Award-winning director and 17-year-old climate activist to visit Penn State

February 07, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many climate-related events are taking place at Penn State this spring as the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches and a new decade begins. 2020-2030 is being referred to as the "decade of action" for accelerating global sustainable solutions, and youth are becoming increasingly involved with climate advocacy and more aware of its connection to social justice. 

Between Feb. 12-15, Penn State will have an opportunity to build its awareness of climate justice through a series of events and workshops with Judith Helfand, award-winning director of "COOKED: Survival by Zip Code," and Isaac Vergun, a youth climate activist who is one of the 21 student plaintiffs in the case Juliana v. United States.

“Many Penn State students already are taking a lead on advocating for social and environmental justice,” said Peter Boger, assistant director for community engagement in the Sustainability Institute at Penn State. “These events with nationally renowned climate justice leaders provide an amazing opportunity to galvanize the entire Penn State community to join their peers in these efforts.”

Helfand will be appearing for a free screening of her film at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, in the State Theatre, co-sponsored by the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. The documentary examines the 1995 Chicago heat wave when more than 700 people died, and explores how natural disasters, worsened by climate change, disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. 

The film reveals how deaths in natural disasters aren’t “natural” or random acts of God, but all too often are predetermined by issues of geography, poverty and racism. “Our zip code should be a routing number, not a life-or-death sentence,” Helfand said. 

Helfand also will be a guest speaker in several communications classes during the week.

Vergun will be a panelist with Helfand for the post-film discussion. 

Represented by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit organization, Vergun and the other youths in Juliana v. United States filed their lawsuit against the federal government in 2015, arguing that it had violated the plaintiffs’ rights to liberty and life by promoting activities that contribute to the release of greenhouse gas emissions. Several times the courts ruled against efforts by the Obama and Trump administrations to have the case dismissed until a recent court ruling finally determined that, although the students have standing to sue, the courts are not equipped to order the massive policy changes necessary to address climate change comprehensively.

At noon on Friday, Feb. 14, in 233AB HUB-Robeson Center, Vergun and his mother, Pam Vergun, will be speaking at one of the Council of Sustainable Leaders Showcase events about their experiences and about the program they founded, Youth Acting for our Earth, which helps educate youth and their parents on the climate crisis. They also will speak with several Penn State classes and student organizations throughout the week.

The Vergun family will be leading Youth Climate Training sessions at the Unitarian Universalist Church in State College on Feb. 15. The goal is to teach youth how to effectively speak out against climate change and get leaders to act. These sessions are free and open to students in grades four to 12. Pre-registration for the training is preferred. 

All of these events are the first of many University-wide climate-related events being offered this spring to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22. 

“What both Isaac and Judith’s work makes clear are the stakes of climate change,” said Boger. “It’s not about polar bears; it’s about people dying, right now and in the future. But who lives and who dies will depend on the actions all of us, but especially our youth, take in this next decade.”

Last Updated February 10, 2020