Then the coronavirus struck. The pandemic has shut down Maddie’s life and offered a taste of the global turmoil that scientists say climate change will bring.
And it has crystallized the conviction that made Maddie an activist in the first place: a belief that the world needs saving, and no one else is going to do it.
The coronavirus crisis will pass, she said. But the world will still be warming — and she and her friends are still determined to fight it.
“We have to remember how afraid we are now,” Maddie said. “And decide we don’t ever want something like this to happen again.”
This moment in America seems made for girls like Maddie, said University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher.
They have grown up in the era of viral hashtags, with protests on the Mall as regular as weekend track maintenance on the Metro. They have seen the power of social media to amplify a single voice into a chorus. They have witnessed the birth of the “resistance” and watched a wave of women elected to Congress. They have been bombarded with the message, written on T-shirts and protest signs, that the future is theirs.
Now, they are living through simultaneous public health and environmental crises — issues that have unsettled their present and imperil their future.
“Growing up in this age of contention,” Fisher said, “they were primed to do something.”
From 'tree girl' to climate warrior
Maddie always believed she would make a difference. Her childhood heroes were the fearless female protagonists of the books that fill her bedroom shelves: Katniss Everdeen, the bow-and-arrow-wielding narrator of “The Hunger Games”; Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s principled and brainy best friend; Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” who can move objects with the power of her mind.
That kind of ambition is encouraged in the busy brick colonial in the Washington suburb where Maddie lives with her parents and three sisters.
Maddie is one of a set of triplets: Val and Dana are identical, while Maddie is not. Their younger sister, Carly, is 12.
Their father, Steve, an aerospace engineer, tells his daughters to think deeply and ask questions. Their mother, Elisa, who goes by the name Li, cuts out articles when she comes across news she thinks the girls should know. Their breakfast table is frequently set with clippings about foreign policy, the presidential race, genetically modified organisms.
And while neither of her parents would call themselves environmentalists, Maddie credits them with fostering her passion for the Earth. Her mother took her on Girl Scout camping trips. When Maddie felt excluded by Val and Dana, she would join her father in the garden.
If someone sought to pigeonhole the sisters, “which people always do with triplets,” Maddie said, Maddie was “the tree girl.”
She was in ninth grade when she attended her first demonstration, the 2018 Women’s March, with her Girl Scout troop. Months later, after 17 people were killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., her classmates organized a walkout to demand action on gun violence.
Maddie and her sisters begged their parents to let them join. Kids their age were dying, the girls said. They needed to do something about it.
“I kind of felt like the kids needed this outlet,” Li Graham said. So she let them go. “We didn’t think it was going to be an every-week thing.”
Then, in November 2018, Maddie came across news that dozens of activists with the Sunrise Movement were arrested during a sit-in at the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the House minority leader, to demand more aggressive legislation on climate change.
Everywhere she looked, the world seemed to be falling apart. A catastrophic flood had deluged her grandmother’s community near Ellicott City, Md., for the second time in three years. Firefighters were struggling to control a ferocious blaze that killed 85 people in Paradise, Calif. United Nations scientists had just declared that the world must take “unprecedented” action over the next decade to avoid the disastrous effects of warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
But there, outside Pelosi’s office, was a group of people — many of them high school students just like her — fighting to hold the planet together.
“I thought, ‘This is it. This is the part in all my books that was always the best part,’ ” Maddie recalled.
She became president of her school’s green club. She led a group of teens to urge Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) to co-sponsor a resolution on the Green New Deal.
Soon she was lobbying to be let out of school once a week so she could protest at the Capitol alongside young activists from Fridays for Future, the group Thunberg started.
“Why can’t they do this on the weekend?” her father asked.
“That’s the point,” Maddie replied. “We can’t do business as usual.”
The Grahams, moderate Republicans, have been taken aback by their daughter’s fervor. They recycle and try to conserve energy but are wary of calls for a carbon tax, a federal jobs guarantee and other sweeping changes.
“Things like this have happened for how many thousands of years?” Steve Graham asked about the changing climate one night after dinner.
“But we’re driving it really, really quickly now,” Maddie said.
“You’ve got to figure out, how do we pay for everything?”
“Well, how do we pay for war?”
“I don’t agree with the extreme things they say we have to do, like not flying.”
“Dad, that’s a Fox News talking point. It’s not in the Green New Deal.”
“Who really knows what it says these days?”
“I do,” Maddie said. “I read the whole thing.”
These debates usually ended with father and daughter holding the same positions as when they started. But Maddie said their exchanges have sharpened her communication skills.
“Most of my friends’ parents are staunch liberals and are totally on board,” she said. When faced with criticism or questions, her friends struggled to respond. But, Maddie told her parents, “I think I’m better at [that] discussion because I have you guys.”
It was important to the Grahams to support their children’s passions, even if they did not share them. So they compromised: Maddie would wait until after school to protest. She would keep up her grades. She would always let her parents know where she was going and who would be there.
She would not, under any circumstances, do something to get herself arrested.
Maddie accepted those terms. “It’s either that or sit at home and wait for the world to burn,” she said.
'Girls can create a revolution'
On an unseasonably warm November afternoon, Maddie was the first person through the doors of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, wearing a long floral dress and pink cat eye glasses. One arm carried a thick calculus textbook; she had just failed a math test — a first for the 11th-grader — and was determined to study.
A bus and Metro ride later, she arrived at the U.S. Capitol, where her friends were waiting. Sophia Geiger, 17, ran toward Maddie in an inflatable T-rex costume, flapping the dinosaur’s tiny arms. Kallan Benson, 15, wore fabric monarch butterfly wings.
Hugs and “I love yous” and many compliments were exchanged. Maddie shrugged off her backpack, kicked off her shoes and dropped onto the grass.
If not for the sign in Maddie’s hands, which read “Fridays for Future” in rainbow lettering, it could have been any teen girl hangout. They chatted about crushes, midterm exams, learning to drive. Ella Jacobs, 17, strummed a ukulele accompanied by Maddie, who sang soprano in her church choir until activism consumed her free time.
But then the conversation turned to the strike they were planning for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
“We’re holding a funeral for the future,” Sophia said.
Maddie bought black gowns from thrift shops for the strike leaders to wear. Kallan was making veils. The group met in a friend’s garage over the weekend to paint headstones on cardboard boxes and create flowers out of plastic bottles scavenged from neighbors’ trash bins.
“It’s symbolic,” Ella explained.
“It is the knowledge of imminent destruction, while also simultaneously refusing to accept it,” Maddie said. She grinned. “I was proud of that line when I wrote it.”
“She’s so smart,” Ella said.
Maddie blushed. “Shut up.”
At school, Maddie often felt frustrated by her classmates’ lack of urgency about the environment. Even her sisters won’t come to her protests. “I love the planet, but not enough to fail calculus,” Val once told her.
It wasn’t until she connected with Fridays for Future that she found kids who felt as strongly as she does. These girls — many of whom go to different schools and live in different towns, whom she never would have met if not for activism — have become Maddie’s best friends.
Maddie and her friends represent a generational and gender shift in the environmental movement, Fisher said.
While most environmental organizations and foundations have historically been headed by men, most of the organizers of the September climate strikes were women — and half were younger than 25, according to Fisher.
A poll of American teenagers conducted last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 46 percent of girls said climate change was “extremely important” to them personally, compared with 23 percent of boys. Girls were slightly more likely to have attended a walkout than boys.
These teens have benefited from an “expansion of the discourse of girl power,” said Jessica Taft, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who wrote “Rebel Girls” about young female activists.
“For a long time, [girl power] just meant girls being individually empowered,” Taft said. “Now that is opening up to mean more political things.”
Look at Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai and Emma González, Taft said. “There’s a new narrative . . . that girls can create a revolution,” she said.
Research suggests these young women can be particularly persuasive. According to a study published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change, adults report higher levels of concern about climate after talking to their children about the issue. The effect was particularly pronounced among fathers with daughters. A similar study found that Girl Scouts helped reduce their family’s energy consumption after being taught the importance of conservation.
In the Graham house, Maddie inspired her mother to install efficient LED lightbulbs. Her father finally started using the tote bags she stashed in his truck to carry groceries.
Still, her parents worried. They worried when Maddie took the Metro by herself. When she stayed up late on conference calls with other organizers, instead of doing school work. When she said things like, “I don’t want my future to die.”
If Li Graham tried to reassure her daughter, Maddie brushed her off.
“Maybe before, you could tell your children, ‘Everything will be okay,’ ” the girl said. “But it’s zero hour. Two minutes to midnight.”
Li Graham remembered what it was like to be young and frightened; she grew up in the era of Cold War nuclear bomb drills, hiding under desks in her suburban classroom. But at least she still spent her teenage years riding her bike, going to movies, dreaming of adulthood.
“It seems like they’re taking so much of the world’s burdens on their shoulders,” she said.
“I would argue,” Maddie replied, “they were put on our shoulders.”
Waking up to disaster
Over the course of 24 hours in the middle of March, Maddie’s whole life shut down.
First her mother barred her from going to D.C. for her usual protest out of fear about the coronavirus. Then Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) closed public schools. Then organizers canceled the massive demonstrations planned for Earth Day.
Instead, they will live-stream three days of speeches and concerts and make a major push to register voters.
“It’s weird,” she said. “Even as people working to prevent the apocalypse, we never thought our work would be interrupted by an apocalypse.”
In some ways, activism was the easiest part of her life to make digital. Events had always been organized over Slack and Zoom; now the teenagers prolong their calls to commiserate about “distance learning” and bemoan the boyfriends who have not been texting them back during quarantine.
Still, Maddie misses in-person protests, especially the polite-but-passionate discussions with skeptical passersby. Those debates assured Maddie that her activism had an impact.
Now, when she posts pictures of herself holding protests signs in her bedroom, her Twitter followers are the only people who notice.
Isolated indoors these past few weeks, paralyzed by a threat she cannot stop or even see, Maddie has had to fight an unfamiliar feeling: helplessness.
“I just didn’t think I would be as afraid as I am,” she said.
When anxiety over the coronavirus threatens to overwhelm, Maddie’s activism grounds her. Her Sunrise group is lobbying Congress for a “People’s Bailout,” which would direct relief funds toward the social safety net and sustainable businesses. She is working with other young leaders to publish op-eds about the importance of considering climate in the response to the coronavirus.
She pointed out that environmental problems will likely make pandemics like this worse. Habitat loss is expected to increase the rate of disease outbreaks, and studies show that people living in polluted areas suffer a worse form of the coronavirus.
“I think people are becoming more aware,” Maddie said. “They’re waking up not only to disaster, but to the government’s failure to act on those disasters and what happens when you ignore a disaster until it blows up.”
Although the shutdown of society has led to a drop in carbon emissions, climate activists know the shift is only temporary. Like Maddie, they have not stopped worrying about the next emergency, even as the planet reels from this one.
“We’re in a pivotal moment,” Fisher said. History has shown that disaster and disruption can push a society to transform. As people emerge from this crisis, they have a rare opportunity to consider what kind of world they want to rebuild.
When the time for rebuilding comes, Maddie knows where she will be: Outside the Capitol building alongside her friends, waving a sign and calling for climate action.
“This is just a temporary reprieve,” she said. “Don’t get used to it.”