Hawaii Youth Strikes Back
Meet Kawika Pegram, Hawaii state's lead organizer for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike.
By: Chavonnie Ramos
14 May 2019
Kawika Pegram did not anticipate becoming an activist and leading a strike at such a young age.
As a 17-year-old junior at Waipahu High School, Pegram has a jam-packed schedule; he is the school newspaper’s Photo Editor, is a track-and-field athlete and is looking to pursue a career in law.
Yet it was Pegram who organized the U.S. Youth Climate Strike for Hawaii on March 15 at the state Capitol.
He became Hawaii’s state lead organizer for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike — a group of people in younger generations, mostly teenagers, that advocate for climate change.
After seeing a post on Twitter about the Global Climate Strike movement coming to the U.S., he reached out to the U.S. Youth Climate Strike leaders. He received a response and is now an organizer who represents Hawaii.
“I actually came into it originally thinking that nobody would show up,” Pegram said. “ I’d embarrass myself for a little bit and move on from this horrendous mistake. I guess the hours I put in and the help from our co-sponsors really paid off.”
The U.S. Youth Climate Strike’s co-founders and national co-directors who led the movement are 16-year-old Isra Hirsi, 12-year old Haven Coleman and 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor.
The climate strike branched off of the worldwide "Youth Strike 4 Climate." It started with a 16-year-old Swedish student named Greta Thunberg. She made headlines for her action against climate change and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2018, Thunberg announced that she would stop going to school on Fridays and instead protest outside the Swedish parliament of Rikstag to raise awareness on issues such as climate change and global warming. She wanted to press government officials and legislators to reduce carbon emissions.
At the COP24 UN climate summit and at the World Economic Forum, she told viewers, "I want you to panic."
Student activism has a rich history in the United States, although it usually comes from college and university students. But now there appears to be more politically-charged high school students as well, possibly sparked by the Parkland shooting in February 2018.
After that shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 students and teachers dead, students there have called for change in gun-control regulations. Those students lobbied their state lawmakers, spoke with President Trump and tried to persuade companies to cut ties with the National Rifle Association, according to The New York Times.
“My teachers would always rave about it,” he said.
Pegram noted that on the day of the March 15 strike, only one of his teachers marked him absent. The others were supportive of his commitments with the climate strike. He also said he was interviewed by numerous news outlets, with notable ones being The New York Times.
“I was so desensitized with the media already, when the New York Times came out, I was like ‘okay that’s another one,’” he said. “It didn’t really hit me that this was The New York Times until like about a week or two after the interview.”
Pegram only has been organizing strikes since the beginning of this year, in late January. In his first three months, he developed multiple connections with different activists, politicians and lawyers.
Pegram today is still working on organizing for their next strike on May 3. He said that the majority of the planning was done over email and meetings with local groups such as the Sierra Club and 350Hawaii.
Students and members of different organizations attended the U.S. Youth Climate Strike at the Hawaii State Capitol on March 15, 2019
THE RISE OF STUDENT ACTIVISTS
Those students did not want politicians and adults to decide their future, so they decided to take it into their own hands and advocate for better gun control regulations.
Millions of students across the country protested for that cause, including thousands of students in Hawaii schools.
But Pegram said he did not expect he would get support from different organizations for this cause.
Pegram said the strike inspired him to continue being an activist. He put many hours into being interviewed by different media outlets and building connections with other groups.
For the March 15 strike, Pegram skipped school to prepare. The strike took place at 3 p.m.
“The greatest thing about kind of being young and doing something about this, is that everybody around you is super supportive of it, even if they don’t necessarily agree with skipping school,” Pegram said.
Pegram noted that he had to step outside of class on certain occasions to do phone interviews with media organizations on the mainland. On one occasion, he did a 20-minute phone interview outside of class, came back in and asked his classmates what he missed.
Pegram also serves as the state representative for the “New Voices Bill.”
New Voices is a student-run organization that is aimed to give young people more rights and freedom to report on stories that revolve around issues in society. The organization wants to protect student journalists’ freedom with state laws.
In this past Legislative session, House Bill 1529, which would establish the Hawaii Student Free Expression Act, was introduced. The bill allows “student journalists at public schools to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored media.”
High schools across the state have experienced censorship issues with their administrations.
However, HB 1529 died early in the legislative session and never got a hearing.
As of spring 2019, there are New Voices laws in 14 states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. There are also codes protecting student journalists’ rights in the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania.
In 2019, related bills were introduced in 11 states, which is a record number, according to the Student Press Law Center.
Pegram, along with other high school journalists across the state, are constantly working with the Hawaii High School Publishers Association and the Legislature to figure out next steps.
He has to do that on top of balancing school, extracurricular activities and being an activist.
When asked about how he manages his time, Pegram said he tries to keep what he needs to do in a linear order.
“I try to keep things ordered in a way that I know I won’t be rushed to do them an hour before the deadline,” Pegram said. “It seldom works, but it’s nice to pretend you have your life in order.”
In the future, Pegram hopes to become a public defender as a way to give back to his community. Pegram lives in one of the rural areas of Waipahu and observes some of the hardships the community experiences, from homelessness to theft.
“I’d much rather be on the side that protects these people than on the side that puts them away," he said. "And to say this isn’t me purposefully trying to dog on people who choose to be police officers or prosecutors. It’s simply the way the system has been built. So, until there are legitimate repairs done to fix the system, I will much rather prefer to stay as a public defender.”
The greatest thing about kind of being young and doing something about this, is that everybody around you is super supportive of it, even if they don’t necessarily agree with skipping school.
Kawika Pegram holds a megaphone to get the attention of bystanders near the Hawaii State Capitol.
Photo courtesy of Keoni Aricayos