Youth voice, direct action and Greta

James Cathcart
Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Youth Voice in an empty room is but an echo. You need to be heard by the relevant decision-makers to stand a chance of making an impact. The challenge for young people who want to make a difference has always been how? Even if you are loud enough, or credible enough to be invited into a room of power, you can still be ignored after the photo-opportunity. Unless decision-makers also respond with "You said - we did" and are held to account in the process, young people's participation in policymaking is still vulnerable to tokenism, window dressing and manipulation. This has been the challenge faced by all youth-voice campaigners and those involved in youth participation for many years - how to be taken seriously enough and long enough, to actually ‘inform and influence' change.

Greta Thunberg, at 16, may be too young to vote but not too young to have her say, be heard, and influence the public-policy agenda. Her methods are innovative and successful in raising awareness and getting a message across. She, and others like her, are demonstrating the effectiveness of direct action to get their voices heard and mobilise support by organising or taking part in ‘school strikes for climate change'.

This youth-led peer-to-peer action has grabbed enough media attention and speaking platforms, to amplify ‘youth voice' in a way that is different from other forms of youth participation because they are not offering to be part of the solution. They are calling on those with responsibility to do their jobs and ‘stop messing up' so they can get back to being children. This is youth voice participating ‘protest' rather than in programmes and decision-making, a holding to account of the older generation for the decisions they are making that will impact all our futures, something children and young people have more of a stake in than most.

Direct action by young people is not a new idea. Students have marched, picketed, sat-in and demonstrated before (e.g. tuition fees) and Greta says that she was inspired by the Florida gun-control school walk-outs. Yet her particular popularity appears to be of its time, when her indignation and impatience to get action by taking action, is resonating with the under-18s, to be self-empowering and youth-led.

The existing youth voice movement in the UK has made progress in recent years in drawing attention to the issues that most matter to young people. They have demonstrated their capacity to lobby through their local youth councils, parliaments and social action campaigns. This has often been with an offer "to be part of the solution not the problem" with many wanting to "be the leaders of today not tomorrow", sitting at the table and sharing power. Consequently, many have been invited in to have their say and ‘participate'.

But Greta's proposition opts out of ‘participation' so that she can be uncompromising in expressing her voice of protest. She is making a virtue of the fact that she and her peers are not experts but petitioners with a grievance. "We are not doing this (school strikes) because we have solutions and we want to be the ones in power, we are just messengers." She wants to return to school just as soon as leaders hear and respond to their message and listen to the experts. "We are just children and we cannot solve this. We cannot wait for us to grow up and become the ones in charge because by then it will be too late." Speaking as she set off for America by boat: "It is my job to make demands. It is not my job to make solutions".

What's next? How are we to respond or be influenced by this? The latest call by the #Schoolstrike movement is to older folk to strike in support (Sept 19). How should #youthvoice champions and supporters react, the youth workers, funders, CEOs, councillors, MPs, and, of course, the media?

Should we applaud those taking direct action as conscientious active citizens, admiring their boldness and envying their success in raising-awareness, even supporting them by empowering their independence, giving them time, space and grants to organise, or will some question the extent to which a few will be prepared to push the boundaries and inspire others to civil disobedience? Indeed, it was only last year that we made sure this generation remembered the 100th anniversary of the success of the women's suffrage movement, which included taking direct action and acts of civil disobedience, even to the point of arrest. In her "essay" (recorded on the 1975's album) Greta reprises this historical message "It is time for civil disobedience, it is time to rebel". A young climate change striker at a Manchester demo tweeted "We have to break the rules to change the rules". Will social media reach out to more than the usual suspects to mobilise a hitherto passive hinterland of support into action - or is this a ‘summer of 2019' phenomenon? We might find that ‘youth of today' may have been primed to respond as never before.

First, the ‘Step Up To Serve' youth volunteering campaign embeds and promotes the #youthled principle, and has not only raised awareness of the benefits of social action in recent years, but recognised ‘campaigning' activity as a legitimate form of civic volunteering; Second, the National Citizen Service has been equipping tens of thousands of 16 and 17 year olds with the skills to ‘take social action' through their community projects; and third, the broader ‘Youth Voice' movement itself such as local youth councils, parliaments and party youth-wings, as well as the post-Brexit and other single issue campaigns, have been empowering fresh generations of campaigners to take forward priority campaigns, mobilising their peers, lobbying decision-makers and engaging the media. A number of organisations train on campaigning and participation, ranging from bootcamps and workshops on banner-making to mock marches. In 2018, hundreds of volunteer activists mobilised an astonishing 1.1 million teenagers to vote in UK Youth Parliaments annual Make Your Mark ballot to identify their priority campaigns, the largest teen referendum in Europe. What appears at the top of the 2019 ballot? "Protect The Environment... from the effects of climate change on the next generation". The vote will take place over the summer, with the winning campaigns traditionally debated in the House of Commons in November - before a vote for a national campaign - all possibly coinciding with a General Election?

Most of the previous campaign activity has been benign, often in partnership, either because the organisations supporting them are either registered charities mindful of the rules governing their behaviour, funder conditions, or local authorities subject to party political oversight.

However, independent youth-led campaigners like Greta have no such concerns. Will young people shift from ‘stepping up to serve' to ‘stepping up to challenge', especially when its given space to do so - such as by Edinburgh Council who have approved an authorised school absence for one day a year for a climate-strike (with parental permission).

Whether it's climate change or knife crime or a more general "Its Our Future" manifesto, is it only a matter of time before young people's expectation of a better quality of democracy and good government, translates into adult expectation, support and votes?

James Cathcart, director Young Voices Heard, @YVH_YouthVoice