Youth activism is a global phenomenon and is not confined to one single issue. Nor is it confined to impacting youth, but it is young people who are making a stand for the betterment of all.
In the weeks leading up to Australia’s recent federal election, young Australians made it very clear that climate change and cost of living topped the list of the issues of most concern to them. This is on top of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that were most deeply felt by younger demographics, and rising frustrations amongst youth with political discourse on sexism and gender violence.
Despite this, major political parties were reluctant to talk about young people’s concerns during their campaigns. Last month’s election results demonstrate clearly, however, that the young people’s issues were not only “youth” issues but concerns shared by a majority of the electorate.
This is not surprising perhaps, given that in the past three years, under the outgoing Morrison government’s leadership, Australia has weathered disastrous bushfires, drenching floods, a global pandemic, soaring house prices, and a national reckoning on the impacts of sexism and misogyny. What is yet to be seen is whether the incoming Labor government will take young people’s views seriously and prioritise their concerns.
The fact that the most pressing political issues of our time are shared challenges highlights the importance of thinking about these issues as more than “youth issues”, and rather considering what collaborative, interconnected, and intergenerational approaches might offer for strengthening young people’s voice in politics, and democratic participation itself. Such an approach offers the opportunity for governments to engage often marginalised voices in policymaking, strengthening democratic principles and improving the wellbeing of all.
Lessons from the fight for Climate Justice
The power of youth activism is highly visible and well documented in relation to activism on climate justice and environmental issues. In Australia, the School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C), a student-led movement, mobilised hundreds of thousands of people and contributed to young people’s growing investment in political processes. This action has been strengthened by advocacy that links climate justice to other ongoing struggles. The youth-led Seed Mob, an Indigenous youth climate network, works with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, highlighting the necessary connections of Indigenous justice and Indigenous ways of knowing to address the climate crisis. Often overlooked, such coalition-building work is vital to the success of broader youth advocacy.
Globally, we can see how recognising these connections can enhance political action. Archana Soreng, an environmental activist from the Kharia tribe in Odisha in East India, and one of the seven members of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ youth advisory group on climate change, argues that young Indigenous people can offer new ways to address pressing environmental concerns. Similarly, in Ecuador, Yasunidos, a youth-led social movement that mobilises to stop extractivism mainly in the Yasuni National Park — the name is a portmanteau of the National Park, Yasuní, and “unidos” meaning united in Spanish. The movement works with Indigenous activists and other civil society collectives to strengthen their campaigning and legitimise youth leadership for environmental justice through participatory democracy. When we start looking, youth are present everywhere in these collective movements, not only following, but as leaders in their own right.
While climate justice is one of the most visible sites of contention among youth pressing issues including gender-based struggles, social inequality, racism, and conflict, are also mobilising today’s youth. And while these matters seem not to have gained as much media or political attention as the climate justice movement, it does not mean that youth are not leading the way or are not supporting the activism in other areas to create social and political change.
Standing up against sexism
In Australia, during the past 18 months, gender violence, sexism, and misogyny have been also central to public debate. While these issues seem to be disconnected from other struggles, these are at the intersection of youth activism and feminist and women’s rights advocacy. As an example, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, two young women advocates led the demand to hold accountable the perpetrators of sexual abuse within Australian institutions. Through their activism and participation in high-profile public events, these issues were brought to attention, while at the same time creating mass mobilisation.
The March 4 Justice in March 2021, a protest against gendered violence, offered the space for women of all ages to speak out and demand change, revealing that this is an ongoing and persistent issue that needs to be addressed. Despite the efforts of activists and supporters, the former government and major political parties side lined the issue once more. And as the electoral results have shown, women young and old were crucial in deciding this election, and the major parties cannot afford to ignore these issues anymore.
Recent activism on gender-based issues by youth is not specific to Australia. In Latin America, for example, a “green tide” mostly driven by young women has taken place to advocate for abortion rights. Along with it, other intersecting issues such as violence against women and gender equality have been gaining increasing attention.
The capacity to mobilise millions of women regardless of age to push for a legislative change to decriminalise abortion has been remarkable, especially in highly conservative countries such as Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico. Massive social media campaigns across Latin America, such as #NiUnaMenos (“No One Less”), mostly led by young women, reveal the violence women face in their everyday lives. These examples demonstrate once more the interconnections between feminist movements and youth activism, and the urgency of understanding and taking seriously the benefits of these connections.
Shared struggles beyond ‘youth’ issues
What the issues of climate justice and gender violence have in common is a struggle against the current structures of power and domination in different spaces. These and other issues are more interrelated than ever, and social justice can only be achieved if those who are often marginalised, such as young people and women, are heard and genuinely included by the people in power.
Social and political change is already happening with young people working together with women, older generations, Indigenous communities, and other stakeholders here and overseas in issues that go beyond what we think. Despite the social and political barriers young people face, youth activists have paved the way globally and locally for social injustices to be addressed and it is at the intersections and collaborations that real possibilities for change emerge.
Ingrid Valladares is a PhD Candidate affiliated with the Centre for Justice at the Queensland University of Technology. She holds Bachelors degrees in Economics and in Education from Ecuador and France, and a Masters of International Relations from the University of Queensland. Her research explores the role of intergenerational dialogue in youth-led social movements, youth’s political agency and participation, especially in Latin America.
Dr Helen Berents is currently an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow in the School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology, a Chief Investigator in the QUT Centre for Justice, and Affiliated Investigator in the Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) at QUT. Her DECRA Fellowship examines youth peace advocacy and leadership in the context of the UN’s emergent Youth, Peace and Security Agenda. Helen’s research is interested in children and youth, peace and conflict, and local responses to violence and insecurity.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.