Prove your humanity

Young voters concerned about climate change may have helped President-elect Joe Biden win the election, according to one analysis, but kids who can’t yet vote are taking action, too. Students from Woodland Hills High School and other schools, along with the nonprofits, like Communitopia, recently organized an online youth climate action summit for students around the region. Woodland Hills, in Allegheny County, was the first district in Pennsylvania to pass a climate change resolution. 

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Pennsylvania State Representative Summer Lee, a Woodland Hills alum, gave the keynote address in the morning session. She encouraged the more than 280 students who registered for the event not to wait until they are adults to think of themselves as activists.

“There are a whole bunch of people who run our country, who don’t understand the world the way that you do,” Lee said. “They don’t understand climate change, and climate and environmental justice, and environmental racism because they’ve never had to confront it. Not from our perspective, not from our vantage point.”

Lee has represented Pennsylvania’s 34th state house district since 2019, the first Black woman to do so. She just won re-election. Her district, where many Woodland Hills students live, includes Braddock, site of US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant. According to a new study, children who live and go to school near the plant have more than double the rate of asthma than kids nationwide. Lee told the students that politicians and others who promote the idea that jobs for the region can’t coexist with healthy air represent failed leadership. 

“I’m so excited about this summit that you are putting on because it’s an opportunity for us to shift paradigms,” she said. 

Leviticus McGraw-Sapp, a sophomore at Woodland Hills Senior High School, and an organizer of the summit, said Lee’s message about environmental injustice especially resonated with him.

“Because being of the African-American culture and of the African-American descent, that kind of touches with me a lot, because. I notice the different things that happen around me,” McGraw-Sapp said.

He said a factory behind his house periodically releases smoke.

“When I was younger, I had asthma and the smoke and my asthma — that doesn’t mix very well,’ McGraw-Sapp explains. “I want to grow up, go to college and be a successful, young man. But stuff like factories, the cars releasing smoke, and people in general just burning fossil fuels, that could really hurt a person.

He said other highlights of the summit for him were that kids were so engaged that they actually showed up for lunch discussions, and that some of the younger students, from elementary school grades, also spoke up and participated. 

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“I knew that there was going to be younger children, but I didn’t know that they were going to be as involved as they were,” he said.

In the afternoon, students broke out into workshops with experts on topics like bringing climate action into your school and air and water quality in the Pittsburgh region. 

McGraw-Sapp said that he hopes the summit will convince some of the students who weren’t already aware of climate change that it’s a real crisis.

“It’s the real deal,” he said. “And we need to handle this situation right now.”

McGraw-Sapp said he’s looking forward to the next summit. He thinks maybe he and the others in this cohort could continue even after they graduate to spread the message and look for solutions, because he’s worried we are running out of time. “I’m just concerned about the people and the earth.”

Climate Education Empowers Students to Action