Inclusive youth leadership and compassionate storytelling provides a path to change and climate justice, says Kevin Reilly.
We live in a polarised world and sadly, crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, rising xenophobia and the climate crisis are dividing us even further. But there’s room for hope and optimism, I swear!
In the last five years, young people have been evidencing the blueprint to break through polarisation, to come together to solve the challenges we collectively face in our communities. Young people have brought divided communities together to achieve progressive change and forge more inclusive and equal societies. We need to take notice and start applying the lessons these movements teach us.
Young people have brought divided communities together to achieve progressive change.
The relatively recent #YesEquality and #TogetherForYes referendum campaigns in my native Ireland should be an inspiration to us. Respectively they made Ireland the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality through public vote and permitted the Irish state to legislate for safe, legal abortion and the women’s right to choose. Both were achieved through broad participation in active citizenship (in voter turnout and grassroots campaigning), and demonstrated the power of youth leadership.
Community voices across the country provided positive, emotive stories and the interpersonal nature of the campaigns was pivotal to the (more resounding than expected) results. Visiting the impromptu memorial to Savita Halappanavar (who tragically died of sepsis after being denied an abortion during a miscarriage in 2012) the day after the referendum result in 2018, summed up the profound positive effect personal stories had on Irish society and determining the referendum result. As I left a note then;
‘we shouldn’t have known your name and we’ll never forget you Savita’.
I’ve learned from these lessons, and through working with Restless Development, that young people’s strength is in their connections with each other, and their communities. This has been essential in them leading historic change and responding to crises like Ebola and COVID-19. The growing youth climate movement has also demonstrated that young leaders have an implicit understanding of what just, inclusive and intersectional climate justice means and the need to tackle all forms of oppression simultaneously, as I’m constantly reminded/ blown away by organising with the UK Youth Climate Coalition and engaging with youth groups globally.
So where does this leave us?
Yes, we’re passing the threshold for action on climate to avert catastrophe. Yes, our communities are polarised. But if anything, Brexit, Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 have served to highlight to everyone that something is very wrong with how we currently live, how we talk and organise with one another, and that large-scale urgent action is needed and possible.
Young people have led massive breakthroughs already to shift public and political will towards climate change, through grassroots movements (like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future) and by being a disruptive force demanding action in high-level advocacy spaces like the United Nations. Young people can build on this further to transform our economies and societies on the path to climate justice.
Count Us In — a new, ambitious and unprecedented campaign that is seeking to build the largest citizen-led climate campaign ever — has launched. And I’m optimistic it can complement and further this journey to climate justice.
Like with the referendums in Ireland but at a much larger scale, young people through personal storytelling, compassion and sensitivity have the power to create a groundswell of community-led active citizenship to protect what we love before it’s too late. Many people will be joining late to the party and taking their first steps to protect our planet, our economies and our societies. And that’s ok. That’s welcome. We’re making change that matters and adding up to something bigger and we need everyone.