I am really proud to have written a book about young activists. The young are all too often dismissed as naïve and ill-informed, when they are often quite the reverse. Clear-sighted and unburdened by the baggage of political bias or tribalism or the potential drag of adult experience, they see the world with an energy and freshness which is pretty much humanity’s greatest hope. Of course, fostering this spirit has to be tempered with measures to keep them safe and to manage their expectations of what can be achieved in their ideal and possibly overly-impatient timescales, but engagement is what this planet needs and it needs it right now. So here’s a guide you can share with your young pupils and friends.
Activism basically means getting off your backside and doing something to try to make a difference. Many campaigns fail, though, because there is no clear goal, no ask. It’s really vital to work out what the objective is. If the goal is too big or too vague or too complicated, it will be hard to achieve and, therefore, dispiriting. An example of a noble but vague goal would be “I want to save the planet”. It’s lovely, but it’s a little bit ambitious! It’s worth taking a leaf out of Greta’s book.
She wanted to raise awareness of the climate crisis and she did that very simply at first with her solo protest and hand-painted sign. Her protest developed into an effort to get the Swedish government to prioritise action on the climate crisis. She then came to symbolise the voice of young people across the globe, expressing the anger and frustration her generation feels at the slow progress being made to tackle the issue. As a result, she got access to the most powerful politicians in the world.
A more modest goal might be to try to change the mind of someone who thinks climate change is not that important Converting people to the cause is a good goal to have. The next step might be to get some positive action in the community…a commitment to cut food waste or plant trees or leave verges unsprayed and un-mowed, for example
Persuading people to change their minds or to move from indifference to engagement is how we achieve a change in social permission. Social permission theory basically says that when enough people think that doing something is no longer socially acceptable – like drinking and driving or racism – then pressure builds in society to sanction that behaviour so that it is no longer acceptable.
As a nation, we are fairly passive when it comes to protest and this government is trying to quell what comparatively little dissent there is via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which has the potential to prevent peaceful protest. Contrast us with the French or the Germans, where large scale protest at social injustice and climate emergency is relatively commonplace. My own view is that we need to change the social permission around protest and embrace it as an important part of our struggle to get the climate change agenda the priority status it absolutely deserves.
The climate cause also encourages engagement with the political system in other ways. Maybe the local council or MP don’t seem to be doing anything about the crisis. It is possible to find out how an MP votes on climate issues here. Just because young people are not old enough to vote does not mean they cannot write to their MP.
If an MP does not seem to be acting in the environment’s best interests, a school or a class could get a petition together and get as many friends, family and neighbours as possible to sign it, asking the MP or the local councillors to vote in favour of laws/regulations that help rather than damage the planet. Keep on and on at them and ask them to come and talk to the school to explain themselves! Some constituencies are lucky to be represented by a pro-planet MP. Ask them to come and speak, too!
Actual letters are better than emails. It is best if an adult also signs to say that they are a constituent of the MP (MPs need to care about their voters if they want to keep their power)
Other things young people can do:
- Form a group or join an existing group. There may well be a club at school already. Come up with a catchy name. Twin with a climate group in another country.
- Make climate news a regular feature in assembly. Individuals can volunteer to be the school researcher and reporter!
- Make artworks or musical instruments out of rubbish. Hold a concert and an exhibition to raise awareness. Run recycling/upcycling clubs, sharing outgrown clothes, toys, dvds etc and have a fashion show from upcycled clothing.
- Talk to the school about holding a climate emergency awareness event. Maybe the school would support a Fridays for Future demonstration.
- Make some placards. There’s no need for anything fancy. A piece of cardboard cut from a box is enough, but make sure that writing can be read at a distance. Use a thick marker or a dark paint.
- Make the message clear, simple and from the heart. IT’S OUR FUTURE! NO PLANET B Be the solution, not the pollution Clean up your mess! Rhymes work well, because people remember them. Usually, the rule of three is the best one to follow: three words: We need Change Climate Justice NOW Evidence over Ignorance. There’s just something about three words that humans really like!
If activists hold an event it’s important to maximise the impact by contacting the local press, the regional and national TV and radio stations. Take pictures and make a video, but be careful to check that all children and young people filmed or photographed have given permission for their images to be used. Also be sure to demonstrate somewhere where lots of people will see what’s going on but which is also safe. Don’t demonstrate on a narrow pavement near a busy road, for example. If setting up a demo or stall outside a shop, make sure the owners don’t mind and be sure not to block their entrance. In fact, always be careful not to block entrances or roads. Get parents’ permission and tell the police. Chances are they’ll join you! Borrow a loud hailer (from school or the local sports club?) so that any speeches can be heard clearly. Borrow a hop-up from a friendly builder.
It’s crucial to be ready with some words to say in the event of an interview. I always think “What do I want this person to remember?” This makes me really focus on the message and not go babbling on! The other good rule is to : tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them!
I make a habit of wearing a badge or a piece of clothing that shows I care about the climate. It can start a conversation and help to find people who feel the same way. Students could make their own badges or make a design on a plain canvas bag or T-shirt.
If we get the chance to go on a march again, here are some top tips. Backpack! Water, comfortable shoes, sun cream, energy bars. Take some information about your group or campaign to share with other people. Make a big banner with a sheet from a charity shop and get friends to help carry it. When people wear something funny or eye-catching, the press will be more likely to film them. Again, be ready to say something if asked!
Praise friends and community if they do a good job! Create an online newsletter/blog to keep everyone updated and keep posting on social media.
Write to the local newspaper and MP to tell them about achievements and milestones. We all need good news stories.
Find out more about Anthea Simmons’ book Burning Sunlight here.
Anthea Simmons lives in Devon with her polydactyl cat, Caramac. After a successful career in the City and a spell of teaching, she finally knuckled down to write at the insistence of her son, Henry. She is the author of Share, The Best Best Baby, I’m Big Now, Lightning Mary and Burning Sunlight. She is editor in chief for online citizen journalism paper, West Country Bylines, and campaigns on a range of issues including electoral reform and rejoining the EU.
School climate strikers urge boycott of Science Museum show over Shell deal [Guardian] – Sign the petition here