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Finding their place in the world

The Beyond COP21 Symposium brings schools, Senators, artists, activists to campus

It was a beautiful day to welcome the world to Gordon.


The fifth and sixth grade newspaper was out front, ready to greet Senator Reed, Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Cicilline.


While they peppered the Washington delegation with questions, seventy-five students from seven public and independent schools arrived.


The occasion was the twenty-sixth Beyond COP21 Symposium, the first US edition of a series of day-long workshops aimed at inspiring—and organizing—youth who are working for environmental justice.


The event builds on the sixth grade's yearlong study of the United Nations, diplomacy and global activism; the sixth grade was all there, and the fifth grade was able to join in as well.


The day began, appropriately, with student voices: Gordon’s student government presidents.


Dr. Thomas López introduced the congressional delegation. 


Senator Reed, Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Cicilline were gracious, charming and passionate.


Reed and Cicilline both paid their respect to Senator Whitehouse’s leadership on climate change.


The room was hushed when Congressman Cicilline shared the familiar story of Greta Thunberg’s confrontational speech at the US Capitol - retelling it from his perspective as a Congressman, as a clear and energizing wakeup call.


Symposium creator Peter Milne set the context for the day and the event.

This is his twenty-sixth symposium, and his first in the US.

He just came from Canada. His next stops are schools in Egypt and Qatar.

His explanation of the climate included many places and names - Glasgow! Sharm El Sheikh! François Hollande! Alok Sharma! - that were not part of the worldview of most of the students in the room. 


With speeches from the Congressional delegation, and Milne’s global point of view, these students were having their horizons expanded.


Climate change was a larger conversation than they might have thought. 


They were getting involved in something big.


When the lights went up, students began talking to one another, setting baseline pledges for their own personal activism, and collaborating on “mind maps” based on the UN’S Sustainable Development Goals.


Meanwhile, the press had arrived to amplify the students’ voices, and small groups talked to the Providence Journal and Channel 10.

After a short break, students heard from activists working in Rhode Island: artist Vatic Kuumba, (above), Ella Kilpatrick Kotner of Groundwork Providence, and the team from 11th Hour Racing.


The students had plenty to share with the speakers, as well.

Lunch was vegan, courtesy of Plant City.

After lunch, students connected with more artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and community organizers.


An exhibit hall opened up, and students met representatives from the Farm School, the Woonasquatucket River Greenway, Bootstrap Compost, Be the Solution to Pollution, Rhode Island Resource Recovery, the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Dredging Project, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Groundwork Providence, Hope’s Harvest and Farm Fresh RI.

It was a diverse range of organizations, and each one had their own investment in, and strategy for, the fight against climate change.


While some students were in the exhibit hall, the others were in one of three other workshops.

The team from the Woonasquatucket River Greenway brought students into their work reclaiming the Olneyville River and the industrial lands that surround it.

Jen Long’s Whale Guitar Project opened up possibilities for communication, and collaboration, over distances, and thinking creatively about how to be an instrument for change.

Eli Nixon invited students to use words and images to process some of their feelings from the day.


There was space for hope, grief, rage and fear.


By 3:30, students had covered a dazzling amount of ground.

Still, they had more to share.


Dr. Thomas López ended the day with a promise to stay connected with the students, and the schools, that came today.

It was a little step, a single day.

But today these students came a little closer to finding their places in the global movement.

More on the symposium, and links to the guests who made the day so remarkable, at

More photos from the day on Gordon's Flickr site

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