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Eleanor Pilling Chappelear

Committed to climate cause: 13-year-old activist is at El Cerrito City Hall every Friday, sign in hand.

on October 5, 2021

In the spring, Eleanor Pilling Chappelear skipped school every Friday. Instead of Zooming in for class, the 13-year-old stood outside her hometown City Hall in El Cerrito to protest inaction around climate change. One of her signs says: WE SKIPPED OUR SCHOOL TO TEACH YOU A LESSON. 

Eleanor still stands outside of El Cerrito Hall every Friday, only now she comes after school. 

Inspired by Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist who walked out of school at the age of 15, Eleanor wants to hold people in power accountable for climate action. That’s why she stands outside a government building.

“They are acting like we have forever to fix it. But we don’t. My goal is to get people to become more aware of climate change, so that we can pressure leaders into treating climate change like the crisis that it is,” she said.

Eleanor Pilling Chappelear
Taking part in the global Fridays for Future youth-led protest on Sept. 24, 2021, Eleanor Pilling Chappelear and three friends protest outside El Cerrito City Hall. (Wangyuxuan Xu)

Her weekly protest comes as leaders around the world commit to doing more to address climate change. In September, President Joe Biden told the U.N. General Assembly that he would work with Congress to double what he initially pledged to help developing nations deal with climate change to $11.4 billion by 2024.

But Eleanor said that isn’t enough, considering the U.S. is still investing in fossil fuels and has a long way to go in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change movements are increasingly championed by younger generations. In 2017, teens from Oakland founded Youth vs. Apocalypse to lobby against a proposed coal terminal in their city. Last month, hundreds of youths marched in San Francisco, joining thousands of others around the world in a global strike to demand change. 

“When our youth are saying something, we should listen because they care about the future,” said Rishi Singh, commissioner of the Human Relations Commission in El Cerrito. “A lot of us are jaded. Adults are cynical. We don’t think we can change anything. But they believe it.” 

Some Fridays, Eleanor protests alone, holding handmade signs with such sayings as: “NO MORE EMPTY PROMISES.” But Sept. 24 was a special day, coinciding with Climate Week NYC 2021 and a global strike launched by Fridays for Future, a youth-led movement that Thunberg started by walking out of school. In El Cerrito, Eleanor leads the local chapter. 

That day, four people joined Eleanor outside City Hall, where her props were more elaborate than usual. On a big white parachute, she wrote in red, blue and green crayon: “#UPROOT THE SYSTEM” and “#SCHOOL STRIKE FOR CLIMATE. She drew frogs next to factory smokestacks to illustrate the impacts of pollution on animals.

Eleanor Pilling Chappelear
With the help of a friend, Eleanor Pilling Chappelear (left) puts her protest slogans on a parachute outside El Cerrito City Hall on Sept. 24, 2021. (Wangyuxuan Xu)

Eleanor isn’t the only member of her family fighting for the environment. Her mother, Melinda Pilling, worked for the California attorney general’s office, representing the state against the environmental rollbacks imposed by the Trump administration. She is now supervising chambers attorney for the California Supreme Court. 

“It’s something that we kind of talk about a lot at home,” Pilling said. “But she’s really taken this on herself. It’s really been her project.”

The Pilling Chappelear family tries to do what they can to be environmentally conscious. They have solar panels and get power from other renewable sources. Mother and daughter are vegetarians, though Eleanor’s father and brother are not.

During the pandemic, Eleanor, who loves reading and playing Frisbee, finished two of Thunberg’s books, which showed her how climate change is affecting people in developing countries. 

“It kind of scares me that so many people don’t know a lot about climate change and don’t know what the situation is,” she said.

Eleanor thinks about her future a lot. Ideally, she said, she will go to college on the East Coast and then live there, with dogs. She’d like to be a fifth grade teacher and educate children about how they can work for change. 

“But I will not get to have this,” she said, “unless we take the action needed to face climate change.”

This story was updated to correct Melinda Pilling’s occupation.

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