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

Published date23 January 2021
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."

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."

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.

"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...

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