By Christine Hirsh-Putnam
Young people usually don’t have a say in the laws we all must obey. They are deemed too young and/or naïve to make sound political choices. Yet they are passionate about major political issues because they will be affected by these issues throughout their entire lives.
Recently, young people have answered the call to act on climate change, energizing the climate movement. If our country remains stagnant and refuses to address this issue, their generation will be left with serious problems long after today’s lawmakers are gone.
I see the potential in students to effectively participate in the political process. Each year my 7th grade students from Tandem Friends School near Charlottesville travel to Washington to meet with their representatives about climate solutions. It is an eye-opening experience meeting with a member of Congress that most citizens will never experience. If we teach our children how to engage in the democratic process during these formidable years, the lesson will stick with them for years to come.
I have led this trip to D.C. on multiple occasions, but this September’s was different. There is an ever-growing sense of urgency and concern about climate change. The fact that future Time Person of The Year, Greta Thunberg, was also walking the halls in support of climate action made the students especially eager to get to Capitol Hill and tell their stories.
The students were given a quick lobbying tutorial by the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Each student had a role in the meeting, allowing everyone to feel they had a goal and purpose in influencing the political process. To make sure our message was crystal clear, each student had a hand-written letter expressing their climate change concerns.
Unfortunately, U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, a Republican who represents the Charlottesville area, could not make the visit. So, we met with his environmental staffer and she promised to pass along their heartfelt letters. The students were happy to know that their letters would be read by those with the power to do something. They even performed a dance that illustrated the process of a bill becoming a law for the congressman’s staff.
Just two days later, on the day of the Youth Climate Strikes, Rep. Riggleman joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, mentioning our letters as motivation for the decision. He went as far as to promise a visit to our school when he was back in Charlottesville. We were elated. A group of seventh graders had successfully lobbied a member of Congress.
The story does not end there, however. On Nov. 22, Rep. Riggleman visited our small school and answered our environmental questions, from how he was engaging with the Climate Solutions Caucus to what Congress can do right now to address climate change. He did not dodge a question or give rehearsed answers. He actively listened and gave thoughtful responses to the students’ questions. He also helped the students understand the challenges of representing a diverse set of constituents and the complexities of making decisions in our representative government.
Rep. Riggleman came to our school because my students advocated for the climate, for the planet and for themselves. They successfully participated in the democratic process by using their stories and engaging in respectful dialogue to persuade the Congressman to act on climate change. They are model American citizens we can all be proud of.
Christine Hirsh-Putnam teaches middle school science at the Tandem Friends School.