Isabella Johnson demanded the city of Chicago declare a “climate emergency” at the Oct. 7, 2019, Youth Climate Strike. Johnson, 17, leads the organization that planned the event. Her pin reads “There is no planet B.” (Zack Fishman)
Climate activist Isabella Johnson is planning a massive Earth Day protest that requires permits and other paperwork with the city of Chicago. But she is finding it challenging to get to the city’s offices before they close at 4:30 p.m.
That’s because she is still in high school.
As the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Youth Climate Strike organization, 17-year-old Johnson has helped organize four Chicago protests that are part of an international movement that encourages students to skip school to advocate for action on global warming and environmental justice.
Johnson, a senior at Benet Academy, a Catholic prep school about 35 miles west of
downtown Chicago, oversees 20 volunteer staff and regularly takes a train downtown to meet with adults from partner organizations. She squeezes in responses to media during homeroom and lunch.
“I try to fit in my homework somewhere in there, too,” she said.
Now Johnson is working on what she hopes is her biggest youth protest yet, the April 22 event that could attract some 15,000 or more Chicago-area youth.
“I’m really passionate about all these things,” she told NCR’s Earthbeat. “I saw something that needed fixing in the world, so I decided to spend my time fixing it.”
Johnson is quick to share facts about the seriousness of the crisis, citing the estimate that the world has about 12 years to avoid disastrous consequences from global warming.
“I think climate change is one of the most important issues of today, just because it is so time sensitive,” she said. “We’re damaging the earth. It’s our home; it’s our earth; it’s God’s creation.”
But being in the spotlight has not always been easy for Johnson, who grew up in nearby Naperville. She has faced online bullying and struggles with her own mental health.
What keeps her grounded — and motivates her activist work — is her faith.
Youth stepping up
Last fall, while in Colorado checking out prospective colleges, Johnson had the chance to meet Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg while backstage at that state’s climate strike.
Johnson thanked Thunberg and apologized for President Trump, who had publicly mocked the activist during her visit to the U.S. Thunberg, in turn, thanked her and the other Colorado activists.
The whole experience was “mind-blowing,” Johnson said. “Without her, I would not be doing what I’m doing.”
Johnson also owes her activism career to her older sister, Olivia, who in 2018 took her to her first protest after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. For the first time, “I felt like I could create change, too,” she recalled.
Johnson began to educate herself about the issue of gun violence and about politics. That’s when she decided to trade her involvement with track and cross country for political activism, especially around environmental issues.
“Because the adults and the politicians aren’t doing enough about this, it’s been left to the youth,” said Johnson. “Most youth activists say they don’t want to do this, but we’ve been forced to.”
As a state leader, she created an ambassador program that allows students outside the core team to get involved at a lesser level. Illinois now has more than 100 ambassadors, and the program has been replicated by other state chapters.