Conversations on Empathy: Sophie Sleeman -Youth Strike4Climate
ThoughtBox Director Rachel Musson recently interviewed Sophie Sleeman, one of the students involved in last month’s school strike as part of a global movement of activism to demand climate justice, to discuss how schools are responding to the climate crisis and her own role in the global movement.
On a bright blue-skied day in February, over 1000 children and young people swapped laptops for placards, classrooms for chanting and took to the streets of Exeter, striking from school to demand governmental action on climate change. Inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg, this strike was part of a nationwide protest seeing well over 10,000 UK students leave school for the day to champion for change.
ThoughtBox director Rachel joined the march and spent time talking and walking with students during the morning, feeling both inspired by the determination and solidarity shown by the young people and shamed by the fact that children are out there shouting for help (literally) from our leaders to do something.
Voices were impassioned, raw and heartfelt, such as 8 year old Benjamin who shared his tender thoughts on what businesses could do to stop making so much rubbish, or 15 year old Ruby whose frustration that her future was being ignored flowed piercingly through the lines of her poetry. A large number of thoughtful young minds spoke from the heart about how we need to come together in harmony to do what’s needed, not what’s always been done.
One of those eloquent young speakers at the strike was 17 year old Sophie Sleeman, a student from nearby Exeter College whose engaging message sent ripples of solidarity through the crowd. I met with Sophie a few days after the strike to find out what inspired her to get involved in activism for the very first time.
SIDENOTE: Before I continue with this article, some of you might be thinking, “Why should I care what a random 17 year old student has to say?” My answer to you: because our children are standing up right now and showing the courage to speak the truth. They are speaking without agenda and from the heart and have the capacity to show us just how simple things can be if we make them happen. Their voices deserve to be heard.
Sophie explained how she first became aware of climate change when she was just 10 years old, being shown a video at school that scared her long after it had finished playing:
“You can’t look at images of mounds of rubbish, or innocent animals being harmed by our discarded plastic and not feel scared”, she explained, still clearly moved by that first encounter with some of the mess of human’s wasteful activities.
What was missing, she explained, was what to do with that horror. Schools remain woefully unprepared when it comes to talking about climate change. Statistics from Extinction Rebellion state that just 10 in 10,000 lessons in a child’s formal schooling will mention climate change, many of these through a scientific lens, focusing on the mechanics of global warming and painting it as a “far away problem” affecting countries on the other side of the world. Sophie recalls feeling that it was being taught as a “problem other people created” and felt far away from her own sphere of responsibility. At no point (even to this day) has her schooling offered a sense of proper information, awareness or ways to respond to and deal with the overwhelm of the problem.
At school, Sophie explained, there is no place to go to develop her understanding of climate change and to share her thoughts, worries and desire to act. This is sadly the norm, rather than the exception in our schools in the UK. Although some might now have “Eco groups” or “Environmental clubs”, it is hard to find schools who are giving young people a safe space to share their anxieties, to develop their voices and to feel empowered rather than overwhelmed about the state of their futures on a temperamental planet.
I am reminded of one of the schools I used to teach in where, after months of work by myself and a dedicated group of students eco-auditing the school to offer a wide range of energy (and money) saving strategies, the management pretty much ignored everything we suggested and “compromised” by putting a couple of recycling bins around the site.
Softly spoken and a quiet child at school, Sophie found her voice when she joined an after-school creative writing class in Y10. Through this, coupled with her English teacher’s encouragement, she found that she had a talent for writing speeches and this suddenly opened a powerful channel for her to express her opinions and engage people with topics that they might not have thought about before.
Her own responses to climate change have been fairly individually actioned, and have come from an awareness learned outside of the classroom. Like most of us who feel compelled to do something, Sophie follows many of the practical small scale actions we’re encouraged to practice: turning the lights off when you leave the room, using bamboo toothbrushes, taking shorter showers, becoming vegetarian or vegan. Yet she is well aware that herein lies the crux of the problem – we are only ever told to focus on individual actions rather than working together in solidarity to address some of the bigger problems together.
It is scary, hard and overwhelming to stand up for climate justice when doing it alone. It is empowering, exciting and hopeful when standing up together. Yet the narrative throughout school is that of self-interest and individual action. “Competing for grades, for university places, for jobs – it is all about the individual and nothing is encouraging collaboration and solidarity,” Sophie aptly observed when dissecting some of the problems of the current education system. “What is so energising about this strike and future strikes is that it is a movement for all of us – we’re standing up for a better future for EVERYONE, even those who don’t support what we’re doing – and we’re working together to focus on the bigger picture.”
This is a message echoed by so many of the children I spoke to on the strike. They feel let down by adults who say they care about their children and yet are doing nothing to focus on saving the planet. Many shared how they feel disempowered by their schools and societies where they have no voice (“90 year olds can vote, but 16 and 17 year olds cannot, and yet it is our world that the policies we’re voting for will be shaping.”) Even more troubling in light of events this week which on the one hand saw the UK’s winter temperatures souring into the twenties, sparking wildfires across the country, and on the other hand saw parliament debate on climate change (the first in the past two years) with 610 MPs not turning up for the debate, showing once again how little priority they are giving to this global crisis.
As mentioned earlier, Sophie is new to activism, and last month’s strike was the first time she has taken part in a public protest. After reading a Facebook post from a group called YouthStrike4Climate, Sophie and a friend decided to start up an Exeter group, just the two of them planning to take the day off and stand up for what they believed. They got in touch with a few of the parents involved in Extinction Rebellion and before they knew it they were part of an organising team bringing over 1000 people together in a matter of weeks!
An inspiring journalism student, Sophie sent off a press release a few days before the strike, and then shared how she was literally bombarded by journalists in the run up to the strike, holding a “live phone interview” with CNN as she was marching along the road during the protest.
“Who says I’m not learning by striking”, she smiled wryly in response to Teresa May’s criticism of students striking, as she shared just how much experience and exposure she’d gained through this one day’s school absence (which, for anyone aspiring to be a journalist, is gold dust education). When asked how it felt to be part of such a powerful event, with 1000 children and young people gathered together from across South Devon, and part of a much wider UK and Europe wide strike that day, Sophie said three words:
“I felt solidarity.”
This, in essence, is where the power of this strike has emerged, and where the growing numbers of students planning to strike next month on 15th March is coming from. Sophie explained that, following this first strike, different UK, European and now global groups started communicating across networks, and sharing thoughts, ideas and strategies to stand together in solidarity for the next strike and future actions.
So far, there are almost 500 events listed to take place in the strike in March happening across 51 countries, with the students’ aim to come together in solidarity to build momentum for partnerships of positive action. How utterly inspiring that our children are able to see beyond the pettiness our divisive political landscape and stand up for what’s right, not what’s always been done.
Now is the time for us to listen to the wisdom that they speak.
If your school is looking for a curriculum or workshop on climate change which support awareness, empathy, action and empowerment, get in touch for a free sample of our resources, available for students from 5-18 years old.