From art school to activism

Why I chose to devote myself to the climate justice movement.

Social activism has existed as far back as we can remember, covering issues from the abolishment of slavery, to the suffragette movement and, more recently, marriage equality and the fight to stop sexual harassment.

These days, there’s a convenient short-hand – or handle – to promote these causes and movements: the hashtag. As an environmental activist, I wear my heart on my hashtag, and the most pressing cause for me at the moment is #StopAdani.

Leaving aside the political issue of whether this overseas company is getting a ‘free kick’ from the Australian government, the Adani coal mine in Queensland is bad, bad news for the environment, no matter which national interest is behind it.

Inspired by the original anti-logging tree-huggers who’ve paved the way and fought for our generation and those to come, #StopAdani is a collective of non-government organisations and community action groups who want an end to new coal mines in Australia.

Coal is something we’ve used for hundreds of years to power our daily lives, but we’re getting a bit sick and tired of it.

The movement for climate justice (is) much more than just science or solar panels – it’s an issue that ties every person on the planet together.

No…like, literally sick! Black lung disease, caused by long term exposure to coal dust and thought to have been eradicated over 40 years ago, is back with a vengeance. In the last two years there have been 19 people diagnosed with the deadly condition. Air pollution kills an estimated 9 million people globally each year, with the burning of coal a key contributor.

In Australia, the mining and burning of coal is the single largest source of air pollution. And we thought providing fossil fuels to less developed nations made us charitable, right? Well, when coal reaches these coal fired power stations, they emit sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxides, mercury and particulates which enter the bloodstream contributing to asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.

Fossil fuels also threaten our natural wonders. We must stop burning new fossil fuels if we want to protect vital community resources, like our rivers, reefs, national parks and beaches. The traditional custodians of the land were the very first conservationists, with a deep connection to country and the knowledge to live off the land. Climate change has disrupted food cycles in parts of Australia which have existed for hundreds of years, often burdening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

This has all driven the movement for climate justice, and it’s much more than just science or solar panels – it’s an issue that ties every person on the planet together. It’s rallies, meetings with politicians, chalk on the pavement, petitions on a Sunday morning, documentary screenings, strategy meetings and a lot of peer learning.

I volunteer with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and alongside Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network we are empowering young people by providing them with the skills they need to take a stand in their local communities and to create change.

Growing up in Western Sydney, where homelessness, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and lack of access to healthcare and mental health services are profound, I was lucky enough for very few of these issues to have a direct effect on me. I went to a good school, graduated with a decent ATAR, and an early entry into National Art School. I was a girl guide for many years and got to play sports and go out on weekends.

I was living in a bubble where I felt I could only really contribute the bare minimum to any cause I supported simply because I didn’t know what I could possibly do. I became a vegetarian, and would occasionally show up to pride rallies, but it just didn’t feel like it was making that much of an impact.

In 2016, during my last few months of high school, I discovered AYCC and their fledgling group in Western Sydney. Our first meeting would be next to Parramatta River, with a tonne of hummus, and a welcoming circle of people under 30 who had travelled as far as Katoomba, Cabramatta and Granville.

An AYCC training camp

We sat for hours talking about coal seam gas in Camden, the Pacific Climate Warriors, Indigenous resistance, community film screenings, door-knocking, bird-dogging and non-partisan grassroots campaigns, in ways I’d never heard before. It was mind blowing and, initially, pretty exhausting to think about. Confronting your privilege is something we often pop in the “too hard” basket and forget about until we flick past something tragic on social media or in the news.

Three weeks after semester began, I decided that art school wasn’t everything I had hoped for it to be. I made the choice to become a full time volunalcteer in the climate movement instead; learning, growing and building a movement in an area that I knew so much about but felt so disconnected from.

Climate justice means a lot of things to a lot of different people, but to me what stood out was that those who have contributed the least to climate change are often hit with its impacts the heaviest of all, and earlier on. This includes young people, the elderly, First Nations people and low socioeconomic communities, as well as disenfranchised peoples like refugees and island communities in the Pacific region, whose countries’ and cultures’ survival rely on water levels.

The impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed through many communities all over the world, and this tangible unfairness is why these same communities are gearing up to take on the fossil fuel industry and create a safer climate future. However, some are so focused on immediate struggles like community violence, or paying the rent, that climate action gets put on the shelf.

Those who have contributed the least to climate change are often hit with its impacts the heaviest of all, and earlier on.

In the last year I have come to understand that environmentalism has never really been a priority of the western suburbs of Sydney, and learnt to recognise how this corresponds to the socioeconomics of the communities surrounding mine.

The large majority of people in Australia want to do good things, help the planet and do what they can to make the world a better place; but they won’t know how unless we extend public education beyond how to recycle or bin your veggies. We need to put in the hard yards to explain the relationships between science, politics and justice, shatter the myths surrounding climate change and look towards solutions powered by collective community action. For each crisis there is an opportunity, and young people are taking the lead.

Our generation is in tune with social media and online communication. The AYCC capitalises on this, driving decentralised campaigns across the country, with young people at the forefront. We work to develop a new culture of community action among young Australians whilst educating and inspiring those around us.

Not only do we organise on campuses, but have also focussed on community driven campaigns beyond university grounds, a tactic which has become increasingly important as student life is less bound by a physical location.

We’re walking into MPs’ offices, banks, school assembly halls, up to doors on our streets and out of meetings with new volunteers and community supporters. No matter where you’re reading this, there is a groundswell of resistance, in your community, against this mine.

Think globally and act locally by linking up with your nearest group of #StopAdani mates.

Check out www.aycc.org.au, www.seedmob.org.au and www.stopadani.com/take_action to find your local teams and events in a city near you.

Go to www.adaninomeansno.com to get your groovy t-shirt and stand with Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council as they fight their case against Adani for Aboriginal Land Rights.

Georgia Wilson-Williams, 19, is a community organiser of environmental campaigns for AYCC. She works with communities across Sydney’s Blue Mountains, Greater West and Inner West. She was recently awarded NSW Young Climate Champion of the Year.

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