24 Nov Being a Youth Activist: Perseverance in the Face of Adversity
This is a difficult time for everyone it seems. Finishing homework seems an insurmountable feat, family holiday sessions are coming up fast (and that comes with both amazing feelings and sometimes not so amazing feelings), the weather has become dreary, you just want to read fluffy young adult romance fiction to make yourself feel good about the world (well maybe YOU don’t want to, but I definitely do and I am proud of that), and you realize that 2016 is almost over and GUESS WHAT? We still haven’t solved climate change.
Because we have bigots like that elephant running our lives.
This past week has been an interesting one. I am not usually someone who prides myself on being able to give good advice (because quite frankly I am not Narcissus and I am more like Socrates who claims all he knows is that he knows nothing) but in this past week I have been faced with some questions, and searches for advice from my fellow youth activists in regards to issues they’ve been having with running events, engaging other youth and dealing with our lovely systemic institutional ISSUES. I realized, in responding to these inquiries, that the things I said were not just for them but they were things I needed to hear and still need to hear everyday, and things I want to share with anyone who wants to listen.
Failure is an important part of the learning process in your growth as an activist, it’s all about perseverance. You will encounter the same issues as a youth and as an activists that other youth and activists have encountered time and time again. It is very challenging to be an unfunded non profit run by high school students in the midst of a society run on money and by middle age-old white male politicians.It is challenging to be a high school student trying to tell the government they are doing a bad job. Running events? You will have events that no one shows up to, you will have events where the people are there but the speakers are not, you will forget the food, you will not even have enough money for food, someone you’re working with will make a mistake that makes you want to walk over to them and ask them how they could have been so stupid. You will have meetings where it feels like you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, that surely someone else- anyone else- would be better in your role and who even are you anyways to think that you can take on the aliens in city hall? You will have times where you are not in a position to save a campaign or event and all you can do is watch it FAIL, even though it takes all of your self control to not interfere.
What you have to get comfortable with is the idea of failure. You won’t fail forever. And even if you fail? Well, at least you’re not sitting on the couch watching some reality tv show and eating potato chips.
I’ll let you in on a secret: people who look like they have their shit together only do because they have learned to accept their failures. Accept and move on. Think I have my shit together? I have a bin of dirty dishes under my bed, unwashed clothing in the corner of my room, a head full of terror about the world, cluttered piles all over my room that in reality is what my brain looks like.
On Dealing with Issues + Leaving Behind a Legacy:
Now I’m not saying dealing with failure or issues of not finding a venue or people for an event is easy. I would be a big liar if I said any of this was easy. You, in choosing to be a youth activist and better the planet for the greater good, well, you have chosen a hard path. Sometimes you will feel martyred to the cause, but why does it matter if the world is going to end anyways right? But, wouldn’t it be nice to be like every other ignorant teenager once in awhile? Nah. You chose the right path.
The issues you’re dealing with are the same ones that keep me up all night, cause me to be a ball of stress, and tear my hair out. It’s not easy, especially when the work that we’re doing is not just for ourselves so we feel like if we fail we are failing the world. But you know what, yes I’m sure that whatever event you want to run will be fun and helpful for people if it ends up running but it’s not the be all end all for the world. If the way you run something or do the iMatter campaign isn’t exactly how other groups have done it- that is OK. If what you succeed in seems small in comparison, don’t worry about it there are other ways to make a difference and learn.
On Change and Taking Different Paths:
Maybe you want to leave behind the days of conference after conference (if that is what you have been doing) and move more towards political action and this is kind of a message to you all. I personally believe that yes, conferences and education are incredibly important but that right now the way that as environmentalists we’re going to enact the most change is through working with governments and pushing for systematic changes in the way our country is responding to climate change- and you know what? That side of the environmental movement NEEDS the youth voice- that youth that are actually youth, in high-school, not out living on their own and gathering up rebellious young adult anger that is entirely warranted but more of the same. And THAT is why I believe iMatter is so important and why I am a part of it.
On Youth-led Political Action:
The world needs the truth from the young people who still live at home, because what the youngest youth bring is the shock factor and realization for people of the enormity of the issues we are tackling. University student activists (and yes I realize I am now one of them), adult activists, hippy activists from the 80s getting chained to the trees it’s all more of the same rap environmentalists have had for years. The world needs a revolution, and it’s happening with youth and that lawsuit in the states, iMatter etc but it is not enough and to fully protect our future we have to be at the forefront of political movements and actually consulted in decision making, like our voice matters because REALITY CHECK: it does, and not just because “Aw cute high-school students care about the environment instead of drugs and boys”.
On Starting Out:
You, whoever you are keep in mind, the number of events that Bonnie and I ran as grade 10 Eco Club Presidents that were hastily put together and had just us and a couple club members show up or no one at all were numerous. It takes time to learn how to pull everything together and it takes a lot of tears and it’s very difficult but when you pull it together it feels amazing! And you WILL pull it together.
On Connections + Privilege (and Lack Thereof):
I always feel awkward talking about this- because it is something that is so taboo in our society because people don’t always believe it exists but part of my privilege of connections is to do with my white privileged family who has money (I’m not proud of this i’m just acknowledging that that has made it immensely easier for me in some regards) when TYEC (Toronto Youth Environmental Council) needed money and we ran an IndieGoGo campaign 95% of the money we raised was from my family, when we needed raffle prizes – from my family, when we needed stuff that we didn’t have money for – from my credit card my mum pays for, when we needed to find venue – my church, that my mum used to be president of the board, my other mom runs meditation, coffee and services, we donate our cottage for a weekend to the silent auction every year, donate monthly, give time, energy and money to, and Riverdale (my high school) we got as a venue because I spent every moment I wasn’t in class hashing out details and proving my organization and worth to Mr. Harvey, and I also had good marks.
On Liaising with Administration/Anyone in Higher Positions of Power:
It wasn’t like he magically said yes; he intensely ripped apart our event plans and looked to us for responses to all of the issues he pointed out, he sent us away and told us to come back with solutions so that we could run it, it wasn’t magic – it was hard work.
On Future Pursuits/Past Struggles:
Support is integral to whatever you are planning to do as an activist, because as much as you want it to be entirely youth run, the only reason my best friend Bonnie and I were able to lead the Toronto Youth Environmental Council and Riverdale Environmental Action League to do as much as we did is because we had immense guidance and support from Mrs. Stelling, our principal, many other teachers, and my parents helped a lot as well.
On the iMatter Youth Movement/Organization:
Support from adults and those around you is so important because they just have more life experience. I think that iMatter is a really good place to gain advice for not just the report campaign but so many issues not just from adult mentors who are amazing but also so many extraordinary experienced youth activists.
Don’t just run events because you feel like you should because one of similar type has been run every year at this time – run events because they speak to you and because you think they are effective ways of saving the planet. I know you care about the environment. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be where you are, but what is it that YOU think is the most effective course of action in order for your campaign to be the most effective? If your heart is in the report card campaign DO IT, if it’s in something else DO THAT.
Think: what will make me feel the best about the work that I am doing? How can I use my skills I already have to help the movement?