Noga Levy-Rapoport, 17, led the London climate strike march on 15 February and has since become a core organiser at UK Student Climate Network
I first got involved in the February school strike in London. I saw something about it online and I wanted an opportunity to say that I, as a young person, am angry about what is going on. I’m afraid, and I feel that there is great injustice. I felt like for the first time in a long time, we had actually taken a stand. After that I contacted Youth Strike 4 Climate and said I wanted to be involved, full-time.
We are told that we’re jumping on this bandwagon of adolescent insolence, but that is just not true. We’re marching on the streets because we are furious – we are full of rage and terror – and those together have taught me that young people have the real power in our society. Our empowerment as individuals is key to change, and it has been the way that protests have brought change about over centuries.
We need a fundamental change to our system – we need to fulfil the principles of the Green New Deal, and we need to listen to everyone. Activism for me is a part of my life and will remain that way, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go on and become an MP. I want to be an opera singer. Activism shouldn’t change who you are, it should come from who you are, and your beliefs, and how you want the world to see other people.
Mugdha Mokashi, 22, is president elect of Medical Students for Choice and grew up in Alabama
I’m in my first year at Harvard Medical School. I was born in India but I consider Alabama my home, and I intend to return to provide abortion services when my studies are finished.
I became interested in reproductive justice when I was 19. I started volunteering at a rape crisis centre. From there I started working in an organisation called URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity). They primarily work in states where the government and legislation is typically conservative or Republican. I brought a chapter to my campus. We held something called the Abortion Positive Tour in 2017, spending a week on campus, talking and distributing information about abortion, then we would hold a rally at the end. We got quite a bit of feedback and criticism – lots of yelling, lots of people saying we were going to hell – but it wasn’t as dramatic as it could have been. There was no threat of physical violence.
When Donald Trump was elected we felt a sense of urgency and we marched. I’ve learned that activism is most effective when the voices of the people who are being oppressed or targeted are elevated and centred. Nothing really does that better than protest. It’s a very accessible form of engagement you really can’t beat how persuasive visceral emotion and passion are.
An important tenet of activism is doing work both “inside” and “outside the building”. Outside are the traditional forms of protest, rallying and grassroots action, but you have to establish change inside, too. My interest is in reforming the medical institution and the policy-making sphere to match what people are marching about. The power of being disruptive and visible is a salient part of protest that I have been using in my day‑to-day work – the idea that to bring about change, people need to feel uncomfortable, and that to shift the window of discourse, you need something really powerful.
Dallas Goldtooth, 35, is based in Chicago. He is the Keep It in the Ground campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network
As cliched as it sounds, I was born into activism. My dad has been an organiser since as far back as I can remember. My own experience of organising started about six yeas ago in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, a tar sands pipeline that was supposed to cross the traditional territories of my people – the Great Sioux Nation. We brought to the doors of the White House a march of 10,000 people, led by Native American and non-Native farmers and ranchers, and we set up a tipi camp on the National Mall for six days. I’m pretty proud to say we won that campaign. We were able to convince the Obama administration not to approve that pipeline. That’s the goal of any good organiser – to work themselves out of a job.
There are many different forms of protest, but they should all be tactics for a greater strategy. There is a lot of political turmoil right now and people are justifiably angry about the attacks on their self-determination, their land, their bodies. We want to march, and that’s powerful because we’re acting on the moment, and people have a right to express their anger and frustrations. But we have to challenge ourselves to look at the bigger picture of what we’re building towards.
The change that we wish to see, that we’re trying to create in this world, has to be about addressing and challenging power. If our conversations, if our work, if our lives don’t challenge the systems of power, then we’re not really working towards the just society that we want. We have to reimagine our relationships to the greater world, to the land and to the ecosystem in which we live. That’s a very strong indigenous framework: if you innately believe that the Earth is your mother and the animals and plants around you are brothers and sisters, then you have a responsibility to care for them in a different manner than if you just see them as natural resources to be managed.
Yang Porter, 24, is a campaigner for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia
It was against the law for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, but in the early 2010s there was a Facebook campaign calling on Saudi women to go out and drive at a certain time, and a few women responded and went out and drove cars together. Many of them were put in jail and made to sign documents saying they would not drive again. When the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to power, he decided it was time to give women the right to drive [in May 2018], but the authorities cracked down on the women who had protested before and jailed them again.
I’m speaking on behalf of these women. I haven’t suffered the consequences personally but I’ve seen them suffer the consequences, and that’s really what’s moving me now to make these efforts to expose what’s happening. Women’s freedom has a long way to go in Saudi Arabia; women can now drive, but still need permission from their male guardians to travel and to marry. I want to make people aware that there is still a human rights crisis going on there.
What protest is happening now in Saudi Arabia is down to the scattered efforts of individuals. People are too afraid to act collectively. I can’t really think of a Saudi collective group that has achieved anything in the last 100 years. We’re not really familiar with collective effort, but it’s possible, if this situation gets worse, that it might happen. I really hope it does.
Demanding rights comes at a price. Everyone who has spoken out has suffered consequences. People reap the benefits from the accumulated efforts of others. That’s how the history machine works, with individual sacrifice as its engine. Ancient civilisations used to believe that human sacrifices were necessary for their society to survive and prosper; this principle still applies. The only thing that has changed is that people now are willing to pay the price – to give up themselves, their lives and their time for a prosperous future for the collective. It’s how you make the world a better place: sacrifice.
Agnes Chow, 22, is a Hong Kong pro‑democracy campaigner for Demosistō
I started getting involved in social movements in Hong Kong in 2012, when I was 15. I was just an ordinary schoolgirl focusing on my studies and working hard to enter university, but one day I discovered the Facebook page of Scholarism [Hong Kong’s student pro-democracy movement] and saw a picture of a group of students, including Joshua Wong, out on the streets voicing their opposition to the “patriotic” national education curriculum at that time. So I did some research and decided to join them.
My current organisation, Demosistō, which grew out of Scholarism, is no longer a political party as we were disqualified from the elections, but I would say there is a big difference between fighting for change through elections and through social movements. Social movements, including protest, are a direct way to get involved and to change people’s minds. People might have thought the “umbrella movement” in 2014 was a violent way to show your anger to the government but it turned out to be very peaceful, even though we occupied many of the main roads in Hong Kong. So it is not only a way for people to voice their opinions, it’s also a channel for changing people’s minds.
Many thought that Hong Kong people were just concerned with how to earn more money and live in bigger apartments, but people are also very concerned about our human rights, our freedom, our political system. And some of them, like Joshua, have even sacrificed their personal freedom. They want to use their sacrifice to fight for something better for the city.
It is very important not to give up. After the umbrella movement, a lot of people have maybe given up their dream that Hong Kong should have a democratic political system, because nothing changed. But when we look at the history of social change in other areas – such as gender or race equality – we see how people have needed to fight for 20 or 30 or even 100 years. I’m 22 years old; perhaps I’ll have to fight for Hong Kong’s democracy until I’m 70. Many people in other countries have sacrificed much more than us: their lives, years of personal freedom, so I don’t think I have done a lot for Hong Kong, yet.
Dan Wilson Craw, 35, lives in Newcastle. He is a housing activist and director of Generation Rent
I worked in London during my 20s and I found that housing seemed to be a completely insurmountable problem for members of my generation, who were sold this idea that if you work hard, you shouldn’t need to worry about your housing. That was not happening, and I realised we could be doing something about this.
Over the past five years we’ve been a national body getting private renters heard in the policy-making process and urging for reform of the housing system. We have recently been part of campaigns to scrap Section 21 and end unfair evictions, and to get letting fees banned. We’ve picketed branches of NatWest bank, which was revealed to be effectively preventing landlords from letting to tenants on low incomes. We’ve also been involved in wider protests of the housing movement, such as the 2015 March for Homes, and marches and demonstrations since the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy.
There were a lot of vested interests in the property industry trying to resist all this, but there was a lot of anger out there from renters. Equally important was the fact that we had credible alternatives we could point to: places such as Germany and Scotland that had already been implementing these reforms, and being able to demonstrate there is no reason why we should have such an unfair system. It was about having those convictions and making sure we stuck by them.
The reason I’m a housing activist is because I know just how much of a difference having a stable home makes to people’s quality of life. One of the words that keeps coming up when I talk to others in the movement is “autonomy” – just having that ability to be in control of your life. Private renting doesn’t offer that at the moment. That has a knock-on effect on your health because if your landlord can bully you into not complaining about things, you end up with an unsafe home. The threat of eviction hanging over you affects your mental health as well. So fixing the housing system can help all of those things.
The day of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, I was very distraught. I’ve written poetry since I was about seven years old, about things that I want to see change in the world, things happening around me, in my family, on the news or in my community. So I wrote a poem that day, and then 15 months later [in March 2018] I helped organise the March for Our Lives in my town, Salt Lake City, and I read that poem in front of the crowd as a tribute.
I started doing activism when I was around 12 years old. The first protest I ever went to was a Free Palestine protest in downtown Salt Lake City. It was very liberating to see so many people moving towards something they wanted to achieve as a collective. From there I got really involved with Black Lives Matter. I was a representative for my chapter and I held a bunch of different protests for prominent black men shot and killed by the police. I’ve always been ready to speak up about things that I think need changing, things I think are crucial to our society and are not progressing us in the direction of unity.
In the beginning it was very scary being a part of the March for Our Lives organisation. There was a lot of hostility and lack of understanding between the two sides. Before we held our 2018 march, there was a “March Before Our Lives” that was all about pro-gun people. The Utah Gun Exchange had flyers and posters, and they were very aggressive towards us kids who were just speaking up for ourselves. But when we started doing things like town hall meetings and community dialogues, that really opened up the conversation. People saw that the stereotypes of activists all over the news and social media were not true, and they were willing to have a conversation about things that needed to change.
There are still so many things that need to be fixed around gun control, but we can make the world a better place by educating ourselves. And teaching our children. Our generation has moved and pushed so much that the next generation’s going to do tenfold what we are doing.
Neha Shah, 21, is the former chair of Oxford Student Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality
I come from a politically engaged family and I’ve been quite heavily involved in refugee solidarity work, anti-deportations activism, Palestine solidarity and anti-fascist activism. When I first came to Oxford University I got involved in the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement. While the campaign was portrayed in the media as being about individual racist colonialists, it was really about something much bigger: effecting structural change. It exposed how the active legacies of British colonialism form an integral part of both British national and university policies, and render so many members of black and migrant communities invisible.
I’m currently involved in a coalition of student and city groups seeking to boycott the Oxford Union, which hosts openly fascist and racist speakers in order to essentially amuse their elite membership. This has become remarkably worse recently, as the global far right has been rising. The founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, spoke there in 2014; Alice Weidel, leader of the German AfD party, was invited but pulled out after massive opposition from students and residents. In November 2018 the former Trump adviser and co-founder of Breitbart Steve Bannon spoke, and during the 1,000-strong protest against this, neo-Nazis were filmed performing Hitler salutes outside the Oxford Union, emboldened by Bannon’s words. The same people physically attacked me and another student protester – I was not badly hurt. The dominant narrative in the media is about “no platforming” but it’s not that at all; it’s about doing our bit to try and stop the rise of the far right.
We have to open the road behind us. That involves learning from the history of those who have struggled for freedom in the past. If you look at
these movements in a narrow and defeatist way, you might come to the conclusion that they failed, because the basic power relations that they sought to change – be they colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, capitalism – remain in place.