Don’t Underestimate the High School Voice

Liza Sockwell

This post is written by ACE Action Fellow Maya Greally, who participated in Harvard Heat Week in April 2015.

If you’ve ever been to any sort of protest or action, it’s easy to see that youth are usually not absent. You can spot college kids and young adults leading cheers, throwing fists in the air, waving signs and chanting until they’re red in the face. As I entered Harvard Yard for Harvard Heat Week I can assure you these endlessly enthusiastic individuals were not in short supply.

While Harvard is indeed a college, ACE brought its A-game and its high school aged youth along with the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) and Student Organized Climate Action Network (SOCAN). Younger faces were plentiful, from a child on his dad’s shoulders with a sign reading “look mom no future” to high school students coming from school to join in the chants; together, youth became a powerful part of the crowd and movement.

My time at Harvard Heat Week was brief yet nothing short of inspirational. Eagerness and zeal poured from the crowds as we were lead in chant after never-ending chant. Most notably, “a people united, will never be defeated,” seemed to be the calling card of the day, and rang endlessly with the crowd never letting it die. ACE’s very own Action Fellow, Liza Sockwell, was inspired by her experiences that day and led a crowd of over one hundred in a rousing call and response chant she had written herself.

Harvard Heat Week 2

The “action of the day” that we participated in was to encircle historic University Hall, one of the academic buildings that Divest Harvard activists had successfully blockaded. The visual of this was stunning. The front of the hall had been covered with orange papers (the color of divestment) with handwritten messages telling Harvard why it should divest. The majestic statue of John Harvard was plastered with cutouts of various gas and energy company’s logos. Massive divestment signs were unfurled covering the entrances to the hall announcing the event, catching people’s eyes, asking you to linger. Many stood back to take the whole of the picture in; a historical center of learning, taken over by a righteous group of students with a lot spirit, paper, and orange paint.

As we began to encircle the hall, ACE fellows took center stage. Our white and blue shirts prominently displayed as we stood in the front of the building, arms stretched as far as they could go. Someone with a life jacket raced around the entire building urging everyone to touch it before climbing on top of the statue of John Harvard and putting the life jacket on him, symbolism for saving Harvard from drowning in its own corruption and from the rising seas that may one day engulf the campus if we do not take action on climate. We stood united in protest and spontaneously erupted into chants and the wave until we broke apart into applause, and of course, more chants.

I am not ashamed to say that I got so wrapped up in this action that I forgot about our main objective of the day, our High School Press Conference calling upon colleges and universities to divest! As soon as I realized, I headed over to our meeting area and began to prep. As part of the “Students Day” section of Heat Week, us high school students were granted our own press conference to speak and share our ideas. We hastily grabbed some of our own high school themed divestment signs and ran over speeches. Brian Stilwell (one of our amazing leaders) helped grab and direct the masses over to our press conference spot on the steps of Massachusetts Hall, and Liza once again led us in her rousing chant until we had a crowd that would be hard not to be proud of.

Harvard Heat Week 3

Once the speakers began, there was no denying the hold they had on the growing crowd. As more and more Action Fellows spoke, the crowd grew bigger and bigger as their powerful words rang out over the quad. (You can view all of their speeches here).

Liza Sockwell began with her chant and used her words to construct a soap-box style speech to rile the crowd up and get energy up for the next speakers.

Kerry Brock gave a brief and strong introduction to the rest of the speakers. She criticized Harvard for having the morality to divest from other issues like apartheid and tobacco, yet not fossil fuels.

Jhonatan Perea took center stage, highlighting the powerful work high school youth have done within our own community, bringing astonished and impressed looks from the ever growing crowd.

Gloria, from the Boston Student Advisory Council was short but far from sweet as she took a stand for herself and peers, stressing that whatever college you choose to go to should be helping prepare you for your future not destroying it.

Grace Chin followed with a few select words for Harvard about their motto, veritas, which means truth in Latin. She asked the more than amused crowd why Harvard could support an industry that clouds the truth when the word written under their name stands for the very opposite. Suffice to say there were more than a few chuckling Harvard students.

Last was Jasmyn Mitchell, who brought in ties of how climate change disproportionately affects people of color who’ve contributed to to climate change the least. She brought the crowd together in a powerful collective moment when she polled the crowd about who’s been impacted by asthma and nearly everyone raised their hands.

The speakers wrapped up and the crowd dispersed, though not before more than a few congratulations.

Harvard Heat Week 4

As high school students and teenagers we aren’t usually expected to show up at protests, or rallies, or really anything that involves us, well, getting involved. Seeing a bunch of teens in matching t-shirts making passionate, well spoken, knowledgeable speeches was definitely something of a surprise for most of the adults in attendance. I was blown away by the quantity of compliments we received. Countless adults told us what a great job we had done, and what an important spirit and energy we had brought to the event. People even went so far as to say that our speeches were the most inspirational they had seen all week, a sentiment that left us feeling overwhelmed with appreciation, proud and empowered.

Harvard Heat Week is one of many actions I have been to and plan to attend. At these events, there will always be the college kids who have survived on Red Bull for the past twenty-four hours planning everything, there will always be the parents who bring their kids and a sassy sign or two, there will always be amused passerbies and tourists, people debating, laughing, writing chants on the corners of papers, and if I know my generation, there will always be a passionate cadre of high school students present ready to speak up for justice and our future. Though we’ve been historically overlooked as force for change, don’t count us out. This generation of high school students is engaged and we’re stepping up to create a fair society for all.

Maya Greally

Maya Greally is a 2015-2016 Senior Action Fellow in New England. She was also an Action Fellow in the 2014-2015 school year. She attends Boston Latin School.