In the face of the climate crisis and growing inequities, all hands are needed on deck to place justice at the top of the agenda. Polls repeatedly show that concern for inequities and climate catastrophe is on the rise1. Meanwhile, opportunities to make a life out of activism are more numerous and more accessible than ever before. Why is it the case, then, that throughout the years and across causes, it’s always the same small group of folks permanently “on deck” for social and climate justice, while most are content with cheering on the sidelines?
Over the last four years, I have worked to bring young people from the sidelines of climate action onto the playing field. I have learned that a handful of myths about “activism” are holding back many otherwise motivated and well-resourced individuals. Dispelling these myths is necessary if we want to have sufficient collective momentum to address the colossal challenges ahead of us.
Myth 1: Unless you are a well-spoken, charismatic leader, you won’t make an impact.
Truth: You already have the personality and skill set to be an activist.
Activism is not about holding a megaphone, making memorable speeches, or leading crowds, but about leveraging whatever power you have to tip the scale in favour of a cause. Movements run on a diversity of skill sets and personalities, and only a fraction of activists choose to do public speaking and chant-leading. In the youth climate movement, we rely on detail-oriented folks to think through logistics and safety of action, on good communicators to come up with messaging and outreach strategies, on creative minds to bring visuals and a compelling aesthetic to our work, and on caretakers and connectors to ensure relationship building and conflict mediation are not put on the back burner. With every new person who joins the group, we discover a new need. Your first step into activism is to offer your areas of expertise and skills to a few groups whose work you would like to contribute to, and you’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll get a full to-do list in response!
Myth 2: You cannot be an activist if you are not a subject-matter expert.
Truth: You’ll make a much greater impact by starting now and learning as you go.
I first learnt about climate change in high school. Should I have waited until 2024, enough time for me to graduate and complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in climate before doing any form of activism?
No one expects the folks from accounting and sales at AirCanada to know how to actually fly a plane. Similarly, in our organizing groups, not everyone is a climate science expert or has the lived experience to come up with poverty-reduction strategies. Our movements take guidance from people with lived and learned experience when it comes to writing demands, yet most of the group knows only enough to care about the issue and to explain it at a high level.
It is necessary for activists to commit to lifelong learning on their subject matter, but it is not the case that you need to master all the causes, consequences, and solutions of an issue in order to start advocating for the issue to be addressed.
Myth 3: You need a baseline level of power, fame, or money to start, otherwise it’s a waste of time.
Truth: Starting where you are is the most strategic place for you to start.
The rise of “celebrity-activists” has ironically left many people hesitating to join the movement, because it reinforces the myth that an activist is someone with a large following and access to the top decision-makers.
Research shows someone is most likely to change their mind if the information comes from someone they already trust, or to whom they can relate2. I have witnessed parents go from total indifference to active support for climate action in a matter of months after their child joined our group. Entire workplaces have mobilized around issues after hearing about them from one or two of their coworkers. Not only is it possible for you to lead your community into a protest, a fundraiser or a transformation, it is very likely impossible for someone outside your community to do so. You can helicopter in a famous activist from abroad who might impress and seduce for a day, but lasting change comes when those within communities are empowered to roll up their sleeves.
The best place for you to start being an activist is in your existing communities, whether it be your faith-based group, workplace, friend group, or dinner table. Do not underestimate the power of your relationships, knowledge, and experiences, they are all you need to become a successful agent of change.
Photo attached to the article: Aliénor leading the September 23rd, 2022, youth climate strike in Toronto, where several thousands of students, youth and their adult allies took the streets to demand climate justice. Photo by Joshua Best.
- Coletto, David. “What Do Canadians Think about Climate Change and Climate Action?” Abacus Data. Accessed December 1, 2022. abacusdata.ca/climate-change-cop26-canada
- Kramer, R. M. (2014, August 1). Rethinking trust. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from hbr.org/2009/06/rethinking-trust