Unitarian Universalists among leaders of youth climate strikes

Unitarian Universalists among leaders of youth climate strikes

Young Unitarian Universalists helped organize student walkouts in several cities on March 15 to demand action on climate change.

Elaine McArdle
Connor Wertz at a Student climate protest.

Connor Wertz, a Unitarian Universalist and a student at Middlebury College, speaks on March 15, 2019, at a climate student strike he helped organize in Middlebury, Vermont. (© 2019 Benjy Renton)

© 2019 Benjy Renton


Unitarian Universalist youth were among the hundreds of thousands of students around the world who skipped school on Friday, March 15, to demand immediate political action in order to slow climate change and save the planet.

The Friday youth strikes began last summer in Sweden with a single teen, Greta Thunberg, and have since spread to over one hundred countries, with the biggest event so far taking place on March 15.

In Tallahassee, Florida, Charlotte Stuart-Tilley, a homeschooled eighth-grader and member of the UU Church of Tallahassee, said about 100 students and supporters, including at least ten UUs, attended the strike at the Florida state capitol, which she organized. Inspired by Thunberg, Stuart-Tilley started hosting school strikes every other Friday, beginning on January 18.

Stuart-Tilley emphasized to UU World that climate change is having a particularly devastating effect on marginalized communities and low-income areas around the world. “It’s wrong for us to promote environmental racism by being part of the problem instead of part of the solution,” she said. Her congregation and its minister, the Rev. William Levwood, have “done a good job” focusing on climate justice and the fact that climate change “doesn’t just affect you, it affects those around us,” she said.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, Asha Pruitt, a senior in a public high school and a member of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, was among those who helped organize a strike on the steps of the Utah state capitol that drew several hundred students and others, according to news reports.

Pruitt and a friend, Mishka Banuri, primary organizer and co-founder of Utah Youth Environmental Solutions, did grassroots organizing through social media and by partnering with local environmental groups. The sound system for the approximately two-hour event, which featured diverse speakers stressing the importance of addressing climate change, was powered by eight bicycles that people took turns pedaling, Pruitt said. At least three or four other UU youth were there, she added.

“The First Principle [of Unitarian Universalism], of the inherent worth and dignity of every person or every being, that’s core to this movement,” said Pruitt, “because we have to respect each other and our children and their futures and the land we stand on. The earth itself has inherent worth and dignity, and that needs to be addressed.”

In Middlebury, Vermont, where he is a freshman at Middlebury College, Connor Wertz and friends organized a strike in a downtown park, which drew hundreds of high school and college students and supporters, and featured such speakers as Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org.

Wertz, who is a member of the UU Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and now attends Champlain Valley UU Society in Middlebury, said at least five to ten UUs joined the strike, including his twin brother Aidan Wertz, also a Middlebury freshman.

Connor Wertz was the first speaker at the strike, where he urged support for the Green New Deal as well as the end to building any more fossil fuel infrastructure. Asking government leaders to listen to youth, Wertz said, “We are asking for your actions. We are asking for your vote, your body, your tongue, your arms and wrists and your will. That’s what we need to make the change that needs to happen,” according to a report in the Middlebury Campus newspaper.

“My UU values inform this work in every aspect,” said Wertz, who in 2016 was arrested as he protested construction of the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that Boston-area UUs and others fought for two years on climate justice and safety grounds. The charges against Wertz were dropped. Despite objections, including a lawsuit by the City of Boston, the pipeline was built.

Wertz, Pruitt, and Stuart-Tilley are involved in environmental justice on a number of fronts in addition to organizing their local school strikes.

After years of activism by students, a movement that Wertz became a part of last fall, Middlebury College in January decided to divest from fossil fuel companies, Wertz said. He traveled in December to Washington, D.C., with the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement to stop climate change, to urge support for the Green New Deal.

Stuart-Tilley plans to continue with the biweekly school strikes for the near future and continue working with government officials to try to get Florida to ban fracking.

UU Young Adults for Climate Justice

Environmental justice network for UU activists ages 18 to 35.

Justice for #EachGeneration Campaign Resources

Resources developed by UU Ministry for Earth in support of the Juliana v. United States climate justice lawsuit brought by twenty-one youth plaintiffs.