How to get active

My first experience of leading a campaign was forced on me - the world was being screwed up by leaders who were determined to embark on an unjust war with Iraq, despite clear evidence that most of the population disagreed with them. It began to seem like democracy was being ignored and we couldn't make a difference.

We started by protesting outside Parliament – even though we found that it was depicted as 'bunking off' by a national media that couldn't understand our action would've been slightly less effective after school: in the dark when the politicians have all gone home…

We needed to take the message straight to these politicians that they might try not to listen but they were damn well going to see us and read about our opposition to their criminal foreign policy.

We weren't bound by party policy or any idea of how a campaign should run. We made our placards and took to the streets. Being young meant we were rash or confident enough not to worry about conventions or rules and our stand won us national coverage. In many ways it's the reason I'm writing now.

Removed from real life?

They were such optimistic days, and really gave me a passion for getting off the sidelines. Now I'm at university I haven't got off my soapbox. I'm still fighting for what I see as justice – but the rules have changed and so, inevitably, have I.

Because despite that early experience in my teenage years, university came as something of a shock. How to deal with the bureaucracy of uni clubs, how to ingratiate yourself with the existing volunteers – even how to turn up in the right place at the right time and feel like anything more than a confused bystander!

It sometimes seems like university removes you further from real life politics by encasing all your hard work and action in a campus-shaped bubble, and to me it felt like the actions of dedicated college representatives and volunteers were little more than pre-determined attempts to follow the script of 'good' activism.

After all, uni clubs are safe – bound by their contract to remain law abiding, demonstrably removed from mainstream politics, and rarely able to act with autonomy or innovation. They don't automatically feel like a way to fight against ideals entrenched in society or to make a tangible difference.

It took me over a year to find my own place in the uni campaigning scene. I realised I was happier working by myself than dedicating myself to climbing established hierarchies. I appreciate the control over what I am trying to change and how, when, where and why I was trying to change it.

Call to action

I've launched a website – at www.handsupfor.org – which aims to provide other young people with a toolkit for getting started, finding out and sharing further information. This lets me share information both with other people from my university and with the wider world, grounding our achievements in a more real political context – something especially important when you're at a uni where the students feel slightly out of touch with the concept of hardship or poverty…

I work now as part of a variety of horizontal networks, not based on hierarchical notions of command but on the sharing of knowledge, working practices, research and resources. I've begun to see that university isn't about dedicating yourself to a single cause or career - its about discovering what's out there and how you relate to that on a personal, emotional and intellectual level.

I didn't want to climb the union ladder or edit the paper, but have become increasingly surprised by the difference I can make through simple engagement with college groups and integrating this with the Hands Up campaign. The Hands Up manifesto, available on the site, sets out 6 key demands in a programme aiming to 'level the political baseline'

By this I mean providing easy – and, importantly, non-directional – routes into activism, volunteering and campaigning through a whole plethora of legislative changes. Now I'm back in college, looking for support and modification of these points by my peers. After all, I've come to realise that it's only by working together that we can achieve change. So why not get in touch?

Kierra Box co-founded Hands Up For Peace in February 2003 when she was 17. She is a patron of the National Youth Agency and a trustee of the Young People Now Foundation.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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