Donia Lehman was tired.
Not from the climb from Maryville College to New Providence Presbyterian Church, but from the issues that pushed her and around 250 others to march Friday.
Lehman was at the head of the group of impassioned activists, megaphone in hand, leading chants like “This is what democracy looks like,” “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Fossil fuel has got to go” and “We want change.”
Crowds had begun to gather by 11:30 a.m. at Maryville College, half an hour before the march took place.
The group started up West Alexander Lamar Parkway at noon led by Lehman and other students bearing signs, wreaths and green flags on tree-limb poles. They were flanked by Maryville Police officers on bikes who directed traffic around the strikers.
When they arrived at their destination for a rally, Lehman — an 18-year-old freshman biology major at Maryville College — was the fourth and final student to speak to the crowd. “I’m tired of politicians pretty much promising the future generations with empty hands,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by other students who stood to speak, including home school junior Gracie Dulin.
“The effects of inaction will touch every part of the planet,” Dulin said. “Here in Tennessee, climate change will worsen our extreme weather. We will have long periods of drought and when it finally does rain, there will be widespread flooding.”
Dulin and Lehman, as well as Maryville College freshman Samantha Stacey and Logan Hysen, UT representative for a progressive climate group called the Sunrise Movement, each took their turns telling the crowd how tired they were of political inaction.
Their call for change culminated not only in the march itself, but in a call for marchers to to sign a letter to county Mayor Ed Mitchell and Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor, requesting a meeting about local possibilities for being more climate minded.
Strike’s origins, both worldwide and local
The “strike” in Maryville may be one of 17 similar events in Tennessee, but it is also one of hundreds held on Sept. 20 in at least 150 countries as a part of the Global Climate Strike, an initiative spurred on by the Fridays for Future movement and its figurehead, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
But Thunberg’s larger movement served mostly as an impetus for localized events.
Several organizations in Blount had a hand in bringing the Maryville march to fruition, including the Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, the Maryville Huddle group — organized by the East Tennessee Women’s March — and Blount County Environmental Working Group.
And while the strike may have been led by students, others included local organic farmer Sheri Liles.
“I convened a group of people from the Universalist Church to form a team, if you will, within the church to address global climate change,” Liles said in a phone interview. The group had its first meeting in July and set its sights on the September strike.
Another element that grew out of those meetings took Liles, Maryville College Psychology Professor Kathie Shiba and psychologist and activist Terri Lyon to Washington, D.C., this week. There they spoke to legislative aides for three significant Tennessee politicians: Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn, and Rep. Tim Burchett.
The three women had an “ask” for each of the leaders based on their respective committees.
“We tried to highlight exactly how we are seeing climate change,” Liles said. “We are suffering through over a month of drought. ... Precipitation is way down for the month already.”
Liles attributed these changes to larger patterns and shifts in the climate and said her organic farming business already has taken a direct hit.
In the spring, Liles said the raised beds where the Liles Acres Organic Farm grows its produce were entirely underwater. But well into the summer, they’ve stumbled upon a different issue.
“Now what we’re facing is, we have several water catchment systems on the farm, but we have depleted all the water that we’ve harvested from when we did have rain,” Liles explained. “Now we’re having to use and pay for city water and that cuts into your profit margin significantly.”
Between depleted water, fungal infection issues, less eggs from her chickens and the impact on honeybees, Liles said there’s a fair share of things to be concerned about in Blount.
”Hope is a thing you do”
Marchers both young and old proved those concerns were not isolated to organic farmers.
“The older folks need to learn from the younger folks,” County Commissioner Jackie Hill said. She stood on West Lamar Alexander Parkway before the march with a large sign reading “Global climate strike to save the planet,” and waved at drivers. “I’m surprised this is happening in Blount County.”
Hill — who said she was present as a citizen, not a commissioner — said it was important for people to show up and let local leaders know the issues that are important to them.
“We get our directions from the citizens of Blount County,” Hill said. “You can only take action once you know that this is important to the people of Blount County. ... One of the things that I think is extremely important is general education — that people become aware of the impact of climate change on their lives.”
Youth leaders agreed with Hill in their speeches at the end of the march, expressing the urgency of political action.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Dulin said. “For too long, oil and gas companies have controlled the conversation, ignoring the effects this will have on the rest of us. ... I call upon our lawmakers to support legislation that supports our environment, such as the Green New Deal.”
But Dulin’s ideas don’t line up with the man whose namesake road she had marched up moments before.
“The Democrat cure for climate change is so far out in left field that not many are going to take it seriously,” Alexander said in a March press release. “The Democrats’ Green New Deal is basically an assault on cars, cows and combustion.”
Alexander has pushed his New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy for years. It’s a five-year project that challenges the state and the nation to push research into areas like better batteries, more nuclear plants and greener buildings.
But strikers like those in Maryville seem less interested in a moderate approach to addressing climate change issues and more focused on immediate, extreme action led by people who it will ostensibly affect the most: kids.
“There’s not going to be anymore talk, no excuses, there’s no 10-year change scientists want to do. This is something we have to do now,” Lehman said to applause. “Another thing I’m tired of is the past generation telling me my future doesn’t matter, because it does. We must speak up, because if not now, when?”
Adult leaders at the event including Foothills Unitarian Rev. Laura Bogle pointed to the students as the primary force behind local action and, ultimately, widespread change. After Lehman spoke, Bogle turned to the crowd and asked, “Are we ready to follow these people?”
The rally ended with a song popular in climate actions. “The tide is rising, and so are we,” attendees sang, with Bogle leading.
Though there was a spirit of excitement during the march, speakers consistently stipulated they believed the outlook was still grim.
“We are not here for easy optimism,” Bogle said to the crowd before they dispersed. “We are here for hope, and hope is a thing you do.”