Three ways young changemakers can have a greater impact globally

Researchers studying the role of young people in society offer suggestions — and praise — for Greta Thunberg’s climate movement and others like it.

By: /
11 April, 2019
Students hold placards to support Swedish environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg during a strike from school in Duesseldorf, Germany, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
Amelia Clarke
By: Amelia Clarke

Associate dean of research, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo

Ilona Dougherty
By: Ilona Dougherty

Managing director, Youth & Innovation Project, University of Waterloo

On a typical Friday afternoon most teenagers are in school, sitting at their desks writing a test or listening to their teacher, and perhaps glancing up at the clock, impatiently waiting for the bell to ring. But last month, on March 15, more than 1.4 million young people around the world, according to organizers, were in the streets of 2,233 cities in 128 countries demanding urgent action on climate change.

These young people were inspired to leave their classrooms by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 16-year-old who in August of last year began holding a weekly school strike to raise awareness about climate change and has continued protesting outside the Swedish parliament every Friday since. Her solo strike has turned into a global movement, for which she was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

A global movement led by young people, like this one, is by no means a new phenomenon. Young people have often been at the forefront of social movements and social change throughout history, including the civil rights movement. Another recent powerful example is the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who continue to mobilize around gun reform in the United States and who organized March For Our Lives, bringing thousands of young people to Washington, DC, in March 2018 after 17 of their classmates were gunned down.

Through our work at the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo, we aim to understand the role of 15- to 25-year-olds in society and the economy. As part of this, our team took a look back at youth-led social and environmental change in the Canadian context over the last 35 years in order to better understand when young people have had the most impact and under what circumstances. The size and scope of the climate strike and its success to date is impressive; however, what we have learned through our work may be useful for young climate strikers (and other young changemakers) to consider.

In particular, three lessons stand out about how young changemakers can amplify their impact.

1. Don’t just raise awareness; influence decisionmakers.

Our study shows that young people who want to have an impact in their local community or at the national or international level should focus on influencing decisionmakers and encouraging them to act, rather than simply raising awareness about an issue.

We found that raising awareness amongst the general public and encouraging individuals to act, while important, is not an effective strategy on its own. The emphasis recent climate strikers have put on the Paris Agreement is a great example of a focus on influencing decisionmakers. By tying in their youth-led movement to a concrete demand that those in charge of making policy can understand and act on, these young people are more likely to have an impact.

Thunberg’s choice to strike outside of government buildings and her presence at events including the most recent United Nations climate change conference in Poland and the World Economic Forum in Davos are also great examples of how this movement has focused on ensuring it is heard by decisionmakers.

Another recent example of a focus on influencing decisionmakers in the Canadian context is the high school students from across Ontario who walked out of class on April 4th to protest proposed changes to education, including an increase in class sizes. Their focus on a particular policy decision, as well as their reminder to elected officials that they will soon be of voting age, increases their chances of having an impact. Youth-led movements should continue to use these kinds of strategies.

2. Use the system to your advantage.

Our study also shows that working within the system and using it to the advantage of a campaign or movement is an effective strategy. When young people engage within the system, as well as outside of it, they can amplify their impact. Last summer, 16 of the current and former members of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Council released a letter expressing their “immense disappointment” with the government’s plan to buy the Kinder Morgan pipeline. While their letter did not ultimately change the government’s decision, the increased attention they received as a result of having been members of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council was not insignificant.

Today’s young climate strikers might consider joining local youth advisory councils to engage with elected officials, the youth wings of political parties or initiatives like the Y20, the youth advisory group to the G20. Initiatives like the Y20 allow young people direct access to mechanisms through which they can influence global leaders. The Y20 in 2018 produced a policy recommendation paper and also created a “social innovation warehouse,” a digital bank of scalable strategies and projects that provide inspiration and ideas for those who might want to implement innovative youth focused policy. Initiatives such as these, which focus on having informed young people on the ‘inside,’ will increase the impact of youth-led movements.

3. Think like a movement.

Our study also shows that finding and working with allies, particularly those from different generations, is also an effective strategy to increase the impact of youth-led movements. Different actors using a variety of strategies are more likely to have an impact. Young people have a unique ability to be innovative while they are young, pairing that ability with the access that adults often have to those in power and to resources is a winning formula.

Harriet Thew, a researcher at the University of Leeds, writes in a recent article about the importance of adult climate change campaigners and academics working in solidarity with young activists. Following the scale of the March 15 climate strike, building an intergenerational movement will be an important next step. This does not mean adults should take the reins from young leaders, but rather, as Thunberg has repeatedly asked of them, adults should work within their own spheres of influence to enact change.

The climate strikers are a great example of one of the key findings of our research: it does not matter how old you are, how long your organization has been around, or how formal your group is; what matters is finding the right strategies for the problem at hand.

The current youth-led climate movement has already identified strategies that successfully raise awareness and aim to influence decisionmakers. The power of these young people lies in their willingness to bypass the usual rhetoric and focus on the urgency of climate change — after all, they will be the ones to suffer the consequences of our inaction.

This youth-led climate movement continues to have momentum. But in order to build on this momentum and ensure the long-term impact will be as profound as young people hope it will be, continuing to focus on influencing decisionmakers and also taking a seat at the table with decisionmakers will be essential. However, these young people cannot solve the problem of climate change alone. Adults also need to recognize the achievements of these young people, celebrate and support them, and, most importantly, do their part.

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