An 8th-Grade Climate Activist Draws from Family’s History Pushing for Change
Editor’s Note: Taking climate lessons from the classroom to the community, Maryland students are becoming increasingly vocal, marching in protests, organizing rallies and challenging school and government authorities to act on their concerns.
Many have been inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who, at 15 in 2018, staged daily protests outside the Swedish Parliament with demands that leaders listen to her pleas for the planet.
This month we profile three Maryland teenagers, each a leader among their peers seeking to address solutions to a global crisis.
They are part of a growing youth movement, impatient and frustrated, yet empowered by the sum of their collective effort to create a more equitable and sustainable future.
Early this school year, 8th-grader Rosie Clemans-Cope walked into Chad Lenz’ science classroom at Julius West Middle School in Rockville on a mission.
She wanted Lenz to sponsor Fridays For Future, a student-led climate initiative modeled after Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s climate strike outside her country’s parliament.
“Watching her on television for the first time, I saw climate change as a big issue, and realized that all youth needed to get involved, and not just one person on their own,” Rosie said.
She had led a similar effort years ago at a different school, and was now trying to bring it back at Julius West.
“Rosie was so strongly invested in something that is such a major world crisis that is not arguably getting the attention that it truly needs,” Lenz said. “It was amazing for me to have such a student come to me with such a program.”
As word got around, more students began to grab hall passes to head to the soccer field for the weekly teach-in and rally.
On a recent cool but sunny December day, Rosie greeted more than 100 students, megaphone in hand. She was flanked by volunteers who waved banners, took photos and shot videos to document the event.
“Hi, my name is Rosie,” she said, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Water is Life.” The hoodies are sold to support Indigenous efforts to stop oil pipelines, a cause she’s aligned with.
Amid cheers and chants and a shoutout to a student who attended a weekend rally in Silver Spring to push the Montgomery County Council to act on its 2017 declaration of a climate emergency, Rosie reported on news from the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, and efforts to bring global emissions below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
“1.5 TO STAY ALIVE,” she shouted in a call and response.
Friday for Future meetings move along quickly, focusing that week on sea level rise and ending with a message of hope.
“That hope comes from youth who are learning about climate change. That hope comes from democracy. That hope comes from you!” Rosie said, urging her peers to come back the next week. They listen, applaud and head back inside school.
“What Rosie brings to the table is something to actually do and be a part of, and something that actually does get people thinking,” Lenz said. “I see she’s taking things beyond the classroom and giving students an outlet and an opportunity to learn more, and really further their interest and drive and passion to do something to help solve this problem.”
Rosie is named for Rosa Parks, a legacy she and her 18-year-old sister Eleanor take seriously, having been raised by a family deeply engaged in social justice. “Our family goes back many, many generations of women standing on soapboxes organizing for unions in Chicago,” Eleanor said.
Their great aunt Nancy Lessin, a well-known activist with the United Steel Workers, was appointed by President Obama to a seat on the federal Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee.
“The kids come from a long line of women who have learned how to organize people to fight collectively for justice, and are not afraid to speak truth to power,” said Lisa Clemans-Cope, the girls’ mother. “So, when the kids get in a tricky spot, they call Aunt Nancy to hear about strategies used in past justice struggles, and to brainstorm.”
The family started their climate journey together, with Rosie and Eleanor taking the lead. In 2019 Rosie rallied with MoCo Students on Climate outside the Montgomery County School Board calling for a switch to electric buses, allowing excused absences for civic action, and other demands that have gained traction with the school board, said Board Member Lynn Harris, whose campaign the students backed.
“We are already committed to completely transforming our bus fleet to all electric, and all the standard student attendance policy is being completely rewritten,” and it will include excused absences for civic action, “recognizing the importance of the work that they’re doing as advocates,” Harris said.
“We should really be paving the way for them to continue to effectively speak to these issues, whether it’s climate, gun violence, whether it’s pedestrian safety. They are doing all of these things, and we as a school system need to be celebrating the way that they are able to do it,” she said.
In late August 2021, the sisters joined Sunrise Rockville and the Extinction Rebellion’s Green New Deal Internship program to block traffic at a busy Rockville intersection and advocate for a Green New Deal in the county.
All were trained and ready to get arrested for civil disobedience, and Rosie and Eleanor were; Rosie’s citation eventually dismissed in a hearing before a judge this fall.
At 13, putting her body on the line for justice was a step Rosie was willing to take.
“We are joining so many hundreds of years of people that have put their voices together with hundreds of others for their cause,” she said.
What gives her hope for the future is the growing number joining the youth movement across the globe.
Nodding in agreement, Eleanor adds, “Once we tap into that incredible resource of people power, there is no way we can lose.”
MORE FROM THIS SERIES:
A Youth Eco-Activist Charts a Course for the Future in Her Classroom and Community