Here you can find advice from advocates from all over Ontario. Words of encouragement, advice and experiences from knowledgeable individuals, tailored towards youth advocates.
I’ve spent the whole summer thinking about and developing ways to engage more youth in advocacy and their local politics.
I’ve interviewed youth groups, listened to their webinars, and connected with them online. Asking them questions, listening to their concerns and discussing ways we can make local advocacy more accessible to all youth no matter their race, gender, identity or culture.
I’ve spent my whole time working with SCGC pouring over municipal websites, finding contact information, and researching how to navigate the many systems needed in order to advocate as successfully as possible. If you’re reading this, you’re already checking out the toolkit I put together to help skip the trial and error present at the beginning of an advocacy journey.
However, this is the favourite tool I developed all summer – Welcome to the Advice Archives!
Here you can find personal advice from countless seasoned advocates from all over Ontario. Words of encouragement, advice and experiences from knowledgeable individuals, tailored towards youth advocates.
While creating this archive, I got to speak to so many amazing people of different ages and backgrounds, people that have dedicated themselves to creating change of all sizes. Their words are inspiring, thoughtful, impactful, and engaging; telling the stories of their experiences working in activism and the lessons they’ve learned throughout their time.
After reading the submissions I felt so empowered, and a lot more prepared than I was beforehand. I hope you feel that way as well, and enjoy the stories the authors so generously took the time to tell.
In the spirit of giving advice, here are a few things I’d like to pass on to young people starting their advocacy journey:
That’s a bit of what I’ve learned this summer working with the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, and I know the pieces in this archive contain so much more wealth and experience. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did, and can find something that comforts, inspires, or resonates with you.
Making change is an act of courage. It requires not only imagining what could be, but also being willing to say that what is already in place isn’t enough. It requires you to challenge what you’ve been taught and socialized to accept.
And an act of courage isn’t an easy thing to do. Some people think that displaying courage means you’re fearless and unaffected. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, courage is doing something that is uncomfortable, is frightening and forces you to confront all the things that you think you know about yourself, about others and the world around you.
It also means that you might be pulling others around you out of their comfort zone and their understanding of the world and what is possible or required. So you must remember how people react to your change making – assuming it is done from a place of love, compassion and passion – isn’t really about you. It feels like it’s about you. That maybe if somehow if you changed how you spoke, how you approached the issue, had the right information or presentation that maybe they would have changed their mind and been more open to your message.
Again, this isn’t true either. Of course, we can always adapt our messaging to reach those that we are trying to reach, but for some no matter how you frame it or describe it, they are not willing to hear or to change. They don’t have your courage or curiosity. That’s okay. Focus on those that do and don’t take it personally. Easier said than done of course.
Pushing for change is reserved for those special souls that understand the world can be better and decide that their role is to confront the systems, people, decisions, ideologies and politics that deny that change.
Expect hardships, criticism and feeling misunderstood. These come with the territory of change making.
However, when you focus on what you can do with others for the benefit of others and the collective well being, you meet people who get you and your courage. They push you and encourage you to keep going. These are the people that will understand you and what you’re trying to do and when others come to naysay, you’ll have a shoulder to lean on.
So recognize that change making is an act of courage. You need to know that even the bravest of souls cannot do it alone, nor should they be expected to. Take care of yourself, take care of your people and never underestimate how rewarding and equally draining this entire experience can be.
Choose to do the right thing even when it’s hard. Choose to fight for others when it’s easier to worry about yourself. Choose to have principles against a tide of corruption and greed. Choose to speak up, in whatever way you choose, for the things that are important to you and those you care about. Even when you’re nervous, or afraid or uncertain – that is a true act of courage and that is how change is made.
It is why my favourite quote is:
Never doubt your courage and never doubt that you can help bring change to the world. 🙂
Margaret Prophet, Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition
My advice to youth advocates is:
Susan Lloyd Swail, Environmental Defense
We are at a critical moment. The latest IPCC report highlighted the urgency to act in the midst of the climate emergency and attributed human influence as the lead cause for warming the atmosphere, ocean and land. A crisis of this magnitude cannot be addressed by a single individual or organization. It requires collaboration. It requires us to learn and unlearn in the process of designing solutions that are centered on the rights of all living beings.
I recently listened to an episode of The Climate Pod featuring Dr. Ed Hawkins, who is one of the lead authors of the UN IPCC report. During the episode, Dr. Hawkins reminded us about the positive message from the IPCC report: climate change is caused by humans, so this means that our choices determine what happens next.
While this might sound encouraging, it is also easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of the climate crisis and the degree of responsibility that we as humanity are holding collectively. It is in these moments of despair that I like to think about Kintsugi, a longstanding Japanese art form which means “golden joinery” and consists of repairing broken pottery by mending broken pieces with lacquer. This practice embraces a philosophy of resilience and openness to change. I like to think about our social systems and our institutions right now as pottery pieces that are broken. And as we look through the cracks, we realize the countless opportunities for collaboration.
Communities across Canada are already collaborating to build more sustainable ways of living with one another. Below are some inspiring examples of organizations doing this critical work in two important areas:
Activating participation and movement building: The Climate Reality Project is building a diverse and inclusive movement of residents who are committed to advancing a just transition to a clean energy economy. Their Leadership Corps training program is activating the next generation of climate activists and changemakers around the world. Foundation for Environmental Stewardship has also been active in empowering communities to build a more sustainable future. Through the 3%Project, the team went to schools to provide tools to help students create local solutions to global environmental challenges. Their opportunity report provides inspiring lessons learned.
Strengthening social infrastructure at the neighbourhood level: Solon and The Thingery are excellent examples of communities coming together to build the day-to-day civic infrastructure that is needed to strengthen neighbourhood resilience and social cohesion. Solon’s geothermal energy coop project is a unique neighbourhood-led innovation in Canada, while The Thingery’s expansion of their lending library system is proof that communities are shifting away from traditional and extractive consumption patterns in support of a circular economy model.
Community-led change is needed to drive social transformation. By participating in community conversations, volunteering or simply sharing insightful resources, we are co-creating a new narrative on the future of our communities. Today, more than ever, community leadership is needed to activate climate transitions toward more equitable and sustainable futures.
Jorge Garza, The Tamarack Institute
Adam Ballah, SCGC
In 2016, as two elementary educators, we had a conversation one day about what it would be like to apply the design process to the UN global goals within a classroom setting. We were looking for ways to engage our students in civic action and youth empowerment. From that conversation arose our Change Agent program.
And this is our first suggestion for youth advocates.
Have a conversation with others and find partnerships.
You never know what will grow from talking with someone and proposing an idea. And with another person on board, you bring more into the process than just your own perspective. This helps to refine and elaborate on and grow the idea from a seed into a more robust seedling and then a lush garden. You don’t need to create change alone.
The premise of Change Agents is a simple equation. Take your skills and interests, add them to the issue you are concerned about (such as listed on the UN Global Goals) and that will equal a plan of action.
Over the years we have walked many students from grades 3 to 8 through this process, for some students, several times over. Our role was to not define these area for them but to support students in determining and making choices for themselves.
This is the second suggestion we have for youth advocates.
Believe in the power of your own decision making!
You have an internal compass inside that can tell you which direction is best for you. You know what interests you have and what your skills are. You know what issues concern you. You are the one that can make these decisions.
This turns the traditional educational processes on its head, because ‘the teacher’ does not tell you what to do. Instead, our role shifted to supporting students through their process: for example, we would often act as sounding boards for students and listen as they sorted through ideas and we would help them find their way with question prompts like: what do you enjoy doing at home? Do you like working in groups or prefer being on your own? What specifically concerns you about the environment? What other organizations are out there in the world, working to address that same issue? Is something they are doing interesting to you? And so on.
This is the third suggestion we have for youth advocates.
Find a trusted, supportive person to share your ideas and concerns with.
Feedback helps us reflect on and refine our plans. The decisions, of course, are our own to make but again it can help to consult with others.
The Change Agent program is aligned with the design process. It starts with an idea to address a problem that is then transformed into a plan of action that then becomes a defined series of action steps toward a goal. All along, this process is reflected on and is refined. It may morph and change in unexpected ways.
As an example, let’s look at one area many of our students are concerned about: the environment (covered by UN Global Goals 11-15), and let’s say, as one of these students, you realize that you are interested in and skilled at art.
Your Change Agent equation might then look like: art (skill/interest) + Environment (issue of concern) = making an art piece to raise awareness of environmental issues (action plan).
We had this exact same equation manifest in multiple ways for different students. For example, one pair of students created posters of local animals showing climate change and habitat destruction from the animal’s point of view. These were later donated to a local environment group, Rescue Lake Simcoe, and were presented at Queen’s Park. Another student took pieces of plastic and turned them into an art piece about plastic pollution in water. This piece was later displayed in the foyer of the mayor’s office. It also evolved into a speech and a video.
This leads to the fourth and fifth suggestions we have for youth advocates.
Start with one thing and let it ripple outwards.
Both of these examples started with an idea that then grew into different phases. For example, it took many conversations to come to the idea of showing the local animal’s point of view, and then many drafts of the posters were started, then discarded. It took time to create those final versions. And, in the second example, before that recycled art piece could be created, materials had to be collected. So that student wrote an announcement for the school asking for recycled plastic parts to be donated. And then built the art based on whatever was provided.
For all Change Agents, it took time to grow from the idea into the final result, which in these instances, became a finished poster collection and recycled art piece. Usually, this process lasted a full school year.
But even that result was not the final result. We reached out to local groups and organizations to coordinate efforts with local environmental campaigns. The students were able to broaden their impact and audience by making these connections, with our help. But the connections came after the evolution of a longer process. It just kept rippling out.
Creating impact is an evolution!
You may start small. But you start somewhere. We used to say ‘something is better than nothing’. You start with something. You see where it goes. If it doesn’t go anywhere, or as far as you want, you reconsider, reflect, revise. You problem-solve. You get input from others. You get new ideas. You try again. You see where it goes.
This process grows your ‘action plan’ and project but it also grows your personal capacity. Your skills elaborate and your ‘empowerment muscles’ get stronger.
For many of our students, their Change Agent actions grew beyond school. For some, it is still growing.
In fact, in both these examples above, the evolution still continues. The posters are still with Rescue Lake Simcoe, continuing to influence, and the student creator of the recycled art piece has gone on to create more art, more videos, and more connections to local governments.
Then, there is the secondary impact…as you are trying to address a particular issue with your action plan, others are being inspired. Our program grew year after year as larger numbers of students were inspired to also take Change Agent action, after seeing what previous Change Agents did.
And this is our sixth suggestion we have for youth advocates.
You may never know the full impact of your actions to address an issue but know that no matter what, it means something important to someone.
Inspired action inspires action. The ripples of even the smallest thing radiate outward. We saw this happen time and time again. Ripples beyond the school community into the larger community. Ripples up through generations, inspiring seniors in the community. Parents inspired by children as young as 8 taking action.
One of our student mottoes was ‘if we can do it, you can do’. We also said ‘anyone can be a Change Agent’. If a group of grade threes can create a puppet play about the importance of protecting the bees because this is something they are worried about…surely, you can do something, too?
Yes. Yes, you can. And that’s our seventh suggestion, to keep this reminder handy, in case you need the reminder. If you are wondering: can I make a difference? Can I make an impact ? Here’s the answer, we’ve seen it happen over and over: YES. YES, YOU CAN.
Build your Change Agent equation, apply your skills and talents to an issue that concerns you, and let the ripples flow!
For more information about the Change Agent process, including more examples, a video from the students themselves, and a short ‘how to’ slideshow, visit our website.
Julie Johnson and Heather Czarnota, Change Agents
The story is told of the university professor lecturing his class on the importance of being engaged in the community.” Don’t you realize that almost all of the world’s problems are caused by ignorance or apathy?” Whereupon, one of the students shouted in response: “I don’t know and I don’t care’!
Well, most of my volunteer life has been dedicated to knowing and caring. And the benefits of that approach for me have been innumerable.
Upon entering university in my late teens in the late 1950’s, unsure of my career choice, I chose to study history and came to understand that the reason I chose history as my major was a desire and need to understand why things happened, and more specifically why evil things happened.
After obtaining my Master’s Degree at Columbia University, I returned to Toronto in 1964 to pursue my doctorate at the University of Toronto.
The 1960’s was a time of considerable ferment over the future of the urban fabric, and in Toronto the efforts to reform municipal politics and policies were especially strong. Throughout the late 1960’s residents were busy forming citizen groups across the City of Toronto, and to a lesser extent in the suburbs, to fight the apartment and real estate development proposals and expressways threatening their neighbourhoods.
In Toronto, the battle to stop the Spadina Expressway was just beginning. My own political awakening was linked to a small project – a proposal to put up three 30-story apartment buildings on vacant lands, adjacent to the proposed expressway, just south of where I lived in lower Forest Hill Village. What upset me, just as much as the fact that these towers would leave neighbouring homes in perpetual shade, was the attitude of the City Hall planners at the public information meetings: it was a “done deal”, they said, only minor modifications would be considered. The message was: “You can’t fight the developers, you can’t fight City Hall”. It turned out that you can, and we did! Ratepayer opposition led to the development being scaled back to an attractive non-high-rise solution with the same coverage.
Then the debate over the Spadina Expressway erupted, given huge credibility by the support of the celebrated Jane Jacobs, who had recently moved to Toronto fresh from her victories stopping a cross-town expressway and Greenwich Village “renewal” over New York City’s planning czar, Robert Moses. The proposed north-south freeway, planned to connect downtown Toronto to North York, would have eviscerated many of Toronto’s cherished neighbourhoods.
That struggle was both a celebrated story of citizen activism and a personal turning point. I enlisted in the fight, joined my local ratepayer group, and made a presentation at City Hall. Public opposition led to its cancellation by Premier Bill Davis in 1971.
From this modest volunteer effort came three results: I met smart, passionate and knowledgeable people who became life-time colleagues and friends; I became aware of the new emerging ideas about cities, ideas that challenged the large-scale, auto-oriented, top-down post World War II planning mind-set. And I learned that you can fight City Hall and win through the power of citizen engagement.
When David Crombie threw his hat into the ring in 1972, I picked up the phone spontaneously and offered to help his then embryonic mayoralty campaign. David’s election was largely about saving neighbourhoods from the high-rise developers and their “block-busting” techniques, respect for people’s roots and their values, higher density, mixed use urban development, and reduced dependence on cars. The underlying vision was of a successful, liveable city, encompassing vibrant neighbourhoods.
David Crombie’s victory in the 1972 mayoralty race in Toronto was a big surprise. The efforts of reform politicians in the preceding years to make changes in the status quo, dominated by old-guard politicians, had met constant frustration. His victory demonstrated the power of citizen activism and the vision of a saner approach to development. The key to David’s win was that the campaign, in effect, became a movement – a coalition that crossed the political spectrum and social classes.
Of course, citizen efforts are not always successful. But, for sure, each generation has to be engaged if it wants to preserve the best possible quality of life for its community. I often think back and wonder what would have happened if we’d listened to the cynics.
My professional world changed. I left academic teaching and history to focus on urban issues through a variety of lenses. Shortly after Mayor Crombie’s election, I was hired as the Research Director of the now-defunct Bureau of Municipal Research, where I wrote and published dozens of reports. Then to Queen’s Park, as Advisor on Toronto issues, and then Research Director for the Ontario Liberals. In my two decades at United Way, my focus was on urban challenges through the prism of social justice and social policy. Towards the end of my United Way career, I accepted invitations to chair two major task forces: one on the future of the Greater Toronto city-region and the second on Homelessness in Canada’s cities. In every position I was continually learning and advocating for progressive changes.
Learning and advocating for change led to new career opportunities: President and CEO of the Conference Board of Canada for 12 years, Co-Founder and Director of the City Building Institute at Ryerson University, membership on the Metrolinx Board, and Chair of the Transit Investment Panel for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
I could not have projected this career trajectory when I decided some 60 years ago to get involved with my community because I chose to care about what was happening and to try and do something about it. But I can see now that it was the love of learning and the sense of obligation to engage in community that made all the difference.
I continue to volunteer in civic life even in retirement, for instance on the board of my condominium and on the board of WORA (West Oro Ratepayers Association) in Oro-Medonte, where I have my cottage. And the dividends from this involvement continue – new friends, ongoing education about current challenges, and a sense of purpose from knowing you are contributing to the well- being of your community. One is never too old to light a candle.
Writing this in my mid-20’s, one thing that I’ve learned about climate action, is to start where you are with what you have and who you are. I want you to know that big policies and global campaigns are necessary, but the real, deep change will come from the bottom-up. Big policies and global campaigns will put out the fire, but local grassroots movements are rebuilding better, fire-resistant homes.
I’ve learned that climate activists aren’t just those who do public speeches and rallies or scientists giving us the numbers – because I am neither of those. You don’t have to be either. Whatever your interests, skills and experiences, think about how you can orient those towards climate justice. Ground your action in what you love. Find a space, in any part of your life, even a small space, and use it to shift the narrative and shift the cultural mindset from extraction to restoration, competition to collaboration, division to diversity, taking to giving, living on the land to living with the Land.
Look around the place where you live – your street, your neighbourhood, your town. Getting involved in your community – anything really, not just climate-focused – builds up your connections and your sense of place. We tend to live pretty disconnected lives – from the food we eat and the stuff we buy, to the decisions that build our communities, to our literal neighbours. This makes us feel isolated and lost (not to mention, anxious and depressed). But nurturing that sense of place strengthens our relationship with that place; we get to know the people on our street, the species of flowers and birds in our yard, and so many little things that we never really noticed. Suddenly, the world isn’t so lonely.
Suddenly there’s so much to love, to care about, to protect. When we know the places that we live in and who we share those places with, we find that we have a place to start. A sense of community and belonging to a place is one of the most important tools to fight the climate emergency and create something better in its place. Together.
The scale of change we need calls for everyone to do what they can in whatever spaces of life we occupy. Every single job, every single role, every single person. You just need to find your role in this climate story, because we’re writing it together.
One of the barriers that you face is probably a lack of time to get involved. You might also have climate change education that pretty much stops at the ‘gloom and doom’ narrative without teaching how to do anything about it. Not very helpful. Most of you reading this are probably in school. You spend a lot of time and effort at school every day, so start there and use the time and energy you’re putting into that anyway. It’s a great starting point (no matter how you feel about school):
I’d like to introduce you to something called ‘Place-Based Education’. I’ll try to be short on the education theory stuff, but listen up because this has so much potential.
A basic definition goes something like this: Place-based education grounds learning in the experiences of students and the places they live in, with hand-on learning in the community instead of in the classroom. The ‘place’ in place-based education refers to both the natural environment and the built environment, and focuses on the interconnection of these, to bust the myth that they’re separate from each other. But people who study education and many frontline educators add a critical lens, so that at the heart of this place-based learning is learning about systems of power in society like systemic racism and capitalism, how to recognize them in the places that we live, make global connections, and most importantly, how to imagine something otherwise – to reimagine the places that we live in and actually act on that reimagination.
Place-based education is all about action-oriented projects. These projects let you identify real needs in your community, and address environmental and social issues together. You learn about real situations, in real places and work for real change in your own neighbourhood. These projects are often done with partnerships across the community – local conservation authorities, non-profits, local businesses, or the municipality – whatever makes sense for your context. You develop real life skills of collaboration and coordination and putting classroom theory into on-the-ground practice (which are way more useful than memorizing stuff for a test!). Action-projects and advocacy on the community scale is so important. Focusing on the place that you care about, that you are familiar with and doing something is so empowering (and much less daunting).
On the local level, the change that you have made together is tangible. Seeing and feeling this change is how you create hope. Hope comes from action. The more action, the more hope and the more hope, the more action. It multiplies with use, creating an abundance of energy, motivation, and young people prepared to recreate the world. As a well-known environmental educator, David Orr says, “hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up”.
Convincing your teachers
This kind of learning sounds pretty great right? But I’m sure you’re already thinking about some barriers you might face – like getting your school on board. Advocating for the education that you need to prepare for life in a climate emergency is absolutely climate justice. Here’s a few points to help with that:
Some resources to get you (or your teacher) started:
Remember that “we should act now not just because we must avoid future generations living in a disaster movie, but because rewriting the script can produce a better world” (Miliband, 2021) and we’re all characters collectively writing this climate story. Start on the ground that you’re on, and build from the roots, up.
Kelly Gingrich, SCGC
Caring about the Earth is hard. There are some very rewarding and fulfilling experiences, but there is also serious despair. It seems that every time we check the news there’s another setback. Emissions increasing, biodiversity loss, Indigenous rights violations, ignorant political leaders – stories almost designed to make our battle to save the planet seem impossible. So how do we bring ourselves, day-after-day, to navigate the constant storm of obstacles – the news, the resistance, the ‘haters’ – that we encounter working in the environmental movement?
I’ve been organizing events related to climate justice and sustainability with the Ontario Nature Youth Council and beyond for six years now. At the beginning, I just knew I cared and wanted to do something. The more I learned about the overwhelming crisis we face the more anxiety and guilt I felt. Was I doing enough? And somewhere along the way, I told myself: how could I be having fun, going to parties, or – dare I say it – being “unproductive”, when there is so much work to be done? How could I ever invest in a genuine relationship? How could I do anything but fully devote my time and energy to an issue that is so much bigger than me? For a long time, I convinced myself that my sole purpose was to do everything in my ability to make an impact for the environment – and it worked. I had never been more involved or more productive in my life – but then came the crash.
This year, a big youth conference I was organizing for the University of Guelph Sustainability Office faced some seriously exhausting challenges: a partner group backed out, we lost a grant, schools were striking… And I noticed something surprising in myself – I almost wanted the event to be cancelled. I was cynical and felt like any energy I put into the conference wouldn’t lead to a meaningful output. When it was inevitably cancelled due to COVID-19, I wasn’t upset, or disappointed, or even frustrated – instead, I felt indifferent. In short, I was burned out.
After years of devoting myself to environmental activism, I just felt like giving up. The joy, the fulfillment that I received from organizing was gone – replaced by a feeling of obligation. It scared me. The spark that drove me to act was gone. And the stories about our planetary crisis kept on coming, whether or not I had the energy to keep up the fight. It was overwhelming.
Burnout was something I hadn’t properly experienced before, but it’s something that all dedicated activists encounter in some form or another if they stick around long enough.
While I certainly am not an expert – and by that, I mean I am not an expert – here are a few valuable things I’ve learned about handling burnout and sustaining yourself in the long-term.
1) Connect genuinely with others.
You don’t need to handle the tough emotions, stress and anxiety that arise on your own. Sharing with other people who also care, and who are willing to listen, is important. For me, that involved many (many) evenings spent with people dear to me, opening up as I processed the stress I was feeling – and learning that more often than I thought, others felt the same way. The community around us can be an incredible source of inspiration and emotional security – building a strong and authentic support network with others is invaluable.
2) Accept it is not your responsibility to save the world.
There are millions of people around the world working to solve climate change, biodiversity loss, and any other issue you’re likely passionate about. Yes, each one of us can have a huge impact on our communities, but no single individual can save the planet. The problems we face are just too big. It’s important to set goals, but the immense pressure we put on ourselves to have a bigger and bigger impact is unsustainable in the long term. Accept what you cannot control and focus on what you can.
3) It’s okay to say no.
Taking on too many commitments is emotionally draining and prevents you from creating the space you need to fully and passionately act on something you care about. Even if it feels like you should be taking on more, stretching yourself beyond your means is a surefire way to crash and burn. You’re most valuable to the environmental movement if your contributions are long term and sustainable, so start small and start with yourself. Listening to your own needs and knowing when to take a step back is the key to avoiding the suffering that can come with dedicated activism.
4) Get a life.
For me, hyper-focusing on the cause I was devoted to meant failing to recognize some of the most incredible people and greatest joys in my life. Finding ways to destress beyond activism is an important way to recover from burnout and reconnect with your key values. Start working out. Journaling. Drawing. Reconnect with friends. Take up mindfulness. My passion for what I do comes from a love of wilderness camping – so I’ve recently set a goal of rediscovering this interest. After all, it’s the places and people we love that make environmental activism so important in the first place, and what give us the drive to keep going: day after day, and even year after year.
Healthy outlets and community can bring us closer to our core values and rekindle the passion that is lost when we are burned out. Civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation. And that is an act of political warfare.”
A burned-out activist is of no good use to anyone, so gently do what you can to keep yourself healthy and manage stress – the rest will follow. Being a guardian for nature isn’t easy, but we’re all in this one together, and we’re in it for the long haul.
Those words carry immense weight depending on who’s lips they fall from; A lighthearted excuse for ignorance, or a plea for a long deserved rest. As a child, a black, queer, neurodivergent, mentally ill child (the list goes on), many tend to strip me away from personhood, treating me as just a key towards advocacy and a better future.
Myself included. Even if initially, I wanted to fight against those words, “just a child,” because despite my youth, I can still make a monumental difference with my knowledge, my words and my influence. That was my calling.
My goal, as I believed it to be a shared one amongst minority groups, was to make the world safe for ourselves and one another, no matter the cost.
But who is the world going to be safe for, when all the activists that are pushed into the frame because the “canvas” fits, become worn, dreary, damaged and casted aside once connoisseurs have had their fill? Who has the varnish, who’s doing the maintenance?
This isn’t to say that activism is easy work, nor that you must let other folk of a privileged variety do the speaking for you, but to act more as a plea from someone who’s lived through the best gifts an activist can receive, and the worst consequences: Change, and a Stage.
When I was in my final year of highschool (despite the online restrictions that came into play) that followed the summer of 2020, I was overrun with grief, fear, stress and a mouth ran to educate the masses all throughout the land. After all, I had to. It’s my job to advocate for my blackness, my queerness, my divergency- the list goes on! Though, no one had ever assigned me that role directly. Indirectly it may have been, but to say the activists in my community – myself included – hadn’t been a little bit typecasted, I would be pursuing a career in politics. Perhaps law, seeing as I have a knack for argument, but I digress.
My school had been celebrating Black History Month, how could I not have been curious as to what would ensue? Needless to say, my expectations were a touch too high. Minimal mention of Black icons in different fields at the very most, despite the mountains of history pages under our very feet. So, as any unhappy student would, we took matters into our own hands. By necessity. Over time, though minimal, there was change in the way some teachers even spoke. Not just about the historical figures, but how they spoke to us, knowing that the youth of today is a force to be reckoned with, as we’ll only be raising the youth of tomorrow stronger than we.
That small win, that small Improvement, that small change was only a fraction of what I knew we were capable of. It was beautiful to know that you influenced something that’ll remain throughout time for the better of your friends, your family, your future. However, what I didn’t account for; I’ve already been typecast as the activist. And I had to see the gig through since I, we, looked the part. Had it not been for everyone of privilege before us enduring an injustice, major or minor, would there even be a need for us to sacrifice our time, effort, and emotional energy to educate our educators? Better yet, why hadn’t an educator taken it into their own hands to do the research, and then, the unlearning necessary?
The answer is unfortunately simple in that minorities, especially Black folk, are subjected to emotional slavery, the role of an educator, the necessity to tone police themselves for others, and the list carries on, rolling from our hands all the way off the stage we’re placed on.
This is not to strike fear in your hearts, quite the opposite, but to incite awareness of who you’re surrounded by. During that time, post summer 2020, I had time and time again taught and comforted, spoke and knelt, witnessed and clenched my eyes at the violence that struck far too close to home whilst not allowing myself to step out of the limelight because I had to do virtually everything I could or else I am nothing worth, of value, and certainly failing those before me. Nothing at all.
Until I had to unlearn those words. “I am nothing,” and instead remember, I am still something. I’m just a child. And a course of activism for minorities, an act of rebellion, Is simply living in a world that has it’s cards stacked against us.
Now, what is my message to you, activist to activist, youth to youth, In hopes that this could be influential to you all, the future?
Take care of yourself, prioritize yourself, and continue to live.
You are just a child.
And all we want is for you to be exactly that, too.
Soleil De Montbrun, Making Change
After participating in youth activism for some years, raising my voice alone and with thousands of others, here are the things I’ve learned and the things I want to pass along to the next group of young activists:
It may sound like an oxymoron, but enter the activist scene with confidence as well as humility. Finding the balance between these two traits creates the best place to grow as an activist. Even though you’re just starting out, have some confidence! Your ideas, identity and experiences matter. Don’t be so humble that you never make your opinions heard amongst your peers, but you also have to acknowledge that as a youth there are much more experienced people in the room. Allow yourself to make mistakes, change plans, and be corrected by others. You don’t have to be an expert to be an activist, you only have to have a concern that you’re willing to work to rectify. Bottom line is: don’t be way too humble, but don’t come in thinking you know everything.
Secondly, if you know what interests you or what skills you have, offer them right away. If you have any specific skills, experiences or an identity that would help the movement, don’t wait to be asked if you have anything to offer. Come forward and volunteer right away. If you don’t know what skills you could bring, go to where you think you would be happiest or where you would learn the most. If you want to develop a skill, see if you can help the movement while working on it! The reasoning behind this is to make sure you are having fun while advocating – especially with youth who have so much on their plates (school, work, other extracurriculars, family commitments). This does not want to feel like another thing to check off on your to-do list. Activism should not feel like a burden, even though it can be hard at times – I wish I’d known that when I first started.
Seek advice and ask for feedback. Activists are constantly growing, changing plans, and looking for new avenues to pursue. Asking others for advice on initiatives and feedback on your personal skills is necessary in order to grow. It doesn’t have to be formal whatsoever, simply asking a peer or advisor “What did you think of what I did there?” can provide you with an instant way to grow and develop your skills. Don’t wait to be in a position of leadership; opening yourself up to feedback and getting over the fear of making mistakes allows you to make so much more of your time working with like-minded people.
As well, giving feedback is a great way to develop your communication and leadership skills, and build relationships with your teammates.
On the topic of leadership: volunteering for a leadership role can sometimes be seen as a bad thing. We are used to horizontal structures and volunteering may make us feel like we are taking power. Remember: you’re not seizing power, you’re making your skills available. You are identifying a role you can take within the group and by doing so taking responsibility for your actions. When you make it known what you want to accomplish you will hold yourself accountable and your team will naturally do so as well.
Another important thing to note, especially as a young person, is that personal boundaries in activism matter. Everyone has different approaches to this: some people are the only ones in their friend group in the activist scene, some people join and then all of a sudden their friends are all activists as well. For some, not having friends or hobbies outside of this work can be overwhelming – one moment of wanting a break because of the pressure or one fight within a friend group can affect so much when you only surround yourself with the people you are working with. Activism is passion-driven, but it is still work, and a work-life balance is still just as important in reducing burnout. Set those boundaries early, and don’t be ashamed of them or afraid of making them known.
You are an activist, but you are many other things as well – it is okay to have some separation. Establish boundaries, and know that those boundaries look different for everyone. Some people simply can’t be ‘on’ all the time – and that is okay. Setting those boundaries early, and keeping some diversity in your social spheres is important. Never stepping away from the work, and only discussing matters with fellow activists can lead to burnout, and actually make you a worse activist. When you’re not reaching out to new people who don’t have any experience, you are losing the communication, outreach and leadership skills that get more people on your team.
We don’t want to spend all our time preaching to the choir. You should be looking for a diverse network of friends, strangers and supporters that will give you the best feedback and outreach possible. Remaining a ‘whole’ human through having some separation, a work-life balance, and other hobbies, will do that.
Finally, a word of caution. There are so, so many amazing people in the activism world; you will meet inspiring mentors and supportive friends from diverse backgrounds. However, activists are still people, and there are always bad apples in the bunch. Especially as a youth, keep your common sense with you. Even though it is almost always a sliver of the population, there are toxic (and sometimes dangerous) people in every sphere – no matter how safe or inclusive they are. While I’m obviously not telling you to be distrustful of everyone you meet, take the proper precautions to ensure that when you are organizing with adults you do not end up in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. Just because everyone is speaking the same jargon as you or believes what you believe does not mean that they are safe. Protect yourself and your mental health so that you can continue the important work you are doing.
Youth activism, and activism in general is frustrating, exhilarating, nerve-wracking, tiring, rewarding work. You will meet inspiring people, have great experiences, and build a better understanding of the world around you.
I hope my advice can resonate with some of you, now get out there and make your voices heard!
Allie Rougeot, Fridays For Future Toronto
So you want to be an activist. First question, are you an activist, or do you WANT to be an activist? If you’re not, what are you waiting for?
Do you think anyone else has all the answers? (They don’t.)
Do you think your perspective is invalid? (It’s not.)
So go do it!
I could end this blog right here, but you wanted my story and advice. Or you can skip to the advice list at the end.
I grew up in a socially and environmentally conscious family and have always firmly believed that if you can, you should stand up for others, be they the unpopular kid, the mentally ill, or the endangered species. In highschool where I was nick-named Claire Engels Malcolmson for my socialist economics bent, and Feist for my… feist. It looked like I was cut out for activism. But I never ran for school council and I didn’t get really involved in issues at school.
In university I studied anthropology to better understand where exactly human wisdom could be found, and English, because writing has always been my thing, and environmental studies, because that was clearly becoming my passion. Meanwhile, my summer job was taking people out on sea kayaking courses and wilderness trips. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just rant about logging on the west coast of BC as we paddled by its scars, and decided I was going to need to build myself a bridge to the career I wanted. And that was activism.
So I started with what I had: I could paddle; I could organize people (another guiding skill); and I could read and write. I also was both very attached to Lake Simcoe, where my family has cottaged since 1889, and had a lot of questions and concerns about its health. I spent the last year of my undergrad degree putting together a philosophically-grounded environmental education program, called Paddling Around Lake Simcoe (PALS). I took the idea to the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, in a little red binder I’d inherited from my big, inspiring, sister Sheila. It was such a good idea the LSRCA fundraised with me and about a year and a half later we hired my crew and my career began. Everything started from this one great idea.
Take away #1: Use school to get the education you want for the life you want. You will never again HAVE to study something outside of a job, so make it count towards a job.
Take away #2: No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.
Take away #3: You should never expect someone to make your life better if you can’t bother to do it yourself.
Just because you know things and are a loud-mouth does not make you employable. And I knew that. So I got a job with an advertising company so that I could learn to use the computer. (Not a skill you develop guiding kayak trips). I also volunteered my ass off. As soon as I moved to Ontario to focus on Lake Simcoe I joined the Board of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, (which was an unexpected spin off of my PALS project) and I think I spent 10 hours a week volunteering for most of two or three years. It was through my Board involvement that I met a lawyer at Environmental Defence who thought I would make a great campaigner for their work on Lake Simcoe. They hired me, and still I volunteered on the Board of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition.
I learned so much during this six year period of working for Environmental Defence and being the youngest Board member on the RLSC. Looking back, I particularly recognize the importance of just watching the masters. The Executive Director of Environmental Defence at that time was Rick Smith, and he was a media MACHINE. He would get in his suit and go from studio to studio, place to place, all day on those huge media days. This August, when I was apparently the only person confident enough to stand up for Lake Simcoe when the Innisfil Orbit MZO was issued I channelled Rick’s ‘on message, ready for anything’ energy as I did 8 media interviews in 2 days.
Take away #4: Volunteer with your eyes wide open and don’t complain when you have the opportunity to learn in the trenches. It’s called the not-for-profit sector for a reason.
I also learned a lot about dealing with strong personalities. I had 8 people who thought they were my boss. It was a mess. So I had to learn to listen to that little voice in your head that says: “Something is not right!” You may not know what it is right away, but trust that voice. It is telling you someone is going to yell at you for being impatient and not getting their feedback. To be an effective activist, you need to be tough enough to make a decision and wear it, but sensitive and inclusive enough to know that what you’re doing is what you should be doing. The alarm bells don’t go off then.
Take away #5: Be humble and trust your inner voice.
The rest of my story is that when it became clear that I should step up to lead the RLSC in 2018 I was ready to do it. I’d been working and volunteering on Lake Simcoe since 2001. These things can take time.
I will finish with 10 more ways I think young people can help the world.
Claire Malcolmson, Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition
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