As my daughter joined the Global Climate Strike, I joined the march. Here's what I learned from following her, Greta Turnberg's, and thousands of other young people's lead.

climate march
Credit: Libby Ryan

"Are you excited for the climate march?" my 16-year old daughter asked me, first thing this morning. I was. We've been to many marches over the years, but on this day, hundreds of thousands of kids across the world were waking up, home-made signs, and youthful energy at the ready. They would follow the lead of 16-year old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who recently arrived in New York City on an emissions-free sailboat in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

The plan: to walk out of school, on "strike”—to step up where adults have failed, and demand policies from our leaders to ensure a healthy future and a livable planet.

Before we had risen, on the earlier side of the world clock, Australia had seen hundreds of thousands of protesters. Children in the Solomon Islands arrived by rowboat to their strike so far away. Hamburg and Montreal were packed. Here in Brooklyn, NY, kids at my daughter's high school had self-organized with plans to head to the subway en masse, at 11 a.m. sharp. I expected that my daughter might want to go with her classmates. But to my surprise and delight, she told me, “I’ll meet up with you there.”

That felt great. But I also knew that the crowds would be massive and that there was a good chance we might not be able to join physically together. I also knew that it was more important that she walk in the march, and into the future with peers—joined in the determination and courage that they'll need to face the uncertainties that come with a deteriorating planet.

"The sea is rising and so are we!”

I arrived in Foley Square to a powerful energy around 12 p.m. It was inspiring and overwhelming—the massive crowds had an undeniably positive energy and a plethora of signs. Aptly put, one read: "The sea is rising and so are we!”

Asking kids how they felt, “happy” was clearly the word of the day. But they were there with a mission, a purpose, and they knew it.

climate march
Credit: Margaret Hetherman

While I stayed in touch via text with my daughter, Lily, I stood with thousands who would join tens of thousands, turning into hundreds of thousands of protesters making their way north in Manhattan where Greta would eventually speak.

And while I waited to connect with my daughter, I reflected on the spirit of the march itself—that the kids are saying that they need to start taking matters into their own hands—even as all people are encouraged to rise up in a supportive and actionable way. Indeed, today’s children will be charged with taking on humanity’s grandest challenges. It is our job as parents and adults to leave future generations with a habitable planet as best as we are able, at this late juncture. But now also, to give them the space to spread their wings so they can soar into, and beyond, what’s ahead.

There was no shortage of parents and supportive adults in the massive crowds that enfolded in Lower Manhattan. Especially for the youngest, the adults were pillars of support; among the wishes for their children's future, signs promised that they would always use their voices to fight for change.

climate march
Credit: Margaret Hetherman

“I think it's just really wonderful to see all these young people stepping up and taking leadership,” said Katherine Earle of Spanish Harlem who attended with her 5-year old niece. " It's really wonderful that all these speakers today are 16, 17, 19 years old and they're not waiting for anyone to tell them that they have to get older to get wiser. They know what's going on. They know this is their future and they're taking it into their own hands so it's really wonderful to see this global movement. It's really what we need right now.”

I was surprised how much weight some of the youngest were carrying. William Hall, age 13, seemed in good spirits. How did he feel about the march? "I think that it's good because there's a lot of people here and I think that could end up being very helpful..."

But when we talked about what he would like to see in the future, he became very emotional.

climate march
Credit: Margaret Hetherman

"Change," he said. Then a pause. Then big hugs and encouragement from mom, and a few tears shared between us.

"Good for you, William," she said. "I love that about you. Everybody cares." She turned to me. "This is something he really worries deeply about. I don't think he realized in what good company he was and how many people care and how powerful something like this is to change the world…You see hope and change, right,” she said to him. "It makes you feel better?

Dr. Lise Van Susteren, MD, climate psychology expert, has spoken frequently about the emotional toll that climate disruption has on children. They are right to respond to what they perceive as aggression in the world, she has counseled, and doing so is critical to keeping anxiety at bay.

"When people take action it's always empowering, people always feel better," Dr. Van Susteren explains. "When you mobilize with others, your peer group, there's a vitality, a vigor, an energy, a camaraderie, a comfort in knowing that you're not alone.”

The Power of Kindred Spirits

Spoiler alert: my daughter and I were not able to meet up in person at the march. The crowds were impenetrable. The WiFi was nil. But I knew she was not alone. She was somewhere in the city, with kindred spirits, bathed in positive energy and a drive to take on the future.

climate march
Credit: Margaret Hetherman

She was surrounded by many. Like Karina MacKenzie who was there with her husband and two small children–Maya, age 4, and Jasper, almost 6 who was there for “the fishies.” Like so many parents, she shared concern for their future. As for what words she would send them off with:

“That they have a voice, and they have a chance–and they have every right in the world to stand up for what they believe in…and that they should absolutely feel empowered to use their voice in the same way that Greta is.”

Why We Need to Show Up

When my daughter arrived home, she was worn out but in good spirits.

"It was interesting to see everyone coming together, she said. "People of all ages—people came with their babies, with their middle schools, by themselves, with their parents.” Reportedly, she saw an 80-year old man hanging off a crosswalk sign.

She was surprised that there were so many adults, “because the whole point of today was that kids were walking out of their classes to come to the march.”

climate strike
Credit: Margaret Hetherman

But it did seem to matter that we, as adults showed up.

"People need to come together no matter their age, race, class—diversity,” she said. “We're all people, coming together to support a cause that is really vital for our survival, and our future generations' survival.”

So yes, we send them off into an uncertain future. But they will have a toolbox, and we’ll have an opportunity to put a few things in it. If there was one takeaway from the many conversations I had with parents at today’s magnificent showing, it was that we can send them off with the gift of love and courage. As Katherine Earle put it: “The message I'd give my niece in the future—we'll do our best to protect each other. Love is a powerful force."