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Youth presence in social change

Sitting in the speaker’s chair at the United Nations Climate Action Conference was a 16-year-old Swedish girl by the name of Greta Thunberg. Wearing a pink blouse and a severe expression, the young activist addressed the representatives in attendance with a blunt conviction that has since captured the world’s attention. 

Her journey to the United Nations, like many young activists, stemmed from a frustration with the political dealings and absence of attention being given to a specific issue close to her heart. In Thunberg’s case, this was the lack of action taken by world leaders to combat climate change. For years, the Swedish native has been drawing attention to the very real and increasingly prevalent reality of climate change, her central message being that political leaders need to take aggressive measures to change the path the planet is on, and that those measures need to be taken now. 

Through her activism, Thunberg has joined a legacy of youth activists that have cemented themselves in history through their conviction and passion for change. Reaching back in history, perhaps one of the most notable accounts of youth activism can be attributed to the Greensboro sit-ins. Fed up with their community’s refusal to desegregate, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University walked into a lunch counter in the city and refused to leave. The aftershock of the peaceful demonstration was a butterfly effect that rippled across the U.S., growing from what originally had involved four people to over 300.  The students not only successfully desegregated lunch counters but set a new precedent when it came to young people’s place within the political sphere. Throughout the past decades, other instances of youth activism have included involvement in protests revolving around environmental advocacy, gun control, and racial equality. 

Even though the issues they champion are varied, all of these young revolutionaries share a common problem, not of being noticed, but of being listened to. Political involvement, in this context referring to pushing for strictly social change, has routinely excluded the voices of the younger generations. It is inevitable that for every young voice that speaks out, the answering argument is often that they are too young and too inexperienced to have a say on how the world should work. The group of students that spearheaded the powerful gun-control movement after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting was met with backlash regarding their age, as were the minds behind the Chicano walk-outs in the 1960s. Thunberg herself was subject to verbal attacks, being called a “mentally-ill Swedish child” by Fox News guest Michael Knowles. 

What can be taken away from the involvement of youth in politics is how it is often more effective in capturing the attention of the public and bringing awareness, and sometimes resolution, to an issue but how it speaks to the future of politics. The voices of youth today will one day turn into the voices of the world’s leaders. Perhaps the immediate reaction to a teen or young leader speaking out shouldn’t be to discount them based on their age but to engage in a productive discussion about the points they bring to the conversation. These young people show a significant amount of bravery by standing up for what they believe in, quite often without the promise of being supported by anyone else. They face adversity and ridicule but continue to fight for what they believe in. They may not achieve what they set out for, but at least they indicate a promising future for politics not only in this country but around the world.

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