14-year-old Kallan Benson describes herself as “chatty.” But she has not uttered a single word since January 9th, and has no plans to speak until April 8th – unless her state lawmakers step up and pass comprehensive environmental legislation before then. Benson decided she’d go on silent strike the same day Maryland lawmakers returned to work for the 2019 legislative session. “I know when I need to shout and when it is more powerful to stay silent,” she says. Benson and other Maryland activists are demanding that lawmakers consider environmental legislation called the Healthy Green Amendment, which would protect and guarantee access to uncontaminated water, breathable air, and an overall clean environment by codifying them as state rights alongside those of freedom of speech and religion.
As National Public Radio affiliate WYPR reports, lawmakers have yet to make any headway on the amendment, which would require a supermajority in both houses in addition to the approval of a majority of Maryland voters in the next election. For Benson, that means beyond her weekly cello lesson and orchestra practice, she will spend the majority of her waking hours in front of the Maryland State House, where she sets up her strike-camp with signs, snacks, yarn and knitting needles. As Benson explains through email, which she is using to communicate during her silent strike, “All [the healthy green ammendement] does is state that Marylanders have a right to safe and health environment to live, work and grow in. Why would anyone object to that?” In 1971, Pennsylvania state lawmakers passed a similar amendment, which has proven key in recent court decisions enabling western Pennsylvania residents to pass zoning laws that restrict natural gas fracking.
For the past five years, Benson says she has been keeping up with the news and become increasingly politically active around environmental issues. In Maryland, she works with the Climate Stewards of Greater Annapolis, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Baltimore Beyond Plastic. And she is also well-versed and engaged with international-level climate organizations like the Citizens Climate Lobby and Sunrise Movement. Plus, Benson has her own organization. “I am the co-director of Parachutes for the Planet,” which she explains is “an art initiative…that helps youth around the world express their concerns about the future of our planet through art.” As she sees it, each group has their own particular niche that “all move the discussion forward and offer pieces of the collective solution.”
Benson’s silent strike and focus on pushing lawmakers to pass the Maryland Healthy Green Amendment grew out of her first #FridaysForFuture strikes in early December of 2018. Just like other young people across the world, Benson first saw Greta’s strike on social media, and was invigorated. “As a youth activist, it is incredibly inspiring to see another youth stand up for our future. It reminds me that kids can do amazing things when we put our minds to it.” With a little help from Twitter and other social networks where Benson consulted with young organizers (like Sophia Mathur, who we will feature in the next few weeks), Benson launched her first #SchoolStrike4Climate at the Department of Energy in Washington, DC on Friday, December 7th. She organized another strike the following week outside the DC convention center. Her strike was followed by other now-regular strikes by U.S. based students in New York, Colorado and California (whom we will feature in upcoming posts).
Benson is homeschooled — which she says is one of the reasons she’s able to stand her ground for so many consecutive days. She sees it as her duty, regardless of those who she says may say that she should have different priorities. Of course Benson would rather be focusing on things people might consider typical for a teenager, she says, but “Adults have failed to make climate change a priority, so I and other youth like me feel we have to [strike] otherwise we will have no future to prepare and educate ourselves for.”
So far, Benson says no one has regularly joined her on strike. For those who might be considering stepping up, Benson suggests that they do so slowly and deliberately. “Learn about the issue….and don’t just jump right in and start your own organization,” she says. “Find out what others are doing, join them or partner with them. Our actions are more powerful when we are working together and learning from each other.”