Young people and activism: ‘You can’t stand by and hope everything’s going to be okay’

Activists: Caelainn Hogan, Tobi Lawal, Alannah O’Neill Murray (top row); Megan Sims, Amika George, Lisa Nic An Bhreithimh (middle row); Síona Cahill and Saoi O’Connor
Is this the age of the young female activist? Amika George led a movement at 17 that changed the lives of millions of schoolgirls. She tells Catherine Cleary about her work. Young Irish people are fighting too, for issues ranging from equality to climate change. Filomena Kaguako meets some of them

There’s an anecdote in Amika George’s book Make it Happen that I want to talk to her about because I feel certain it would have sent my 17-year-old self under the nearest duvet with a large imposter syndrome for company.

Imagine you’re a teenager who wants to make period products free for schoolchildren because you’re appalled at the idea of people missing school because they can’t afford tampons. You’re making your first public speech and from the audience a woman (and this makes it all the worse) questions your youth, lack of experience and support. “I could feel my face redden with embarrassment because here I was trying to make some kind of change,” George writes. “And in front of a group of a hundred or so women, she was telling me that I couldn’t do it.”

Amika George made history through the Free Periods campaign, which forced the UK government to provide period products free in schools and colleges

The now 21-year-old is, like much of the rest of the UK, at home trying to get her dissertation finished and we’re talking on Zoom. She’s a final-year history undergraduate student, having made her own piece of history through the Free Periods campaign, which forced the UK government to provide period products free in schools and colleges. Now she’s written a book, part memoir and part journalistic interviews with other campaigners. It’s a how-to for activists in an internet age, trying to harness the social media machine without getting dragged under its wheels.

So how did she walk through that early flame-thrower moment? With the help of her tribe, as she explains. “I don’t think I’m an inherently confident person. As I started out quite quickly the campaign was getting a lot of traction and there was community forming. I think that’s probably what bolstered me because every time I thought it wasn’t moving forward or I wasn’t the right person doing it in the right way I could look to people who were really passionate about Free Periods, which at that stage was just a petition. There were people signing it every day and getting in touch with me and asking how they could help and whether they could share it in their networks and circles. And I think seeing that ripple effect and the sense of community that was forming around me, I think that was probably what spurred me on and made me feel that it wasn’t a futile attempt.”

Amika George. Photograph: Mollie Rose
Amika George. Photograph: Mollie Rose

We are in a new age of activism, much of it channelling a focused, feminist energy driven by a collective urgency to fix huge problems.

It’s such a lot in such a short time. George is struggling to get her dissertation finished (she’s looking at how 1980s and 1990s music, dance and television influenced the identities of British South-Asian teenagers). That power of social media to gather disparate points of light, mustering an army of kindred spirits to have your back so you can face into the storm is a large part of the story of Make it Happen. It’s never been easier or, in many ways, harder to be an activist. Making the personal political has long been a tactic for campaigners, but when children become the face of global movements, like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, does it place too much on young shoulders?

It is not easy, especially as a young person, to become the voice of your whole community, George says, and “to have all the facts and to have all the rebuttals for people who disagree”. One of her early mistakes was to respond to every social media message denying period poverty with links to articles and evidence, chasing down every naysayer and trying to change their mind when they often had no interest in learning about the issue. She learned to pick her battles.

It has to be about practical, tangible change, and also reaching the people who maybe don’t know enough about feminism or wouldn’t consider themselves feminists

“Activism led by a very young generation who have grown up on the internet and who haven’t really been media trained or shown how to do this in the past I think it can definitely have personal impacts on you. People can definitely struggle especially if it’s not something you set out to do. It can also be difficult in oversimplifying issues in thinking ‘if one person stands up for it it’s something small that one person can fix’. Whereas a lot of these injustices and inequalities are much more structural and much more pervasive and will take much more than one individual to make change on.

“But in terms of where it’s gotten me and the confidence and the kind of demonstration that even as a young person who didn’t have much help at the beginning and I didn’t have any experience at all I was able to make change and I think that actually fills me with a huge amount of hope for the future and especially for my generation.”

Why does she think so many women and girls are involved in campaigning? Obviously a campaign around periods would be predominantly female but environmental activism is dominated by women and girls, despite the grim statistic that women are 27 times more likely to be trolled online than men.

It has to be about practical, tangible change, and also reaching the people who maybe don’t know enough about feminism or wouldn’t consider themselves feminists. It has to kind of break out of those silos

For George the answer lies not in gender but in feminism. “It feels like something that’s really trickled down, especially to a younger generation, especially young women and girls are really engaging with those topics and are learning more about them and thinking about what feminism means to them in an everyday sense, and about how they can make change in their communities. Maybe that’s had an influence in activism, really demonstrating how intrinsically linked feminism has to be with activism. It can’t be about individual consciousness-raising in the historical sense. It has to be about practical, tangible change, and also reaching the people who maybe don’t know enough about feminism or wouldn’t consider themselves feminists. It has to kind of break out of those silos.”

Greta Thunberg in Washington, DC, in 2019. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Getty
Greta Thunberg in Washington, DC, in 2019. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Getty

Opportunity and danger exist alongside each other in social movements built by social media. We live in an age where technology can enable millions to passionately believe in their own version of reality, constructed echo chambers in which they are untouched by the truth. Does George think that tribe-building online activism can merge with consensus-building progressive politics?

“We are seeing, perhaps too slowly, a new type of political person in the form of AOC [US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and in the British context too there is this wave of young, really inspiring, I would call them activist politicians, who are entering government in a more traditional sense and using that role really responsibly, and I’m seeing them using social media as a tool in their policy-making and that’s really interesting; posting their parliament speeches on Instagram. ”

'Issues like the climate crisis or anti-racism for example, which for the last year there’s been a lot of conversation about, it would feel incredibly unproductive to make that a competitive race and who can get there first'

In a locked-down year, online activism is fuelling interest in politics for young people, George believes, citing the huge awareness of anti-racism that grew during the past year.

“The nature of 2020 and everything that that threw at us, maybe one good thing that came out of it was how it invigorated the younger generation in demonstrating how much there was to do and how much to fix and why you can’t really just stand by and hope everything’s going to be okay. You do actually have to stand up and take action yourself.”

Is she optimistic that a post-Covid world will swing the pendulum back to more progressive politics?

“I think the nature of being physically isolated during lockdown last year hammers home how lonely that can be, and not enjoyable. As humans we are social creatures and we have enjoyment and a responsibility in equal measure to a sense of community and family and friendship.” From her circles, “I feel like there’s a new energy, definitely. I think that there is a sense that we can’t go back to the old or the normal; the normal can’t just be transposed once the vaccine is out. It has to be different. It has to be a kind of wake-up call and I think the explosion of anger and disgust at everything that happened around the racial justice protest years and the end of the Trump years and the climate crisis, I think all these things are really reaching pinnacle and it feels to me like we’re all on this precipice of choosing a side, where we’re going to decide to resign ourselves to what could happen or we’re going to choose change. That sounds like a corny slogan or something,” she finishes with an apologetic smile.

That sounds like an activist politician in the making.

Malala Yousafzai at the UN in 2013. Photograph: Todd Heisler/New York Times
Malala Yousafzai at the UN in 2013. Photograph: Todd Heisler/New York Times

She’s not going to be drawn on whether she would run for office in the future if asked. It’s something she’d have to think about, she says.

“It’s not that young people have this sort of new-found confidence in activism or this new skill set in how to lead a campaign it’s actually just a time thing,” she says. “We’re kind of at our wits’ end here in that we’ve run out of time to fix these issues and these issues are so deep rooted, structural and really important, not just to us but to everyone. And the people who’ve been accorded the political power aren’t doing what they need to do to change them.

“I think we’re reassessing the issues that mean something to us and those issues are becoming more and more urgent and it feels to me like young people are experiencing a real sense of frustration right now that the issues that feel so important and pressing to us are routinely ignored and dismissed by political leaders and people with real influence and the power to make change on a higher level. So issues like the climate crisis or anti-racism for example, which for the last year there’s been a lot of conversation about, it would feel incredibly unproductive to make that a competitive race and who can get there first. Because (a) it’s completely useless and (b) there’s just no time because those things are just so urgent. I think there’s a sense there’s no time for competition so it has to be collaborative and it has to be empowering and inclusive and we have to be lifting everyone up.”

My dad’s father was always a huge inspiration. I think he’s one of those figures in an older generation, before social media, who really defined activism, but actually didn’t know that word or wouldn’t have called himself one

At the start of the interview we chat about family influences and who made her who she is. As a final question I ask who’s Appachan, the person to whom she dedicates the book. It’s the Malayalam word for granddad, the language of Kerala in Southern India where her dad’s father was from, and a reminder to her that despite all our generation’s shiny new tools, there is a long history of communities finding ways to help each other.

“He was always a huge inspiration. I think he’s one of those figures in an older generation, before social media, who really defined activism, but actually didn’t know that word or wouldn’t have called himself one. He left his village in the south of India when he was 18. His dad had passed away and he decided to come [to the UK]. He fought in the RAF ... I’m Christian and from this small community and he became this sort of gatekeeper of the community and the people who had come from Kerala and from those villages that he was from to Britain, he would always take them in and help them out and I think my family became really central in the community in terms of just, more than anything, generosity. I think for me he epitomises that sense of dedication to community and compassion and people.”

She’s never spoken about him in an interview before. Dedicating the book to him was always in the back of her mind. She thanks me for asking about him before we do the awkward Zoom goodbye (where someone invariably hangs up too soon or too late).

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I’m left smiling at the empty screen in the silence that follows, inspired by the bleak hope I find in the seriousness of her purpose and the wisdom she has had to find in such a short space of time. Catherine Cleary

Young Irish activists making a difference: ‘I want to make sure the next generation is looked after’

Saoi O’Connor
Saoi O’Connor. Photograph: Shamim Malekmian 

Saoi O’Connor
In January 2019, Saoi O’Connor, now 18, started protesting every week outside Cork City Hall to raise awareness around climate change.

Every Friday, “we would go out and we would strike outside City Hall in Cork for seven hours. It was from 9am until just after 4pm so we would try and do the whole school day.” O’Connor was homeschooled for a year so they could focus on Fridays For Future, a global strike movement founded by the teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

While the global Fridays For Future movement received two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020, O’Connor says their biggest achievement is occupying the stage at the Conference of Parties (COP) in 2019 at the UN.

“That was really impactful for me, it was a really powerful moment,”  says O’Connor. “It was all of us acting together and speaking the truth to power.”

O’Connor’s main goal now is to ensure 2021 is the year of the climate. The Glasgow Climate Change conference that was due to take place in late 2020 was postponed until this year due to the pandemic. Countries were expected to communicate their plans to reduce the greenhouse emissions in order to reach the goals of The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change.

“It just didn’t happen. But it’s going to happen at the end of this year in November or December, so we’re working towards that right now,” says O’Connor.

Síona Cahill
Síona Cahill

Síona Cahill
It was during her time studying civil law and sociology in Maynooth University, that Síona Cahill, 28, “got the bug” for activism. She had regularly campaigned on campus about anything from sexual consent to marriage equality and mental health, and was later appointed vice-president for welfare and equality in the university’s student union.

After two years in this position she says she was hooked. “I was encouraged by a lot of people around me to run for the national position of Equality and Citizenship Officer of the USI [the Union of Students in Ireland],” she says.

In 2017, Cahill was elected president of the USI and represented 374,000 students across Ireland.

The Longford woman, who was recently nominated by European Movement Ireland for a Women in Youth Activism award, has been at the forefront of successful campaigns centred around reproductive rights and marriage equality.

“I coined the term ‘Make Grá the law’, which means make love the law. It was on the side of the SIPTU building in the lead up to the marriage equality referendum,” says Cahill.

Cahill’s activism has led to her appointment to the board of two Irish organisations. “Two particular passions of mine are the Irish Family Planning Association, which is an organisation very much central to the work of empowering women and families to make decisions around, not only their health care, but also reproductive justice. That’s really important to me and similarly, I have just been appointed to the [board of] Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, ” she says.

Tobi Lawal
Tobi Lawal

Tobi Lawal
Recent law graduate Tobi Lawal, 23, says she “fell” into activism work after she launched a campaign to help people in direct provision in June 2020.

“I ran a campaign called ‘Five Euro, Five Minutes, Five People’. Basically, I made an Instagram video about direct provision and outlined the basic facts around it. I asked people to donate €5 to MASI which is the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland and to educate their family, friends and loved ones about direct provision,” she says.

The campaign garnered over 100,000 views and in five days, Lawal raised nearly €8,000, which was put towards education for students in the asylum process.

“It all stemmed from me just wanting to speak out about my own personal experiences of racism growing up as a young, black, educated woman in Ireland,” she says and while Lawal aspires to be a qualified solicitor by 2025, she says she will continue to be involved in activism.

“The goal is to become a solicitor and on the side continue to scream as loud as I can about racism and social injustice in Ireland,” she says.

Megan Sims
Megan Sims

Megan Sims
Image-based sexual abuse, where sexually explicit visual material is shared or posted online without the consent of the person depicted, became a criminal offence last month. The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill was approved in December, carrying penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

One activist who worked on raising awareness of the issue is 24-year-old Megan Sims, who has personal experience of this abuse. “I was a victim of image-based sexual abuse in 2016. I had my photos and videos shared thousands of times,” she says.

After learning of multiple instances of other people’s images shared without consent, Sims launched a change.org petition to call for the criminalisation of this behaviour, which has more than 83,000 signatures.

Interest in her petition soared in November 2020 following allegations of a leak of thousands of sexually explicit images of young girls and women on digital distribution platform Discord.

The matter was brought to the Dáil and the Bill has now been signed into law.

“It was meant to be passed for years, it just wasn’t a priority, and then it became a priority when they saw the level of people impacted,” Sims says.

Sims is now the head of image-based abuse at The Victim’s Alliance, a victims’ advocacy group.

Caelainn Hogan
Caelainn Hogan

Caelainn Hogan
Since the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was published last week, much of the public discourse in Ireland has been dominated by the harrowing truths about generations of pain endured by Irish women and girls in mother and baby homes across the country.

However, writer and journalist Caelainn Hogan, 32, has been researching this topic for years, visiting the sites of these institutions and speaking to survivors as well as members of the religious orders.

“I think when you see the State failing people, I think you need to speak up,” she says.

In her recently published book, Republic of Shame, Hogan highlights tragic accounts of misogyny and punishment endured by women in mother and baby homes at the hands of the Catholic Church. “The experience of speaking to people I knew personally, who had been affected by these institutions and this legacy of shame was something that fuelled me, and the writing of this book,” says Hogan, who stresses “I don’t want to put myself as a spokesperson for survivors.”

The Dublin-born writer now plans to turn her attention to the system of direct provision and other institutions that she believes are damaging.

“I’ve written before about direct provision and the housing crisis and it’s something I will continue to write on. We’re seeing similar systems of institutionalisation being normalised, and that’s something that I intend to write about.”

Alannah O’Neill Murray
Alannah O’Neill Murray

Alannah O’Neill Murray
“I fell into activism when I was 19 when I was researching a documentary for college on disability in film and it snowballed from there,” says Alannah O’Neill Murray.

“By nature coming from a disabled background, our existence kind of pushes us to advocate for ourselves,” she says.

The 24-year-old, who was diagnosed with juvenile dermatomyositis, an auto-immune disease, at five and became a wheelchair user at 10, has campaigned for a broad range of social issues in addition to disability rights.

In 2019 she participated in the Washington Ireland Programme, a highly competitive programme for young emerging leaders.

“I got to chair a discussion with Samantha Barry, editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine in Conde Nast in New York. It was a panel discussion so we were going around to all different places to have a chat with leaders in different industries. We went from Conde Nast to the UN on the same day,” she says.

Murray says she is going to avoid throwing herself “into the next cause that comes” and that her main focus will always be to think about helping the next generation.

“Whatever issues I fight for, I just want to make sure the next generation is looked after,” she says.

Lisa Nic An Bhreithimh
Lisa Nic An Bhreithimh

Lisa Nic An Bhreithimh
During the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, Lisa Nic An Bhreithimh, now 32, was part of Tá Comhionannas, the Irish language branch of the Yes Equality campaign.

“We felt it was necessary for there to be a voice on Irish-language media and representing the Yes campaign. So interestingly, it was through the Irish language that I developed a passion for social issues because from there I became involved in other areas of LGBTQ+ activism and just general social campaigns,” she says.

The 32-year-old first dipped her toe into the world of activism while studying Philosophy and Modern Irish in Trinity College Dublin and now volunteers for Shout Out, a Dublin-based charity that delivers school workshops on LGBTQ+ issues.

“The fundamental goal of Shout Out is to reduce the bullying of young people in Ireland who are LGBTQ and also to empower allies from the cis and straight community,” she says.

The charity also collaborates with TENI, the Trans Equality Network of Ireland to support the needs of trans or non-binary people.

In her day job as the communications and campaign manager for European Movement Ireland, she works on a number of campaigns that encourage engagement between Irish citizens and the EU.

“My life involves activism in a lot of different areas. I think that has always been important to me and just the sense of social responsibility,” she says. Filomena Kaguako