Over a year on, the 2019 September 20th School Strike 4 Climate is regarded as something of an apotheosis of climate mass mobilisation in contemporary Australia. 80,000 students, workers, and families poured into Djarrbarrgalli, also known as the Domain, armed with placards, forming a puissant display of democratic power, and I somehow found myself in the press pen, not knowing how to act next to Craig Reucassel.
Since that day in 2019, the School Strike 4 Climate movement has undergone a process of evolution – partly organic, and partly catalysed by the disruption of COVID-19. Many organisers have aged out of the movement and newer faces, no less earnest in their activism, have taken up the mantle, bringing with them new visions, new strategies, and new theories of change. I sat down with three former and current SS4C organisers to gain some perspective on the evolution of the movement and their approach to the upcoming May 21st climate strike.
Varsha Yajman, a graduated striker, was one of the key organisers behind September 20, and a dear friend of mine before she became a law student. She described the strike as one of the best experiences she ever had, and as a “time of learning and growing by speaking to unions, Indigenous peoples, and climate deniers”. I make the assumption that one of those demographics was less edifying to engage with than the others. Varsha noted that there was a definite loss of engagement throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but pointed to SS4C’s online strikes as evidence that “there are still avenues to advocate for justice”.
“I think SS4C has come back stronger than ever with a much more diverse group of people being given the opportunity to share their story, to work towards changing the narrative that this isn’t just climate change but a climate emergency”, Varsha opined. Although she has aged out of School Strike 4 Climate, she still holds high hopes for the movement’s future, “I would love to see SS4C highlight the intersectionality of the climate movement even more”. She pointed to the action SS4C co-led to stop the State Bank of India’s proposed $1bn loan to Adani, identifying it as an amazing step.
Kayla Hill, a sixteen year old organiser, joined SS4C’s ranks mid-2019. Kayla spoke to the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted School Strike’s organising, but also offered an opportunity for reflection – “Before COVID-19 we had so much momentum with the bushfire crisis and September 20, but we were able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and see how we can make realistic and effective change”. She identified the pandemic as a “crucial intergenerational opportunity to make change. We would otherwise never have this opportunity to rebuild our economy and shift the way it’s going”.
In our conversation, her determination to make the climate movement more accessible shone through. She spoke to her experience navigating the climate movement as a person of colour, and the growth she has undergone through that experience – “I think it’s necessary to keep addressing the issues that people of colour face within the climate movement. I’ve definitely brought out my voice more, I’ve been able to call people out and make sure they are held accountable.” Kayla emphasised the importance of centering the First Nations peoples on the front lines of the government’s expansion of gas projects. Intersectional activism is something which seems to be in Kayla’s blood. She spoke fondly of her maternal grandfather who was involved in climate and land rights movements in Indonesia, citing him as an inspiration for her activism and “following in his footsteps and following his legacy”.
Seventeen year old striker Nabilah Chowdhury will be taking to the stage on May 21st as an MC. Her nervous excitement was evident as she spoke about the prospect of chairing her first rally, but there is no doubt to be had that Nabilah, along with her co-MC, will exceed the expectations left through SS4C’s notably strong crop of orators. Nabilah addressed the logistical challenges of putting together a mass strike, pointing to the fact that many organisers are currently in year 11 and 12, and the task of promoting and organising a rally is something they juggle on top of school work and other extracurriculars. Nabilah herself is a fencer and volunteers at Taronga Zoo. Her plans to work in wildlife conservation after high school are undoubtedly borne of the same environmental conscience which led her to getting involved in SS4C in June 2019.
Nabilah talked me through her process of getting involved in climate activism, “I went to the strikes before I joined the team, and I always thought ‘I should do that, I want to do something’. I saw joining as a way to do something about the climate crisis because I felt like, for me, just standing there wasn’t enough”.
Nabilah also spoke of the adaptations SS4C had to undergo through COVID, “We had a planning day for the May 15th (2020) rally, we’d planned most of it. We didn’t buy anything thank goodness, but we planned a whole bunch of things and a whole bunch of speakers for an in-person rally in Sydney’’. While hopes of holding an in-person rally had declined slowly over a longer period, the definitive call by the Sydney team to move the rally online was only made a week beforehand. “There were technical issues but I think we did alright,” Nabilah chuckled.
On May 21st, people will pour into Town Hall, the memories of September 20 still in their mind. School kids will show up, a little taller than they were then, bringing with them chants, witty placards, and an empowered belief in their ability to affect change.
In the months since my cursory involvement in School Strike 4 Climate, the movement has been an instrumental catalyst in the development and growth of my own personal politics and advocacy. With an acknowledgement that their political standing can be a topic of contention within the wider environmental movement, I believe there is something to be said about the power these young people hold within the acolytic hope they possess in a better world.
This article was published in ‘Embers’, a pullout in Honi’s Semester 1, Week 11 edition.