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Believe It or Not, Young Climate Change Activists Need Us to Show Up

By Lyn Mikel Brown

Greta Thunberg, outside the Swedish parliament.
Greta Thunberg, outside the Swedish parliament. Photo credit: Anders Hellberg.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg made her way to New York City a few weeks ago via an emission-free racing yacht. She’s here to tell us, as she’s been doing since she was eleven, that “our house is on fire.” The climate crisis is urgent. We dismiss it at our own peril.

You don’t have to believe her. You don’t have to believe photos of starving polar bears rummaging through piles of garbage or videos of Greenland’s glaciers transformed to rushing water. You don’t have to believe NASA or the Academies of Science from eighty countries or 97% of climate researchers. You can dismiss non-sharpie-altered maps of sea level rise and floods devastating the Midwest and South, wave aside the significance of fires burning in the Amazon rainforest, roll your eyes at UN rights chief, Michelle Bachelet’s assessment that climate change is an unprecedented global threat to human rights.

No, you don’t have to believe any of it. But if you are a parent or a teacher, if you raise or educate or care for a young person, you have a responsibility to listen and understand why they do and why this matters so much to them. Because if there’s any chance, any chance in hell, that this is all really happening, it’s in their lap, and trust me, they are plenty worried and plenty angry. 

I’ve been listening to and working with young activists for a long time. Guess what? They don’t need adults to believe in their causes. But they do need us to support them, to have faith in them, to care that they believe enough to act. And we should. It is good for all of us when youth feel they are in the world to change the world. It is good for a world rife with wicked problems to have a young generation filled with energy that hasn’t yet been dispersed, drained, or redirected.

Activism isn’t something anyone does alone. For Greta and fellow US youth climate activists like Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, Isra Hirsi, Jerome Foster II, and Jamie Margolin, indeed for any young person working for social change, there’s always a network of adults and fellow activists supporting. And make no mistake, youth want us in their corner, helping them to create the conditions for movement. But being the kind of adult youth activists need isn’t easy. The hardest thing of all is learning how not to be a well-intentioned version of what feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed calls “the wall”: how not to be the barrier between youth and their passions; how not to interrupt the flow of energy and ideas; how not to be the force that cuts them off from the deepest parts of themselves.

When I ask young activists what advice they would give adults who want to support them, they say, “Let us be creative and have our strong feelings.” Give us “the opportunity to speak out and have our opinions heard.” Don’t “dim down our energy and excitement,” don’t “take control over a lot of things.” The list goes on: “be honest,” “be a decent person,” “show that you care,” “be open,” “listen,” “check your adult privilege.” And, most of all, “show up!”

As Rebecca Solnit says, “perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” What makes youth activism especially powerful—its rich, organic imperfection—can turn adults off. But I can say from experience that showing up is not only vital to the success of youth movements, it’s good for us. Youth have a way of teaching us unexpected things, helping us rediscover the value of openness, of messiness; they reveal truths we’ve forgotten. Listening to young people is mind-altering. As they learn to care deeply and act to make the world better, as they bravely step into the fray, as their willfulness reveals the wall, we learn how to be more porous, more open; we learn to let go, to use our power to create more space and opportunity.

As we speak, Greta and team are marshalling a youthful army of climate activists via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to join a global climate strike on Friday, September 20. They are hoping adults everywhere believe enough in them and in this cause to walk out of our homes and work places in support.

I hope you believe. I hope you take your kids out of school, arrange carpools and class trips, and attend Friday’s march-out with the young people in your life. If you don’t buy it, I hope you engage in a little willing suspension of disbelief and support them on this issue they feel so passionate about. They can’t vote, but they can march; they can be visible and heard. If you do nothing else, just write the permission slips, purchase the markers and posters, pack the lunches, and make sure they get on the bus.


About the Author 

Lyn Mikel Brown is professor of education at Colby College, founder of SPARK Movement, and author of Powered By Girl: A Field Guide For Supporting Youth Activists. Follow her on Twitter at @LynMikel and visit her website.