Matt Driscoll

Fifth grader leading Tacoma climate strike: ‘Adults need to clean up their act’

Like only an 11-year-old can, Washington Elementary 5th grader Theo Sullivan quickly cut to the heart of the matter.

“I think it’s important because I want to have a world to live in as an adult,” Sullivan told me by phone Sunday when asked about the looming threat of man-made climate change. “I just don’t think it’s fair that you guys have a long and healthy life, and we have to clean up after your messes.”

Sullivan might be young, but he’s exactly right. If you’re an adult reading his words, don’t take exception, take notice.

It’s with this urgency and sense of purpose that Sullivan has helped spearhead Tacoma’s part in the large and growing global Youth Climate Strike. On Friday between noon and 2 p.m., kids like him will gather at Wright Park to urge adults like us to finally start treating climate change like the crisis it is.

Similar protests will take place around the world. Participants will demand that governments adhere to the Paris Agreement and heed the warnings in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change most recent report.

In Tacoma, there will be speeches, music, art and plenty of climate activism. While it’s unclear how many kids will attend the protest — most Tacoma Public Schools have class on Friday, after all — Sullivan said participation in planning events leading up to it have been well attended, and as many as 40 or 50 people have expressed interest.

Tacoma Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel told The News Tribune that the district is aware of the planned strike. If the parent of a student at Washington or another school in the district notifies the school that their student will be absent, the absence would be excused, Voelpel said.

The youth-led effort in Tacoma is not a one-off.

All of it has been inspired by Greta Thunberg, a teenager recently described by The Guardian as a “schoolgirl climate change warrior.

Last year, Thuberg began a lonely protest outside parliament in her home of Sweden — repeating it nearly every Friday since with a growing collection of like-minded kids. In the months between then and now, she has seen her efforts mushroom into a worldwide movement.

On Twitter, Thunberg — who now has more than 246,000 followers — announced that Friday’s Global Youth Climate Strike will involve 89 countries and 1,057 individual protests.

“The global climate strike this Friday is gearing up to be one of the biggest environmental protests the world has ever seen,” The Guardian reported this week.

“I painted the sign on a piece of wood and, for the flyers, wrote down some facts I thought everyone should know. And then I took my bike to the parliament and just sat there,” Thunberg told the paper. “The first day, I sat alone from about 8.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. — the regular schoolday. And then on the second day, people started joining me. After that, there were people there all the time.”

Thousands of miles away, Thunberg’s efforts caught Theo Sullivan’s attention in Tacoma. In October, Theo began his own one-kid protest outside Tacoma City Hall. His 13-year-old brother, Titus, a seventh grader at Mason Middle School, also has taken on a leadership role in helping to plan Friday’s strike.

While Theo says that many kids his school “know very little about climate change” — a fact he chalks up to parents’ desire to shield their children from difficult subjects — he says understanding of the threat is growing, and a desire to act is quickly taking shape.

Obviously, for an 11-year-old, organizing a local climate strike required some parental support. Grace Sullivan, Theo’s mom, says she’s been fully supportive — helping to facilitate planning events and art-making parties — while also aspiring to “step back” and let youth lead the way.

Currently working toward a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Puget Sound, Grace Sullivan says conversations about climate change have become more and more commonplace around the dinner table, and she’s been encouraged by the response Theo’s and Titus’ efforts have received.

“I’ve been so blown away by how many people have this on their radar … and how many kid and parents have come out of the woodwork in Tacoma saying this is a conversation that is happening in their homes,” Grace Sullivan said. “My hope is that everybody participates that wants to participate.”

Lisa Grimm, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Puget Sound, was inspired to join the cause. A member of Tacoma’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement — a national, decentralized effort led by young people to combat climate change and support proposed policies like the Green New Deal — Grimm and others, like 350 Tacoma, have been providing things like logistical support, mentoring and connections.

Grimm says she’s heard a lot of fear but also found reasons for optimism in discussing Friday’s strike with the kids behind it.

“I think a lot of them are scared,” Grimm said. “And I had a conversation with a few of the parents who were really concerned and worried. A lot of them were saying we had ‘the talk’ with kids — about climate change and the threat that is looming over their generation. It’s a really scary thing.”

“But we can make it a hopeful thing, by coming together … so we can fight,” Grimm continued. “Young people speaking out is a call to action for the people in power and positions of power who can make change.”

That — more than anything — should be the takeaway from this, in Tacoma and around the world.

Adults like the ones likely reading these words need to start viewing the threat climate change presents with the clear eyes of the 11-year-olds like Theo Sullivan, because their futures depend on action now.

“Adults need to clean up their act,” Theo Sullivan said.

“Because this needs to stop.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.