Students are raising their voices for climate justice

Since 2018, students all over Australia have been stepping out of the classroom to demand that the Australian government show leadership on climate change policy. Reactions to these demonstrations have varied from questions about the students’ capacity to understand the problem to respect for their courage to stand up and be heard.

Dr Eve Mayes of Deakin’s Centre for Research for Educational Impact (REDI) will investigate the emergence and ongoing impact of student climate activism in her Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) project, Striking voices: Australian school-aged students' climate justice activism.

The project will explore how Australian young people are taking action on climate change, the supports for their activism, and educational responses to their climate concerns.

Australian secondary school students have a long history of activism. The first national secondary student strike took place in 1972 in the midst of the Vietnam war. Since then, secondary students have played a part in many Australian protests, but it has only been in the past few years that they have emerged in large numbers again. In September 2019, led by primary and secondary school-aged students, hundreds of thousands of Australians gathered at rallies across the country to demand immediate action on climate change. While Greta Thunberg is frequently credited as sparking this movement, collective youth networks like Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network in Australia, Pacific Climate Warriors, young Indigenous activists in other settler colonial nations, and young activists from the Global South have been campaigning for climate justice for many years.

“Many schools were surprised by the climate strikes. Students were using language that was not necessarily in the given curriculum, such as, ‘climate justice’ rather than climate action and sustainability. Many of the young people involved were talking about the connections between colonialism and capitalism as fuelling the climate crisis,” Dr Mayes said.

“It’s important for schools to learn from this social movement rather than dismiss it as the work of just a few students who are politically active. Schools may believe they are giving students a voice, but it might not be in the areas that are important to their students.”

Dr Mayes is an internationally recognised scholar at the forefront of the field of student voice – student participation in school decision-making. She became involved in facilitating and researching student voice while she was teaching English in a southwest Sydney secondary school.

“The concept of student voice became important to me when I became involved as a teacher-researcher in the Australian Research Council funded project Teachers for a Fair Go. This project included 30 teacher-researchers from across NSW schools thinking about teaching and learning for engagement in school communities that were under-served by formal education. Part of that project involved reflecting on how I might recognise students’ knowledge in my classroom. My practice and sense of my role as a teacher were profoundly re-shaped by listening to my students during that research project,” Dr Mayes said.

© School Strike 4 Climate. (Image has been cropped)

“Shortly after that I was part of facilitating a four-year school reform initiative at the same school to identify the best use of government funding directed at disadvantaged schools. Our school was interested in what students saw as needing to change at the school.”

“I didn’t anticipate some of the initially negative reactions when students expressed their opinions and ideas openly. This prompted me to want to further inquire into the challenges and possibilities of listening to and acting on student voices in schools and in education research,” she said.

When Dr Mayes arrived at Deakin in 2016, her work on student voice continued with the VicSRC, which is the peak body for primary and secondary students in Victoria. A research project commissioned by the VicSRC, with students as co-researchers, led to a policy change that now makes it mandatory for Victorian government secondary schools to include students on their governing councils.

“The work for my DECRA project stemmed from an interest in the connection – and sometimes the disconnect – between the notion of students having a voice in school decision-making and what students have actually been doing beyond school. As students have initiated, organised and participated in the strikes and in other forms of collective action, they have challenged the assumption that students need to be ‘empowered’ by their adult teachers,” Dr Mayes said.

The DECRA project will not only look at public strikes but also informal everyday modes of activism and analyse these emerging forms of political engagement. Participants will include young people aged 10–22, social movement organisers, teachers and school leaders. Those aged 10–22 years will reflect on their participation in the climate strikes and other forms of climate justice activism.

The outcomes of the project will include a teaching and learning framework that will provide a greater understanding of emerging patterns of political engagement among students and outline how to develop the capacity to engage young people on issues that concern them – not only climate change.

“The knowledge, care and responsiveness students have been demonstrating through activism suggests a desire for a different type of education. Climate change is a major driving concern for many young people, but climate justice is deeply intertwined with First Nations justice, gender justice, racial justice and interspecies justice,” Dr Mayes said.

“Through this project, I’m interested in working with and learning from students, educators and social movement organisers to create a framework for schools that is responsive to what young people are really concerned about, whether it is climate change, racism or socioeconomic inequality – thinking about how all these issues are interconnected.”