30 ONLINE 19 A, Change agents and activism in ESE
MeetingID: 881 1134 6086 Code: Qb9MTs
For many pupils, the year 2019 was a remarkable year as millions of them joined the global protest movement known as the climate strikes or Fridays for future movement. Confronted with the considerable consequences of environmental changes drastically reconfiguring their future, pupils demanded clear and quick action while denouncing the inaction and inadequate response to tackle the climate emergency from governments and older generations in general (Moor et al., 2020; Wahlström et al., 2019). The movement has received much press attention, fuelled public debate, and ignited different political response. Reactions range from support of the mobilizations to the criticism on illusory demands and specifically contesting the form of protest (Mattheis, 2020). One common comment was that pupils were truants in need of “more learning in schools and less activism in schools” or that the climate debate should be left to adults, with children having no place and little influence in this debate (Biswas & Mattheis, 2022). According to this perspective, youngsters are citizens-to-be that still require the necessary civic knowledge and skills to participate once they have reached the legal voting age. In contrast to this discourse, the presented research argues that the climate strikes are exactly the opposite: new avenues of politicization with a radical civic educational potential for the young participants. Many of the demands call for systematic political and social change as demonstrated by slogans such as system change not climate change! (Bowman, 2019). In order to achieve this change, young activists rely on diverse forms of dissent to navigate the complex power relationship and challenge the status quo (O’brien et al., 2018). The climate strikes and the young demonstrators thus embody a dynamic form of politics. A form that can be disruptive, controversial, and often occurring outside of the formal political sphere (Mouffe, 2000; Rancière, 1998). From this point of view, participation in the strikes can be considered as central engines for the development of young people’s political awareness, their future participation and citizenship, with the protests being sites where civic learning experiences arise and where political involvement is installed (Biesta, 2014; Expósito, 2014; Straume, 2016). Researching the diverse ways of civic learning involved within one of the most impressive and historical mass mobilizations is important. This not only due to its global aspect, the young demographic character with many first-time protesters, and the employed protest tactics (Moor et al., 2020), but even more because the climate urgency is a defining generational political event and a major global challenge redefining the political engagement of young people’s and their perceptions of citizenship (Huttunen & Albrecht, 2021; Nissen et al., 2021). The research question addressed in this study is How did participating in the Global Climate Strike movement shape youth’s vision and action of democracy and citizenship? To understand the learning and knowledge creation involved in the climate movement, we have built on the conceptual framework for social movement learning (Kluttz & Walter, 2018; Scandrett et al., 2010). The framework differentiates between learning on the micro, meso and macro level. The learning occurs on the different levels and often occurs simultaneously and is non-linear. The learning involved can be formal, informal, or non-formal, individual, or collective and organized or spontaneous. In this framework the climate strikes are thus approached as pedagogical spaces and the youngsters are recognized as full-fledged citizens with political agency engaging with a political subject in a variety of ways.
Qualitative research has been undertaken with active Belgian participants in the climate strikes during the, thus far, heydays of the climate strikes. The movement initiated by the Swedish pupil Greta Thunberg in August 2018 grew signifiable during the subsequent year. The Global Strike for Future on March 15, 2019, and Global Week for Future in September 2019 can be considered the biggest events with up to 6000 protests in 185 countries and between 4 and 7 million participants (Moor et al., 2020; Wahlström et al., 2019). Although these were the largest events, weekly strikes with a varying number of attendances have been organized during this period. The study has been conducted two years after the beginning of the movement (March and April 2021), which allows for an in-depth reflection on past experience and the current influence of the participation. The respondents, aged 15-25 at the time of the strikes, were found using the purposive sampling technique with a deliberate choice for the respondents due to the qualities it possesses. The purposive sampling is not random and aims at making sure that specific people are selected and included in the research sample. Two focus groups (n8) and individual interviews (n13) were conducted to get a specific view of the phenomenon. Individual interviews and focus groups are complementary as they expose different elements of the event as well as allow for an in-depth comprehension of the phenomenon. Moreover, elements found in focus groups may be of help to choose the most relevant questions to be thoroughly investigated in individual interviews. Thematic analysis was used to process the data. This method is described as “systematically identifying, organizing, and offering insight into patterns of meaning (themes) across a data set” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 57). Using this type of analysis links and compares the different elements or topics found. By looking across data sets, thematic analyses “allows the researcher to see and make sense of collective or shared meanings and experiences” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 57). Consequently, this method is adequate to the current research aiming at examining the collective experience of youth in the climate strikes.
The results are presented in a linear manner according to the different levels on which they occur, this to facilitate the comprehension of the complex process. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the learning occurs on all three levels simultaneously in a non-linear fashion and the levels are fluid, rather than fixed categories. The learning involved on the individual level was often first self-directed, informal, and directed towards climate specific issues. New insights were translated to lifestyle politics, such as more sustainable consumption. Furthermore, these insights were put within a wider context on the mesolevel through personal reflections, influential exchanges with (participating) peers, family, and through more intentional learning by participating in debates or lectures. This reframing led to the explorations of different worldviews and critics regarding vested economic and political power relationships (transformational learning). The respondents reflect on this period as a negotiation between old and new worldviews, a time of personal development, and activism often becoming part of their (collective) identity. According to the findings, learning in the climate strikes is of cyclical, dynamic and transformative nature departing from individuals’ emotional responses and cognitive concerns on the microlevel. Those experiences influence their identity and changes worldviews on the mesolevel with consequences on the macrolevel with shifting ideological perspectives. Instead of being a straightforward sequence of events, it is a self-feeding and strengthening pattern of individual and group learning that in time leads to changes and consolidation regarding (climate) politics, citizenship, and civic engagement. As such, for many respondents the climate strikes acted as a springboard of individual and collective engagement but are to be seen as a feature of a bigger process of youth politicization and democratic learning.
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