Climate & Social Justice

Young Climate Activist Shines Light on Broken System


Emma Bouton is a leading Rhode Island voice in the youth-led Sunrise Movement. (Olivia McClain)

PROVIDENCE — For many college students, Thursday nights are for fun, whether it’s enjoying an adult beverage, going to a party, or chilling with friends. But for 22-year-old Brown University senior Emma Bouton, Thursday nights are for fighting — climate injustice, that is.

The bright-eyed Bouton stands with a group of Sunrise Movement activists at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, where a Jan. 30 reception honoring House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is being held. They yell at the Cranston Democrat as he walks by: “How can you claim that Rhode Island can’t do anything about the climate crisis? Does it have anything to do with the donations from the president and vice president of National Grid?” A police officer herds the group out of the room, while people around them cast exasperated looks.

“I was at Mattiello’s fundraiser last night and the amount of influence the wealthy elite have on our politics is astounding to me,” Bouton said. She is wearing a black crew neck sweater with the words “Party @ the Primary” above the illustration of a megaphone.

“This $200 suggested donation fundraiser where practically every lobbyist in the state shows up and schmoozes for hours to get bills passed just doesn’t feel like the way we should be doing politics,” she continued, “and it’s representative of the amount of corporate influence on democrats in this state.”

That Thursday late last month, however, wasn’t the first time Bouton and her fellow activists have confronted elected officials who they believe are sacrificing the future and polluting the environment for political gain.

As co-leader of the action team for the Providence chapter of the Sunrise Movement, Bouton has spent the past two and half years organizing protests, sit-ins, and marches all in the name of climate justice. In November 2018, she was escorted from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington, D.C., with zip ties around her wrists.

But she wasn’t always a defender of the voiceless.

Bouton grew up in rural New Hampshire, steps away from the White Mountains, where she and her sister Callie would play imaginary games in the woods for hours on end.

“We were outside a lot, and we’ve always loved hiking, and having access to the White Mountains made it a space where we felt really comfortable and confident,” said Callie, 20, a sophomore at Brown University.

But while Emma was confident in the woods, playing games with her baby sister, she had her more introverted side.

“She was pretty quiet and shy when we were little, so it’s interesting to see her now in this big leadership role,” Callie said.

She chalked it up to her older sister growing into her interest in the environment and eventually connecting with the youth-led Sunrise Movement.

“I wasn’t surprised when her interest in Sunrise became so intense and she became so invested in the movement,” Callie said. “In high school she was involved in various environmental groups, but it was really with Sunrise in college where she seemed to find her own way.”

Emma believes her track into a more social justice-based form of environmentalism was partially sparked by her family’s experience during Superstorm Sandy. By that time, her family had moved to New Jersey, far away from the solitude of the White Mountains, and during the storm they gathered together in her grandparents’ home to wait it out.

“My elderly aunt, who was battling cancer at the time, was also there and we all hunkered down together,” Emma said. “I remember the storm really intensifying and getting pretty bad, and there was this scary moment when my aunt was rummaging through her purse trying to find her medication and she realized that she had only brought enough for two days and that if we were trapped by the storm because of trees coming down, and roads being closed — we just didn’t know what we would do.

“So that experience really opened my eyes to what the climate crisis could mean for families, and I started to get more interested in this issue, really seeing this crisis for what it is and making sure I’m working to learn how to fight it.”

Since that moment nearly eight years ago, shy, quiet Emma has become used to the spotlight. And while she has grown comfortable in her role as an activist, her family sometimes struggles to understand her newfound passion.

“I think they are super proud of her, but I’m not sure that they can totally relate,” Callie said with a laugh. “Our mom has a passion for environmental science; she studied it in graduate school and is very much on board with all of this work, but they’re probably a little more cautious than Emma is.”

As for attending the same school as her activist sister, Callie has gotten used to the limelight being on Emma.

“I think it’s easier now that I have my own friend group established,” she said. “It was a little bit harder last year, and I probably distanced myself from Sunrise then because that was her domain and her space and her friends. But I’m super proud of her. I was actually at breakfast this morning and heard a table adjacent from us talking about Emma and Sunrise, and I don’t know who these people are. That was pretty cool.”

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