Youth Climate Justice Activism: Changing the Agenda, by Pablo Ouziel

By Pablo Ouziel, Cedar Tree Institute at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria

A few weeks ago, I attended the webinar ‘Youth Climate Justice Activism: Changing the Agenda’. This was part of the EUCAnet Webinar Series Global Politics in Critical Perspectives: Transatlantic dialogues. The event brought together youth activists and allies from movements in the UK and Turtle Island as they shared their experiences with one another and discussed the ways forward.

The Webinar was co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union and counted with the support of the Centre for Global Studies (CFGS) and the Cedar Trees Institute (CTI) at the University of Victoria (UVic), and with the support of the International Institute for Child Rights and Development (IICRD).

Speakers included the following:

  • Mary-Jane Farrell & Roseanne Steffen, Youth Strike 4 Climate Brighton (YS4CB), UK
  • Rose Henry, Tla’amin Nation
  • Kiana Alexander, Director, Emerging Leaders Program, Raven Institute
  • Emily Thiessen, youth activist/organizer, Canada’s Green New Deal, Rise and Resist, Our Earth our Future (Victoria Youth Working for Climate Action) / the Canada Climate Strike Network
  • Antonia Paquin, youth activist/organizer, Canada’s Green New Deal, Rise and Resist, Our Earth our Future (Victoria Youth Working for Climate Action) / the Canada Climate Strike Network
  • Danny Noonan, Global Program Coordinator, Our Children’s Trust, US
  • Samantha & Carolyn Norr, Youth Vs Apocalypse

The event was co-chaired by Keith Cherry of CTI and the CFGS at UVic, and of Rise and Resist, and Rebeccah Nelems, also of CTI and the CFGS at UVic, and of IICRD.

Four key questions triggered the discussion:

  • How are movements currently coordinating or collaborating across movements, cities, countries and continents?
  • What are the opportunities and challenges for future collaboration?
  • What are opportunities for leveraging inter-generational support?
  • How might movements draw on the wisdoms of Indigenous nations, communities and organizations with respect to living in reciprocal relationship with the earth?

In this blog post, I want to highlight some of the contributions made by different speakers during the multilogue. It was a great experience to witness the level of commitment and expertise revealed by the youth involved in the Webinar and their allies.

In one of her interventions, Emily Thiessen pointed to the need of building a movement of the kind pre-figured by Occupy and suggested that the Green New Deal could be a platform from which to engage the broader community outside of the environmental movement bubble. For her, engagement with churches, unions and other communities of practice is important. Thiessen argues that this is the moment for youth to lead a glocal effort to coordinate a movement that can change the world.

Antonia Paquin spoke of an epiphany following a time of feeling intensely overwhelmed in which she realized that we lived in a globally polluted world in which young people were disempowered. She realized then the need to make a change in her life and to acknowledge the enormous power of a vision of a world that is more just. She became aware of the enormous capacity for change if people team up in a mindful manner. She gave the examples in Victoria of Rise and Resist and the Youth Climate Strike, and spoke of the March 15th 2019 demonstration in Victoria which brought out 2000 people in a revolutionary spirit. For Paquin, young people are always a force for change because young people are generally bolder and more provocative. Young people she argues, have more capacity to imagine a new vision for the future because of their fearlessness. This is why, she argues, the older generations are now looking at them to lead the way. Paquin spoke about numerous issues, she mentioned urban agriculture, food security, water and food, self-sufficency, energy democracy, and reducing the power of large corporations. She placed great emphasis on the source of our food, and on indigenous rights groups and their anti-colonization efforts together with allies. One prominent example repeated by other speakers was the Tiny House project in which activists built a Tiny House and carried it up the highway for 22 km to the location of a planned pipeline. This she described as indigenous people re-occupying their homeland. For Paquin, what is important as we transition to a healthy earth is authenticity. We need to help each other, and we need to speak and listen with our hearts.

Mary-Jane Farrell & Roseanne Steffen, joined the conversation from the UK and spoke of their experiences in the Youth Strike for Climate. In it, schools, colleges and universities are involved, and once a month since February they have been striking. As they explained this was initiated by Greta Thunberg from Sweden but it is actively being acted upon in the UK. They predominantly spoke of their local experience in Brighton and the diverse range of people from different generations active in the movement. The first strike in Brighton counted 2000 people, including local politicians, youth, academics, and performance artists. By the March strike, the numbers had doubled. Then Mary-Jane and Roseanne spoke of their trip to the EU parliament in Belgium to meet other youth activists from around Europe. They were invited by the democratic and socialist alliance in the EU parliament. For that trip, they planned a protest outside of the EU parliament, asking the EU to shut down British Petroleum (BP). They were asked politely to leave, then Swedish Green Party youth delegates decided to join the protest and they all ended up in a park nearby sharing with each other their strike experiences and discussing what to do in the future. What was most inspiring for them was the fact that this was a spontaneous meeting, which revealed the fact that coalitions can happen in the oddest of places. Their experience within the movement is one in which hierarchies have been broken and everyone is respectful of everyone in the space.

Samantha & Carolyn Norr, joined the Webinar from Oakland, California. Carolyn is an adult supporter of youths fighting for a liveable planet and has been supporting Samantha and other youths to travel to strikes. Carolyn spoke of a city with concentration camps on one side and rich people on the other. She described global inequality as it is lived within their city. She spoke of children in concentration camps following waves of deportations. For Carolyn, combating inequality and injustice is at the core of climate justice work. She spoke of the Climate Strike in San Francisco and how children from East Oakland could not afford public transport to attend ($10 roundtrip). Her work emphasizes getting children to these strikes so that they can fight for their communities. She also spoke of the block to the coal export terminal of the Oakland port. Samantha, spoke of Warriors for Justice in her middle school and of environmental racism. She also mentioned the difficulties they had getting people to go to the Climate Strike because of the strong resistance from teachers. This was due to the fact that the strike was not in the curriculum. Samantha launched a petition which was signed by 3/4 of the 7th grade class asking the school to let them go. Then some teachers threatened with lowering grades if people did not come to school on the day of the strike. They also threatened with calling their families. Those who made it to the strike, Samantha described, went to Nancy Pelosi’s office denouncing her proposal to tackle climate change. In a subsequent press conference, Pelosi withdrew her proposal. Samantha’s final comment was ‘do or die’. As she put it: “If we do not take action now we are going to go away”.

Danny Noonan of Our Children’s Trust, explained the work they are doing providing legal support to 21 young people across the US who have presented numerous lawsuits against the government, claiming that the government had knowledge of climate change while promoting fossil fuels. He spoke of these as youth led systemic legal actions. A growing movement in the courts protecting the fundamental right of people to be protected from climate catastrophe. Danny emphasized that their work is supported by a movement and that international awareness is rising thanks to local, national and international mobilization. He mentioned the 4th of July in Portland, Oregon,, Earth Gardens, and the Sunrise Movement as exemplars of the kind of action making their work possible. Danny also mentioned the support they receive from legislator allies on social media, and the work they have been doing on Podcasts to make their arguments more broadly accessible.

Rose Henry, Elder of the Tla’amin Nation, began by emphasizing how pleased she was seeing so many young people speaking about ‘our climate change’. She then went on to talk about the fact that we should be doing a lot more. That we should be making space for indigenous people and young people in our rallies. Rose was clear about the fact that we are in a crisis and that we need to change our climate direction. The youth, she argued are showing the rest of the world the direction we need to take. She mentioned how she has been fighting for social change since she was 14 years old. For her there are many links between murdered indigenous people and climate change. She denounced lack of action from leaders and voting people. For Rose, it is ironic that now people are looking at indigenous people and youth to make the change, while these are the people who have been oppressed. As she put it, in order to empower youth, we need to give them the microphone and allow them to speak. We have three elections, she reminded us, before many of the youth involved in this movement can vote, but many will already be voting in the next two elections. She spoke of Trump’s and Trudeau’s empty promises. She mentioned the Tiny house being moved 22 km down the highway as their attempt to stop the pipelines. Then, she emphasized that we need a major day of action. She suggested a day of action in October to shut down cashiers and coffee shops. Finally, she spoke of how she can see how climate change is affecting our oceans and our air, and how sick the trees are. She repeated the importance of saving the trees and spoke of this webinar as an event to bring communities together, pass the microphone around and see what we can do.

Kiana Alexander, of the Raven Institute began her contribution by reminding us of the fact that what is happening to the land is the same that is happening to people. She then moved on to talk about how disconnected we have become and how we are living our lives. According to Kiana, our identities and our cultures are interconnected with our ability to connect with the land. For her it is connectedness to each other that can provide the understanding needed for healing the world. She also felt a great sense of urgency and spoke of the Raven Speak Programme; a public forum for indigenous change-makers. For Kiana, pivotal to climate action is healing ourselves. This is integral to climate change from her perspective. She also thinks that climate action is an inevitable and deeply interconnected part of our reality. Therefore, it is important to deconstruct how things have been done previously, and to reinvent new ways of being the change. People in the movement need to remember to laugh, to play, and to connect.

Keith Cherry and Rebeccah Nelems from CTI and CFGS kept their moderation fairly minimal, yet Keith thanked the participants for all their amazing work, and described the kind of power, hope and optimism that this event had generated. For Keith, the Webinar served as a reminder of the fact that every issue is a climate issue. Every person, everywhere, whether in a faculty, union or church needs to be involved. Rebeccah closed the event by thanking all the participants, the audience, the organizers and the supporters of the event.

Youth Climate Change

Closing remarks

Echoing Keith’s sentiment regarding the Webinar and the inspirational contributions of the different participants, I would like to close this blog post with some reflections on the lessons young people are teaching us with their actions. No matter where I talk with youth, there seems to be a reoccurring theme of having a voice and prefiguring the change they wish to see in their societies. There seems to be a conviction regarding the fact that we can organize breaking hierarchies and at the same time there is a huge disconnect between what they are enacting and asking for, and what leaders from around the globe propose as solutions. I agree with Rose that it seems ironic that those people we are looking at to change the world are those who have been oppressed. I think the biggest lesson we can draw from this webinar, as far as university is concerned, is that we must innovate by listening to our students. We must actively refuse becoming obsolete by incorporating changes into our educational system which draw from the multiplicity of examples presented to us by youth, indigenous people and their allies. Together coalitions of demoi from across the planet are actively being the change they wish to see. Dialogues of reciprocal elucidation with them are urgent.

About the author: Pablo Ouziel is co-founder of the Cedar Trees Institute at the University of Victoria. He is Associate Fellowship at the Centre for Global Studies at the same university and is a visiting fellow at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain and the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. Pablo’s research interests include public philosophy, collective presences, horizontality, nonviolence and civic democracy. By standing within the tradition of public philosophy, the core of his work is centred on excavating networks of individuals governing themselves in numerous ways that supersede our current structures of representative government

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