ITHACA, N.Y. –– On an afternoon marked by intermittent snow and sunshine, Ithaca activists took to the Bernie Milton Pavillion to discuss the convergence of climate justice and social inequality Thursday. Attendees celebrated the day, Earth Day, with speeches and songs while painting cardboard signs.
The day’s events were hosted by Sunrise Movement Ithaca, a group of young activists working to halt the climate crisis, and began at Ithaca High School. Activists marched from there to The Commons, settling at Bernie Milton Pavillion where participants decorated its stage with signs that read “The oceans are rising and so are we” and “Respect your mother,” which was written above a drawing of the earth.
The band Second Spring kicked off the rally portion of the day at 2 p.m., and speeches from youth and adult activists comprised the approximately hour-long gathering.
Christa Núñez, founder and director at The Learning Farm, was the rally’s first speaker. Núñez praised the fight young activists were spearheading that afternoon.
“It’s our job to make sure everybody has a seat at the table,” Núñez said. “This is not a white game. This is not a Black game. This is not an Indigenous game. This is everybody. I love you. I’m proud of you. Keep up the fight.”
Other speeches also spoke to the overlapping issues of climate justice and racial inequality. Nicole LaFave — assistant director of diversity alumni programs at Cornell University and candidate for the Tompkins County District 1 Legislator position — said in her speech that prioritizing the mental and physical health of workers is key to mitigating the climate crisis.
LaFave also said that in order to stem the climate crisis, activists must acknowledge that people of color suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change — an area that she intends to tackle as District 1 Legislator if elected.
“Cruel labor has produced harsh realities for the earth and the inhabitants of this planet,” she said in her speech. “As we think about housing and substandard housing in our community, we must demand that new housing developments are not built an industrial wasteland where [Black Indigenous People of Color] communities are at risk for breathing in pollutants, where there’s more traffic and pavement than there is greenery.”
Ellie Pfeffer, an organizer with the Ithaca Tenants Union, and David Foote, an officer of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Ithaca, discussed the place of socialism in eradicating climate change.
“As the poisoning of our environment continues, we’re all paying the price, so any solution requires thoughtful, intentional principle, equitable, socialist planning,” Foote said.
Wayles Brown, treasurer of DSA Ithaca, and Theresa Alt, an activist in Ithaca, attended the protest and wielded a white banner for DSA. After the event, Brown said that it was stirring to see so many young people who care about climate change gathered that afternoon.
“There’s really two kinds of power,” he said. “There’s power like energy. You’re able to do a lot. And there’s power like control. You’re able to control a lot. And the young people around here don’t yet have very much of the control kind of power, but I’m so glad to see them full of the energy kind of power.”
The youth speakers that drove the rally were Eva Milsyrein-Tousnard, a member of Climate Justice Cornell; Eden Lewis and Magnolia Mead, climate activists from Ithaca High School; and Lauren Miller, a junior at Ithaca College and project coordinator for the Ithaca College Eco-Reps.
Milsyrein-Tousnard spoke to the intersection of climate issues across New York state, including how a Green New Deal must serve marginalized communities to prevent further violence from happening to them.
“These forms of police brutality and this connection between sexual violence, … continuous colonization of indigenous land and climate change are all so interconnected,” she said.
Lewis, again another IHS student, emphasized the importance of celebrating Earth Day beyond that afternoon and said that the weight of tackling such a large issue — one many politicians do not take seriously enough — hangs heavily on her.
“Our advocacy needs to be a year-round effort,” Lewis said. “People need to hear our worry. I worry that we are going to have to fix this problem on our own. I worry that my Black and brown community will not recover from the damage being inflicted upon us. I worry that our government will continue to let corporations be exempt from the damage they inflict on our climate. I’m worried that the climate change cannot be fixed at all.”
Luis Aguirre-Torres, the newly appointed leader of Ithaca’s Green New Deal, shared his experience as someone who has fought for a greener future with the youthful crowd. He expressed his gratitude for the young residents who created the rally and discussed his often taxing work as City of Ithaca’s director of sustainability.
“Working in climate change is the stuff of nightmares because you are so aware of everything that is happening and everything that is happening to people that you love, people that you know, and you can’t believe that things can be so unequal,” he said. “You always want to produce change, and you want to make sure that that change is permanent.”