Young people campaigning for change

June 2, 2021

Photograph by Barnaby Fournier. Fences protest at University of Manchester where a minute’s silence was held for student, Finn Kitson who tragically took his own life

Barnaby Fournier highlights the power of youth activism in shaping the future we all deserve

I’ve always been fascinated by politics because I grew up living and breathing it. My French grandad and his ancestors were all socialist mayors of their village and my dad holds elected office today for the French Green party, as a councillor for French citizens living in England.

The coronavirus pandemic has catalysed my transition from a mere political enthusiast to an activist campaigning for actual change.

There’s been a massive rise in youth activism over the past few years. Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future, a global climate strike movement started in August 2018. Aged only 15 she began a school strike with children as young as primary school age participating. Students around the world soon began following her lead, staging regular large protests in aid of climate activism.

Youth activists have grown up with social media. Organising protests and building support with just the click of a button makes it easier than ever to campaign for change.

The pandemic has highlighted the morally reprehensible way students across the world have been treated.

Like millions of others, I was told before moving into university halls that I would have a blended-learning experience, including both in-person and online teaching. However, nine months on, I’ve still not been on campus once for a real-life teaching experience.

Our ability to use social media as a campaign tool was a massive contributor to our victory of securing a 30% reduction in rent for first-year students in halls

My first time in a lecture hall was actually spent campaigning and sleeping in it when, a few weeks ago, we occupied the Samuel Alexander building on the University of Manchester (UoM) campus calling for rent rebates.

With the rent strike, we had to adapt to a fast-moving situation; we were paying more than last year’s rent for way fewer facilities, closed due to coronavirus.

We held Zoom meetings to inform and organise our next steps and used social media to raise awareness. The UoM rent strike page on Instagram has approximately 5,200 followers, nearly 60% of first-year students, our target audience for the rent strike in halls.

Our ability to use social media as a campaign tool was a massive contributor to our victory of securing a 30% reduction in rent for first-year students in halls. We put £12 million back into students pockets!

During the past year, it has become very clear to students throughout the UK, that we’ve been treated as cash cows, both by the likes of Rothwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester and in general by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.

We’ve been lied to so that universities maintain ever-increasing profits. This makes my blood boil, and makes me ever more determined to continue campaigning for change.

Students are angry this year. There’s been a massive drive amongst my friends to register for the recent local elections, something which I don’t think would have happened on such a large scale in previous years. We’ve been badly let down during the pandemic.

We’re still paying £9,250 for a degree education over Zoom, a reduced uni social life experience and, worst of all, pitiful support for our wellbeing, let alone our futures!

Activism is nothing new. Social crises have always highlighted the mass inequalities that already exist in society.

We’ve also seen a worrying trend in the mental health of students. Student suicide rates have increased over the past years. Most universities, disgracefully, do not keep records of student deaths. But even before the pandemic, according to a report by Office For Students in November 2019, more students than ever are reporting mental health conditions.

We’ve had a suicide on the campus where I live. Finn Kitson was found dead on 8th October 2020. My friends in the flat opposite mine were friends with him. The period of trauma that Finn’s family and friends experienced is unimaginable. I feel strongly that, with robust mental health support services and better communication, Finn’s and other student deaths could have been avoided.

Activism is nothing new. Social crises have always highlighted the mass inequalities that already exist in society. A hundred years ago, in the United States (U.S.), the race riots of the Red Summer of 1919 came to a head. They were caused by the murder of young African-American, Eugene Williams by a white man, George Stauber. Parallels can be drawn between this and the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the globe.

Back in 1963, the March on Washington for jobs and freedom was a key factor in achieving equal rights. Gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson, one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall riots, secured LGBTQ+ liberation throughout the U.S. and other parts of the world. In September 2020, Stonewall drove the campaign that succeeded in making LGBTQ+ inclusive relationships and sex education compulsory in secondary schools in England.

More recently, international footballer, Marcus Rashford led a campaign with the charity FareShare, which diverts surplus food to those in need. Rashford has fought to ensure that no child goes hungry during school holidays.

Activism is hard work but rewarding and leads to change. It works.

I encourage you to get involved and campaign for anything you feel concerned about and want to change.

Barnaby is a student at the University of Manchester, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He is half-French, loves travelling and aspires to travel to every country in the world. Currently, he has been to 28 out of 196.

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