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The LEGACY Issue: Q&A Emma Greenwood: “We need to save our future, save our now”

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Featured illustration: Dylan Meek

Every day we are told to recycle, turn off lights when they’re not in use and reduce our plastic waste. Most people do their bit subconsciously, mindful of the small ways they can make a difference. The younger generation have taken this further in recent years, breaking down the status quo and taking the media by storm with national campaigns calling for the problem to be tackled at its root, through meaningful climate action.

The global Youth Strike 4 Climate began in 2019, bringing a spotlight on young climate champions. Manchester-based co-founder Emma Greenwood shares her experiences being part of this movement of young activists calling for collective effort and innovative solutions.

How did you first become involved in climate activism?

In 2015 the Boxing Day floods hit Bury and its surrounding areas, and a huge pub in Summerseat was completely washed away within a few hours. Being 11 years old at the time, I started to feel a deeply-engrained fear that I didn’t know what to do with. I was 16 when I went to the first Youth Strike 4 Climate in Manchester. My mum had suggested that I go along; she thought this was the perfect thing for me because I’d always had a certain level of anxiety about the climate crisis and that I needed to channel it with others who understood. With everything Greta [Thunberg] had been doing in Sweden, it was great to follow this in the UK.

I met another girl called Charlotte, and we ended up being the co-founders of Youth Strike Manchester, which then became an incredible group of people as the strikes grew. We naturally took on leadership and coordination roles. What began as a small strike in February 2019 had grown to be massive by September, when the general strike for climate happened. The movement took on a life of its own in Manchester and globally, which I don’t think any of us could have foreseen.

Was your family supportive of you joining the climate strikes?

A youth worker once told me: “Just as a young person, you’re an expert on being a young person, and that in itself is a mandate enough to speak on issues.” I still tell that to everyone. Your experience as a person existing in the world gives you a mandate to talk. That in itself is enough. I think my mum and dad raised me with that perspective as well. They were so supportive. I think they’ve sown the seeds of me having a consciousness around these issues, having raised me with this belief that my gender and my age shouldn’t be a determining factor on what I can and can’t do.

How did you get elected as a Youth MP and what was it like speaking in Parliament?

In the same month as the first youth climate strike, I was elected to be the Young Member of Parliament for Bury. The thought of being able to get involved with politics, both locally and nationally, and have a voice before I was legally allowed to, was such an incredible opportunity. It was surreal to be in this deadly silent House of Commons and hear myself talking, which still feels like a fever dream. I was falling over the benches trying to get John Bercow’s attention, on national TV. The other youth MPs knew how passionate I was about the environment, and they pointed to me and tried to get me to speak; that opportunity came from the support of all the other young people in the North West.

How do you feel looking back on everything you accomplished at such a young age?

It is crazy looking back. My relationship with doing this type of work has changed over the years. During the pandemic, there was this big wave of focus on younger people as change-makers for the future. I think equally there was a lot of pressure put on young people to be saviours. That’s a lot to put on people who are still in such formative periods of their lives. 

Arguably, I do less now than I did at 16, which is probably a good thing for my sake. I still get involved by helping organisations create opportunities for young people that are sustainable and done in a way that supports young people, rather than just shoving them into a space that fits adults. I often think about how the work was approached in the past, and the ways in which young people were consulted and tokenised — in hindsight this was so toxic. I’m more aware of those issues now, as are young people across the board within activist spaces.

How are you helping organisations create sustainable spaces for young people?

I’m working for a social media company called Curv, which I actually helped to launch. It’s centred around using social media for young changemakers and creating communities for campaigning. I got involved in Fridays for Future Digital, which was originally a platform for people who wanted to campaign but were in countries where it wasn’t safe to protest. The idea was that they could still get involved online. The co-founder of Curv saw this and approached me with the idea of a social media network that works to support young people rather than work against them, which is what it felt like a lot of conventional social media was doing. 

I’m also working with Zellar to create a Youth Advisory Board. Zellar specifically helps companies implement sustainability strategies. They’re eager to have young people at the helm of their work and working directly with businesses. I’m helping them set up their youth advisory board to be sustainable and inclusive for young people. It’s strange moving from being a ‘young person’ to an adult with a political voice.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to get more involved in climate activism?

Don’t let the legal voting age or the perception that you need qualifications to speak on certain things stop you. Having your lived experience, taking that and entering activism spaces is so powerful. Equally, enter them in ways that are accessible and sustainable for you. If public speaking is not your thing, don’t push yourself to do it because it’ll do more harm than good. There’s no one way to be a force for change. There’s no right way or a better way to do it. Allow yourself to enter these spaces in an authentic, messy way; in a way that feels true to you and helps you to take action on the things that you’re passionate about.

What legacy do you want to leave?

I want to make people realise that their voice is powerful and deserves to be heard. Wherever and whatever that voice is, and whatever space you choose to put it in, own it and embody it. What I’ve tried to do, especially in Greater Manchester, is create safe spaces for young people. You deserve to have your voice heard. We hold so much power to create change in the world.

About the author / 

Amber Bermingham

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