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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

15 June 2023

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Speaking up for change

Whether you've seen it in action or perhaps online, children all around Australia have been taking up activism in a bid to save the planet. JCU PhD Candidate Nita Alexander is researching this activism and says that children deeply care for the environment around them, even if not everyone wants to listen to what they have to say.

Nita Alexander has been researching children’s activism in Australia, and specifically in the Perth region, since 2019. “I research young people's activism, their political participation, and especially the dynamics of how young people navigate the reality of the world that they're experiencing,” Nita Alexander says.

For children concerned about the future of the planet becoming active in the fight to stop climate change is not easy. “They are not welcome yet as full citizens of society, particularly in the political world,” Nita says. “Adults want children to wait their turn until they are old enough, know enough and have enough lived experience.”

For her research, Nita has interviewed young people between the age of 14 and 24. “A lot of the young people I've spoken to started their activism career during high school, and they're now first year university students,” Nita says. “So, they were able to reflect back on their journey as well, which is quite interesting.”

Nita has also attended political events together with her interviewees and observed them in action. “That included going to strikes, looking at how they organise, and going to events that they have organised to encourage each other,” Nita says.

Nita Alexander.
Climate activists.
Left: Nita Alexander (supplied), right: young demonstrators.

Becoming an activist

Nita’s interviewees had very different experiences in school and at home when they decided to become politically active. Sometimes they had to accept that not everyone was on their side. “Overwhelmingly, they said they try to ignore or at least try not to engage too much of the negative feedback from community,” Nita says.

The feedback from schools was also varied. “Some schools have been fairly supportive of this activism, from what I can tell, whereas other schools are very much opposed and don't allow any advertising or promotion of these events,” Nita says.  “Some of the children have also been threatened with punishment, but mainly through the schooling systems. It's things like 'you'll fail the subject, you'll get detention'.

“But what we are seeing in Australia, separate to the research I've done, is that attacks on activism are starting to happen, with environmental activists being charged or spending time in prison. It is a trend globally, I would say, but it's not something that the young people expressed any concern about.”

The power of striking

Nita also saw her interviewees celebrating successes at their schools. “Some of them were feeling incredibly proud when they realised that they changed their entire class's attitude. Everyone started to ask them questions about how they could become involved as well,” Nita says.

“They take a lot of pride in that, that just through talking and continuing to have these conversations, that they have been able to influence people.”

One event that Nita found particularly fascinating was a webinar that was organised by a group of students from Perth with participants from all over Australia. “It was called ‘The Power of Striking', and it was organised by the School Strike 4 Climate organisers,” Nita says.

“The purpose of this event was to explain to other young people what they were doing and why. It was wonderful to listen to them speak and to articulate what they saw as the power of striking and why it was necessary.

A fight for justice

“One of the things that became clear is that they understood the power systems, the systems of oppression, and recognised that the fight for climate justice is so intricately linked with other issues,” Nita says.

“This includes the fight for Indigenous rights, for queer rights and women's rights. I was amazed at how well they thought this through and how well they were able to articulate what they wanted to achieve.”

When the adult perspective is no longer relevant

One thing that Nita has found in her research is that young activists have often developed radically different values than their parents. “The generalised perspective of young people, what's expected of them, is to go to school,” Nita says, and adds that beyond that, children have very little say or choice until they are eighteen.

However, it is natural that norms change over time. “What we are seeing at the moment is that the typical expectations are no longer considered relevant,” Nita says.

“It's not that education is unimportant, but we’re seeing that the priority is this climate emergency, which is an emergency for the entire planet. To the children that is the priority and their focus as they are growing up in the 2020s.”

A do-it-yourself approach to climate change

“The young people are often saying things like, ‘why should we learn about science, you adults are not listening to science yourself,’” Nita says. “Young people are changing what they think should be the new norms. They are taking it on as their own challenge, in a 'do it ourselves’ approach. It is an individual fight, but also a collective fight.”

The reason why young people become politically active is that they think that neither their parents nor the government have done anything significant to stop climate change. “The children are disappointed and disillusioned,” Nita says.

“They don't see climate change as something that needs to be fixed for the future. They see the need to fix climate change today, and a lot of what they do is in solidarity for those communities who are already suffering.”

Defining clear goals

The young activists Nita talked with also had clear goals for the future. “One of their big goals is to stop any new approvals for fossil fuel mines, they want a blanket ban,” Nita says.

“Another big issue is to acknowledge that we can't just turn everything off. Some communities wouldn’t exist without the fossil fuel industry, as they are built around this industry. “The activists acknowledge that there is a need to do what they call a 'just transition', to make sure these people are looked after,” Nita says.

“That's one of the big points that they are asking the government: to put a plan in place so that no one's left behind when this transition happens.”

Children striving to change the future

When it comes to the impact that young activists will have on Australia’s future, Nita sees that it’s already happening. “If we look at the elections over the last couple of years, there's been a definite swing towards more environmentally-minded parties, even though the young people themselves don't want to promote or become a political wing of the Greens party.

“What we're looking at is that they want a total system change. They don't want to become part of the system because they say the system's not working,” Nita says.

Australia’s young activists think that the time to be silent is over, Nita says, and they are hoping that adults will learn to understand eventually how important the contributions of under-eighteens are in the fight against climate change.

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