Across the world, tens of thousands of young people are taking to the streets to protest climate inaction. And at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem last month, more than a dozen of them took to the stage.
On the final night of Climate Speaks, New York City’s Climate Museum put on a spoken-word poetry performance where high school students from across the city came to describe, in rhythm and rhyme, a rapidly warming planet to a packed house.
As the finalists of a lengthy audition process, the poets came prepared for a war of words: Since March, the students had been busy writing, rewriting, rehearsing, and receiving coaching from pros like slam poet Darian Dauchan on everything from hand gestures to intonation to pacing.
“We had to get all the words right, but we also had to make sure to know who we were speaking to. That matters a lot because it guides what expressions you choose,” says Jenny Gomez, who just graduated from Brooklyn’s Northside Charter High School. “When I was hopeful, I thought of [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez. When I was angry, I thought of [Donald] Trump.” Gomez says she imagined that the president was sitting in the audience and that she was speaking directly to him.
The performances felt like a real-time reckoning—by a generation still coming to terms with a catastrophe that it did not create. “At its heart, the show was expressing the single greatest injustice of the climate crisis,” says Miranda Massie, director of the Climate Museum, of the plight of the world’s children. “Even if you were not aware of it in every moment, it was in the room.”
Many of the poems were rife with grief, mourning everything from “once-colorful corals” to future daughters who will inherit an unlivable planet, and even the poets’ own childhoods. In her poem on fleeing extreme storms, Katie Lu reflected, “My parents could only bring one suitcase, so my youth and responsibility could not both fit.”
Others bluntly assigned blame, calling out polluting corporations by name, the governments that enable them, and the greenhouse gases themselves.
“It is then that I realize that I have no seat at this table. That I am invisible,” stated Andreas Psahos, whose poem, “Corporate Round Table,” spoke directly to the executives who have knowingly chosen profits over the planet’s health. “That company men have no business making this earth hospitable or making the water more drinkable or making life more livable. Despicable. Criminal. Predictable.”
Eliza Schiff, who just graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, also pointed a finger. “A band played along as the Titanic went down, a sad and mournful tune as hope ran aground. Now our ship is sinking, our world is burning, our cities languish as they gasp for air. But who is dancing to this melody?” Schiff asked. “Is it you, Charles and David Koch, who sit behind a desk in an office, holding back the remedy?”
Still, some of the poets offered hope.
“Big problems are made up of little ones, and solutions are the same way,” recited Jordan Sanchez, who recently graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and is heading to Harvard in the fall. “They start in this room, and end under the sunlight of a new day.”
To vie for a place in the final performance, the poets attended a Climate Museum workshop in the spring—a chance to learn more about the intersection of climate change, social justice, and the arts from expert performers. From there, the students submitted their own spoken-word pieces—many of them were taking on the medium for the first time—and hoped to beat out dozens of others for a chance to perform on the hallowed Apollo stage.
“Young people do know about this issue,” Gomez says of her generation. “They’re educated about it from their teachers and friends, but what they need is inspiration and support.”
The Climate Museum’s Massie and the Climate Speaks team provided just that. “In the end, what was striking to me was the variety of voices and themes in the final performance,” Massie says. “We were careful not to sand that down or workshop that away. All we really did was give the performers room to create, with some support where they needed it. It was self-guided.”
Massie remembers how profound it was to watch these young activist poets learn about and begin to address something people of all generations are grappling with. “We all, every day, more deeply absorb the extent of the crisis and what it means. There’s no final wrapping of one’s head around it, of that I’m confident. Not even a 50-year-old climatologist fully embraces the extent of this crisis.”
Some students, like Jade Lozada, a senior at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, learned about climate change in depth for the first time during the Climate Speaks process. Now she considers herself a climate activist, aligned with a growing movement of young demonstrators led by Swedish superstar Greta Thunberg, whose weekly school strikes for climate action outside the Swedish parliament have earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
“This never was a one-person job,” read Lozada from her piece, titled “Baby Girls.” “Now we’re relying on a 16-year-old across the world to lead the mob.” In the fall, Lozada said, she plans to join the Friday strikes alongside Thunberg and others.
The students hope their words will move the audience to action too. At the end of the event, each performer took the mic to offer a tangible next step: Vote on climate, ride a bike, go solar, they suggested. And perhaps most important: Speak out.
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