Young activists focus of Loyola’s climate change conference

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Loyola University Chicago’s annual Climate Change Conference this year emphasized the voices of young organizers and activists not because they are the only people affected by climate change, but because they have been pushing leaders to do something about it.

“These young people were born into this problem, and their entire life is going to be defined by it,” said Nancy Tuchman, dean of Loyola’s School of Environmental Sustainability. “If we don’t act it’s going to tremendously limit their possibilities in the future, for their own lives and for their children as well.”

The March 15-18 online conference included discussions with academics, climate change experts and youth activists, along with a  keynote titled, “Accompanying Youth to a Hope-Filled Future.” It had more people registered than ever before, Tuchman said.

Among the participants in the keynote was Dejah Powell, 25, the Midwest lead organizer of the Sunrise Movement. Sunrise works to mobilize people under 35 to push for action on climate change.

Powell said young people are pushing people in power to take action  just as young people did during the 20th century civil rights movement.

“Young people have a lot of moral authority,” Powell said. “Young people have clarity on what needs to be done but don’t have the power to make it happen. We want to build the power. With Sunrise, we organize young people and we want to awaken the public. We hope that our organizing activity touches the public.”

Powell, who grew up in the south suburbs and on the South Side of Chicago, said she came to organizing work while earning a degree in environmental science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She had planned to go on to pursue a doctorate, but a semester in Morocco, Vietnam and Bolivia changed her mind.

“I think science helps us tell the story in many ways of what needs to happen, but it’s the will of our government and the will of our people to do what needs to happen,” Powell said.

And, she said, people need to be moved quickly.

“We are facing an existential threat, and I’m terrified,” she said. “We are at a tipping point in society for the next year or two years.”

But Powell is also hopeful, she said, because of what she has experienced in organizing people to fight climate change.

“That’s why Sunrise was so powerful for me,” she said. “We feel our power and we see a path forward. That has reenergized hope and not despair.”

People like Powell and her students give Tuchman hope, she said.

Just the fact that Loyola, a Jesuit institution, created a school of environmental sustainability in 2020 is a positive change marking the incorporation of “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, into its structure.

“We strive to reach the goals that Pope Francis is envisioning,” Tuchman said. “We see it as a privilege to put our resources toward advancing the pope’s vision. … The youth give me hope and good leadership gives me hope and the pope gives me hope, and the fact that we’re seeing change — it’s not enough change, and it’s not fast enough, but there is change.”

Stopping the climate crisis, Tuchman said, will require the efforts of everyone.

“I really believe that this is an intergenerational problem,” Tuchman said. “You can’t just have youth out there being activists and talking about this. You’ve got to have elders and middle-aged people and adults pushing the levers. They have the leverage to really help effect the change.”

Tuchman and Powell agreed that it can be more difficult to move middle-aged and older people to action, whether because of complacency or inertia.

“It’s complicated because it’s a threat,” she said. “Climate change is such a threat to our current lifestyles. Our economic model, our policies, our consumerism, all of those things are at stake, and we kind of like them. We’re comfortable with them.”

The opposite side of that is that without change, humanity will lose the world as we know it.

“We can’t sit back and say, ‘Isn’t it lovely this new generation of students is going to solve this problem for us?’” Tuchman said. “This has to be done now. We can stand shoulder to with them.”


  • climate change
  • loyola university chicago

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