For the past seven Fridays, 14-year-old Mary Ellis Stevens of Charlotte has skipped classes at Trinity Episcopal School and staged what she calls a School Strike for Climate outside Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center. It's not about getting a day off - she's following the lead of other young activists trying to build a global youth movement to fight climate change.
On Friday, a light rain was falling and Mary Ellis was wearing shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt with the slogan "Change Begins Here." Signs around her said "Listen to Science" and "The Sea Is Rising. So Must We."
"I'm out here because climate change and the climate crisis is literally the most important thing right now," she said. "And if we don't do something now to stop the warming before it gets to 1.5 degrees Celsius, devastation is going to ensue and it's already started."
Though only 14, Mary Ellis is fast learning her way around the world of climate activism. On March 15, she was in Atlanta for a nationwide Youth Climate Strike. She also went through leadership training with former vice president Al Gore's Climate Reality Project. Last Monday, she spoke at the Charlotte City Council meeting to oppose the mayor's decision to eliminate the council's stand-alone environment committee
It all started with a research project on climate change last fall, where she learned about 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg attracted global attention with her own strike outside the Swedish parliament and recently was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
"I saw several of her speeches and learned about the school strikes that she was doing. And I decided that was a good idea to do, and that I wanted to help bring the movement to the United States," she said.
Between the Friday protests and other events, the young climate activist says she has skipped 17 days of eighth grade.
This week she was joined outside the Government Center by four other young women, high school students at Myers Park, Hopewell and Northwest School of the Arts. Most Fridays, it's just her. It's an unexcused absence. But she's dedicated to the cause.
"I go to school the other four days of the week. But I make up all of the work that I miss. And the school's aware of where I am and it's obviously not optimal. But honestly, this is more important than education right now," she said.
Reactions to her protest at the Government Center have been mixed. Some people tell her she's just a kid and should back to school. But she says it's important for young people to be involved.
"'Cause it's our future. Because it's going to affect us the most. And also right now, mostly it's older generations that are making these decisions and they may have been alive longer, but we have to live with the decisions that they make for longer," she said.
"And so it is crucial that we are the ones out here demanding action and that we really do take our future into our own hands."
Mary Ellis plans to strike every Friday until school ends. Then she'll think about other ways to spread the word. And she's helping to organize North Carolina events for another nationwide youth climate strike, scheduled for May 3.