Students attend rally during pope’s speech to Congress
A group of AU students joined climate justice advocates on the National Mall Thursday morning for the Moral Action on Climate Justice Rally, an environmental justice gathering organized around Pope Francis’ address to Congress.
Between 60 and 80 AU students attended, according to Audrey Irvine-Broque, a senior and organizer for Fossil Free AU. Irvine-Broque worked with Fossil Free AU to coordinate the group’s trip downtown.
Malini Ranganathan, an assistant professor in the School of International Service, also attended and said she felt inspired by the event.
“It’s easy to get discouraged, and feel like there’s nothing you as an individual can do,” Ranganathan said. “But I think these kinds of moments, where people show up in large numbers, really help to reinforce the feeling that you’re not in the minority. We’re not the radicals on the fringe, we’re actually increasingly becoming more of a mainstream.”
The Moral Action on Climate Network, the Earth Day Network, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups organized the rally to advocate for various environmental causes, the Washington Post reported. They planned the event to coincide with the first-ever papal address to Congress because of the pope’s strong stance on climate change.
In a 192-page encyclical published last June, Pope Francis implored scientific and religious leaders to collaborate in the battle against climate change, the Washington Post reported. According to the Moral Action on Climate website, the pope urges readers to “integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Rally organizers embraced this quote; an abridged version was written on banners — one in English, the other in Spanish — hung on either side of a stage set up for speakers and performers. Activists, religious leaders and musicians addressed the crowd for two and a half hours before the pope’s speech was broadcast.
Jay Winter Nightwolf, a member of the Echota Cherokee Nation of Alabama, also spoke to the ways in which climate change exacerbates already stark social inequalities. Several other speakers presented as well.
“Native American Indians and indigenous people throughout the world are among the first to be severely impacted by climate change,” Nightwolf said onstage. “Many live in poverty and are vulnerable, many of us are being forced to migrate to survive. Whole communities are, and will continue to be, uprooted due to droughts, floods, and all kinds of extreme weather events. We will die and suffer due to climate change and abject poverty.”
As rally organizers expected, the pope did address climate change and urged listeners to take action in their own communities.
“Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a culture of care and an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature,” Francis said. “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power; and to put technology at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”
The pope also advocated for the rights of immigrants, refugees, prisoners and those “trapped in a cycle of poverty.” He called for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.
Many of the pope’s remarks left AU climate justice advocates hopeful and energized.
“I’d never been to any type of rally like this, so I thought this itself was really cool,” Jaya Bali, a freshman and Fossil Free organizer, said. “It’s been amazing, just being here, and hearing from so many wonderful people…you feel like you really want to do something and make a difference.”
Victoria Pompei, another Fossil Free organizer, said she believes that the pontiff’s words will make an impact on American politics.
“I’m here to see the pope as more of a political figure, because the church has been a huge political actor throughout history,” said. “So I really think this speech will affect what congress is going to talk about, and the issues they’re going to debate in the future.”
Even as Francis’ remarks on climate change, immigration and economics resonated with the crowd, some AU students were put off by his mention of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” and an allusion to “the very basis of marriage and the family” being “called into question.”
“I think it was pretty cool how strongly he addressed the necessity to care about the earth…[but] I was frustrated that he felt the need to bring up the sanctity of life and…the emphasis on families and a certain type of family,” Abby Dunn, a senior and Fossil Free organizer, said. “I think we should be critical of all our allies. I want people to be there in the fight for climate justice with me, but I think we should be critical of anyone who claims to care about poor and working-class people and immigrants when they don’t seem to care about reproductive justice.”