Hundreds of people, led by students, flooded the streets in downtown New Paltz this past Friday, demanding swifter action to address the rising tides of climate change. They were among millions who marched, from Mumbai to Madagascar to Manhattan, in what was one of the biggest youth-led movements in history — The Global Climate Strike.
“Bike More, Ride Less,” read one placard held by a nursery-school-aged child on the corner of Main Street and Manheim Boulevard, where students who walked out of their classrooms at the high school and middle school gathered to begin their march downtown.
Thirteen-year-old Charlee Domitrovits, a freshman at New Paltz High, said that she had walked out because this was a crisis that needed to be addressed and addressed now. “I think it’s sad that that it’s not only students from the high school,” she said, “but elementary-age children have taken to the streets because they’re frightened and they’re asking their leaders to protect their environment.”
“We have to be the change that we want because government is not doing it and they just support the big businesses and industries, but we’re hoping that they [political leaders] listen to us and make changes,” agreed her friend, sophomore Naya Cunniff. “I’m very passionate about the environment and our earth, and it’s important that we take a stand.”
Both girls said that they hope that their march for action on climate change would help raise awareness on a global scale and also stimulate change at the local level.
“There’s so much we can do day-to-day to conserve our resources,” said Domitrovits. “Making sure to turn the light off when you leave a room or not taking long showers or letting the faucet run.” She said that people can also “reuse and recycle” and choose to bike and walk more places or invest in electric cars.
While many high schoolers did have access to motorized vehicles to get to this local “walkout,” some who put their soles to the ground and walked several miles in from their school NPHS off South Putt Corners Road into the heart of the village. They were escorted by the New Paltz police, who kept busy trying to ensure the children’s safety.
The middle-school students walked out the front door of their brick-and-mortar learning institution and joined family members, friends, grandparents and local leaders on a walk downtown to the rally at the Elting Memorial Library. They were led by a bunch of honeybee head-dressed environmental activists and accompanied the joyful, jazzy sounds of the Tin Horn Uprising band.
Students were encouraged to wear red as a symbol of the dramatic rise in temperature, sea levels, forest fires, draught and floods — a result, most scientists worldwide believe, is a direct result of atmospheric carbon dioxide brought on by fossil-fuel emissions. The intergenerational effort organized by local activist Liz Elkin was supported by the New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez, village mayor Tim Rogers, state senator Jen Metzger and a half-dozen regional environmental groups.
“I came out because I’m in total support of these students who are fighting for something that makes 100 percent sense. And if the people at the top can’t or won’t make the changes necessary, then we need to do our part to help empower this movement and become instrumental in changing courses,” said Jim Alba, a father and grandfather of New Paltz students past and present. “The course we’re on is leading us to the brink. We need to show up for these kids and show our resistance.”
Jesse Corre Sarubbi, NPHS alumna and mother of two teenagers, agreed. “I’m inspired by all of these students who are ready to take action and are raising their voices for climate action to ensure all of our future,” she said.
Handmade signs read from “Teachers who Believe in Science” to “Our Earth Another Grandma for Climate Action.” A nine-year-old’s sign read, “Help, Our House is on Fire.”
“This is so moving, I’m going to cry,” said Kitty Brown, longtime local activist, former deputy supervisor and councilwoman and retired president of the Wallkill Valley Rail-Trail Association. The sign around her said, “SOS, I can’t breathe,” with a picture of the planet being choked out by carbon emissions.
“I came because I wanted to hang out with my friends,” admitted ten-year-old Ainsley Armbresten of the Mountain Laurel School in New Paltz. “But I also think it’s important that people learn about the issues, that the government pays attention to us. Look at the turnout! I think it’s great!”
She and her friends used to flush the toilet over and over again because it was fun. When she learned about what a critical resource water was, she stopped and now tries to be conservative with her water usage. “I think people could drive a lot less, too,” she added.
As the rally picked up speed, the police and organizers had to divide the crowd in half, with one portion on the library green and the other near Chase Bank. Automotive traffic was still flowing down Main Street. When the speakers began, it was difficult to hear what they were saying from the far side of the street.
One group of young children traded off the microphone and made declarations about wanting to see the end of deforestation, the end of fossil fuel emissions, 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and environmental justice, including the protection and restoration of at least “50 percent of all lands.”
New Paltz police chief Joe Snyder and lieutenant Robert Lucchesi were both on hand to manage the crowds, traffic and crosswalk as the rally took on greater enthusiasm and numbers. “What other town would you see the police chief and the lieutenant doing this type of hands on work with their community?” marveled one parent. “I think it’s so cool. We’re all in this together.”
This was one of hundreds of student-led strikes around the country and thousands around the world. Knowing that the walkout was coming, the school district had sent a letter letting them know that their kids would not be penalized for walking out. They did have to bring in a signed note from their guardian prior to the protest, agreeing that they could leave the school grounds for the strike.
School board president Kathy Preston was in attendance with her daughter Nora. “I respect the students’ dedication to this cause, and I’m glad that the district working with the New Paltz police were able to provide for their safety.” She said that part of the board’s mission statement is to help nurture their students to become “citizens of the world.”
“We also have a strong focus on mental health and wellness,” sahe said, “and these kids are really worried about their planet and in turn their future. They need to have some agency for change. I’m so proud of them.”
The local event was sponsored by New Paltz Climate Smart, Climate Action Coalition, U-Act, Move Forward, Resisterhood NP, Resisterhood Choir, Extinction Rebellion New Paltz, Tin Horn Uprising and the Interfaith Earth Action Group.