Protesting climate change: Fairfielders head to New York for 'People's March'

 

Fairfield native Sarah McGee is planning to participate in the People's Climate March in New York City on Sunday.

Fairfield native Sarah McGee is planning to participate in the People’s Climate March in New York City on Sunday.                                                                                                                              Photo Gabriela Foster.

On Sunday, Sept. 21, Fairfield residents concerned about climate change will head to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to walk in the “People’s Climate March,” designed to bring awareness to the issue of climate change. The event’s chief organizer, 350.org, timed the march to coincide with Tuesday’s United Nations Climate Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The Brooklyn-based non-profit said it expects the crowd to number 100,000, made up of representatives of more than 1,000 organizations, including faith-based groups, labor organizations, students, environmentalists, and the musically inclined — 350.org says 20 marching bands have signed up to participate. These groups also reflect the affiliations of local citizens who have committed their Sunday to the cause.

Climate change and religion

The Rev. Stephanie Johnson, assistant for children and youth formation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, has organized a busload of marchers, and plans to hold a communion service on the way, with hymns and the sharing of bread.

As Environmental Missioner for the Bishops of New England on Environmental and Creation Care and Climate Change, Johnson travels around New England speaking about climate change, encouraging people to participate in environmentalism “as a hopeful sign of love instead of despair and fear.”

Earth and its stewardship has been her focus for many years. Johnson worked in watershed protection, recycling and public policy with the World Environment Center, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the government of Westchester County for 20 years before her ordination as an Episcopal priest.

“I went to Yale for seminary and found out about this amazing program they have about the intersection of faith and ecology,” she said. “I did two degrees there, one specific to environmental ministries.”

“We will be carrying banners that say Episcopalians on a Journey of Hope,” said Johnson, adding that 10,000 people of faith are expected to gather, and that there will be an interfaith service at 11. At the end of the march the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will host another interfaith service, organized by the group Religions for the Earth.

Student involvement

According to 350.org, over 300 colleges from around the country will be sending students to the march. Fairfield native Sarah McGee, a freshman at Hamilton College, will be getting up at 4:30 a.m. to make the 250-mile bus ride to New York with the college’s Environmental Action Group.

McGee plans to major in Environmental Science, and is a graduate of Ludlowe High School, where she was inspired by her A.P. Environmental Science teacher Michael Grasso. She also served on Fairfield’s Earth Day Committee for two years.

McGee thinks it’s important to show up. “I think it makes more of a difference than some online social media. It’s like couch activism. If you don’t get up and go places it’s harder to see that things are going on. It’s hard to ignore a whole group of people in New York City. I still think it’s legitimate to have a concern and communicate online. But this is more tangible.”

Labor participation

Lori Pelletier, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, one of the labor organizations supporting the march, said the AFL-CIO sent a mailing to all their affiliates encouraging people to go. She sees it as a “health and safety issue.”

Pelletier said, “Firefighters and other first responders, health care workers, because of the issue of climate change, are facing more fierce fires, more stress on the health care system, more stress on everyday work life. That’s why we’re getting involved with it.”

Local environmentalism

Fairfield resident Peter McKnight will be marching with the Connecticut Sierra Club, where he serves as vice chairman. McKnight said his parents were very concerned with the earth. “When we were kids our parents brought us to different rallies and marches. My family always celebrated Earth Day.”

McKnight noted, “I always had been a checkbook member of different organizations; then, in the last 10 years I began going to meetings.” Even being so active, he said, “This is the first large environmental march that I will be involved with as an adult.”

“I think the politicians and the decision-makers must pay attention. I am getting emails from every organization under the sun, including the League of Women Voters. We are basically telling world leaders we’ve got to get our act together.”

Some of McKnight’s efforts focus on working to retire Bridgeport Harbor Station, Connecticut’s last coal-fired power plant, and looking for alternative energy sources.

Mary Hogue and her daughter Emma Gleysteen will be traveling to the march via Metro North. Emma, a junior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, told of how, when required to make a Girl Scout camp “promise,” she chose “to discover and respect nature. I had to write a piece and explain why I chose that promise. I wrote about my mom and growing up. I am very into nature and being part of something.”

Hogue’s commitment to environmental issues is demonstrated by her extensive volunteer work with the town. Hogue is a director of the League of Conservation Voters, and serves on the Fairfield Forestry Committee and with the Fairfield League of Women Voters, as well as chairing Fairfield’s Earth Day celebration. She also volunteers with the Connecticut Audubon Society and the Mill River Wetlands Committee.

Learning from the 60s

All this from someone who grew up Manhattan. “I grew up in New York City in the 60s,” Hogue said. “There was always talk about pollution and the environment. It was always a big deal.” She recalls seeing the Black Panthers assembling in Central Park. “It was a very gathering time, and because it was an urban environment, the place to gather was public space.”

To Hogue, education is inseparable from activism. “The march will raise awareness. We will learn something. I tell my kids, ‘It will never happen again. It’s a little bit of history and you will be part of it. Don’t sit on the sidelines.’”

Activism is nothing new to Fairfield resident Larry Kaley, who will be marching alongside his son. Kaley protested during the Civil Rights Movement and marched in Washington against the Vietnam War.

 “The general advice then,” he said, was “don’t bother, you’re not going to change government; you’re not going to change policies. They were wrong. It does matter.”

Kaley belongs to the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. He serves on Fairfield’s Clean Energy Task Force (CETF) and Earth Day Committee, of which he was one of the founders.

“It can be done,” he said. “We can effect change. We have to do what we can as soon as we can.” He also said people who don’t go to the march can take other steps to help the environment, such as having a home energy audit performed or installing solar panels. He directs people interested in leading a more environmentally friendly lifestyle to Fairfield’s CETF website, which he says has links to help people save energy and money.

“We need to look at the broad picture,” said Kaley, “how it affects our children and grandchildren. We are experiencing temperature change, such as the drought in California. Most likely the desert will go back to being a desert. But then where does a major source of our food come from?”

Dr. Jessica Wolf and Monica Roche, both Fairfield residents, are members of the Fairfield County chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby, whose agenda is to work for a revenue neutral carbon tax. Wolf explained the theory behind this goal: “The way to deal with carbon emissions is to put a real price on carbon, to provide a dividend to households, and to shift the system towards green jobs and alternative energy.”

Said Wolf, “Our culture has been a culture of consumption without really thinking about the consequences. As a parent and grandparent I am thinking about what it is going to be like for our kids’ kids.  We already see these storms and weird climate events. What can we do? We have a responsibility.”

Wolf, who also marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, noted, “I feel that I am doing something. I feel very powerless some of the time. I do think these marches do something.”

Roche is also no stranger to activism. She marched to protest the Iraq War, and recalled her frustration at the lack of media attention given to the protests. She said she has witnessed friends from around the world affected by climate change, from forest fires in San Diego, to drought in Australia and the typhoon in the Philippines.

“Everything is topsy-turvy,” she said.

For more information about the People’s Climate March and how to get there, visit peoplesclimate.org, 350.org, fairfieldct.org/energychallenge, as0.mta.info/mnr/schedules/sched_form.cfm, peoplesclimate.org/transportation/?r=350.

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