What: This is the first actual article (after my introduction) for my senior project for Ithaca College’s Writing Department. The introduction can be found here and my second piece, a profile about Sandra Steingraber, can be found here.
Originally Written: Primarily the middle of last semester (March-ish), finished at the end of the semester.
When most people refer to “student activists,” it isn’t uncommon to assume that they are discussing college students. However, the New York Youth Against Fracking has started to challenge that stereotype.
The New York Youth Against Fracking (NYYAF) was created at the combined public middle and high school, Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, New York. The school provides “alternatives to traditional curriculum and school governance philosophies,” according to the school’s website. For example, one way that it does this is by offering students a more open education with teacher evaluations instead of grades.
The school offers “all school meetings,” which are open assemblies where, as a unit, the students and staff discuss proposals brought forth by the school community. These meetings are an integral backbone to the structure of the school; they occur weekly and give students the opportunity to voice their opinions and influence the future of their education and environment. Not to mention that these meetings give students experience firsthand in a participatory democracy.
Students also participate in the running of Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS) through the school’s committees. These committees are comprised of students who make decisions about how the school is run, but on a more focused basis than that of the all-school meetings. For example, LACS has student committees for the curriculum, eco-action, gay/straight alliance, mediation, school modification (ex. artwork for the school), and more.
Its structure of shared-decision making isn’t the only thing alternative about LACS, though: there is also strong support for sustainability. Near the school’s front doors, there is a mural depicting a sun that says “LACS Solar Power: Renewable, Sustainable.” (The school has a small solar bank, although students want to increase the number of panels.) Inside the school, there are many fliers in the hallways asking passers-by to “Protect the planet, don’t waste paper,” and “Have you recycled or composted everything you can?” Then, there are paintings: around the school are many student-created murals and one of the first ones that visitors see coming into the school features the Earth and the quote, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
As I walked into LACS for my first NYYAF meeting in March, these signs and murals were the first things that I noticed. Before college, I had attended a Catholic elementary/middle school and another Catholic high school. In the first, I think we had bulletin boards where some kids could display their art from art class. The small step-by-step arts and crafts projects paled in comparison to the elaborate murals that decorated the walls inside of LACS. In the second school, my high school, there were more bulletin boards and another display case with art that was of a higher caliber than my middle school art classes but, still, nothing compared to the murals. Otherwise, the boards held notices and service trip information. And that was it.
Then, of course, the idea of either of my schools’ administrations giving students any sort of power in decision-making was laughable. My schools were based on rules and a top-down power structure, while LACS is the opposite; its policies and curriculum are decided by students in a vertical power structure. By all means, it seems to be successful, at least from my visits to the school. The students were happy, passionate, and intelligent. What more could we ask from middle and high school kids?
Coming into LACS, for the first time, was simultaneously amazing and overwhelming. After having a somewhat conservative schooling as my pre-college background, it was fantastically gratifying for me to see a school’s commitment to the same ideas that I now care about so deeply – the ideas of environmental activism, sustainability, and a participatory democracy. I assumed that there were probably schools other than colleges that taught these ideals as well but I had never found one. Until now.
Despite the progressive nature of LACS, the students seemed like fairly normal tweens and teens, as far as I could tell. They wore t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, the usual. They stood and moved with the typical awkwardness and self-awareness that plagues youth. At 21, they made me feel old and immeasurably disconnected from my mid-teen self.
That feeling increased as I entered the NYYAF meeting. Most of the students were in middle school or very early high school (I learned later that some of the older students were attracted to some of the other environmental causes in the school). There were easily over a dozen kids there and I soon realized that there were many others who were involved, either directly or indirectly, but who were not at that meeting.
And still, my awe of the students continued – the room was full of energy, passion, optimism. Being young, they fired through ideas and topics faster than anyone could keep up with the meeting’s agenda; unlike so many other students, they genuinely believed that they could make a difference.
“What’s really surprised me about all of this is how much people are listening to us, just because we’re not all stuffy and grown-up,” said Jacob Friga, a student at LACS. “There are a lot of people who are just really interested in what we’re doing, and I think that’s really neat.”
When I first saw Jacob Friga during the NYYAF meeting, I noticed him because of the shirt that he was wearing: it said The Raconteurs, a reference to an indie-band most well-known for their song, “Steady, As She Goes.” He had long hair and a wiry build, and I already felt like he was cooler than some of my friends in college. That feeling only amplified when he told me that he could play piano, clarinet, bass, guitar, drums, mandolin, and saxophone. He said all of this casually, like it was no big deal that he could play seven instruments.
Jacob is in 9th grade and his favorite subject, besides music, is math. He became drawn into the fracking controversy when he learned that many of his neighbors in Caroline, New York, had already leased their land to natural gas companies to be used for hydraulic fracturing. Wanting to be informed about the issue, Jacob began to research fracking, starting with informational brochures that his parents brought home and eventually culminating in his participation in NYYAF.
These are normal kids, but they have a unique gift: they have adults listening to them. They are taking responsibility in a movement that they care deeply about; in doing so, they can easily garner an audience because of their age alone. Of course, it helps that they all know what they’re talking about.
“The population in Ithaca would drop a lot,” said Lila Zusman, another student in LACS. We were discussing what it would be like in Ithaca if fracking were legalized in New York. “It would attract less tourists, it would be bad for the colleges, and also for the farms and local businesses that are unique to Ithaca. The water and lake would also get really messed up. It would be awful.”
At first glance, Lila Zusman looks like any other girl in 7th grade. She wears jeans, brightly colored hoodies, and a winter hat designed to have an owl’s eyes and nose sitting on her forehead.
That is, until I look closer. The hat is her giveaway: around the owl’s eyes are buttons for social causes I didn’t even know existed when I was her age. There’s a blue pin with a peace sign, another which says “Organic Believer,” another that is the classic “no fracking” logo with fissures coming out of the text.
“I always liked to be with nature and playing outside,” said Lila. “And then I realized that if they frack in New York, that won’t be there anymore, or at least it won’t be as nice outside.”
In the beginning of this past school year, NYYAF was initially created with a fairly open goal created by the students involved: to learn about the issue. It was founded by Mariah Prentiss, NYYAF’s facilitator and a teacher-librarian at the school for three years. Incidentally, the club is available for students to take for credit and to participate in during the school week. Part of the school’s curriculum asks students to complete a service work requirement. In other words, on Tuesdays and Thursdays students will work on four projects of their choosing, led by a faculty member. Most of the projects are not issue based; they focus on experiential learning, including creative writing, sports, crafts, theatre, and so on.
This is where NYYAF comes in. Prentiss said that she didn’t know how interested students would be in a fracking project.
“I’ve offered things before that only appealed to a small number of people. I tried to do a few writing projects, like National Public Radio’s StoryCorps, but it didn’t get a lot of interest. So I put out a description about an anti-fracking project, and this big group came to the first meeting, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is really powerful.’”
Prentiss worked with these students to determine what they wanted to do with the project. Initially, it wasn’t the “New York Youth Against Fracking” – they were just a group of students dedicated to learning about this controversial practice. To do so, they would bring materials in every week and discuss, together, what fracking was, what it could potentially lead to, and the concerns that lay on each side of the issue.
The students began by watching Gasland, the 2010 classic anti-fracking documentary exploring the complications raised by hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania – complications that include soil and air pollution, flammable water, and severe (sometimes fatal) health problems. The kids invited speakers to their class, including John McNamara from Finger Lakes Clean Waters Initiative, a local nonprofit organization that seeks to protect “New York’s number one economic resource,” according to their website.
They hosted a viewing of the film Dear Governor Cuomo to their classmates and other students in the area. Dear Governor Cuomo provided a lens into an event in Albany that featured a mix of scientists, musicians, and activists who were all protesting Governor Cuomo’s lifting of the hydraulic fracturing moratorium in New York State. The film, made in 2012, is a “concert protest film,” according to its website.
After the film, the LACS students organized workshops for the kids to go to, led by many important figures within the anti-fracking movement and local politicians, including Dr. Sandra Steingraber, Mayor of Ithaca Svante Myrick, and speakers from the New York Green Umbrella, a coalition of New York college students who are environmental activists. (I’m just saying, having been semi-politically intrigued at their age, I would have loved an opportunity like this when I was in middle or school.)
After all this, they finally chose their project’s name: the New York Youth Against Fracking.
At LACS, each service work project is either renewed or ends after each quarter of the school year. By the time the second quarter came, the administration had renewed NYYAF as a project, and the students felt like they were ready for action. While the first quarter had been spent primarily on educating themselves, the second and third quarters were marked by their desire to do something about the issue that they had begun to realize had such huge consequences for their state, for the state of Pennsylvania, and for their future.
During this time, New York’s moratorium against hydraulic fracturing had expired and Governor Cuomo was deciding how the state should respond: should fracking should be legalized or banned, or should be granted another moratorium. In response, the NYYAF attended the State of the State rally in Albany, New York, on January 9, 2013. That rally occurred outside of the Governor’s annual State of the State address, with over 1,500 anti-frackers in attendance.
“I think that was life-changing for some of the kids,” said Prentiss. “They went from being cool, quite outspoken kids to shouting and totally, totally into it. They were just so empowered. It was really beautiful.”
Next, the kids filmed a music video for the song, “You’ve Been Fracked.” The song, written by the local activist Edith McCrea, was recorded by kids involved in NYYAF, both at LACS and neighboring schools. What is so charming about the video is that it features the students earnestly singing with a backing band of older adults and another student in a small studio in Ithaca. Clearly, the kids are having fun: this is evident as the video is interspliced with the kids performing various theatrics. For example, two girls, representing gas companies, ask some of the other students to sign a piece of paper. After doing so, the kids fall over and mime getting sick, and in one case, one student – Lila – pretended to die, presumably from the water pollution of fracking chemicals. The two girls acting as the gas company look at each other uncomfortably and leave quickly.
“Making the video was super duper duper fun,” said Lila.
NYYAF entered the video in an Artists Against Fracking contest sponsored by Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. Competing against nearly 100 other videos, submitted by other schools, professionals, businesses, and non-profits, NYYAF won the contest, and a lunch with Ono and Lennon at a date that is still to be decided.
Following shortly after their victory, the kids were invited on to Nick News (on the television channel, Nickelodeon) to discuss their cause. This was part of the Nick News segment, “What’s the Deal with Fracking?” The 22-minute segment explained what fracking was and why there is so much controversy about the issue, interviewing both industry professionals, researchers, and other preteens and teenagers who have been impacted by fracking.
“I actually watched that episode after it aired,” said Jacob. “It was pretty difficult for me to see the pro-fracking side. I didn’t think they were very well-represented – or maybe they were well-represented, and they were just wrong.”
And then, NYYAF attended another rally in Albany – this time, one that was more organized and had more parents helping. Their goal was to meet with the Governor before his deadline to decide on the future of fracking in New York. In the process, they worked with New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and Arun Manilal Gandhi, who is a renowned socio-political activist and also Gandhi’s grandson. Lifton represents Tompkins County in the state assembly – where LACS is located – and has been a staunch anti-fracking advocate in the government since 2009. The children led a march to the governor’s office where they met actor Mark Ruffalo and were featured in the background during the press conference. Ruffalo, although most widely known as an actor (The Hulk; The Kids Are All Right), is also a highly popular anti-fracking activist. He has been working for the cause since 2011 and has also helped Lifton in her reelection campaign: part of why he takes such an interest in these issues is because he is a resident of upstate New York.
“I got to shake Mark Ruffalo’s hand,” said Lila. “It was so cool. We got to stand behind all of them when they were on TV, too.”
Since the third cycle, NYYAF’s activity has dwindled down a little – but not much. The fourth cycle is reserved for spring trips, so the typical NYYAF meetings wouldn’t be approved by the administration. Regardless, the students and Prentiss have continued to meet outside of class time, and walked in the Ithaca Festival parade in late May. And having a cycle off doesn’t mean that the kids are getting unmotivated – both Jacob and Lila responded enthusiastically to me when I asked if they wanted to be involved next year.
“Personally, I just want some way to express all of this emotion and have a chance to use all of this research,” said Jacob. “I also could say that I want to get a ban or moratorium on fracking in New York, but, I mean, realistically, who knows.”
Until they can get that ban or moratorium, their work won’t be done – but during the meeting I attended, the kids don’t seem to be daunted by the task. Despite Jacob’s practical perspective, the group as a whole seemed optimistic, hopeful, and ready to fight for a cause in which they truly believe.
From the outside looking in, I’m awed by these students. They are passionate, caring, and more knowledgeable about any controversial issue that I cared about when I was their age. If the “leaders of tomorrow” are our nation’s children, then I know that we’ll be in good hands if these kids are at the forefront of today’s battles.
For anyone interested, you can connect with New York Youth Against Fracking on Facebook.