He’s Leading D.C.’s Movement for Climate Action—and He’s a High School Senior
High school senior Jerome Foster II crams a lot in on a typical Friday. There’s his internship with U.S. Representative John Lewis. And his afternoon #FridaysforFuture protests in front of the White House, where he’s held a handwritten sign reading “School Strike for Climate” each week since last February. Lately he’s also been participating in #FireDrillFriday during the mornings, at the Capitol or elsewhere. Through these demonstrations, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s weekly protests outside Sweden’s parliament building, the 17-year-old D.C. activist is energetically highlighting dilemmas that adults have been unable to solve, against the backdrop of a federal administration that’s repeatedly called climate change a hoax.
Simultaneously, Foster is calling for unity. At a press conference last September ahead of the global climate strike, he said, “We need a truly diverse and multigenerational movement made of people from all ages and backgrounds, not just the youth.” His message has resonated far. After the D.C. strike, which attracted 10,000 participants, Foster received an email from one of Jane Fonda’s representatives saying that the actress/activist wanted to meet with him, find out what events he was holding, and join the rallies. In a wholly uncalculated public relations coup, the subsequent repeated arrests of Fonda and her famous friends starting in October made #FireDrillFriday a household term across age groups.
Foster speaks in rapid-fire delivery, as if he’s running out of time. He’s been interested in the environment since he started school, but in 10th grade, spurred to action by watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood, he enlisted an English teacher to help him start a magazine called The Climate Reporter. In the beginning, he wrote 90 percent of it. Then he changed tack, doing online research to find contributors who could weigh in on how climate change was affecting their respective communities. He soon stumbled across information on the Zero Hour movement, with its slew of young organizers tackling climate issues. He contacted them and gave them agency, saying, “I want you to talk about how you’ve been resilient and how you’ve been impacted. Tell the whole story. Tell the victory story. Don’t tell a sob story.” Foster notes it was important to him not to have anyone filtering the writers’ narratives. While he’s still the coeditor in chief and occasionally writes for the publication, he’s stepped back somewhat from The Climate Reporter as his other activities take up more of his time.
Foster’s first step into grassroots climate activism, beginning around February 2018, was advocating on behalf of the Clean Energy D.C. Act. It’s a specific mandate that puts a price on carbon, requires renewable electricity, and sets out to reduce the District’s carbon emissions by 50 percent below 2006 levels by 2032. Foster testified in front of the District Council and felt energized when the legislation passed in December 2018.
One of his fellow advocates in that process was Max Broad, who leads the D.C. chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, where Foster interned in the fall of 2018. “Jerome’s abilities stood out,” Broad recalls. “His storytelling about why climate action is important was powerful, concise, and drew on his identity as a youth activist.” In addition to the teen’s powerful testimony, Broad notes that Foster brought “new life to [the cause through] social media, rallying the youth voice for climate action.”
Broad also points out that Foster’s talents go well beyond his identity as an activist. “He is not only a great speaker, graphic designer, entrepreneur, social media maven, media publisher, and innovator; he does it all while excelling in his academics.” Foster has a big heart, too, he adds. “And he genuinely works to lift others up in the movement, often amplifying voices that are under-recognized and underappreciated.”
Foster considers Greta Thunberg to be a key influence in his life. Before she was the internationally recognized climate leader that she is now, Thunberg began striking in front of Sweden’s parliament building on August 20, 2018. She was all alone—but actively reaching out to form a community. Foster says, “About two weeks before Greta first started her strikes, I got an email from her.” Thunberg was messaging a lot of young people in the movement whom she thought would be interested in joining. “Cool, but I don’t really know how much impact this is going to have,” he remembers thinking of his own participation. Nevertheless, he made room in his jammed schedule to start his own Friday protests and got a jolt of confidence by the media attention that Thunberg was soon attracting. On week 56 of Thunberg’s strike, on September 13, 2019, Foster finally got a chance to meet his Swedish counterpart in person when she traveled to D.C. to join him in leading a strike at the White House.
The following month, inspired by Thunberg’s frank talk directed at those in power and her revitalization of the environmental movement, Foster started an ultimately successful Change.org petition to nominate her as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. In it he wrote, “Greta is more than an inspiring leader for the climate movement. She is a symbol of the millions of youth who are taking the future into our own hands when adults in power continually fail to act.”
Foster, too, has become one of the movement’s most inspiring leaders, helping to rally political will to address immediate problems caused by climate change. His climate strikes have thus far led to an invitation from Thunberg’s D.C. trip-planning team (led by OneMillionofUs and 350.org) to testify in front of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and a role with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby helping to build support for the Climate Change Education Act. That legislation, which would leverage funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to increase climate literacy for K–12 students across the country, is now in Congress. Advocates say it would cement an understanding of climate change’s basic science and effects in American schools. The bill is also a natural convergence of Foster’s interests in both climate education and advocacy; as a computing whiz who started his own virtual reality company, Foster spends some of his free time coding experiential VR worlds to show people firsthand, say, what a melting glacier in Iceland looks like.
As a result of his many extracurriculars, people often encourage Foster to run for office, but he finds the current political deadlock on climate action—as well as the fact that current lawmakers aren’t representing young people—a reason to eye other choices. For now he’s focused on making immediate changes. That’s where OneMillionofUs, the nonprofit advocacy group that he founded last summer, comes in. Its goal is to get young people to exercise their right to vote in the 2020 elections and beyond. “We are making sure politicians don’t just see us as young children who don’t have an impact on our political system but see us as a strong, united political force,” he says. He is wrangling ride-share companies to get students to polls free of cost and aims to have chapters of OneMillionofUs on college and high school campuses and in community centers to educate people about why they should vote. In this matter, the influence of his Friday internship with Congressman Lewis, a civil rights icon, is clear.
Foster (along with Thunberg, Alexandria Villaseñor—a teen who holds weekly strikes in front of New York’s United Nations headquarters—and other activists) seems uninterested in leading a cult of personality. When lauded for their leadership, all are quick to share credit with their peers. In one tweet responding to praise for the #FridaysforFuture movement from a climate science professor and former U.S. State Department official, Foster politely wrote, “Thank you so much, but this movement belongs to all of us. Activism is not about individual celebrity, it is about highlighting the climate and ecological crisis caused by the fossil fuel industry.”
For Foster, it’s also about lifting up the voices of those being harmed by that crisis—whom he notes are too often invisible within the ranks of the environmental movement. Isra Hirsi, cofounder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike and daughter of Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, has pointed out that a diverse group of organizers doesn’t necessarily translate to diverse participants. Foster ponders this dilemma for a moment. “That’s a huge thing: Whenever I go to any space, there’s no one that looks like me,” he says. “It’s really discouraging because Black and brown people are most impacted by the climate crisis.” He’s referencing the people whose neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted for pollution-spewing industrial facilities and who are more likely to develop health problems as a result. So, he says, he uses his public platforms, like The Climate Reporter and social media, to feature voices from these frontline communities that aren’t otherwise heard.
This focus on empowering people on the margins to speak out and stand up for their communities’ right to a healthy future also informs Foster’s work building the OneMillionofUs movement. Currently the group is planning a summer bus tour to educate and mobilize would-be voters.
All the while, Foster has been keeping up with personal deadlines, including the current college application season. (One school he applied to is Harvard, where he attended an environmental social justice program last summer, doing his own research and making friends with the campus’s sustainability community.) Wherever he lands, it’s likely that he will be involved in building the momentum of the youth climate movement. As Broad puts it, youth activists like Foster send a signal to other youth that their voices are not only important in the climate discussion, but critical.
Foster summed up the movement’s collective goal best, perhaps, on his Twitter feed: “I’m happy that “Climate Strike” is the 2019 word of the year, BUT let’s make 2020’s word of the year be “Climate Action.”
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