My climate story is inextricably interwoven with that of my 21 year old daughter, Bella.
As an educator, I have been focused on connecting kids and nature throughout my career, so I felt the weight and urgency of the climate crisis early on. But having kids of my own added another layer. I’ve heard people say that having kids is like pulling your heart out and watching it walk around. I strongly relate to that intense desire to protect them, and I’ve learned the hard way that it’s no easy task, especially now.
I did my best to raise my kids with a strong sense of their place in the natural world—engaging in habitat restoration, watching the full moon rise over Lake Michigan and some light pagan rituals to celebrate the seasons. I homeschooled my son because I didn’t want him to spend his days indoors, under the fluorescent lights. When it was time for my kids to go to the school, I ran the garden there, making sure every kid got to spend some time outside, hands in the soil.
Through my work at a local nature center, I learned and appreciated the guideline “no tragedies before third grade,” so I did my best to shield my own kids from the realities of environmental degradation, including the climate crisis. Yet, somehow Bella tuned in. (Did I fail to protect her?) I think she was 7 when she became adamant that we get rid of the car. We would try periods of only biking, but there would inevitably be meltdowns and failed errands. I tried to assure her that we were living with care. I told her that there were many smart adults working hard to fix the situation. That was all I had.
Fast forward to 2018, Bella’s Junior year of high school. That year, my dad died in June, my dog died in July, and in August, Bella left for a year abroad in Ecuador. It was rough. Days after she left, I flew to Los Angeles for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership training, feeling a need to do everything in my power to address the source of her anxiety and to find a way to make a difference in this monolithic challenge. The training was simultaneously heartening, heartbreaking and infuriating.
When Bella returned, we went to Minneapolis where I was a mentor and Bella a trainee in Gore’s program. In retrospect, I realize that about sixty percent of his presentation consists of devastating images of people suffering from climate disasters, which I fear might not have the desired effect. However, I was happy that this training had more of a focus on climate justice. The training also provided many useful tools, not the least of which was the storytelling workshop conducted by Climate Generation, which has been formative for both me and Bella. She even used her story as a reference in a college course.
In September of 2019, soon after our Climate Reality Training, there was a Global Climate Strike. Bella and I, along with her peers and another mother/child pair, worked together to organize a highly successful strike in our town. “Peer pressure is my superpower,” Bella said as she enlisted dozens of students to help and hundreds to walk out of school. The group that worked on the strike ultimately became a Sunrise Movement Hub that is still going strong.
Students spoke to the school board about their climate stories, demanding stronger sustainability policy. The school formed a Sustainability Committee with students, teachers and community experts. I remember it as an energizing time. But Bella remembers it as a painful time. Despite the countless hours she and her peers were putting forward, she couldn’t see real progress being made. (I can now see the long term impacts of this chapter, but it’s been slow.)
Bella burned out on climate action for a while. I have to wonder if I contributed to this in my effort to support her in trying to “turn anxiety into action.” While many of her peers struggled during the pandemic, Bella’s climate consciousness added a painful layer. She has had trouble finding her place in the movement. Though she has engaged in many ways, she hasn’t found the way to have the impact she’s looking for.
As for me, I also burned out on local action for a while, driven by that sense of urgency. But I have found ways of doing this work that work for me.
I have the great fortune of working for It’s Our Future, a program supporting Chicago area high school students in their climate justice advocacy work. I reflect often on what lessons I have learned from my experience with Bella that can ease the way for the students I work with. I foster community among youth and support and mentor them in their efforts while encouraging them to take care of themselves, to celebrate wins, and to have fun.
Recently, Bella got some fringe media attention with the headline “Lone Climate Activist in an Apocalyptic Times Square.” My brother saw the video and asked if she was ok. In fact, I think she’s great. She felt her feelings, shouted her truth, and when the smoke cleared, she was out dancing -finding her joy. What a great model of how to live in this world.
The next chapter in this mother-daughter story involves mindfulness, somatics, and more of a spiritual journey. Bella works in the Religious and Spiritual life office at her school where she hosts climate grief circles. I had the opportunity to help facilitate a retreat based on Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects. Macy highlights that the pain and grief we feel is rooted in love—for other people and other species.
As we work to embrace dualities, finding ways to hold both; grief and joy, rage and determination, I am profoundly grateful for this shared chapter with Bella. While we are not together geographically, it’s an incredible gift to continue in conversation, finding ways to support each other in feeling our feelings, speaking our truths, experiencing joy, and doing our best to make an impact.
Rachel is the passionate and grateful Program Manager for It’s Our Future where she mentors young people in the fight for climate justice. She lives near the shores of Lake Michigan and the great city of Chicago in an empty nest with her husband Colin and their old dog, Bear.