Meet the new student activists
What do they want? Inclusion, climate action and justice – now
Students taking part in the “march for climate change” in Dublin earlier this year. Photo: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
In August of last year, Greta Thunberg sat down on the steps of Swedish parliament and would not budge.
She was striking from school, demanding that her government take radical action to address climate change.
Almost a year later, she continues to campaign and has inspired hundreds of thousands of young people across the world – including Ireland – to take part in strikes to demand action.
Student activism has century-old roots and is certainly not a new phenomenon. But over the past year, there’s been an undeniable increase.
In Ireland, a combination of the same-sex marriage referendum, the repeal movement and, now, climate change has stirred the imagination of a new generation of young people.
Here are some of the new student activists determined to effect lasting change in the world around them.
‘A poem is right here, right now – I’m demanding people to listen’
The climate poet
Lucy Holmes (18)
Last March more than 10,000 students took to the streets of the capital in solidarity with a global climate school strike.
Lucy Holmes was among the crowd that day, a sixth-year student who had travelled up from Mullingar to take part.
She listened to students of all ages address the throngs of attendees and felt compelled to act.
“But I’m not a scientist,” Lucy says, “The only thing I could do is write poetry.”
Up until recently, very few people knew Lucy wrote her own poems. But bearing witness to and participating in the growing Fridays for Future movement, she recognised its momentum and wanted to put her own words tackling the subject out into the open.
Lucy reached out to Irish climate change-related Instagram accounts and arranged to do a reading at the next major school strike set to take place in Dublin on May 24th.
The poem she chose for the occasion, titled “Complacency”, came together just a day after the March 15th strike.
Standing before another thousand-strong sized crowd in May and with posters at either side, Lucy read the words aloud.
She painted a scene of planetary ruin and stressed the desperate need for change. Complacency, she concluded, will ultimately kill.
Immediately afterwards and in the days that followed, many of those who heard the poem reached out to her, saying that although they might not always like poetry, they felt the weight of her words.
And poetry, for Lucy, hits an audience on a level that goes beyond drilled facts and figures.
“I think for someone to fully understand the breadth of a problem, they have to understand it on an emotional level,” she says.
“A poem is right here, right now. When it’s performed, it’s in your face and you have to listen. That’s what I do with my poetry. I’m demanding people to listen,” she adds.
‘When you act, you feel like there’s actually hope’
The plastic-free campaigner
Scott Murphy (20)
Trinity student Scott Murphy was also one of the thousands of young people who took to the capital’s streets on March 15th.
He expected a couple of hundred demonstrators to turn up. When he saw thousands had congregated, it felt like was a defining moment of hope.
“With environmental issues, it’s very easy to think this is a losing battle, “ he finds, “but when you organise and see the amount of people that care, it just gives you hope that actually, things can change here.”
Now going into his third year, Scott has been involved with a plastic-free university campaign since he began his studies.
Before enrolling, he heard of Trinity’s successful Fossil Free TCD campaign that had led to the university divesting from fossil fuels in December 2016. Now a college student himself, he wanted to get involved in something similar.
Scott joined TCD Plastic Free Solutions in November 2017, an on-campus organisation that aims to eliminate the presence of plastic on university grounds.
The student-led group started meeting with different facilities around the campus and took stock of how much plastic was being used day-to-day. A petition was then set up, and with almost 4,000 student signatures, it was presented to the provost in February 2018.
A two-year plan was implemented, and the university has switched to more sustainable catering options. The campaign has now set its sights on a plastic-free Trinity Ball for 2020.
Student activism, according to Scott, is a way to connect with like-minded people, “instead of just wallowing away in your room,” he says, and adds, “when you act, you feel like there’s actually hope”.
‘Teenagers are more willing to say I’m any sort of identity under the LGBT umbrella’
The non-binary activist
Ollie Bell (22)
A recent university graduate, Ollie Bell is one of the organisers of Dublin’s Trans Pride Parade which took place for the first time last year.
Bell was very much involved in the repeal the Eighth Amendment movement and campaigned for a yes vote.
Organising the first parade right after the result, Bell decided to focus on bodily autonomy as a theme and wanted to create a space where the trans community could, “have their own pride to feel represented” and push for their own demands and rights.
Following its success, another annual Trans Pride parade took place in Dublin just last month with thousands in attendance. The focus this year was on “breaking the binary” to highlight trans voices, as well as those in the non-binary and intersex community.
A lot of those marching were young people and Bell finds that there’s been a “super positive” change in a short amount of time since the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, as “people are more open, and teenagers are willing to come out of the closet to say I’m trans, I’m non-binary, I’m any sort of identity under the LGBT umbrella”.
‘Raise your voice because you actually do have one’
The youth organiser
Jakub Kostanski (18)
By engaging in activism across a spectrum of issues, students are defying some of the stereotypes that surround them, according to Galway resident and activist 18-year-old Jakub Kostanski.
This February, Jakub joined SpunOut, a national youth organisation whereby young people reach out to their peers on a range of issues. Jakub has done so both online and at event stands around the country to date.
The first step for a student activist is to accept their thoughts on an issue, such as mental health, homelessness or climate change, to name a few, and “the second step is actually reaching out”, Jakub says.
Once you do, he adds, “you’re like, ‘hang on. I just did a good thing. I just made someone’s life feel better today by raising this concern because they might not feel that they can’”.
With the recent organisation of school strikes, a ripple effect of participation occurs. A friend inspired to act can mobilise those around them and student activism then grows in numbers.
Whether it starts on Swedish or Irish soil, on the eve of a new school year, student-led movements continue to accumulate momentum.
This month, thousands of students are expected to take part in another international school strike on September 20th, this time to coincide with a climate action summit in New York.
“Raise your voice,” Jakub tells his peers and to anyone who will listen, “because you actually do have one.”