It’s Friday, 12th July, I’ve rocked up to the Keele University campus in the beautiful county of Staffordshire, set to spend the weekend with a group of young people who are passionate about climate action and the environment - I’m at the Friends of the Earth Youth Gathering.
Friends of the Earth is a grassroots environmental campaigning organisation, with groups in over 75 countries worldwide. They lead a range of campaigns, focusing on both individual and group action, from motivating behaviour change to advocating for increased UK tree cover to campaigning to stop the proposed third runway at Heathrow airport.
Tapping into the significant interest of young people in climate change, as demonstrated by the youth strikes, the Friends of the Earth Youth Gathering came into existence.
The weekend starts in the evening, kicking off at 18:30 with a welcome talk, outlining the shared values and expectations. In many ways, Friends of the Earth is a progressive organisation: here, there is a focus on inclusivity, and the weekend is conducted in a ‘safer space’, meaning that there’s no alcohol, there’s a designated ‘wellbeing’ room, and we’re mindful of what we say to each other. There’s an emphasis on acceptance of beliefs and attitudes that differ from our own, and this mindset is shared by everyone in the room.
In response to the points made that the group agrees with, there is silence. Instead, a sea of jazz hands rises up, everyone demonstrating their approval in a way that isn’t distressing for those who struggle with sensory overload. At first, this gesture feels odd, and I’m self-conscious, but as the weekend progresses, it’s second nature, and by the end, we’re all invested and it feels normal to applaud in this way.
In keeping with Friends of the Earth’s focus on tackling environmental issues, all food served at the weekend is vegan and vegetarian. As a vegan, this is an absolute dream - it’s so nice to be away somewhere, eating food that’s more than just the main course minus the meat. I’m even treated to a vegan magnum! Not everyone at the gathering strictly follows a meat-free diet, but all seem happy enough to embrace it. The ready availability of meatless meals this weekend gives those who are unfamiliar with a vegan or vegetarian diet an opportunity to experience how delicious it can be to live this way.
Together, we do an activity writing how we want to ‘grow’ on a packet of wildflower seeds. My plan for growth is related to authenticity: a lot of the time, I don’t feel like I’m authentic. I’ve been told so many times to just ‘be yourself’, but I struggle: I don’t feel like I really know who I am. One of my goals is to become more consistent.
Heading into a more lighthearted space, we’re given a quiz that turns around the environment for one of the rounds. In this group, I feel listened to, and I feel glad I’m taking part; it gives me the opportunity to bond with some of the other young people and it’s this night that I make some of my closest friends from the weekend.
We finish up late, and I head to bed, exhausted. One of the nice things about the weekend is that we get our own space, which I value. I love to be around people, but I crave alone time after socialising.
The Saturday is action-packed. To start the day off, we engage with a panel of young activists involved in campaigning around environmental issues. The first is Beth Irving, heavily involved in the UK Student Climate Network and the YouthStrike4Climate movement. Only 17 years old, she’s taking a lead on youth climate action, speaking with a passion that you can’t help but take notice of. Standing at the front, she confidently delivers a beautiful ten-minute spoken word piece articulating her journey into activism and its impact on her: “I became an activist by accident”.
Next is Muna, a Friends of the Earth staff member, a campaigner from her days at university. She gives a rousing speech, telling us about how she came to environmental activism through advocating for human rights and protesting against the uni tuition fee, before landing a job as a full-time activist. “You are literally changing the world,” she says. “You are daring greatly.” This last quote is a reference to Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’.
Then we hear from Amelia Fawcett, also 17 years old, an advocate for farm life and involved in the Yorkshire Dales Milennium Trust. She also happens to be a BGF Alumni. She speaks, brightly, eloquently, “I am in love with nature and want it to have a safe future.” She challenges us to act - when there’s a will, there’s a way - telling us, “I’m pretty sure you all share my will, so there must be a way and I won’t take no for an answer.”
Last on the panel is Tatiana Garavito, a Colombian organiser - her preferred term over activist - who has worked with racialised communities in the UK since her arrival 14 years ago. She encourages the idea of collective care, impressing the importance of looking after each other in the movement. Her words of advice are to “build community everywhere you can”.
From the panel, we learn that it’s really important to be good at communicating, and be sure of where you stand on things: research is key. To find your place, ask yourself what you enjoy doing and see how you can use those skills and passions to contribute to the movement - lend your strengths and don’t let yourself be put off by stereotypes. Remember that “not every battle is your battle”. Sometimes you won’t have the energy to engage with those fighting against you. And that’s fine - because it’s not all on you all of the time.
Our next session underlines that inclusivity is crucial for the movement, and we need to ensure that everyone’s voices are being heard. LISTENING is essential. One of the things that strikes me about the weekend is the diversity of the participants - people from all circumstances brought together for the common goal of climate action. The key message of this session is that “to change everything, we need everyone” - marginalised groups are often the first and worst affected, which is why their voices add strength and legitimacy to campaigns.
The group then splits off into four spaces, focusing on four different aspects; community organising; climate justice and international solidarity; environment, race and activism, art for action. I opt for community organising.
We make representations of ourselves with stick people, listing our relationships, our passions, the organisations we’re connected to, and more, using this to answer questions asked by our partner. It’s surprising how much you could learn about someone in so little time - questions like “what makes you angry?” brings out passion and emotion you’d never know existed. Asking questions is so important; it’s the best way to understand someone.
Then there’s a talk about the Friends of the Earth youth network and we learn more about the opportunity to be a member of the Steering Group, a group of young people who will help guide the decisions in shaping the youth network. There’s an emphasis on youth leadership and ownership; this is very much our network, and with young people at the head of the climate action movement, what could be more appropriate?
Next, we get more activity choices; a sustainability talk and tour; a guided nature walk; craft and relax. I opt for the sustainability talk, learning about the green ethos of Keele University, its focus on sustainability being one of the reasons that it was chosen as our venue. Instead of joining the walk, Beth Irving and I go outside to record a video of her beautiful spoken word.
That evening is a chance to share and socialise: open mic night! After our groups perform a poem/sketch/rap, devised that morning, solo performers take the mic, and we’re treated to song and comedy and personal stories. It’s lovely to see how comfortable the performers are sharing these things, a sure indication of how supportive the group is.
Sunday arrives too quickly, and we’re back with a talk about burnout, the state of physical and mental exhaustion that’s common in activist circles. We identify the symptoms, how to recognise it in ourselves and others, and how to fight it. Working in groups, we talk about the things that make us happy - time with friends, going for walks, making music, etc. - and in order to prevent burnout, we’re told that it’s essential to make these activities a priority. To be effective, we need to make time for the things that recharge us.
This need to rest is compared to choral singing - when performing a long, long note, singers breathe at different times, meaning that the sound is sustained.
To close the weekend, we complete a solidarity action, putting our artistic skills to good use creating banners and placards to feature in a photograph showing our support for Mozambique, a country that’s on the frontline of climate breakdown, despite having done relatively little in the scheme of things to cause the problem. This action was trigger by the decision of UK companies to buy gas from Mozambique, which will only drive further climate change and local environmental damage, with little positive impact on the people who live there. The photo has been shared on social media, raising awareness of the issue and demonstrating our solidarity.
As a last goodbye, the mic is passed around the group, and I am touched by how positive, kind and uplifting everyone’s words are. In a very short amount of time, we have formed strong bonds as a group, which perhaps stems from our shared passion for environmental issues.
Coming out of the weekend, I am a changed person. I am more aware of the problems we’re facing, but I feel empowered to do more about it, inspired by the stories of the activists I’m surrounded by. I leave full of hope for the future.
I also leave with more knowledge about myself. And that is always a good thing.