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Young Detroit climate activists demand action, inspire hope

Detroit students lead a powerful demand for climate action, aiming to transform their future with cleaner air and sustainable solutions.


Cass Tech students

Cass Technical High School students called for climate action on Monday, Feb. 19., at a rally at downtown Detroit’s Capital Park organized by the Sunrise Movement, a national organization composed of young people demanding solutions to the climate crisis. Photo by Quinn Banks.

  • Youth in Detroit, motivated by health and climate concerns, are part of a national push for clean energy and justice.
  • Despite political inaction and limited climate education, these activists remain hopeful and focused on highlighting pollution’s health effects.

For Dearborn High School junior Yara Reda, 16, the full scale of the region’s air pollution problem came into focus during a tour of polluters in southwest Detroit last summer. 

Marathon Oil, Cleveland Cliffs Steel Corp, and others spewed greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals into the air as she took a bus tour through the area with a group of climate activists, making breathing difficult. “It opened my eyes so much,” she said. 

Cass Technical High School sophomore Tricia Harris, 15, grew concerned about the climate recently as she and her family and friends dealt with health fallout from high pollution levels in the region. Cass Tech sophomore Husema Matin, 15, said she looked for opportunities for climate action as family members in Bangladesh contended with the impacts of climate change on their crop production. 

On a recent afternoon, the Cass Tech students channeled their energy into a rally at downtown Detroit’s Capital Park organized by the Sunrise Movement, a national organization composed of young people demanding solutions to the climate crisis. Those who spoke with Planet Detroit said they feel “scared” and “angry.” 

The students are part of a growing number of young people across metro Detroit demanding meaningful climate action as their generation faces the prospect of increasingly extreme weather threatening to destabilize the world and their futures. They are pushing back against fossil fuel companies and their political allies.  

Yara Reda

Dearborn resident Yara Reda calls the lack of meaningful climate action “irritating and upsetting.” Photo by Quinn Banks.

Michigan youth want climate action

“Young people are seeing this and are ready to stand up,” Savitri Anantharaman, 20, who joined Sunrise Movement in 2018 and is now a student at Michigan State University, told Planet Detroit. “We’re a savvy generation, and we are not going to take the bullshit that we have been fed, and we are going to stand up for our futures.” 

The jump in youth climate action comes as Earth’s temperature hits 1.5 degrees Celsius higherthan in preindustrial times, a level warmer than humans have ever experienced. Over 140 countries recorded record-high temperatures in February, and scientists are increasingly worried about high ocean temperatures that are melting glaciers and accelerating rising sea levels.

Though Michigan has been thought of as a “climate haven,” recent years have shown it’s also susceptible to the fallout from a warming globe, Anantharaman noted. 

Locally, Detroit and southeast Michigan’s fall was warmer than normal, and winter is likely similar – several students expressed alarm over recent days when the temperature shot into the 60s. 

Canadian wildfire smoke choked the region over the summer, leaving Detroit’s air the world’s dirtiest for several days. Meanwhile, heavier storms during warmer months have caused flooding along the Detroit River and regular sewage backups in area homes. 

Students want clean air in ‘asthma capital’ of Detroit

Those who spoke with Planet Detroit noted it’s not just greenhouse gases that are top of mind but also pollutants like particulate matter that cause asthma. Detroit is considered an “asthma capital,” with an asthma rate of 16.2% between 2017 and 2019 – more than double the national average

Harris uses an inhaler and sometimes has difficulty breathing, and air pollution, along with the changing climate, seems to exacerbate the issues. She said her asthma is mild, but she is concerned about friends who struggle more than her. 

“The pollution and gas that goes into the air is really messing up people’s breathing,” Harris said. 

Despite claims from state and local political leadership that they are reining in pollution in overburdened areas, critics note that environmental regulators continue to approve projectsthat increase air emissions in Detroit. 

“It’s being swept under the rug and not getting the attention it should be, and Black and brown communities are especially impacted,” said Cass Tech junior Macayla Ramsey, 16. 

At their Capitol Park rally, a group of about 20 Cass Tech students and others involved with Sunrise Movement called on the Biden administration to declare a climate emergency, quickly transform the economy to one powered by clean energy instead of fossil fuels, decarbonize the nation and carry that out with green union jobs. 

The demands were interspersed with chants: “Biden, where’s your urgency? Declare a climate emergency!”

“The climate disaster affects us all on a daily basis,” Cass Tech’s Matin said into a megaphone. “We demand good paying jobs for everyone, and we need an end to fossil fuels that impact the environment.” 

Among the rally’s organizers was Adah Crandall, 17, who is from Oregon but is helping Sunrise Movement mobilize thousands of young people across the country and several hundred in Michigan. 

Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups have called on Biden to invoke the 1976 National Emergencies Act to give himself the power to order manufacturers to transition to and produce clean energy technology and place strict limits on oil production. 

While Biden has taken some steps, his administration has boosted fossil fuel production beyond Trump-era levels, and his lack of stronger action has left young people feeling “angry,” Matin said.

“Our president could be doing something for the climate, but instead, he is doing other terrible things and prioritizing a genocide,” she said, referencing the administration’s ongoing support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza that has killed 30,000 people, the majority of them women and children. “I don’t think young people are going to vote for him because he says he is the ‘climate president,’ but he is not doing anything.” 

Reda called the lack of meaningful climate action “irritating and upsetting.” 

“We have a good amount of supporters; we’re proposing laws, proposing policies, we’re protesting and fundraising, but the people who make the policy changes aren’t listening. No matter how many statistics we present, they don’t think the climate crisis is important,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean we should stop – if anything, we should continue and keep poking them and try even more,” she added. 

The inaction serves as “fuel for change,” Ramsey added, but the issue partially lies in education or lack of it. 

None of those who spoke with Planet Detroit had learned much about the climate crisis and pollution in school, especially concerning local problems. 

Sunrise Movement and other resources for young climate activists

Each student came to learn about the issues through organizations outside of school or siblings and friends. 

“If you’re not searching for the information, then you are not going to find it,” Ramsey said. “A lot of people want to help but aren’t sure what to do, so Sunrise is a great place for information and organizing.” 

MSU x Cass Tech

Students from Michigan State University and Cass Technical High School joined the Sunrise Movement rally hosted in Capitol Park on February 19, 2024.

Anantharaman joined Sunrise Movement soon after a state in India where her dad’s family is from was hit with supposedly once-in-a-lifetime floods. 

“I remember feeling really hopeless and scared about the world at that time,” she said. “[With Sunrise Movement], I finally felt hopeful about the future – there was a better world that we could make out of it.”

The Sunrise Movement protest was part of a larger coordinated national effort with similar rallies in over 40 cities across the nation. It followed a Sunrise Movement sit-in at Biden’s campaign headquarters in which 21 young people were arrested.

Beyond Sunrise Movement, programs like Fight For Zero and Environmental Health Research To Action ( also work with kids, and some schools now have climate action clubs. 

Reda worked over the summer with EHRA and was inspired to develop a research project for her AP research class in which she aims to shed light on whether families living in highly polluted midwest areas have respiratory issues across generations. 

She said research is often focused on measuring air pollution and looking only at health issues among those who are exposed today, but examining a longer time period may tell an informative story, she said. 

“Is this a now-crisis, or has this been happening before?” she asked. She said she has gotten a small number of responses from people largely in southwest Detroit, and she is hoping to get more from a wider geographic area. (Her survey can be found here.)

“I am still young, and I don’t have the most resources, but hopefully, this will reach the right amount of people who will see that what is happening in southwest Detroit is an important health crisis that needs to be addressed,” she said. 

Like others, Reda is optimistic as more kids her age push for change. 

“I have hope for humanity,” she said.


This article first appeared at Planet Detroit.

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