Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

Activism at SoHE: From the Classroom to the Capitol

Crystal Yichen Zhao speaks at the Madison Climate Strike Rally September 20, 2019. Photo by Alissa Herring (also a first-year at the School of Human Ecology), used with permission.

A few Fridays ago, a young woman stood before thousands of her fellow community members to plead for action on climate change. She was assertive, informed, and impassioned as she shared her experience of climate injustice and her desire to live a life free of worrying for its impacts on her family and friends. She just wants to be a regular student, with hopes and dreams for her future and the ordinary cares and thrills of young adulthood.

This young woman wasn’t the now internationally famous Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, but rather someone more local, taking up her own torch in the fight against climate change. A few weeks prior to the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, Crystal Yichen Zhao saw a post on the Facebook page of Wisconsin’s Youth Climate Action Team. It sought speakers for Madison’s own climate strike and rally.

“I just… volunteered,” Crystal shrugged, smiling. The first-year Badger, newly declared as majoring in Community and Nonprofit Leadership, set aside any qualms she had about public speaking and contemplated her own experience of climate injustice.

Crystal hails from the city of Luohe, China, where she grew accustomed at a young age to the pollution visibly spewing from local factories and infrastructure projects. At 14, she moved to Massachusetts to attend high school, which she capped with a year at sea with A+ World Academy. She and her classmates sailed to eighteen different countries around the Atlantic Ocean, and along the way, Crystal was able to connect her experiences across Luohe, Massachusetts, the Netherlands, and numerous other places where she witnessed the impacts of climate change and pollution.

“My eight-year-old sister learned to put on a facemask before she goes out before she learned how to ride a bike,” she shared with the crowd at the Capitol for Madison’s climate rally last month. “That should not be the childhood she remembers. Being able to breathe and running around in a park should not be a privilege—not for her, not for anyone.”

Dr. Connie Flanagan agrees. The associate dean for the School of Human Ecology and the Vaughan Bascom Professor in Women, Family, and Community has watched the youth climate movement with great interest. A globally recognized expert in her field, she has spent her career studying the way young people form their political identities and act for the common good.

“Historically, young people have been on the cusp of social movements. Even if they’re not themselves the leaders in power currently, they push those leaders to think more aspirationally, especially around issues of justice.” Flanagan thinks the climate cause is particularly compelling for young people: “Getting married, having kids, buying a home and where to do it—all of these decisions are circumscribed by climate change.”

Crystal and Connie sat down together recently to discuss the youth climate movement and Crystal’s own part in it. For Crystal, her passion derives not so much from a scientific approach but from a social and cultural one: “Big corporations and state and federal government don’t pay attention to the long future. That resonates with me as a young person. Especially after the last [U.S. presidential] election, I’ve seen my peers grow much more engaged, connecting the dots between racial and economic and climate justice, and paying attention and educating themselves to be able to address policy makers effectively.”

Dr. Connie Flanagan and Crystal Zhao talk together on the roof garden of the School of Human Ecology.Dr. Connie Flanagan and Crystal Zhao talk together on the roof garden of the School of Human Ecology.

Connie is cheered by this news, and not surprised: “Politicians tend to dismiss young people as naïve or disengaged, but time and again, young people prove them wrong. This generation in particular has harnessed all sorts of clever tactics, like memes and social media and flash mobs that circumvent government control of more traditional permitted events, like marches.”

Asked what inspires them to keep at their work even against towering odds, Crystal recalled a man approaching her after her speech at the climate rally. He told her he’d voted for Trump and still supports him, but doesn’t like what he’s doing on the environment. The conversation illustrated for her the impact of her voice, and those of her fellow activists from whom she also takes inspiration, to reach across seeming polarization to find common interests.

Connie added, “And that’s what inspires me: Crystal and other young people like her. And they should know: never shut up; never be deterred; repeat yourselves over and over again, because you’re right. So be relentless. We’re all better off for their collective action.”

Dr. Connie Flanagan is associate dean for the School of Human Ecology and the Vaughan Bascom Professor in Women, Family, and Community. Her 2014 book Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young won the 2014 Best Authored Book Award from the Society for Research on Adolescence. Her forthcoming article, co-authored with several graduate students in the School of Human Ecology, is available for download here: Environmental Commons: Collective Moral Actions and Policies.

Crystal Yichen Zhao is a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She intends to double major in Community and Nonprofit Leadership and Political Science and is a firm believer in the power of grassroots movements to make change. She has been a leader with the Youth Climate Action Team of Wisconsin and with the Women’s March and March for Our Lives movements.