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'You Need To Act Now': Meet 4 Girls Working To Save The Warming World

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A teenage girl, Greta Thunberg, has become the world-famous face of the climate strike movement. But she's far from alone: Thunberg has helped rally and inspire others — especially girls.

NPR talked to four teenage climate activists, all girls, from the U.S. and Australia, alongside their mothers. These teenagers are juggling activism with schoolwork and personal time. And their families are working hard to support them as they grapple with the heavy emotions that come with fighting for the future.

In Castlemaine, Australia, Milou Albrecht, 15, co-founded School Strike for Climate Australia, which organizes student walkouts. As massive bush fires engulf parts of her home country, Albrecht's group has been pressuring the German corporation Siemens to withdraw from an Australian coal mining project.

In New York City, Xiye Bastida, 17, led her school in the city's first big student climate strike last March, and along with traveling and public speaking, she and some of her classmates have continued to strike on Fridays ever since. ("Gym is on Fridays, so I have a very low grade in gym," she notes.)

In Louisiana, 16-year-old Jayden Foytlin was one of 21 young people who sued the federal government for violating their rights to a livable planet. The young plaintiffs hailed from communities around the country that have been directly affected by global warming — Foytlin, for example, is from south Louisiana, where her home has been flooded in storms.

The lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, was recently thrown out by a federal appeals court. But Foytlin says she's formed lasting friendships with the other plaintiffs. "We all share one thing in common — we really care about where we're from, and how we are going to continue to live [here]."

In upstate New York, Scout Pronto Breslin, 16, is focused on wildlife. She lives in Rhinebeck, and is the founder of a group called Hudson Valley Wild. "I volunteer at a wildlife rehab clinic," she says, explaining what motivated her activism."The birds there often come in with blood poisoning because of illegal toxins from chemical runoff and fertilizer."

Pronto Breslin advises other teens to find what really interests them about the climate movement. She says it could be composting in their schools, gardening, nature: "Once you find something that you really love, then that will just give you motivation to keep going with it."

Girls to the front

It's no coincidence that teenage girls are especially visible right now as climate leaders, says Katharine Wilkinson.

LA Johnson / NPR

"The youth movement is such a great example of the way in which girls and young women are stepping into the heart of this space, and showing us what it looks like to lead with courage and imagination and incredible moral clarity."

Wilkinson works with a solutions-focused climate organization called Project Drawdown, and delivered a TED talk on how empowering women and girls can help stop global warming.

"When we think about the nexus of climate and gender, there are three big points of intersection," she tells NPR.

"One is that the impacts of climate change hit women and girls first and worst," particularly in the developing world and in poor communities.

The second, she says, is that "gender equality is itself a climate solution," with women's education and equity leading to smaller family sizes and, research shows, better land management practices.

And the third is what Wilkinson calls "transformational leadership that is grounded in intersectional feminism and what we might consider more feminine approaches to leading."

We all need to save the world. It's not up to girls. As much as we admire and love what they're doing. It also doesn't absolve us of responsibility. - Jennifer Breslin

Scout Pronto Breslin's mother, Jennifer Breslin, used to work on gender equity issues at the United Nations. She agrees with Wilkinson: "I think it's really amazing how many young women are involved in this."

On the other hand, she says, "I don't believe 'Girls are going to save the world.' We all need to save the world. It's not up to girls. As much as we admire and love what they're doing, it also doesn't absolve us of responsibility."

Raised to care for the Earth

Each of these girls expressed her own, independent commitment to the climate crisis — but it's impossible to ignore the upbringings that sparked their engagement.

LA Johnson / NPR

"My mom and my dad always taught me what it was to take care of the Earth," Xiye Bastida says.

Bastida — who has been described as New York City's Greta Thunberg — is the daughter of Geraldine Patrick Encina, a scholar in residence at the Union Theological Seminary's Center for Earth Ethics, and an environmental activist since her own teenage years in Chile. Bastida's father is a member of the indigenous Otomi Toltec nation in Mexico, which advocates for the protection of their local water and land.

Patrick Encina says the family follows indigenous traditions. "We will do at least one ceremony, you know, to the waters or to the land frequently, maybe once a week."

Milou Albrecht is the daughter of Susan Burke, a psychologist who works in climate adaptation and disaster recovery. Burke and her husband raised their three children for years in an eco-friendly, rural, intentional community. Albrecht says she grew up going to environmental protests, and that they were "heaps of fun."

Social justice was part of Scout Pronto Breslin's upbringing, too. Aside from her mother's work in areas including sustainable development, her father was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, and currently works for the U.N.

And Jayden Foytlin's mother is Cherri Foytlin, a direct action climate activist of Afro-Latina-Indigenous descent who is known for opposing an oil pipeline in south Louisiana.

"Some families, they go to baseball games or ballerina concerts," notes Cherri. "Well, it's always been a family function for us to go to marches or meetings or meet with the community and learn how to organize."

It's always been a family function for us to go to marches or meetings or meet with the community and learn how to organize. - Cherri Foytlin

All of the teenagers, however, made the point that they had friends in the movement whose parents were less aware, less involved or less supportive than their own.

"I have a few friends whose parents will tell them, 'You can not go to that meeting until you finish your homework,' or, 'You have to stop skipping school on Fridays,' " says Xiye Bastida. She calls it "a very fine line because no parent wants their kid to fail school."

Supporting, but also stepping back

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Young climate change activists need support, they and their parents say, especially emotional support. "The toughest moments have been when Xiye just needs a hug," says her mother, Patrick Encina.

Climate change is enormous and tragic. It feels very personal to young people in particular, who are more likely than older generations to say that it impacts them personally. That makes it similar to other youth-led movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the March for Our Lives movement against gun violence.

The toughest moments have been when Xiye just needs a hug. - Geraldine Patrick Encina

At the same time, eco-anxiety, depression and secondary traumatic stress are normal psychological reactions to learning about the reality of human-caused environmental destruction. That's according to psychologist Renee Lertzman, who has been working in this area for decades. She compares the situation of these teenagers to her own upbringing in the nuclear age.

"Anyone who's my age knows what it's like to grow up with the threat of nuclear war around you all the time, and how terrifying that is," she says. "So I have a lot of empathy and compassion for what it's like to be a young person in the context of an existential threat. I feel concern, and I feel like we need to be thoughtful about how we navigate this."

She says young people need to hear, "It's not all on them."

On the positive side, Susan Burke, Milou Albrecht's psychologist mother, says getting involved with a cause you care about can be protective for mental health. "It's great to take action on things that are worrying you because action is one of the best antidotes to despair and helplessness and hopelessness."

But Burke cautions that this work must be child-led — you can't push your children to get involved.

It's great to take action on things that are worrying you because action is one of the best antidotes to despair and helplessness and hopelessness. - Susan Burke

Albrecht says her parents are good at listening and supporting, "but also kind of stepping back and let me do my thing."

Scout Pronto Breslin's mom, Jennifer Breslin, agrees with that approach. "We need to not micromanage them. It's really hard. You kind of want to jump in and say, 'Why don't you try this?' "

Many youth and student groups have created guidelines for adult allies on how to be supportive without taking over.

Balancing school, life and activism

LA Johnson / NPR

Many activists are also high-achieving students with multiple AP classes and packed schedules. Bastida says to make room for the school strike planning and the traveling and speaking she's doing, she's dropped gymnastics and Model United Nations. No regrets, she says: "Model U.N. is so stressful. I am more nervous about Model U.N. than [lobbying] the actual U.N. Kids are crazy competitive. I'm not trying to be part of that."

Nevertheless, they all say that they have to — and their parents encourage them to — make room for downtime and hobbies.

Foytlin likes to draw and play with her little brother. Bastida likes Netflix and taking baths, and she says, "My dad tells me every day, 'You cannot fix the world if you do not fix up your room.' "

Pronto Breslin likes taking walks in the woods with her golden retriever, Tess; playing the guitar and listening to Elvis and the Beatles. And Albrecht likes gardening.

Each of these girls says it's important to find joy in the moment, and in the friendships they are making as they work for a better future.

"We advocate [so much] for urgency," Bastida says. "We are saying you need to act now. You need to do this fast. But you cannot live your life in that way. And I think that's the trickiest part — how do you live in a state of urgency without feeling that within you? So we have to remain centered not only in our families, but our communities, in organizing. When we organize, we model the world we want to see."

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