Philly students join in national Climate Strike

Unlike the last strike, the District excused protesters' absences if they submitted notes from home.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

On Friday morning, hundreds of Philadelphia students walked out of their schools to participate in a Climate Strike organized by Sunrise Philly, a nonprofit student advocacy organization.

Across the nation, the Sunrise Movement held dozens of Climate Strikes that day. This was the second round of strikes this school year, and leaders told the crowd gathered at Thomas Paine Plaza that there will be more.

Louisa Hanson, 17, a Central High School senior and spokesperson for Sunrise Philly, said the group had a few central goals, including ending the fossil fuel infrastructure in the city and curbing emissions.

Sunrise Philly aims to prevent the re-opening of an oil refinery in South Philadelphia. Before Philadelphia Energy Solutions closed the site after explosions and a catastrophic fire, the refinery was the largest producer of emissions in the city, with more than four times the amount of pollution as the next highest facility.

Hanson said the group also opposes the 10-year tax abatement for real estate development in the city. Last week, City Council voted unanimously to cut the value of the tax breaks essentially in half for real estate developers. The bill was amended to slow down the phase-out of the abatement after Mayor Kenney said he would not sign it.

“The loss of those taxes is leaving us in toxic schools,” she said.

A 2018 report by the Controller’s Office for the City of Philadelphia estimated that $5.7 million in taxes would have gone to the School District in 2016, if not for the abatements.

The School District allowed students to have an excused absence to attend Friday’s strike if they had a note from a parent or guardian, in contrast to how officials handled students who attended a previous Climate Strike in September, who were marked absent.

For many students, this was an encouraging sign.

“The excused absence is a huge incentive to come,” said Hanson.

Teachers and schools, too, were supportive, according to some students at the strike.

“Teachers are very supportive of student activism,” said Anson Ng, a junior at Central High School.

A group of six friends from the Academy at Palumbo also agreed that “our school supported us.”

However, Ariel Weinbaum, a Central High School junior, said the District’s late notice about the excused absences – Superintendent William Hite did not send a letter out until Wednesday – prevented some students from having the time to make plans to attend.

Weinbaum said that the reason she was there was to speak up for the underprivileged people whose voices can’t be heard.

“The No. 1 one reason students from my school were not able to attend was because they could not get letters from their parents,” said Willem Cousineau, a junior at Masterman High School. He said that students really cared about their record at his school and that they did not want to harm their attendance record by leaving without permission.

Another thing Cousineau noticed was the divisiveness of the event.

“There was a lot more debate at my school in the last few days than I was expecting,” he said.

Cousineau was not expecting there to be uncertainty on the issue of climate change. “I was surprised there was that attitude at all.”

Cousineau conceded that “a lot of us have not done the research.”

Overall, students at the climate strike seemed optimistic. They started out with speeches and chants in Thomas Paine Park, then marched through the streets – south down 15th and then up Broad Street. Their chants included: “Hey hey; ho ho; fossil fuel has got to go,” and “This is what democracy looks like.”

The Climate Strike was attended by more than just students. Sue Edwards came out to support the young protesters. She is a retired mental health support worker who says that she has been an activist for nearly all her life, mostly for anti-war causes.

Edwards said that she has been arrested five times while protesting and that she first learned about climate issues in 2010, when she first watched An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary film about climate change produced by former Vice President Al Gore.

She expressed some dissatisfaction with her own generation, saying, “us elders are letting them down. Hopefully, students will take more action.”