It had been a record-hot summer in Sweden, when a pigtailed schoolgirl by the name of Greta Thunberg decided to skip school and sit on the cobblestones outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm for a solitary protest. Thunberg was alone in her mission, but her hand-made sign daubed with red paint made her motives unmistakably clear: Skolstrejk för Klimatet (school strike for the climate). From that Friday onwards, Thunberg began to return to the same spot for a weekly strike, until the government took notice of her demands to reduce global carbon emissions, environmental destruction, and climate change.
Nine months later, and Thunberg is no longer an unknown teenager attempting to save the planet. The 16-year-old climate activist has kickstarted an international youth movement against climate change, galvanising tens of thousands of young people in the UK, Australia, Germany and Japan to walk out of school and join her #FridaysforFuture environmental protests. On 15 March 2019, an estimated 1.4 million students answered her call for action, taking to the street in 112 countries around the world to strike for the climate.
There’s no denying that even ten years ago, it would have been impossible to rally the scale of young people involved in Skolstrejk för Klimatet. Because somewhere along the way, activism became deeply uncool. The spirit of the 60s and 70s, when people demanded civil rights, climate action and sexual revolution lost steam, and in its place, a profound and deep-seated aversion to civil disobedience took hold. Activists were portrayed as a threat to public order, while feminists took the brunt of media hatred, earning the stereotype of angry, bra-burners that persists to this day. By all accounts, activism was considered A Very Bad Thing.
Nowadays, a quick scroll of your Insta feed is all the confirmation you need to see that we’re living in a new world of social and political consciousness. Our May Digital Issue cover star, Millie Bobby Brown, is walking proof, too.
Apathy has been replaced by action, and just about everyone, from our favourite celebrities to our best friends and even our next-door neighbour are using their platforms to shout about the issues they care about. From protest marches to petitions, open letters to outspoken Instagram posts, activism has flooded popular culture and even reached the gates of Buckingham Palace. So how did we end up here?
While the advancement for equality has made leaps and bounds over the past fifty years, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and bigotry in all forms still pervade our societies, affecting the marginalised and most vulnerable. But whereas adults have grown weary and desensitised to the socio-political climate, young people have mobilised like never before. Quite simply, they’ve had enough. From climate change to gun violence, institutional racism to the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, young people are responding to the biggest inequalities in their communities by organising, acting and fighting back.
The roots of the new awakening can partly be found in political inertia. For the new generation of activists, the realisation that waiting patiently for change to come at the hands of besuited white men in parliamentary buildings or cultural institutions has fired a steely resolve to take matters into their own hands. Emma González, co-founder of March for Our Lives, makes these sentiments clear with her vow to ‘call BS’ on those in power who have failed to protect young people in the US from gun violence. “The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and call BS,” she said in an interview with the Guardian. Elsewhere, Amika George, the founder of #FreePeriods, echoed the need to reshape the agenda. “I felt the government was sweeping it under the carpet,” she said of government apathy before she started her campaign. “Young people are angry about the state of the world and a lot of us use social media to articulate that.”
Social media, of course, has played a vital role in breathing new life into traditional activism. At the same time that the internet has raised awareness of pressing global injustices, it has also enabled those without a vote a chance to make their voice heard. Hashtag activism, as it has become known, has allowed the world’s first digital generation to engage in issues they’re most passionate about. But it’s not simply connectivity that makes millennial activism powerful. The new generation of activists know exactly how to utilise their social media networks to their advantage, encouraging vast numbers of people to channel their discontentment into direct action, and influencing the public conversation in the process. Take the Women’s March of 2017, which started as a single Facebook event by a Hawaiian woman named Teresa Shook, and became the largest single-day protest in US history. Or the Parkland students who captured the world’s attention in the wake of the mass shooting of Marjory Douglas Stoneman high school in Parkland, Florida, by rallying one of the biggest youth-led protests since the Vietnam War with the hashtag #MarchForOurLives.
It would be impossible to chart the makeover of modern activism though without acknowledging the power of celebrity. From Priyanka Chopra’s humanitarian work with UNICEF and Kim Kardashian’s campaigns for prison reform, to Stormzy’s University of Cambridge scholarship fund and Beyoncé’s ongoing support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for many of the world’s biggest stars, politics is inseparable from their work. Nowhere was this more evident than 2018 Golden Globes, where many celebrities wore black in solidarity with the Time’s Up initiative and to protest systemic sexual assault and harassment. The activism didn’t just stop at black gowns and pins, though. Eight celebrities, including Meryl Streep, Shailene Woodley, Emma Watson, Emma Stone, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Susan Sarandon and Amy Poehler, each decided to take along an activist who had fought for gender and racial justice as their guest for their awards.
With social justice issues lighting up our feeds every day, we find ourselves immersed in the world of activism even if we don’t consciously realise it. We read about race, gender and sexuality on the daily, and pick up new terms to describe our experiences along the way: intersectionality, body positivity, empowerment, inclusivity, representation. As we scroll, like, comment and engage, our command of the digital world – and our power to effect change – grows stronger. And if a certain injustice fails to make headline news, you can bet that the conversation online will eventually shift the balance of power.
So what does all this mean for activism in 2019? Quite simply, it means that we don’t have to march on the streets to make our voices heard anymore. We don’t have to meet our political representatives in person. It doesn’t require money, power, or political sway. The way we understand activism is constantly being renegotiated, and we all have the ability to make a difference. But it means we have to speak up, boldly, passionately, unapologetically. As Greta Thunberg says, that’s where we find hope.