In the last twelve months alone, Melbourne has seen some pretty major rallies shake up the city centre. The Change The Rules rally in April attracted 150,000 workers requesting, demanding better pay and working conditions. On March 15, the school strike for climate in Melbourne drew 50,000 students and supporters to Parliament steps. On January 26, 80,000 marched from Parliament to Flinders Street for the Invasion Day rally. In all these nationally concerted efforts, Melbourne’s rallies attracted the largest crowds.
Melbourne is, arguably, a city of protest. I talked to one of the country’s youngest organisers about what it's like and what she’s learnt.
Before we get into it, my name’s Rubina and I’m a writer for a local Melbourne based feminist magazine That Loud Woman. Thanks so much for sharing your voice in this interview! Did you want to start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
My name’s Anica Renner and I’m 15 years old. I’ve been a part of the School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) in Melbourne for about eight months now… I’ve always been interested, and engaged and passionate about the issue of climate change. So when some of my friends told me there was an opportunity to help organise the strikes, I put my hand up straight away because I wanted to help in any way I could. So I went to a meeting and at the meeting, in preparation for the strike on the 15th March, which was the last global strike Australia participated in, we had to make some decisions about location, and so now, in the lead up to the next international strike day which is the 20th September, we’re working on things such as sound design, so logistics and things like that.
But the most engaging part of [School Strike], and the most fulfilling is when you get to engage and empower other young people. And that’s where we, I think, make the most impact. Not just for organising the strike people turn up to, but by empowering people to feel that they are making a difference.
Amazing! So could you remember a time where you saw what you were doing was helping and empowering someone else?
An example that comes straight to mind is on the 15th of March, where I was the co-emcee for the strike and standing up on stage and looking out and seeing how many people were just screaming with such passionate voices and everyone has made all these signs and it was just so fantastic to see how many people really, really cared.
And another time is when, and as an occurring thing, we have meetings to make decisions and plan and we ask people what do you want the strike to look like? So through that, seeing people disperse into small groups and chat and be really engaged with the topic and really lively… It’s really cool to see that I’ve made a difference by empowering other people to be able to make a difference.
Yeah, 15th of March was such an awesome day, you guys did a really good job and it was just amazing. So what do those meetings look like, what are they like and what are the ethics that you guys, as young people, bring?
In the lead-up to strikes, we’ll have more frequent meetings than in periods of time where we don’t. Up until this point, we haven’t had much of a “structure” so it has been completely non-hierarchical, and people take turns facilitating each meeting so it is never the same person over and over again. And so, at the moment we’re actually looking to put a bit more structure in there, but still keeping it non-hierarchical. You know, well there’s the face of the movement who is obviously Greta Thunberg, but in terms of the School Strike both in Melbourne and nationally across Australia, there’s no one main decision-making panel or one main figurehead. It’s everyone working together and when you have such a broad reach, you have more power. There’s power in numbers. So it’s a grassroots organisation, we are making change from the bottom up. We are the grassroots network.
Do you have a specific role within School Strike or a specific team you’re a part of?
Um, no. At the moment it's kind of just like what people care about most and are passionate about most, they can kind of work towards that a bit more. So while some people really enjoy being a part of the media team or the social media posts and the communications, what I personally feel most energised by is finding community engagement-type things that are facilitating and teaching and bringing in new people. So we kind of call that outreach, I guess, and so it’s um it’s kind of bringing in new people and talking to new people and making sure they feel like they have a voice and giving them that voice and engaging them in this movement.
What was one kind of activity that you organised recently that dealt with outreach?
Well, we have little events where people can come together and so we might have some information being told as well as banner painting. We’re planning to have some postering sessions, so through that you’re kind of killing two birds with one stone; you’re engaging students to make new friends and spread the word about the strikes but you’re also, in fact, publicising, so you’re doing both things at the same time.
What has surprised you the most with getting involved in School Strike and in protest organisation?
Initially, I didn’t go into it with any expectations, so I was open to anything. But, something that I’m pleasantly surprised by is how passionate the people I’m surrounded by are, and you know, not all my friends are super engaged in School Strike so being surrounded by a group of people who all care as deeply as I do has been something a bit new for me. So that’s been really, really valuable and super beneficial and made me feel empowered.
Yeah, that is the thing about environmental groups, it’s really energising. I’m so glad you’ve had the same experiences! What do you think you’ve learnt through organising such large-scale protests?
I think that I’ve definitely learnt the different roles that policy and politics can play versus corporate decisions and how different companies have an influence on the climate and the decisions that people make, and how that follows through to the effects that are happening in our environment. I’ve also learnt… there’s a lot of learning through doing. Sometimes you have people telling you stuff but most of it is just hands-on, getting involved, and through that, I have a lot of great experiences I can draw from.
That’s really cool! So, what you were just talking about with the ways companies get involved, could you give me an example about that?
Yeah, like the way that companies and federal politics interconnect is that there can be different policies made on a federal level that are either for companies or for individuals.
For example, Origin Energy is an energy company and they have plans to frack for gas in the Northern Territory, and this isn’t a School Strike campaign, it is an Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) campaign. But just through being a part of School Strike and environmental activism generally, I’ve learned that people power can influence how corporations make decisions and therefore how they impact the environment.
Had you been to a protest before School Strike?
I had initially gone to a SS4C protest and then I became a part of organising. So I didn’t organise the very first one, I went to it. And then I became a part of the other ones. I went to one of the School Strikes in November last year, and that was really empowering to be a part of, and it got me really amped up and excited so after that I went to a bunch of Stop Adani protests and so through that I met new people and learnt about how it all works before starting planning.
Yeah, I think I had been to a marriage equality one possibly when I was a lot younger but I don’t remember it that well.
What do you think a lot of common misconceptions are about protests?
Well, I think that different types of protest play a different role. But in terms of the school strike, we’ve had criticism that, we’re just kids, we’re naïve, we don’t really know what we’re talking about, but really, we’re in this age where we have access to the media, we have access to the internet, where we can research things and see what’s happening in the world. So all of a sudden you have a generation of kids who are aware of what’s going and who are politically literate and who understand what is happening so we have access to this information and so we have the ability to form our own decisions. There have been articles written that “professional activists are brainwashing children” but we choose to go and protest. We don’t choose it to miss out on school, the only time we can plan the protests is to use our time outside of school, to have meetings on weekends, have meetings after school, and it just shows how proactive young people can be and how we should be taken seriously because we do understand what’s happening and we don’t need to have a full grasp of the minute details of how the economy works to know that we shouldn’t wreck the planet because we will suffer if we do.
What are your thoughts on the criticism that the School Strikers should protest on weekends? Why might having a protest on the weekend actually not be as efficacious to your goal?
The reason we’re striking through school is to actually make a sacrifice. It’s not for the hell of it. We’re making a sacrifice to our education because if we go on burning fossil fuels like we are at the moment, soon enough our kids won’t be able to go to school. We won’t be able to go to school if a bushfire is raging or if there’s a heatwave or if there’s a flood. So we’re giving up our education now so that future generations don’t have to give it up.
Melbourne has this huge history of protest, and so what do you think of this history within the major social issues that have taken hold in Melbourne?
I think it shows that we are a city with a really diverse collection of backgrounds and I think what is so unique to School Strike comes from different political backgrounds, from different family situations, from different religious beliefs, from different schools. Everyone has completely different beliefs politically and ethically but we’re all there for one common goal. We’re all there because we have the same three demands, and I think that highlights the diversity of different experiences that Melbourne really has.
And that shows while we may have lots of differences, we can come together for one common purpose, whether it be for LGBTQIA+ rights or climate change or animal rights or women’s issues or anything like that. We can all come together for one common purpose.
How do protests fit in within Australian democracy?
I think it’s really important because—we live in a representative democracy, right? So we don’t make the decisions on everything. We elect someone to make decisions for us, someone whose beliefs align with ours. But, sometimes, our beliefs aren’t necessarily reflected in what decisions the politicians are making. So, while voting we can elect someone to represent us, if they’re not doing that in the way we initially asked for, or in the way we are looking for, then we can take to the streets, we can protest and say, “Actually, this is what we need you to do, you are representing us, and this is what we want to see from you as our representative.”
It’s that idea you elect people not policies, but then, politics is broader than policies, right?
Yeah! And all the school strikers, we can’t vote. I won’t be able to vote for another few years, but in order to get our voices heard, we have to protest because there’s no other way that we’re represented.
So, protesting because there’s no other venue of democratic representation, how do you think that transfers between other people who can’t vote, for example such as incarcerated people? Like in terms of how you relate to democracy?
Mm, yeah. I think there’s a difference between when your vote has been taken away from you as to when you’ve never had it. You’d get used to having your voice heard but then that isn’t there anymore. It’s a slightly different story. But I do definitely think that people underestimate students, we have opinions, and so do other people who can’t vote, and when you have an opinion and you want your voice to be heard and it’s not being listened to, it feels disempowering.
Let’s talk about youth engagement in politics. I think youth engagement has really amped up in ways Australian society hasn’t seen since almost the 60s and 70s. So why do you think it is environmentalism that so many young people are flocking to the front lines? Or is it not about the issue, but about the organising and hard work?
I think it is that this issue is pressing. We know for a fact that we have less than eleven years before we reach a tipping point. Most of the effects of climate change won’t be able to be reversed, so we have to act now. So I think it's something every student can relate to, because every student wants a future. We want a future to grow old in, to raise a family in, to work and play and laugh, and we’re gonna fight for that.
So different people might have different issues they’re passionate about. If I’m really passionate about women’s issues, I can fight for that. But if climate change gets out of hand, women’s issues won’t ever be able to be solved if we live in a climate that is so unlivable. A lot of these issues interconnect [with] climate change. For example, if you’re interested in refugee policy, a lot of climate refugees are gonna be in a lot of trouble if we do reach the tipping point and if we don’t do anything before it. So the reason a lot of students are focussing on climate change is because it encompasses a lot of different issues and it's a big umbrella over lots of different issues. And, it also relates personally to us. We don’t want to lose what we have; we don’t want to lose our families.
Is there anything else you kinda wanted to talk about or something you wanted to share?
Whoever is reading this, first of all, come to the general strike on the 20th September, everyone is welcome. While it is being organised by students, everyone from all spheres of Melbourne is completely welcome to come and listen to the people around you. Listen to the people who are asking for help and assistance. I think if we listen to other people’s stories, we will get a lot further.