Activist boot camps need brown voices

Young people are being inspired at environmental and political activism boot camps - but too few of them are Māori or Pasifika, writes Pete McKenzie

As dawn broke over Devonport Naval Base in Auckland, 55 teenagers were chivvied off rickety stretchers by Royal NZ Navy officers and onto the base’s sports ground for intensive exercise. This wasn’t basic training for the Navy. The teenagers were high school students, and they were there to become environmental advocates.

The event they were attending, Blake Inspire (formerly YELF), has produced many of New Zealand's most prominent young environmentalists. Sophie Handford, 18, co-convenor of the School Strike for Climate (#SS4C) movement which swept the country last year, estimates at least “half the people that are heavily involved with #SS4C went to YELF.” And given that importance as a pathway into advocacy, questions are increasingly being asked about who gets access to its opportunities.

“In primary and high school, sometimes it can feel like you’re confined to the walls of your school to make things happen,” said Handford. “But YELF helped me realise that there’s actually a bigger world outside the walls of school, and a lot more people that you have the power to bring on board and educate.”

Most attendees find it to be an intense experience; for seven days, from 7am to 9:30pm, they are pushed through a hectic schedule. “I just remember being super tired when I got back and having to take a bit of time to process everything that we’d learned in all of the talks that we’d had,” said Handford. She vividly remembered the contrast between Devonport Naval Base, where Navy officers coached leadership and resilience through challenges like putting out pretend fires, and a trip to Goat Island, where attendees snorkelled through its marine reserve and were taught about its ecological heritage.

Simultaneously, Handford noted, “we were putting together presentations, mainly centred around what the future and change will look like in the environmental sphere… We presented to a few different [Auckland city] councillors and Phil Goff, the mayor, on our final night.”

Advocacy training programmes like this are increasingly common, especially in environmental politics. Overseas groups like the Sunrise Movement, the group of high school and university students in the United States which thrust the Green New Deal into the political mainstream, have organised their own activism-oriented bootcamps to upskill young people who often struggle to connect to traditional environmental groups.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, Ōtaki Summer Camp, a four day advocacy training camp modelled on the freewheeling student political camps of the 1970s, has been running since 2018. Ōtaki Summer Camp chooses to expose its attendees to a wide range of issues prominent on the political left, rather than the strict environmental focus of Blake Inspire. The 2019 camp catalysed waves of youth activism around the Operation Burnham inquiry and spurred many of the solidarity protests in support of the Ihumātao land protectors.

But Ōtaki Summer Camp focuses mainly on university students and young professionals. So do Generation Zero and Te Ara Whatu, two of New Zealand’s main youth-oriented climate advocacy organisations. Blake Inspire is the only climate training event focused on high school students. As a result the opportunities it offers - a fast-track into the environmental movement, significant training and instant access to a network of fellow advocates - are more or less unique at that age level. And some environmental activists are concerned they are opportunities which Māori and Pasifika young people are missing out on.

Of the 55 students at Blake Inspire 2019, just 11 percent were Māori or Pasifika - under half the percentage for New Zealand. Fili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i, a South Auckland activist who attended the event in 2018, recalled that “the only other brown people I saw at YELF were three Māori students that I was really close to… it creates this perception that climate change activism is only for the rich kids or the white kids, and that’s so not true.”

According to Fepulea’i-Tapua’i, Blake Inspire’s underwhelming diversity has had significant consequences on the burgeoning young environmental movement for which it is a feeder channel. Early in 2019, #SS4C was criticised for its disproportionately white organising team; its first march clashed with Auckland’s Polyfest, the world’s largest Pasifika and Māori cultural festival.

Its a challenge which Kaeden Watts, a senior leader of Te Ara Whatu, is particularly frustrated with. The young environmental movement, he says, are “trying to be better… But in terms of who is leading that group, it’s Pākehā - not Māori, not Pasifika, not the people who are being impacted most, whose urupā are being swallowed, whose rivers are being polluted by high-intensity agriculture. The ones who are seeing the effects the worst aren’t getting to lead the discussion.”

Fepulea’i-Tapua’i has been working with #SS4C since then to connect it with Māori and Pasifika climate leaders. But she hoped Blake Inspire would take steps at the source to strengthen representation of Māori and Pasifika at future events to prevent such missteps and ensure equitable access to an opportunity others found deeply impactful.

For Grace Cowley, a climate activist in Dunedin, that impact came when she was able to talk to Jamie Morton, the NZ Herald’s science reporter, at Blake Inspire. “I was 16 at the time, and was like, ‘Crap, people want to listen to what I’m saying about climate.’ It blew my mind talking to a seasoned professional who thought what I said was important.”

The intense event creates a strong bond between attendees, which Cowley particularly valued. “It can be really isolating being involved in environmental activism sometimes, which is why it’s so useful finding a network of people there to support you.”

Without it, Handford doesn’t know where she would be today. “It really leaves you feeling empowered and like you have the ability to take action and make something happen in your community.” And as the role of young people in the global climate movement continues to grow in importance, the question of who gets access to opportunities like these will become increasingly crucial too.

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