Student climate leaders rally in DC to demand mental health funding
An inspiring day of energy and empowerment on Capitol Hill
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A nationwide force, fighting for the future
Last week, high school students from 12 US states headed to Capitol Hill in DC to confront Congress. They met with over 100 elected officials and presented them with two resolutions they’d written: one calling for a national K-12 climate education plan, and a second demanding funding to support youth mental health in a changing climate.
Nancy Metzger-Carter is a climate justice educator at Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, California. She leads the Schools for Climate Action campaign, and she had tons to report and reflect on after returning from DC.
So! Give us a sense of how it went. Any powerful standout moments? What was the scene?
NMC: I mean: wow. It was the biggest event I've pulled off. I've been to DC with students doing climate advocacy nine times with Schools For Climate and this time, I wanted to go BIG. And then it just kept getting bigger and bigger. I kept hoping that I could create space to hold everyone there and everyone's experience, because these students came from 12 different states, with 12 different perspectives and really different experiences with their elected officials. That was really important to me: making sure that my students from California who are very used to having support from their representatives were able to connect with students that are coming from Pennsylvania and Iowa and Idaho and Florida. And giving them the opportunity to speak directly to their elected officials and making sure that their message was authentic to their different experiences. What really stood out to me was just connecting students from across the US and seeing the beauty in their differences, and the beauty in their similarities at the same time.
What kind of personal stories came out of those sessions?
The students’ stories often had to do with personal experiences with climate related disasters. Oftentimes here in Northern California, we're talking about the Tubbs fire, or the Kincaid fire. Those are just so impactful on our community – some of the students had lost their homes.
But we also made it clear that leading with tragedy wasn’t a necessity either. A lot of them shared their hopes for the future and their fears that they wouldn't be able to achieve those hopes. I heard really compelling stories from students from Iowa who really wanted to stay in Iowa. Loved Iowa. Loved the midwest. And loved the generations of their families that had been there – but were fearful that because they don't have an opportunity to have climate education and because there wasn't an acknowledgment of what's going on with the agricultural community around mental health, that they would be left behind. The Florida students were from Miami mostly, and their stories are very right now, every day, all the time. They have a feeling that they're living in a sinking ship. That’s an everyday feeling: everyone's telling us that we're gonna lose our city. The students were saying that they have these seasons where they feel this really acutely. Then the students from Oakland spoke really eloquently about the historical environmental justice issues that they've faced and fears that they might be left behind in any sort of transition.
The two resolutions
There are two resolutions that the students wrote: one is a call for nationwide climate education and the other is a call for Congress to fund youth mental health. What progress have the students made and what still needs to happen?
A lot needs to happen. Both resolutions were introduced in the 117th Congress. We had worked on both resolutions for a few years, gaining co-sponsorship from members of Congress, and actually, both of them ended the 117th Congress with 59 congressional co-sponsors.
And so then you kind of start all over again in the 118th Congress. And while the mental health resolution didn't change very much, the climate education one went through a complete overhaul where we engaged all of these students from across the US in order to give feedback. So we’re really starting from just the baseline of: okay, they were introduced, we made this big push of meeting with over a hundred congressional offices, but I tell them that the work really begins now. Back at home. Being able to follow up with those offices continually, calling them, emailing them, developing relationships with the staff, making sure that they know that this is an issue that their constituents in their area, but also in their state, care about. So right now, each week, the resolutions get updated with the new number of co-sponsors. That’s our big push: gaining co-sponsors.
Regarding the mental health resolution, the students are asking for youth mental health to be properly supported, but what does that look like in practice?
After there's a climate-related disaster, there's the acute phase that happens where FEMA might come in and support. But ultimately, states and school districts are not equipped to be able to support the mental health of students when they need support over a long period of time. Like, five years. They need help for years.
So we’re really focusing on sustained funding, and what that could look like is expanding virtual mental healthcare and ensuring that students have that access. There's an incredible shortage of mental healthcare providers. They’re really challenging to find. I know in our community it's really challenging to find a mental health provider that 1) takes insurance and 2) has availability. I was looking for one last month, and I found one, and they had one opening at 10:00 AM on Tuesdays. For a high school student, that’s like, hmmm….algebra or mental health?
When you look at disaster plans for either a school district or a city or a county, mental health is generally not incorporated. So we’re calling for funding to bring in experts to help inform those disaster plans. A big part is also understanding vulnerabilities in communities as well, because different neighborhoods are going to have a different level of resilience to disasters. And finally, we also called for an expansion of Medicaid coverage for mental healthcare
And why is the climate education resolution so important?
There’s a dissonance that is, I think, really harmful for students’ mental health. They start questioning: if climate change is SUCH a big deal, why aren’t my teachers talking about it?
But it's hard for teachers to teach things that they would have to spend time learning on their own. I mean, let's be real: teachers don't have time to go to the bathroom during class. In my teacher preparation program for my certificate, I didn’t have to take a single class on climate, even being certified as a science teacher and a K through 12 teacher, I barely had to cover anything for climate. We saw a statistic that 86% of teachers want to teach about it. But most of them feel like they don't know enough about it. Or maybe they don't understand how it interacts with their subject area. So we really need to make that into a national priority. We’re saying that if we're going to make this transition, the students that are in school right now are going to be the leaders. So we have to be able to step in with federal funding and support their teachers.
The moment that reaffirmed to Nancy why she does this work
Coming back from DC, what has been the reaction among the students? What’s the energy like?
I have such a unique perspective because I brought students where it was their first time doing anything like this. When they said yes to it, they were kind of like….uh…yes? Yes….but what am I doing? I should do this. But also, you're crazy, Nancy! Then I have students where maybe this is their fourth time, and they knew what to expect. What I saw, which is so heartening to me, was the older students kind of caring for the younger students, and then also making sure that they're sort of handing the torch over to them, making sure that they understand, you know, that the work really comes afterwards when you follow up and stay diligent, and keep the relationships that we created alive.
But here’s why I do this work: I see in the students who were really unsure and really uncertain this alive sense of agency. I was so honored by one of the teachers who was with me saying, THIS is what education should look like. These students learned so much from these other students. They learned so much from the process. They learned so much from stepping out of their comfort zone, and being able to feel successful. And then they came back feeling that they can do a lot more than they ever imagined. They realize they’re capable. The reason I do this is the sense of agency that these students come back with – it's miraculous.
How you can help!
Where’s the best place for US and non-US readers to learn more and support the students?
Our partners at Moms Clean Air Force have created this incredible link that makes it really easy to send a message to your representative to ask them directly to co-sponsor the resolution. Our goal is to get a hundred co-sponsors by Earth Day. What really pushes representatives to act is hearing a message from multiple angles – hearing from parents, other students, maybe a city council member.
But we’ve really tried to create things with Schools for Climate Action with the aim of it being easy to replicate anywhere. When I zoom out and look at the social movement of youth climate action, having other countries engage in the same work builds the pillars that are holding up the movement. Anyone should be able to take a look at how, for instance, we’ve used resolutions starting at the school district level or even the student council leadership level and see that their students could be writing climate policy as well. There’s a framework that they can replicate, and we have all of the materials for writing resolutions and a step-by-step guide on our website.
My suggestion is that if you want to get involved, support a school or a teacher to be able to help do this work. Because ultimately their efforts contribute to the movement, which helps support ours as well.
If you liked reading this, feel free to click the ❤️ button on this post so more people can discover it on Substack 🙏🏼
Leveraging Emotions: Climate Change and the Power in Feeling is an event presented by The Commons and the IPSR Center for Compassionate and Sustainable Communities at the University of Kansas, with Gen Dread’s own Britt Wray (Lead, Special Initiative of the Chair in Climate Change and Mental Health, Stanford Medicine), leading climate anxiety researcher Susan Clayton (Whitmore Williams Professor of Psychology and Professor of Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster) and Joonmo Kang (assistant professor of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas). Moderated by Melinda Lewis, this event will be presented via Zoom on Wednesday, April 19th, 2023 at 7:00 PM CDT.
The J.M.K. Innovation Prize seeks to identify, support, and elevate innovators who are spearheading transformative early-stage projects in the fields of the environment, heritage conservation, and social justice. In 2023, they will award up to ten Prizes, each including a cash award of $150,000 over three years, plus $25,000 in technical assistance funds, for a total award of $175,000. Awardees also receive guidance through the Fund and its resource network, providing tools and training to support them through the challenges of a startup organization. The application deadline is April 28, 2023.
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‘Till next time!
Thanks for bringing awareness to the incredible work that these students and Nancy Metzger-Carter are doing! I had the privilege of joining them in D.C. for a day of action--my students, most of whom had never engaged in anything like this before, described it as "life-changing." I couldn't agree more with Nancy's statement: "The reason I do this is the sense of agency that these students come back with – it's miraculous." Thanks Britt!
What a lovely project, thanks for bringing awareness to the students, the science is clear, you are doing a super cool job.