by Leandra Mira

Leandra Mira, 18, was inspired by Greta Thunberg to join Fridays for Future PGH in protest of climate issues. She began staging a quiet protest on the steps of the City-County Building last May. She was a fixture there, often joined by a cadre of fans and fellow activists including moms with kids, students and environmentalists, until the COVID-19 crisis hit.

The Upper St. Clair resident was a speaker at P4 and the lead organizer of the Youth Climate Strike last September that brought more than 1200 people Downtown to rally and march through the streets.

In December 2019, I joined a new and growing coalition of local organizations focused on declaring a climate emergency in SWPA. With an expanding petrochemical industry on our doorstep and environmental justice communities throughout our city and region facing toxic levels of air and water pollution, the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day seemed like the right time to come together to take serious action and declare a climate emergency.

People in our communities are facing health harm from fracking wells in their backyards and near their schools. Massive increases in carbon and methane emissions in our region alone will make it nearly impossible for the world to reach Paris Climate Accord goals.

We have elected leaders who fail to hear the voices of people living in marginalized and environmental justice communities.  They also fail to hear what young people, like those of us on our Fridays for Future Pittsburgh team, have been crying out: All of us demand to be heard now, especially in this election year.

When a protest rally and march in Pittsburgh was no longer a viable option due to the coronavirus pandemic, our events shifted to a virtual Teach-In and Youth Climate Strike that will be live-streamed on several channels. These two events have been planned and staged by a Pittsburgh Earth Week 2020 Coalition of more than 50 regional organizations.

Unlike the original Earth Day, these events feature speakers discussing a wider span of community justice needs including students, African Americans, Native Americans, urban housing activists, food security groups, medical health professionals, people living in communities on the front lines and environmental activists.

I began the Youth Climate Strike in Pittsburgh in 2019 because I saw the link between public health and local environmental issues. I realized that simply holding a traditional strike wasn’t doing enough. Since then, it has dawned on me how similar the symptoms of coronavirus are to the health problems that communities in and around Pittsburgh face and fight every day.

Asthma and lung disease are two consequences of long-term exposure from polluted air, which is the reality for many in SWPA. In fact, on Easter Sunday residents in Clairton and the Mon Valley woke up to EPA Code Red levels of pollution from the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works — and this when pollution in the rest of the country is at all-time lows.

Leandra Mira (second from left) marching in the Youth Climate Strike. Photo by Mark Dixon/Blue Lens.

The symptoms of these two diseases overlap with COVID-19. As many already know, coronavirus attacks our nose, throat and lungs. Difficulty breathing, chest tightness and coughing are symptoms that everyone fears waking up with, but these symptoms aren’t new to people with asthma.

The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated how certain communities are less protected from contagious diseases. These are the very same communities that are less protected from pollution and environmental injustices.

I admit it is difficult to remain positive and hopeful. I can’t help but feel powerless. I’ve lived on this planet for 18 years, born a couple weeks before 9/11. I’ve lived through a recession and — now — a pandemic that may lead to another recession.

It’s hard to not become cynical when the only memories I have of this country and our government are that it’s not working at all for our people and our planet. Teenage existential angst is hard enough. It’s crippling when you’re also feeling completely powerless as a young adult.

Yet I find comfort in seeing that all over the world, people are finding new and creative ways to connect. Families and children write messages of hope to their neighbors on windows where they ask, “Hello! how are you?” or “Do you need anything?”

This crisis is showing us that, no matter what, humans will find ways to stay connected. That in the darkest times, when the material world is stripped away, the things we value most are communication, relationships and the health of our loved ones.

Here in Pittsburgh, the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day this year offers us another unprecedented opportunity to connect. I invite you all to gather with us virtually on April 19 for the virtual Teach-In at 1 p.m. and the Youth Climate Strike on April 22 on Instagram starting at midnight.

We will all be raising money for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Please watch. Interact on the chats and let us know you are with us. Join us in Declaring a Climate Emergency in our region. Accept the Earth Day Challenge and by all means #VoteEarthPGH this year. Thank you.

Watch the Pittsburgh Earth Week Teach-in on April 19 at 1 p.m.

Watch the Pittsburgh Youth Climate Strike on Fridays for Future Pgh Instagram on April 22 starting at midnight.