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Students strike for climate action

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Just after 10:30 a.m. Friday, a gaggle of South Medford High School students gathered outside of their school, kicking off their participation in a massive demonstration against climate change.

The group wasn't the largest ever to participate in a walkout from South — only a few more than two dozen — but senior and student organizer Owen Akiyama said he felt good about it.

“I’m glad so many people showed up,” he said. A few minutes later, the group, holding vibrantly colored signs and amplifying their chants with a bullhorn, took off on foot for downtown.

Around the same time, about 1,000 people were gathering at the Ashland Plaza to welcome students who had also walked out of their middle and high school classes Friday morning.

Over the next few hours, mirroring protests unfolding across the planet, local adults showed up in support of the movement to voice concerns over global warming. But the youth — both in Medford and Ashland — were in charge.

“I want my government and authorities to take action so youth don’t have to,” said eighth-grader Mira Saturen, speaking at the Ashland protest. “I see them not doing anything, not taking a stand, or they deny what’s happening.”

It’s the rallying cry of the “Global Climate Strike,” propelled by youth activists such as Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who led Friday’s protest of tens of thousands in New York City. Adults haven’t curbed the human behaviors scientists link to climate change, the students say, and now they want to hold leaders accountable for urgent action.

“Every summer, California burns with more intensity,” said Jo Spurgeon, a student from St. Mary’s School. “Every year, 500-year storms become more and more normalized. And every year, these smoke-free skies that we had this summer become an anomaly.

“We are not waiting for climate change to come,” she said in a speech at Medford’s Vogel Plaza rally. “It’s here.”

The rallies weren’t for just students. The dozens who walked from South, North and Central Medford high schools, as well as St. Marys, were met downtown by even more dozens of local residents. The scene was busy with waggling signs and honks of appreciation from passing drivers.

Some Medford students spoke to local and state issues in their speeches. Akiyama called for Gov. Kate Brown to support what Rogue Climate and other organizations across the state are calling an Oregon Green New Deal. The name plays off an eco-friendly federal legislative agenda championed by the Sunrise Movement and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Many attendees at Vogel Plaza wore shirts and carried signs expressing opposition to the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline project, another sentiment echoed in speeches.

Ashland students gave impassioned, heartfelt and sometimes halting and shy speeches, without notes and begging for a decent future for themselves and their children.

“Every day I come to school and think, ‘My children might not be able to do this, or I might not even have kids,’ ” said Ashland High School junior Madison Davis. “Why should they try to grow up in a world they can’t survive in?”

Signs filling Ashland Plaza shared messages such as, “We are skipping our lessons to give you one,” “Evidence Over Ignorance,” “Make Earth Great Again,” and “Global Warming is Not Cool.”

After the Plaza gathering, hundreds in Ashland walked to the Lithia Park bandshell for speeches, music, poetry and art. There, speakers encouraged people to sign up as volunteers with the nonprofits working to rein in global warming.

Amid songs and poems about the beauty and preciousness of life and nature, the valley’s legislators listened to protesters, with Rep. Pam Marsh standing by her sign, which asked, “What’s on your mind?”

In an interview, Marsh said youth “really have hope about this mess they inherited. The good news is that it seems at the tipping point where the adults in the room understand this is the crisis of our lives and it’s possible to take actions to get us out.

“We were aware of what was happening when we were their age, and if we’d acted then, we wouldn’t be here now,” she said.

But other adults have been engaging with climate issues for a long time, including Maria Gerolaga, a Native American activist who attended the Medford rally with her husband, Spotted Bear. She said that seeing so many young people come together around preserving natural environments warmed her heart.

“To us, protecting Mother Earth is, I would say, our number one priority,” she said. “It makes me think about my dad, how proud he would be to see the difference being made. Because when I was a child, there were very few people standing up.”

Some of the student organizers who are involved with Rogue Climate had another event to prepare for later Friday: the Unidos Fiesta for Climate y Comunidad, planned to begin at 5:30 p.m. at Medford’s Pear Blossom Park.

The students said they know that leaving class comes with resistance from some school authorities and community members. Several said they talked to their parents before deciding to participate.

Kit Lance, a South Medford senior, said when she left her school, “I made it perfectly clear that my parents knew where I was.

“Climate’s really important. My parents agree,” she said. “It’s always a great reason to come out.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Perla Salazar, 17, South Medford High School, gives a speech during a walkout for climate action at Vogel Plaza in Medford on Friday.
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