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The cardboard sunflowers represented the importance of holding community when fighting for social change.

Credit: Kamille Houston

Around 14 Penn students, including leaders of Fossil Free Penn, participated in a youth-led climate strike rally on Saturday afternoon to keep the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery shut down.

The climate strike rally, which was held by youth climate groups Sunrise Philly and the PA Youth Climate Strike, was one of the last events in Philly Thrive’s month of action, during which the group held events and demonstrations to protest selling and re-opening the oil refinery. According to Jendaiya Hill, a Swarthmore sophomore and Philly Thrive youth organizer, there were around 100 total attendees at the protest. 

The PES oil refinery, located in South Philadelphia, was the largest oil refinery on the East Coast. The refinery shut down in June of 2019 after a series of explosions at the refinery caused a severe fire, according to Philadelphia Magazine

Philly Thrive is working to keep PES closed because it released toxic air emissions, polluting both Philadelphia’s air quality and water supply, and has caused health problems like cancer and asthma in residents. The Trump administration has recently become involved in efforts to reopen the refinery, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hill said Trump's actions are not a setback for the group, but a testament to the visibility of Philly Thrive's actions. 

"If our organizing had not been so successful, the White House would feel no need to make a comment," Hill said. "I think that marks the great work and the great mobilization that's happening here in Philadelphia."

The event was held by Philly Thrive and allowed participants to discuss environmental injustice. (Photo from Jonathan Szeto)

The rally took place inside the DiSilvestro Rec Center, located in Gray's Ferry, one of the neighborhoods affected by PES. Throughout the rally, protesters sang “We Have a Right to Breathe,” a Philly Thrive original song, as well as a variation of popular civil rights protest song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Between singing and chanting slogans such as “I’m fired up (can’t take it no more)!” attendees shared their beliefs on local environmental injustice.

At the end of the rally, participants came together outside in a circle formation holding cardboard sunflowers, to represent the importance of bringing the community together when fighting for social change.

Philly Thrive’s rally was initially scheduled to be held at the PES oil refinery on Jan. 25, but it was postponed due to rain. Hill believes the rally’s change in location turned the event into more of a community-building discussion forum, which is complements the goals of the youth organizers.

FFP Campaign Coordinator and College sophomore Katie Collier, who attended the rally, sees an alignment between Fossil Free Penn and Philly Thrive’s values on achieving environmental justice.

“I think one way divestment movements are advocating for climate justice instead of climate action is that we tend to have a focus on not only divesting the endowment from fossil fuels, but also reinvesting back into community-oriented projects,” Collier said.

“A lot of Philadelphia community members see Penn as not really a part of the community, but an organization that imposes itself on the community,” Collier said. “We are trying to be very cognizant of that. We as Fossil Free Penn are aren’t trying to impose ourselves or take control over organizing environmental events in Philadelphia, but rather stand in solidarity with other environmental organizations, and support them in the ways that we can."

Around 100 people attended the protest. (Photo from Jonathan Szeto)

Hill said the majority of people being impacted by PES are people of color from lower-income communities.

"Philly Thrive is particularly focused on organizing the people who live right by the refineries, and saying that the right to breathe is for everyone," Hill said. "Everyone is feeling the impacts of the refinery differently. Some people are being more directly impacted than others." (edited) 

College senior and FFP member Jacob Hershman thought the rally did well at highlighting the connection between the environmental crisis in Philadelphia and the socio-economically disadvantaged parts of the city.

“Philly Thrive is doing an amazing job of rallying the community and creating a robust community effort to counter that systemic problem,” said Hershman.

Hill points to the importance of emphasizing youth voices in the fight for environmental justice, as the most recent generation will be the ones dealing with the effects of climate change.

"The reality is that our generation is the one that is going to have to have really strong leadership surrounding this issue, and we wanted to be able to build those skills and hit the ground running through this opportunity,” Hill said.


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