Isabella Johnson shows the phrase “climate emergency” written on her hands after leading the Oct. 7 protest. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

Meet Chicago’s latest teen climate leader

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

“The oceans are rising, and so are we!” chanted a group of more than 50 teenagers marching toward Chicago City Hall. Clad in black, the high school protesters took over sidewalks on Oct. 7, walking the half-mile from Trump Tower to Daley Plaza as they demanded the city declare a climate emergency. Many held up their palms to display written-in-marker messages, like “Our future is in your hands” and “Save us.”

At the group’s front and center was Isabella Johnson, a 17-year-old senior at Benet Academy from Naperville, Illinois. As one of three students holding the main banner — which read, “Climate change strikes hard, we strike harder” — she guided the march’s path and led chants echoed by its members. That evening, she brandished a megaphone on her waist and a pin above her heart. It read, “There is no planet B.”

Johnson leads the Illinois chapter of Youth Climate Strike, a national organization operated by and for teenagers to coordinate climate change protests. Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, three students — including Isra Hirsi, daughter of U.S Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — founded YCS in February.

The Illinois chapter, one of 39 YCS chapters, is planning a follow-up protest for Dec. 6. It will focus on registering voters in Chicago while once again promoting a climate change declaration, Johnson said.

But after the October march, she and her peers participated in a “die-in” outside city hall, lying motionless on the ground as a crowd gathered around them and cheered.

“We did this for 11 minutes to represent 11 years we have left before the worst effects of climate change become unavoidable,” Johnson said.

Johnson (center) shouts a chant among more than 50 protesters on State Street in Chicago. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)
Johnson (center) shouts a chant among more than 50 protesters on State Street in Chicago. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

Despite YCS’s demands, Chicago is not any closer to declaring a climate emergency. But Johnson also advocates for legislative action at the state level, primarily supporting the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The bill, slowly moving through the Illinois General Assembly, promises to switch Illinois to 100% renewable energy, lower utility costs and help displaced fossil fuel workers find new jobs.

During the same week millions of students marched worldwide, Johnson’s chapter led the Sept. 20 climate strike in Chicago, where over 5,000 people marched through the city’s streets.

“We had such a large crowd that the police had to shut down Columbus (Drive), one of the biggest streets in Chicago,” she said. “But we want to make it very clear this fight didn’t end with September 20 and only began. Seeing the turnout we had today only two weeks after the strike was amazing.”

Johnson got her first taste of activism in June 2018, when she protested at Trump Tower against inaction on gun violence. She switched her primary focus to climate change, citing its timeliness and massive scale.

“I realized that corporations learned about this, like, decades and decades ago, and they just covered it up,” she said. “I realized I have to do something. … If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”

Johnson joined the YCS Illinois chapter in February as a co-leader, alongside 16-year-old Anya Sastry of Barrington, Illinois. Sastry soon moved to a national position, leaving Johnson to take on additional work.

“Isabella, basically overnight, had to go from being one of two state leads to a solo state lead, and she handled it really well,” said chapter financial director Aidan Lane, 17, who is from Winnetka, Illinois. “She does, like, six times as much work as anyone else on the team constantly, and I really don’t know how she does it.”

As a state lead, she manages 20 organizers and 90 high school ambassadors, responsibilities Johnson compared to a part-time job. She has found it challenging to balance alongside classes and college applications; for instance, she recently turned down a radio interview scheduled during her math class.

Youth Climate Strike activists participate in a “die-in” outside Chicago City Hall in Daley Plaza. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)
Youth Climate Strike activists participate in a “die-in” outside Chicago City Hall in Daley Plaza. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

Johnson faces additional challenges in the form of online harassment. Earlier in her activism career, for instance, several classmates called her a “baby killer” on social media for her beliefs on abortion rights. Both family members and high school administrators have supported her through the conflicts, according to Johnson. But her father, accountant Matthew Johnson, remains concerned about her well-being.

“It’s very easy to write things that are awful on social media,” he said. “It would be a lot for grown-ups to handle, and she’s having to handle it at a relatively young age.” Yet Matthew encourages her activism, which he said is driven by her “very deep-rooted concern for others and for the world.”

Although Johnson attended her first protest less than a year and a half ago, she sees herself as a lifelong activist, for the climate and other injustices.

“I’m definitely planning to major in political science because I can’t see a future for myself that’s not involved in politics,” she said. “This has completely changed my life.”

Photo at top: Isabella Johnson shows the phrase “climate emergency” written on her hands after leading the Oct. 7 protest. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)