All march photos by Erik McGregor.
It all started with a billboard.
An idea began to take root
Principal Seabold called the adviser at the school’s environmental club, who checked out our coalition’s No Meadowlands Power Plant website. They invited Food & Water Watch to the school to talk with students about this huge fossil fuel project, which would deliver electricity to New York City, while the neighboring communities would get the air pollution.
Together with the students and local community organizer Paula Rogovin, we reviewed the harmful pollutants that would be emitted from the facility for the next 30 to 40 years — and into the lungs of people who live nearby. Once the students started researching, they learned their area currently has an ‘F’ rating in ground-level ozone. A giant new gas plant will only make matters worse. They also learned the plant, if built, would be the largest greenhouse gas polluter in the state. As student leader Liz Garcia put it, “The goal of this project is to provide electricity to New York City, and WE only get the pollution! We cannot let this power plant happen!”
Next steps to organize the community became clear
When hundreds gathered at the Ridgefield Community Center for a public forum about the project, Student Council president Anthony Guerra made the call for a march to stop the power plant. From this start, committed students and educators planted the seeds of what would grow to become a region-wide organizing drive that culminated in May’s powerful youth-led action, “March for Our Lungs.”
“The amount of support we encountered following the march’s unveiling at the Ridgefield public forum from elected officials, teachers, students, and concerned citizens made me realize just how fervently invested people were in the cause, and that a march was indeed the only way to do it justice.” —Anthony Guerra
Guerra soon found out that similar student organizing was already underway. After hearing the speech, Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez mentioned that his daughter Laura was already organizing her own petition against the power plant at her school. Working with Bergen Tech Environmental Protection Initiative (EPI), Laura Suarez talked to almost every student in the school, and got over 400 signatures from classmates and family members. The petition was delivered to state political leaders, including Governor Phil Murphy. Two other leaders of the EPI club, Soana Balliolli and Romina Rojas, got started with outreach and social media postings.
Next steps included: a group brainstorm where the “March for Our Lungs” name was proposed by a student who lives just blocks from the proposed site; spreading the word at anEarth Day assembly; handing out fliers in the affected towns; and even producing a skit with Food & Water Watch’s help that students performed at locations around the community. All of this work inspired others to join their campaign.
The students kept busy, studying by day while tagging Governor Murphy in their Instagram posts by night. Word spread online and offline. Student Yoon Yung saw information about the march from her friend on Instagram: “I knew immediately I wanted to get involved, and my friend and I headed to the Art Build. I was overwhelmed with inspiration, meeting new people and especially seeing students that shared the same passion that I have for the environment.”
One week to go!
One week before the march, students from five local high schools (Ridgefield Memorial High School, Bergen County Technical Schools, Leonia High School, Paramus High School and Palisades Park Jr/Sr High School) gathered at the Ridgefield Community Center to create banners and signs at an art build co-facilitated by Kim Fraczek of Sane Energy Project. This was the moment where student leaders came together to grow their shared vision for a healthy and livable future.
As the clock was ticking, students worked on their speeches, weaving their personal stories with facts about the projected impact of the plant, the ecological importance of the Meadowlands, and the long history of environmental injustice. They also learned about the power of youth-led movements, and the history of young people courageously changing the course of society.
Hundreds show up to march
The students spoke courageously about the unfair burden of putting a major polluter in a region already struggling with an F rating for smog pollution from the American Lung Association, and the environmental injustice behind its site selection:
“I thought that the power plant company chose North Bergen because it made the most sense financially. But, there’s a reason why this power plant is going in this area, and it’s not just because of cheap land. The construction of this power plant is just repeating the historical pattern of placing unfair environmental burdens on vulnerable communities, also known as environmental justice communities.” —Student leader Romina Rojas
The students called on Governor Murphy to keep his promises to protect environmental justice communities across the state, and they connected stopping this power plant with the larger fight to transition off fossil fuels. As one student put it, “Let me be clear: If the power plant is not built in North Bergen, we know that it will not be going in Governor Murphy’s backyard. Therefore, we are united with the 12 fossil fuel expansion projects across the state. We are demanding that Governor Murphy put a moratorium on all new fossil fuel projects—for our health, for our climate and for justice!”
Since the gas to fuel this power plant would come from fracking, they called out how that dirty drilling process is poisoning peoples’ water, polluting the air, creating earthquakes, and exacerbating the climate change crisis. And they spoke about the ecological impact of putting a power plant in the Meadowlands and how it could affect the quality of water, animals and plants. “Wetlands such as the Meadowlands serve many beneficial functions,” said student activist Soana Ballolli. “They are a natural filtration system, purifying our water. They preserve biodiversity by hosting a number of plant and animal species. They play a crucial role in flood prevention by absorbing storm waters, protecting communities in nearby flood zones.”
“The air that we breathe
is a gift from the trees
so we have to keep it clean!”
Food & Water Watch supported these amazing students in organizing the March For Our Lungs. But in the end, it was the students themselves who powered this bold protest. As student leader Anthony Guerra said, “We are the future of this country, and we are powerful; let us show not only the governor, but the world, what we can do when we are unified in true passion for our environment.”
Moments like this and the many others that help lead to change in communities is made possible by Food & Water Watch members. We fight like we live here because this planet is the only one we get. Will you chip in a little now to help us keep the movement for clean air and water growing?
Fight like you live here.