philadelphia climate strike arose, Devi begged her mother to attend.

One of the younger members of the crowd at Thomas Paine Plaza, Devi joined the hundreds of students and adults who left their schools and workplaces to participate in the global, youth-led climate strike.

“[Politicians] say our youth makes us weaker when it doesn’t, it makes us stronger," Central High School junior Sajda Adam said to cheers.

Between chants of “We believe Bill Nye, climate change is not a lie” and “Stand up, fight back,” student speakers on Friday shared the mic to rail against the 10-year tax abatement, asbestos in Philly schools, and the future of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.

The issues are part of a Philly-specific list of “Green New Deal” demands by Sunrise Philly, the organizer of the local march.

“This is a powerful opportunity for students to get involved in a fight that’s been going on for a long time, but mostly between their parents and politicians,” said Abby Leedy, 18, an organizer at Sunrise Philly who graduated from Central in May. “We think in Philly, we can’t just strike for climate justice, we need to strike for environmental justice.”

Unlike previous climate protests in the city, participating in Friday’s event didn’t come with penalties for Philadelphia School District students.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. sent a letter to to district families this week informing them that students attending the climate strike would be granted excused absences from class as long as they had a parent’s permission.

The memo marked a reversal of the district’s position in September, where students who skipped or walked out of class to protest were penalized with an absence.

“As a school district, we encourage our students to be actively engaged citizens who are knowledgeable about current events," Hite’s letter said. "This can be a learning opportunity that helps our students apply lessons they are learning in school. Above all, we want them to know we value their voices and their right to self-expression.”

Hite also noted that students would be given the chance to express their opinions during in-school activities as an alternative to the walkout.

The policy reversal was welcome news to Mabel Moosbrugger, a junior at Central, who said she had to miss the September climate strike due to a chemistry lab that she couldn’t miss.

“It was disappointing because ... the schools didn’t understand my desire to come,” Moosbrugger said. “It means a lot to be out here today, to see that they care, that they want change, because at the end of the day, it’s going to be our generation that’s going to suffer the consequences.”

Johnson, meanwhile, said she and Devi discussed that it’s OK to “skip school and break a rule when there’s something really important that we care about."

Inspired by the demonstrations of 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Friday’s Global Climate Strike protest is the latest in a series of youth-organized rallies against climate change.

In September, organizers estimated that more than 4 million people — including thousands from Philadelphia — participated in a worldwide walkout ahead of the U.N. Youth Climate Summit, making it the largest climate protest in history.

» READ MORE: Thousands strike for global climate change at youth-led rally at Philadelphia City Hall

Friday’s demonstrations came amid the U.N. climate summit in Madrid known as COP25, where countries were expected to discuss the logistics of the Paris climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the deal, making the United States the only country to pull out of the pact.

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