A small town took on a big problem Friday as teenagers from Heppner staged a protest encouraging adults to tackle climate change.
They called the event “Fight for our Future.” They hoped to draw a crowd of Eastern Oregon residents who were willing to learn about rising seas and greenhouse gasses. Instead, eight teens from sixth through ninth grade stood alone at Heppner City Park, waving signs at passing cars on Main Street.
“Not everyone is thinking about the problem, and people don’t want to do anything to fix it,” Amelia Baker said. “Us as teens, as children, might make them listen. If they don’t, we might not have a future to fight for.”
The event was spearheaded by Hunter Houck, 13, and his friend Chloe McLaren, who was home with a stomach flu on Friday. Hunter said they were inspired by seeing news of youths hosting similar protests in larger cities around the world.
Thousands of students marched against climate change in Paris, France, on Feb. 22. They were joined by hundreds of thousands more students around the world who walked out of school on March 15 for a global climate strike, and continue to keep the topic in the news through smaller demonstrations and social media campaigns.
While such protests might not raise eyebrows in Portland, the teens acknowledged Heppner — a small rural town of 1,268 in a county where 68% of voters chose Donald Trump in 2016 — might not be an obvious fit.
“It’s a conservative town,” Amelia said.
In fact, students said they purposely hosted the event on a day without school, outside of school property, because they didn’t think they would get permission to do a school-affiliated event. Hunter said a few teachers expressed support, but, overall, climate change felt like a “taboo” topic.
“One of our teachers actually spent quite a bit of time telling us why climate change is fake,” he said.
Heppner Jr./Sr. High School was closed on Friday and principal Matt Combe didn’t respond to an email Friday afternoon asking what guidance the school provides staff on addressing climate change.
Hunter noted criticism from adults outside of school, particularly a letter to the editor in the East Oregonian telling them to not pay attention to “socialist scare tactics and indoctrination.” But he and other teens at the event also spoke of support from parents and friends.
On Friday, the reception from passersby was mixed. As the youths held up signs with messages such as “There is no Planet B” and “This can’t wait until I’m older” some adults honked or waved in support, drawing cheers from the band of protesters. Other drivers shook their heads or frowned, and a woman on foot refused to take a pamphlet offered to her.
“Well that was rough,” eighth-grader Alexandrea Caven remarked as a man looked at her “Honk if you love the Earth” sign and then pointedly looked away.
After about an hour of protesting she said she wished that some adults had taken the students up on their invitation to the public to participate.
“They could make more of a difference,” she said.
They did take heart the people liking their livestreamed videos and Instagram photos from the scene, which they hoped would expand their reach beyond Heppner.
Hunter said they will probably stage another event in June, and they were hoping to be able to talk to their state legislators at some point. He threw out the names of a few bills the group supports, particularly Senate Bill 90, which would ban restaurants from automatically supplying customers with plastic straws.
The group is also circulating a petition to get curbside recycling in Heppner, and have been talking with local business owners about reducing waste. Hunter said the owner of the coffee shop where they staged their planning meetings said she would be willing to look into biodegradable straws.
The youths stressed the fact that they were worried that by the time they were old enough to run for office or own a business, it would be too late to reverse mankind’s effects on the planet. So they were doing what they could now.
“We’re a small group doing big things for a small community,” Hannah Green said.