Kaylah Brathwaite used to find it strange to say, but most of her friends are online.
“It is still a new weird concept that we laugh at sometimes,” Brathwaite, 18, said. “We’ve seen each other at like three real events.”
A native of Charlotte, N.C., Brathwaite met her friends through Zero Hour, a new youth- and woman-led environmental justice movement created two years ago. Now the movement’s director of operations, Brathwaite said the close relationships between members of the organization’s leadership has allowed them to work better and more closely.
“It’s like when we’re not working, we’re being incredibly silly—they’re the most complex people I know,” Brathwaite said. “We’re so close, and that really helps me do work easily.”
Their remote friendship is now far from unique. Governments across the world are telling their citizens to stay home. For activists, whose work often thrives on human contact and meeting with others face-to-face, the new world of the pandemic has put them into a bind.
But even before the coronavirus, Generation Z had been rapidly changing the way advocacy work looks. So-called digital natives often hear about their movement of choice online first, which has allowed young people like Greta Thunberg to develop international movements without ever meeting the organizers they inspire. Now that everyone’s stuck inside, youth activists are finding new ways to drive engagement and reach new recruits. Amid a global health crisis, the youngest are leading the way for the movement.
“A lot of the older orgs are like, ‘How do we do this? What’s an idea that we can engage youth more and connect over social media?’” said Khristen Hamilton, volunteer management director of Zero Hour. “It’s just something that comes naturally to a young org.”
At American University, climate activists have already notched a win in the pandemic era. After years of advocacy, 93 percent of the student body voted in a recent referendum to urge the board of trustees to divest from fossil fuels. “[The support] was kind of zero to one hundred,” said Anna Elias, communications leader of Fossil Free AU. “This movement hasn’t had this kind of momentum in years.”
The university had previously passed a student referendum in favor of divestment in 2013, but the following year the university’s board of trustees decided not to follow the will of the student body. Now, however, American University is joining universities like Stanford and Syracuse in disentangling its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
“For more than a decade, AU has been on a campus-wide sustainability journey—something that’s not just part of our mission, but our DNA as change-makers,” Sylvia Burwell, president of American University, said in a press release. ““Our actions…will continue to serve as a model for sustainability.”
Much of the work of getting the student body to vote in favor of the April 17 referendum had to occur online. Operating without official club designation from their university but with a sizable social media following, Fossil Free AU took to “digital flyering” to get the word out. This involved members’ sending out fliers educating students about the vote to at least five different contacts, and having those contacts spread the word on their social media and through texts and direct messages, spreading the message organically throughout the student body. “I literally went through my followers and people I followed and was like, ‘Hey I see you go to AU, share this, share this,’” Elias said.
Elias wasn’t on campus when students were sent home. The junior had planned to spend her spring semester abroad in Chile, but was forced to return home when American University called back its students abroad amid international shutdowns.
“I was stressed about everything else, but I was like, ‘Well, at least I have Fossil Free,’” Elias said. “It’s a nice break from classwork and having a way to stay involved.”
Like other young activists, Elias had already been familiar with Zoom and other online organizing tools. When social distancing measures hit, she shrugged and continued her work from home like she would have from Chile.
Other youth-led social movements have pivoted rapidly to digital activism. One of the splashiest events held this socially distanced Earth Day was Earth Day Live, a three-day livestream organized by Future Coalition, which featured performances by Questlove and Joaquin Phoenix and Al Gore speaking.
Sunrise Movement, an early champion of the Green New Deal, recently launched an online “Sunrise School” with courses on topics about everything from the intricacies of the landmark policy proposal to graphic design for activists during the pandemic. When the program was launched last month, organizers expected about 600 people to participate, Deputy Communications Director Sofie Karasek said. Instead, they heard from about 3,500 interested participants. “We were honestly kind of blown away,” Karasek said. “A lot of the people that were signing up were new to Sunrise.”
Whether Sunrise School will continue once social distancing ends is unclear, but Karasek said that already the program has shown how digital organizing can and will shape the future of the climate movement.
“It’s really shown that online organizing is extremely important, and there are a lot of skills we’re going to be learning during this time,” Karasek said. “I think it has already changed what digital organizing looks like.”
But activists can’t always rely on Zoom to build connections during the pandemic. After Zero Hour was forced to cancel a planned bus tour from Philadelphia to Milwaukee, Global Outreach Coordinator Sohayla Eldeeb said recruitment has been a challenge, since so much of it relies on the relationships forged through these kinds of in-person conversations. “It was really heartbreaking to tell the organizers, they were all really excited to have us come,” Eldeeb said.
Although they’re accustomed to a world and social life that revolve around technology, many young activists are still reeling from the effects of stay-at-home orders. Because Brathwaite was taking a gap year to focus on her organizing at the time, she didn’t have to rush home mid-semester like many of her friends. But she says she’s still found it difficult to stay focused.
“I was really lost about what to do, and it took a really long time to figure out the flow of work under a pandemic,” Brathwaite said. “I think it’s okay to not expect ourselves to work ourselves into the ground, which I think a lot of activists are used to doing.”
At a time when even world leaders are uncertain how to answer questions about what a post-pandemic world will look like, most organizers are focusing on the present. But with universities hesitant to say classes will begin as normal in the fall, and the clock ticking on climate action, young activists say their work won’t wait for the pandemic to end.
“Everything is literally: What work can I do in my backyard and in my room and still make this a campaign that reaches thousands of folks?” Brathwaite said. “It’s a weird time, but if the work stops, I don’t know when we’re going to pick it up again.”