Meet the young ac­tivists de­ter­mined to shape our fu­ture

Fed up with wait­ing for the older gen­er­a­tion to sort out its prob­lems, a grow­ing num­ber of teenage ac­tivists are tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands. Here, six mo­ti­vated peo­ple re­veal why they’ve de­cided to fight for their fu­ture

The Observer Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Words CANDICE PIRES Por­trait SOPHIA SPRING

in a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate where most adults are in­ert with de­spair, a grow­ing num­ber of teenagers are re­spond­ing with ac­tion. Af­ter 14 chil­dren and three adults were mas­sa­cred at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, Flor­ida, it was stu­dents – not par­ents, teach­ers or po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives – who or­gan­ised them­selves to cam­paign for changes to US gun laws. The March for Our Lives demon­stra­tion in Wash­ing­ton, DC on 24 March was ac­com­pa­nied by sis­ter marches around the world: mil­lions of young peo­ple sup­port­ing each other and de­mand­ing pol­icy re­form. Lead cam­paigner Emma González, a high-school stu­dent who now has more than 1.5m Twit­ter fol­low­ers, made a call to arms for her peers to: “Fight for your lives be­fore it’s some­one else’s job.”

González is one of many teenagers shat­ter­ing the stereo­types of the lazy, en­ti­tled, self-ob­sessed mil­len­nial. More and more teenagers are nois­ily ques­tion­ing the world they’re in­her­it­ing and de­mand­ing things work dif­fer­ently. Here, we meet some of the young ac­tivists whose voices are in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble to dis­miss.

Cam­paign­ing against pe­riod poverty

Last spring, I was watch­ing the news when there was a re­port on girls in the UK miss­ing school be­cause they couldn’t af­ford men­strual prod­ucts. Some were us­ing toi­let pa­per, news­pa­per or socks. Think­ing about girls my age go­ing through this hit me hard. The re­port gained at­ten­tion, but I felt the gov­ern­ment was sweep­ing it un­der the car­pet and we needed to pres­sure them to do some­thing. So I did what felt nor­mal to me and went on­line and started a pe­ti­tion. It calls for free men­strual prod­ucts for chil­dren on free school meals. I didn’t imag­ine even get­ting 100 sig­na­tures. But in be­tween re­vis­ing for AS ex­ams, I emailed as many peo­ple, com­pa­nies and uni­ver­si­ties as I could. I asked my par­ents to send it around their work. My dad was a bit re­luc­tant at first, but he did.

There’s huge em­bar­rass­ment about pe­ri­ods, but it’s some­thing half the world’s pop­u­la­tion will go through for a week ev­ery month. That it’s a taboo holds us back in achiev­ing gen­der equal­ity. Within two weeks, the pe­ti­tion reached 2,000 sig­na­tures. Com­ments were di­vided be­tween peo­ple be­ing shocked that this hap­pens and oth­ers say­ing it af­fects them or their friends. Hear­ing that made me want to fight harder.

When the gen­eral elec­tion was an­nounced, I emailed the par­ties. The Green party and Women’s Equal­ity party both replied and in­cluded a pledge in their man­i­festo. I was so frus­trated I couldn’t vote. Then in De­cem­ber we or­gan­ised a protest out­side Theresa May’s bed­room; more than 1,000 peo­ple came and shouted. To date, 150,000 peo­ple have signed the pe­ti­tion. It’s sad when adults are sur­prised to hear a young per­son be­ing po­lit­i­cally vo­cal. Young peo­ple are an­gry about the state of the world and a lot of us use so­cial me­dia to ar­tic­u­late that. I get asked to speak a lot.

The other morn­ing, a TV sta­tion sent a car to school, I left for an hour, spoke on the is­sue and came back to a his­tory les­son. My par­ents are sup­port­ive and as sur­prised as me that this has taken off. My dad went with me to the Women’s March, which was cool. But some­times my mum can get an­noyed if I’m do­ing lots of cam­paign stuff with ex­ams com­ing up.

Xi­uhtez­catl Martinez, 17, Colorado Cli­mate change ac­tivist

If some­one tells me I should be in school right now, I know that they don’t see the big­ger picture. Earth’s abil­ity to sup­port hu­man life is fall­ing apart and if things don’t change in the next five to 10 years, noth­ing’s go­ing to mat­ter.

I’ll fin­ish high school, but right now this is the most im­por­tant thing I can do with my time. My­self and 20 other kids are cur­rently su­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for vi­o­lat­ing our con­sti­tu­tional rights for fail­ure to act on cli­mate change. We orig­i­nally launched it against the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion a few years ago. The US gov­ern­ment has known the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try is hav­ing a neg­a­tive im­pact on our cli­mate, yet they have been of­fer­ing them sub­si­dies and open­ing up land to ex­plo­ration. We have just heard that we are go­ing to trial in Oc­to­ber.

I’m also in­volved in law ac­tions and civil disobe­di­ence to stop frack­ing around my home­town of Boul­der. In 2012, my friends and I suc­cess­fully helped push for a five-year ban.

From a young age, I was aware of my part in pro­tect­ing our planet. I was three or four the first time I went on a protest, and six when I started speak­ing at them. I was born in Colorado and have spent a lot of time in Mex­ico. My en­tire child­hood was trav­el­ling, hang­ing out in na­ture and learn­ing about my fam­ily’s in­dige­nous her­itage. My dad taught me that we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect the Earth the way that our an­ces­tors did.

I’ve spo­ken at the UN about my work. I was sur­prised how dis­re­spect­ful, dis­con­nected and ster­ile it was. The del­e­gates were on their phones, not lis­ten­ing. They perked up when they heard I was just 15 years old. The power of me speak­ing wasn’t for them but for the mil­lions of peo­ple my speech has since reached on­line.

The world is see­ing how pow­er­ful young peo­ple are and how things are go­ing to change. Adults on CNN and in the United States specif­i­cally, they can ar­gue and cover gos­sip about Trump and his hair and porn stars. But young peo­ple are mo­bil­is­ing on the streets.

There’s so much power in what’s hap­pen­ing within our gen­er­a­tion. We don’t have the re­spect we de­serve, but I think it’s com­ing.

Shi­den Tekle, 18, London Di­ver­sity in the me­dia

I’ve been racially abused since about 12, but it was never seen as an im­por­tant thing to tackle. At se­condary school, white chil­dren called me dis­gust­ing things, but teach­ers would turn a blind eye. And not just to racism, but sex­ism, ho­mo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia. There’s also in­ter­nal racism in the Eritrean com­mu­nity. My dad is called names be­cause he has darker skin. It all comes from pre­con­ceived ideas that black is less, or the darker you are the lower you are in terms of in­come, so­ci­ety and pol­i­tics.

Be­cause these prob­lems weren’t taken se­ri­ously, I nor­malised them. But when I moved to a sixth form where the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents are black girls, I was sur­rounded by po­lit­i­cal and so­cial con­scious­ness. The more ed­u­cated I got, the an­grier I be­came. Last sum­mer, I joined an or­gan­i­sa­tion called the Ad­vo­cacy Academy and, with a small group of peo­ple my age, we launched a cam­paign chal­leng­ing the im­age and un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of black peo­ple in the me­dia. We recre­ated iconic posters, such as Doc­tor

Who, Ti­tanic and Harry Pot­ter, and made all the char­ac­ters black. The cam­paign is rooted in per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and I’ve gone from talk­ing about things with my friends in the lunch hall to speak­ing about them na­tion­ally.

The Academy has rev­o­lu­tionised the way I think. Back in the day I def­i­nitely up­held toxic mas­cu­line iden­ti­ties. I’d tell my­self that I didn’t cry. Chal­leng­ing gen­der norms wasn’t of in­ter­est to me be­cause I wanted to fit in with my friends. But I’ve learned to let go of my ego and be vul­ner­a­ble so I can say what’s on my mind. It’s al­lowed me to take all the cold anger I have built up over years and turn it into some­thing good. I’ve learned to be­come an ally to many other is­sues that don’t af­fect me di­rectly.

Af­ter univer­sity, I don’t just want to get a re­ally good job, buy a big house and for­get about my com­mu­nity. I want to change some­thing and chal­lenge the sta­tus quo.

Mu­zoon Al-Melle­han, 19, New­cas­tle Ed­u­ca­tion for refugee chil­dren

Even be­fore the war in Syria, I wanted to change so­ci­ety, but I knew I needed to get ed­u­cated to do that. Back then, we had a nor­mal life. We went to school ev­ery day and saw our friends. The war started when I was 11 or 12. Go­ing to school be­came dif­fi­cult. There were peo­ple fight­ing on the ground, there would be bomb­ing, some­times bul­lets. Some­times school was just closed be­cause of bud­gets. My fa­ther is a teacher and he lost his job.

We left Syria five years ago, when I was 14. I was so wor­ried about my fu­ture and ed­u­ca­tion. We went to a refugee camp in Jor­dan. I didn’t ex­pect there to be a school, but I was happy to dis­cover a car­a­van with a tent and some teach­ers. There was no elec­tric­ity. We stud­ied com­put­ing from a book. In the win­ter, it got so cold it was hard to fo­cus on the teacher.

But school gave me hope. And I started to en­cour­age other girls and boys to go, too. I would walk from tent to tent, car­a­van to car­a­van, per­suad­ing kids and par­ents. I met peo­ple who thought that be­cause we are refugees, ed­u­ca­tion isn’t im­por­tant any more, or that they’d con­tinue school when they re­turned to Syria. I en­cour­aged peo­ple to be­lieve in them­selves and not give up. I met kids who’d never been to school, and girls who saw mar­riage as their pro­fes­sion. Some par­ents told me it had noth­ing to do with me. I fought hard for ev­ery­one to be­lieve that we can’t do any­thing with­out knowl­edge and got in­volved with in­ter­na­tional char­i­ties who sup­ported me.

What’s hap­pen­ing in my coun­try is not of our mak­ing and it’s not our fault that we’re los­ing our rights. One day, we’ll be able to re­turn, and we need to have knowl­edge. Af­ter three years in Jor­dan, my fam­ily came to the UK. Last year I be­came the youngest and first refugee Unicef Good­will Am­bas­sador. I’m now on my way to univer­sity and am dou­bling my ac­tivism.

Ellen Jones, 19, London Cam­paign­ing for LGBTQ+ rights

I came out at 14. When you’re a young LGBTQ+ per­son and you come out, you’re put in this po­si­tion where you are sud­denly ex­pected to ed­u­cate your peers. I’d be in a les­son and some­one would ask me an in­cred­i­bly in­ap­pro­pri­ate ques­tion. Peo­ple feel like they have per­mis­sion to ac­cess all of you when you’re still fig­ur­ing things out for your­self.

At the same time, some­one in my class was send­ing me on­line anony­mous, vi­o­lent mes­sages, telling me to kill my­self. My school didn’t know what to do with it. At one point, they had con­tacted my par­ents, push­ing me to come out to them, too, and it all be­came detri­men­tal to my men­tal health.

I don’t come from a po­lit­i­cal fam­ily, but I’ve al­ways had a strong sense of fair­ness. Af­ter com­ing out, I started mak­ing ed­u­ca­tional YouTube videos on LGBTQ+ is­sues and peo­ple watched them. I also worked with my school to es­tab­lish sup­port sys­tems and vis­i­bil­ity for LGBTQ+ pupils. I got to­gether with teach­ers to set up a group.

We held events and as­sem­blies, and sud­denly oth­ers wanted to join. I worked with the school to run sur­veys of the staff and stu­dents, so we knew the is­sues that needed ad­dress­ing.

As part of a Stonewall youth pro­gramme, I started a YouTube se­ries called Queeries. I in­vite any­one to sub­mit ques­tions, how­ever in­ap­pro­pri­ate or silly, and I sit down with an­other LGBTQ+ per­son and we an­swer them. Part of that is cre­at­ing space for dif­fi­cult ques­tions, but also to give oth­ers a plat­form. I am very aware of the fact that I am white, mid­dle-class and able-bod­ied, and there are a lot of things I feel I can’t speak to. I have been di­ag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der and autism, but cam­paign­ing is al­ways some­thing I’ve felt able to do.

I was happy to do the work with my school, and I know that ed­u­ca­tion re­sources are stretched, but schools shouldn’t rely on pupils to af­fect change. That puts pres­sure on young peo­ple to chal­lenge things adults should be ad­dress­ing.

Many young peo­ple think they aren’t go­ing to amount to any­thing be­cause of all the head­lines we read. But that’s de­signed to dis­credit our con­cerns about how the world’s be­ing run. A lot of peo­ple in con­trol are in­vested in the world as it cur­rently stands; to sug­gest that things aren’t great the way they are scares them.

Emma González, 19, Flor­ida Gun-con­trol ac­tivist

We are go­ing to be the kids you read about in text­books. Not be­cause we’re go­ing to be an­other statis­tic about mass shoot­ing in Amer­ica, but be­cause we are go­ing to be the last mass shoot­ing. Just like Tin­ker v Des Moines, we are go­ing to change the law. And it’s go­ing to be due to the tire­less ef­fort of the school board, the fac­ulty mem­bers, the fam­ily mem­bers and most of all the stu­dents. The stu­dents who are dead, the stu­dents still in the hos­pi­tal, the stu­dents now suf­fer­ing PTSD, the stu­dents who had panic at­tacks dur­ing the vigil be­cause the he­li­copters would not leave us alone, hov­er­ing over the school for 24 hours a day.

If Pres­i­dent Trump wants to tell me to my face that it was a ter­ri­ble tragedy and how it should never have hap­pened and main­tain telling us how noth­ing is go­ing to be done about it, I’m go­ing to hap­pily ask him how much money he re­ceived from the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion.

It doesn’t mat­ter be­cause I al­ready know: $30m. And di­vided by the num­ber of gun­shot vic­tims in the United States in the first one and a half months of 2018 alone, that comes out to be­ing $5,800 each. Is that how much these peo­ple are worth to you, Trump? If you don’t do any­thing to pre­vent this from con­tin­u­ing to oc­cur, that num­ber of gun­shot vic­tims will go up and the num­ber that they are worth will go down. And we will be worth­less to you.

To ev­ery politi­cian who is tak­ing do­na­tions from the NRA, shame on you. 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. Com­pa­nies try­ing to make car­i­ca­tures of the teenagers these days, say­ing that all we are is self-in­volved and trend-ob­sessed and they hush us into sub­mis­sion when our mes­sage doesn’t reach the ears of the na­tion, we are pre­pared to call BS.

Politi­cians who sit in their gilded House and Se­nate seats funded by the NRA telling us noth­ing could have been done to pre­vent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not de­crease gun vi­o­lence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dan­ger­ous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have pre­vented the hun­dreds of sense­less tragedies that have oc­curred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talk­ing about, that we’re too young to un­der­stand how the gov­ern­ment works. We call BS.

Amika George, 18, London

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