This article, by Liz Theriault of the University of Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on October 8, 2019.
On Sept. 20, more than 4 million people around the world took to the streets of their hometowns, sat on government building steps, and hoisted handmade signs calling for change. The Global Climate Strike was inspired by the actions of one 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg. The young girl has become a beacon for student activists. As she said at the United Nations General Assembly in New York: “We showed that we are united and that we, young people, are unstoppable.”
Thunberg’s quote encapsulates the youth climate change movement that is taking the world by storm. It also sheds light on the important role youth are playing in demanding governments around the world to act on climate change.
Across our state, students rallied alongside Thunberg and others to fight climate change. In Portland, more than 1,000 students and adults gathered. Others gathered in Bar Harbor, Belfast, Farmington, Unity and Waterville. And in Bangor, a local high school senior, Ijeoma Obi, led the climate strike walk-out to Broadway Park.
There are many other cases of students stepping into the role of political participation and shouldering the responsibility of activism. At the University of Maine in Orono, clubs and organizations such as the Green Team, Green Campus Initiative, UMaine Greens, Black Bear Exchange, host monthly and annual events encouraging their fellow Black Bears to recycle, engage in sustainable practices, and understand the impacts of climate change.
Student activism throughout Maine schools remains high. Students have found the time to fight for what they believe in, despite having piles of homework, a full plate of extracurriculars and other responsibilities. In fact, more students than ever are working at almost full-time level hours, including 40 percent of undergraduate and 76 percent of graduate students who work at least 30 hours a week. As a wider array of students enter college, from a myriad of financial backgrounds, and the levels of debt students take on rises, this generation of students have had to place even more responsibility on their shoulders.
History has made it clear that student activism and political participation are indispensable for sparking change. For instance, on Feb. 1, 1960, four African-American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State walked into a local Woolworth Restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat at the whites-only lunch counter. Despite segregation rules, practices and laws, the students refused to leave. As word of their actions spread, those four students were joined by 3,000 people in more than 50 cities, who all refused to move from segregated lunch counters. This eventually led to the organization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was pivotal in contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public spaces.
Not only are the youth engaging in active civil disobedience, but we have also seen a spike in student voter registration. Tufts University recently released their 2018 National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement. The study shows that in total approximately 7.5 million students voted in the 2018 midterm elections. Student voter turnout for the 2018 midterm elections was 40 percent nationwide, up from 19.3 percent in 2014.
These jumps in student participations are no accident or coincidence. Students across the nation are becoming more active in politics, with the help and inspiration from their fellow students. For example, students at UMaine were encouraged to register to vote by their peers in UMaine UVote and the UMaine Voter Activation Teams, two organizations on campus that led a coordinated effort to register, educate and turn out their fellow students at the polls. Volunteers from each group spoke to classes and set up information booths in the UMaine Memorial Union to reach thousands of UMaine students by getting them to register to vote.
The passion, comradery and determination from students have changed and will continue to change the world. Now, as before, the world needs to listen to the voices and demands of its younger generation.
Liz Theriault, is a fourth-year journalism and political science student at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. Theriault is the communications intern for the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.