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Charlottesville, Albemarle students rally in support of sustainable climate policy

Midday Friday, about 100 students from various Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools marched on the Downtown Mall, ending and beginning at the Freedom of Speech Wall. The march, which was for stating that governments have failed future generations by not cutting emissions and curbing global warming, echoes one from March and again was organized by 11-year-olds Gudrun Campbell and Ezra Laiacona. Though most of the attendees were students, some City Council candidates were among a handful of adults showing their support.

While the students walked to the Omni Charlottesville Hotel and back to the free speech wall, some patrons in restaurant patios on the Downtown Mall cheered.

Along with Democratic City Council candidates Sena Magill, Michael Payne and Lloyd Snook, Sally Hudson, a Democratic House of Delegates candidate for the 57th District, was in attendance.

“It was a great experience. This was hard but very substantial and satisfying,” Ezra said of his involvement. “To any politicians who read this, do something.”

Gudrun is a sixth-grade student at Walker Upper Elementary in Charlottesville, and Ezra is a sixth-grade student at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Albemarle County. Some high school students from Charlottesville High School also attended.

“It was a lot of emails,” Gudrun said of orchestrating the march. “I think they went really well. It’s great when people show up because it’s great to know people care about this issue.”

Some of the CHS students in attendance included ESL students and their teacher, Tina Vasquez. She said she was among the community members to receive an email about the strike.

Among those students was a girl who practices Islam. Vasquez said that many of the Muslim students did not attend the march because they are fasting for Ramadan, and the heat would have been too much for them to handle on an empty stomach.

“She made the choice to not fast today because they can if they are sick or [there are] certain circumstances and then make it up. So, she made a conscious choice to come and drink water, and then she will make up her day of fasting.”

Hudson said her team had been knocking on doors for canvassing when she learned of the event.

“Sometimes folks tell me I’m a little too young to be running for office, and all I can think is ‘wait till you see the next wave,” she said to the young crowd.

“We landed on Ezra’s house, and they let us know that he was planning a march and he wanted candidates who were very active climate advocates to be in the program, so we were happy to join,” Hudson said.

“I think we have to pass the suite of reforms that were in the solar freedom act this year,” she said. “All the things that would make it possible for us to empower local power producers to generate more solar energy, because right now we have so much red tape in Richmond holding them back.”

During the march, Magill told Charlottesville Tomorrow why her 11-year-old daughter was not present.

“Ever since her father was hurt in 2017 at the protests, she gets actual physical reactions, she shakes,” Magill said. “She’s afraid that someone is going to kill her, … so yeah, I don’t make her come to things like this.”

Magill’s husband, Tyler, was injured on University of Virginia Grounds during the Aug. 11, 2017, torch-lit rally.

During Magill’s speech ahead of the march on the malls, she thanked the students and said she wants to do everything she can to support the students in their efforts.

“We have to do everything we can to both mitigate and adapt to the climate change we are already facing,” she said.

“Our role as politicians and elected leaders is to get out of the way,” Payne said in his speech to the students. “Make no mistake about it. What you are doing today, there’s going to be people who push back. There’s going to be people who will tell you that you don’t understand how politics really works, but I am telling you don’t listen to them. Keep doing what you are doing.”

As for Gudrun and Ezra’s inspiration to organize the event, Gudrun cited a fellow youth across the Atlantic Ocean.

“The school strike for climate justice movement was started by a Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg. She’s 16, and when she was 15, she started striking outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. Then that movement started spreading to America because we really do need climate action.”

Gudrun said that her school knew she would be striking. In the March strike, her school was not aware ahead of time.

“Yesterday I sat down, and I talked to the principal, and he actually came out in full support,” she said.

She also urged people to hold their elected officials accountable by reaching out to them through phone calls and emails to remind them to address climate change policy.

“There are upcoming elections and I think it’s important to vote for candidates that are in support of combating climate change,” Gudrun said.

At the Federal level, Gudrun would like to see the Green New Deal passed in Congress. On a local level she advocates against the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

“They’re not necessary, they pollute our land and harm our wildlife. They’re also planning to build a compressor station near Union Hill and it’s important to stop that in our community,” she said.

“Future events or marches may be different,” Ezra said. “Maybe we will do something like a die-in or a sit-in, but we will be having future strikes for sure.”

“I think we’re just going to keep showing up and coming out to these things,” Gudrun said. “We need to keep coming out to these things to get more climate-centered legislation and to get people informed about the climate crisis.”

Gudrun and Ezra noted changes since their last strike, as the United Kingdom and Ireland declared climate change an emergency, and they look forward to the City Council’s June 3 meeting where there will be an upcoming vote on divesting public money from fossil fuels and other industries.