What do you do when you realize you’re in trouble and you can’t get out of it alone? You ask for help.
That’s what the students of Climate Generation’s Youth Environmental Activists of Minnesota (YEA! MN) did when they brought a proposal they’d written to the desk of Rep. Sydney Jordan, asking for it to be passed into law. The Climate Justice Education Bill proposes a curriculum that would teach students about the impacts of climate change from a young age, as well as practical solutions to prepare them to fight against its effects in the future. Rep. Jordan (DFL-Northeast Minneapolis) is co-authoring an official version of the proposed bill alongside Sen. Lindsey Port (DFL-Burnsville); and they hope to have it ready for deliberation early next year.
Climate change was framed throughout the ’90s and 2000s as an impending change, something that was going to happen in the future. Students learned about it as an environmental science issue, but it seemed so far off. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the impending change is now here, said Jordan. Climate change isn’t going to happen soon, it’s happening right now, and the generation saddled with the fallout is increasingly aware that they are not equipped to face it.
If climate change is taught about at all in Minnesota public schools, it is usually taught in the context of environmental science. Jordan said this is still important, but climate change permeates every aspect of daily life, and students are asking for the tools to learn how to address it as adults. The proposed curriculum would add elements of climate change education across grade levels K-12, making it a core subject like math, science, English, and social studies.
“Students are really concerned that they’re not learning about climate change, and they’re not learning about resiliency or community solutions to climate change in their schools, and this is a bill to remedy that,” said Jordan. “This is a bill that they wrote, actually. A lot of the language came from them, and they brought it to me as someone who works a lot on educational and environmental issues, and asked me to author it.”
YEA! MN, the group that penned the bill’s original draft, is a program within Climate Generation, a nonprofit founded by Will Steger and dedicated to climate education and youth-led action. They focus on educating students from across the state on climate change and how it pertains to everyday issues, as well as how climate change disproportionately affects minority communities. Climate Generation works to provide students with the means to act on what they learn.
Different youth leaders step in every year at YEA! MN. The program mainly serves high schoolers, so when kids graduate, they pass the reins to the next class. Each respective group has the opportunity to focus on different issues that are important to them from year to year. This year, they were passionate about getting actual legislation passed.
“Organizationally, that’s an area where we have a lot of strength,” said Sarah Goodspeed, Climate Generation’s senior youth and policy manager. Climate Generation has a long history of advocating for progressive climate legislation, and connected YEA with Reps. Jordan and Port to get things moving. “The dream here is that everyone will be learning about climate justice in schools, and we’ll be preparing kids for issues they are going to face in their everyday lives.”
The bill seeks to provide climate change-related instruction across subjects (i.e., how does a changing climate affect the economy, how does it affect the art we make and the books we write, how does it affect our social structure, geography, etc.) and across grade levels.
“Students need the tools to understand the environment they live in, and what it means for them in their future,” said Jordan. “It should be just like any other subject like reading, or math. I don’t think that the climate, and relating to the world around you should be any different, and the students agree.”
The bill didn’t make the early March deadline to be considered for this legislative session, but Jordan said that means she and the activists pushing for it have more time to focus on tightening the language, and building support via community engagement over the summer. She also said that hopefully, by the time the next legislative session rolls around, COVID-19 will take up far less legislative time and resources as well. A hearing on the bill could take place early next year.
Goodspeed expressed concern that there may be opposition to the bill, not necessarily because of the content of the bill itself, but because it is an easily-politicized issue, and some may oppose it simply on partisan principle.
“Our legislators just can’t work together, and it’s incredibly frustrating,” said Goodspeed, who said she has observed that Climate Generation’s education programs have been popular regardless of political affiliation among the families and students they serve. “People need to understand that climate change isn’t just about the weather, it’s about our homes, it’s our jobs, it’s our economy.”
Jordan has yet to develop a clear idea of what the curriculum would look like once fully implemented; the bill is still very early in stages of development, and ultimately won’t decide what exactly will be taught in classrooms. The Minnesota Department of Education would be directed to come up with a curriculum, and the bill would give them the resources to implement it.
She used an anecdote from her own youth to illustrate how a climate justice curriculum could work. As a fourth grader in Illinois, her class helped fill sand bags along the Mississippi River during flooding season. Her teachers took the opportunity to explain to her class why floods happen, and how climate change could make them worse and more frequent, and what they could mean for their hometown. A model of education like that, expanded to what a changing climate would mean for the economy, our culture, industries we depend on, and the changes we can make to minimize the impact on the most vulnerable, is what Jordan, Goodspeed, and the students at YEA! MN hope to achieve.
When Jordan writes a bill, she said she starts by consulting the people who would be most affected by it: students, their families, and educators. A bill in education should start in education, which is why she’s glad the inception of the bill started with students’ ideas. Now it’s her duty to mold that into legislate-able language. “I really think it’s great that we’re seeing a surge in student activism,” she said. “I think a lot of students have had time to organize during the pandemic and they’re realizing they are not being given the tools they need to be functioning adults in what seems to be a pretty scary world.”
Below: State Representative Sydney Jordan of NE Minneapolis