Activists have historically used the unifying power of in-person gatherings, community events and public strikes to share their messages about important social issues and get others involved in their causes. That all changed with COVID 19. The traditional methods of communication were no longer feasible and activists had to learn how to operate under a new reality. But how would they respond? It turns out pretty well, as they used their passion and creativity to quickly adjust their activism to fit the current structure of society. From unique social media campaigns to digital strikes, youth activists have pivoted to a new type of community organizing, one that is rooted in technology and innovation.
British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician, Jonathan Sacks once said “Technology gives us power, but it does not and cannot tell us how to use that power. Thanks to technology, we can instantly communicate across the world, but it still doesn’t help us know what to say”. When the pandemic struck, youth climate activist Iris Zhan found the answer to Sack’s question when she discovered how to use social media and technology to forge an online movement. Zhan is the founder of Fridays for Future Digital, a social media platform engaging young people in online climate strikes. Over the course of the last 6 months, Fridays for Future Digital has engaged more than 200,000 young people in digital protests and campaigns. Zahn says “We’ve utilized the power of social media to grow the movement from the ground up in every corner of the world by making connections and creating content to push people to take actions and bring more people into our online community.”
Similarly to Zhan, 18-year-old Noelle Dutch says “Our online community has grown stronger. It’s easier to organize with people from different cities across the entire world now that almost everything is digital.” Dutch is the social media director of the National Children’s Campaign, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that serves as a catalyst to inspire and empower America to make children a priority.
Young people like Zhan and Dutch have relied on technology to spread their message and advocate for change during 2020 and now 2021. Zhan says “ With digital tools as new ways of taking action, people who can’t physically climate strike can take actions in impactful ways. People who already go to school strikes can double their impact with digital actions. Taking action is so much easier in the digital world.”
Innovation can often come when it is least expected and can mean different things to different people. When asked what it means to be an innovator Zahn replied “Being an innovator means changing the norms of how we do things in this world. It means revolutionizing our ways of making progress in this way and exploring what hasn’t been discovered yet. It means using our imagination and making the impossible possible.” Changes in technology have allowed for the kind of innovation Zahn describes.
At the beginning of the pandemic 18-year-old Sophia Kianni was preparing for eight speaking engagements scheduled at well known universities including Stanford, Princeton, and Duke. She had already written a 35-minute presentation explaining how her climate activism was influenced by concern for her family’s safety in Iran. But when the pandemic hit everything she had planned for the upcoming year was quickly taken away. Kianni was left defeated; not sure what her next steps would be. “I was honestly really sad and unsure of how I was going to continue with my climate activism because so much of it revolved around striking and meeting people in person.” In the midst of her confusion, Sophie had the idea for Climate Cardinals, an online international non-profit working to translate climate research and information, making the climate movement more accessible for those who don’t speak English. Sophia attributes her success with Climate Cardinals to the pandemic which forced activists like herself to think of innovative ways to continue their climate work.
As a 16-year-old climate activist myself, I can empathize with Kianni’s experience with innovation. I’m a big theatre nerd and when Broadway went dark due to COVID 19, I knew I had to do something to support the industry while bringing attention to the urgency of climate change. I founded Broadway Speaks Up, an Instagram platform giving Broadway performers a voice in the global climate movement. To date, videos submitted by performers from over 40 shows such as Hamilton, Wicked, Phantom of The Opera, and Dear Evan Hansen, have been posted that share their views on climate change related issues. Broadway Speaks Up allowed me to creatively use social media and technology to give performers a voice and raise awareness about the issues they are passionate about.
From Iris Zhan and Fridays for Future Digital to Sophia Kianni and Climate Cardinals, youth activists have found new ways to share their messages. Although the COVID 19 pandemic initially created challenges for youth activists, in the long-haul COVID 19 will have helped activists embrace innovation and technology, showing that even in the most difficult of times, positive changes can emerge.