CEDAR RAPIDS — Years before being a climate emergency striker every Friday on the steps of Cedar Rapids City Hall, Ayla Boylen, now 21, was a kid in Waterville, a farming community of 140 people in northeast Iowa, palling around with her younger brother, Samson.
Options for playmates were limited, so the siblings grew close. While she didn’t envision having her own family, Samson, she imagined, would. But when she was 16 and he was 14, he was diagnosed with leukemia. A week later, he died.
He had a rare and undetected genetic disorder called ornithine transcarbamylase, or OTC, deficiency, which coupled with chemotherapy, triggered a massive stroke and brain hemorrhage.
“I carry him with me every day,” the Mount Mercy University junior said. “He is a huge part of who I am. It made me stronger and more empathetic toward others. ... In climate striking, I am thinking about what future I would want his kids to have.”
For 11 consecutive Fridays, Boylen has been demonstrating outside City Hall with painted signs such as “Declare a climate emergency” and “Cedar Rapids Climate Strike.”
Dressed in a green coat pinned with buttons, a knit hat, scarf and wearing glasses and braided pigtails, Boylen on a recent Friday stood quietly with a hand-painted sign, “Align with the IPCC recommendations.”
IPCC — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — recommends reducing carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reaching net zero before 2050.
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Many people walk by and ignore her, while a smattering of others engage, in many cases in support. While she has had negative interactions in person, much of the negative pushback comes through social media, she said.
“People say, ‘Talk to me when you start paying taxes,’ ” she said, noting people often mistake her for a teenager. “I say, ‘I’ve had a job since I was 14. I pay taxes.’ ”
The global movement inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, and fanned by wildfires in the Amazon, inspired Boylen to search for a direct form of activism to have a larger impact. When she couldn’t find a movement locally, she started her own.
At first it was just her. But as word spread, others, such as Levi Bostian, have joined. Since the third week, Bostian has been a regular.
"Being a member of the Sunrise Movement, I felt this was a good match for me," Bostian said. "I wanted to find someone and join them." Boylen’s commitment is rooted in her younger years, her hometown and her family, she said.
Her surrounding community was far more conservative than her family, she said. Her father was environmentally focused and put a priority on climate awareness, she said.
While family members weren’t outwardly activists, inwardly they controlled their own impact, she said. They recycled, composted and turned to secondhand goods.
After her brother’s death, she learned a lot about what it means to be part of a community with a range of viewpoints and backgrounds, she said.
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“The community didn’t always agree with my parents’ liberal-leaning ways, but they came together and did everything they could for my family,” Boylen said. “Even though we had our differences, when it mattered most, the community came together and put differences aside.”
That experience was formative and helped her build empathy for people and communities she doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with. She said it cultivated a sense of responsibility for others and to want to help in times of crisis, she said.
Her hope with her current activism is to raise awareness and, in turn, influence an increasing sphere of policymakers to reduce carbon footprints through policy.
At some point, she envisions moving the demonstrations to sites other than City Hall.
She applauds the city of Cedar Rapids for working on a sustainability plan, which, among other things, calls for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions although with lower standards than the IPCC wants.
Boylen wants to push public officials to strive higher, and has a rejoinder for skeptics.
“What if climate change is a hoax, and we just create a cleaner green future for our kids?” she asked. “How is that a bad thing?”
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