Youth Voices

The Next Louisville: Kentucky Kids And Climate Change

“Which side are you on?” That’s the question 11 young Kentuckians have for their Senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

That song — one with its origins as a Kentucky union coal miner protest — is what hundreds of young activists sang in the halls of Congress outside McConnell’s office earlier this month. They sang those same words outside his office in Louisville, outside the state Capitol in Frankfort and during a protest at the University of Louisville… all in the same week.

Photo credit: Ryan Van Velzer. University of Louisville students hold a “climate strike” to draw attention to climate change at the University of Louisville.

That’s the song they chose to sing moments before 42 activists were arrested for their participation in their campaign in support of the Green New Deal — an audacious, science-based plan to cut net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero as fast as possible.

“The song was a very intentional choice because our state has a very long history of our people rising up against the forces that are trying to beat us down,” said Erin Bridges, 24, the day after her arrest in late February.

Youth Activism For Climate

The climate is changing in Kentucky. Scientists warn it’s changing faster than at any point in modern history. The responsibility for that change comes out of our tail pipes, our smokestacks and our power plants.

The worst impacts won’t be felt for generations, but Destine Grigsby, a 17-year-old activist in Louisville, wants to do something to stop it, right now.

Photo credit: Sunrise Movement. Destine Grigsby, 17, from Louisville, speaking during a protest in Washington DC in favor of the Green New Deal.

“A very common thing we get as young people is that we’re told that we’re not wise,” Grigsby said. “[People say] let’s transition to 100 percent renewable energy in 50 years. No, let’s transition now with the Green New Deal. I have the wisdom of thinking of the urgency of my future.”

The latest report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change says the planet has a limited amount of time to drastically reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. But for Grigsby and other student activists, it’s not just about preventing future catastrophe:

“Kentuckians are hurting right now,” she said. “Far too many Kentuckians are going without clean water. Far too many Kentuckians are suffering from black lung disease. Far too many Kentuckians are being pushed out of our state because we have no economic future.”

Grigsby said this as she stood inside McConnell’s office in Washington D.C., flanked on all sides by activists from the Sunrise Movement — a youth-driven environmental group pushing for the Green New Deal.

Photo credit: Ryan Van Velzer. Student posters at University of Louisville climate strike protest.

Other young Kentuckians had their say, too:

“I’m Jenny, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky. One of the most segregated cities in the United States. I come from a black and brown neighborhood full of immigrants. I’m used to being ignored by politicians like him, that claim they represent Kentucky, yet have never spoken to us.”

“My name is Scotty (inaudible) and I’m from Louisville Kentucky. I was raised as a conservative and I was raised that if you see a problem you have to fight it. You can’t just keep ignoring. So I’m no longer sitting and I’m asking Mitch McConnell to no longer sit.”

McConnell did not meet with the students in D.C., nor did he meet them earlier in the week when they showed up at his offices in Kentucky. But a week after the protests, in his hometown of Louisville, McConnell did field questions about the Green New Deal during a press conference.

“There is broad support among Democrats nationwide for socialism so what I’m telling you is this isn’t just a bunch of cranky people running around on the left saying ridiculous things. It’s being adopted by a much broader segment of our country at a time of incredible prosperity, which makes you scratch your head. So we will be voting on a Green New Deal in the Senate,” McConnell said.

In an emailed response to a call for for comment, a McConnell spokeswoman did not answer why McConnell refused to meet with the students. She noted that McConnell has said he will bring the Green New Deal to a vote and has made his opinions on the legislation clear.

A Song For Today From Depression-Era Kentucky

Erin Bridges was among those 42 activists whose hands were zip-tied as security officers hauled them away from the Senate offices.  She said the Sunrise Movement chose to sing “Which Side Are You On?” because of its roots in the coal seams of Eastern Kentucky.

Florence Reece first scrawled the lyrics on the back of a calendar in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931 after a mob headed by a local sheriff came to kill her husband for working as a union organizer.

“The coal bosses sent men to kill him for organizing and he fled into the mountains. That night, the men basically terrorized the family and stayed outside on their front porch waiting for him to come home,” Bridges said.

Reese wrote the song the next morning. Generations of activists have since picked up the song and adapted the lyrics to fit the situation including civil rights activists who marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To make the song their own, Bridges said the Sunrise Movement worked with a member of the hip-hop group Flobots to write new verses and add an additional chorus with the lyrics, “Does it weigh on you at all?”

Bridges compares today’s youth and the uphill battle they face against climate change to the plights of coal miners fighting for a better way of life.

She  brings up the contributions Mitch McConnell has received from the fossil fuel industry and to his long history in office. McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1984, which Bridges points out means he’s held office since climate scientist James Hansen first testified before Congress in 1988 on the threat of global warming.

McConnell is, if nothing else, complicit for his inaction, Bridges said.

“Yesterday, young people from all across our state were rising together united to demand our politicians choose a side. Will they stand with our future or will they continue to sell out our communities to the fossil fuel industry.”

The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here. 

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