High school protestors are good citizens



Last November, thousands of students around Australia sacrificed a small part of their formal education to go on strike for climate change. The action was student-led, grassroots and inspired by a fellow student from Sweden, Greta Thunberg. At the time, PM Scott Morrison called for 'more learning and less activism' in schools, and Resources Minister Matt Canavan claimed the strikers will only learn 'how to join the dole queue'.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg joins Hamburg climate protest in March 2019 (Adam Berry/Getty Images)I found it interesting that our highest officials responded in the way they did given that in their own document, signed by all education ministers around the country, they committed to in the goal of developing active and informed citizens, including a goal for young people to develop 'national values of democracy, equity and justice, and participate in Australia's civic life' (Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young People (2008).

Despite this criticism the next School Strike for Climate is happening this Friday 15 March. Since November, however, events surrounding the students of Covington Catholic High School following the March for Life in Washington have hit the headlines raising questions as to the place advocacy has in schools — particularly Catholic schools — and relevant guidelines.

Unlike the US, student involvement in advocacy in Australian schools has been fairly small, local, often on school grounds, and with limited collective networking. In recent years, some action occurred in some schools around the country through Detention for Detention actions, coordinated through an informal network, ERA for Change. This action called for all children who are seeking asylum to be removed from detention. This has finally been realised for children in off-shore detention.

Students have been present at public events such as the Lantern Parade in Brisbane and the various Palm Sunday Rallies for Refugees around the country. But the numbers have been small and incidental to the overall gathering. Nothing has galvanised the collect student imagination in recent memory like Thunberg's protest for climate change.

Advocacy is a very Catholic action. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) challenges us to work for the dignity of all creation, to work for each person's ability to participate in the life and decision-making of our society. To amplify the voices of those unheard in our society, including the very planet we live on, itself is a Catholic response to the call of the Gospel. The Australian curriculum also emphasises participation in society and the teaching of skills that enable this such as citizenship and ethical understanding.

Given these foundations, Catholic schools in particular should be educating for advocacy. Does this mean that they will bus crowds of young people to the 15 March climate actions around the country? Not necessarily.


"Once students have chosen to use their voice, it is the responsibility of the school to ensure they do so within the framework of a learning experience, supported and safe to experience what active citizenship looks and feels like."


There are no guidelines for schools in how they work with students who are wanting to join public expressions of advocacy. However, most school leaderships are risk-averse and take a conservative approach. The guidelines for Catholic schools, therefore, come from within the Catholic tradition.

Pope Francis' environmental encyclical, Laudato Si', itself gives us the formula for Catholic advocacy which can inform schools in the way they educate for advocacy: it is urgent and invitational. Schools should be educating for young people to have a deep engagement with the realities of our world, an engagement that results in an understanding of the urgency of issues such as climate change, and results in paradigm shifts such as those Laudato Si' is calling for. An education that critically assesses the realities of our world, local and globally.

From such rich and real learning experiences, how can our students not ask questions of our institutional leaders, including politicians? The question for schools is how do we teach our young people to find their voice and to use it well.

Teachers are trained to help young people navigate the complexities of the real world. They are doing so every day as conversations and teaching moments bloom out of the most recent media headline or social media controversy. Teachers are also trained to make things happen; to plan effective and relevant learning experiences, book buses, complete risk assessments and organise permission forms.

How do they simply sit back and see how the young people of their school respond? How do they invite without expectation? This, for many engaged teachers, and from personal experience, is a really difficult task, but also completely necessary. How do we sit still and see what happens when we can see the urgency of the problem? And yet, how do we take the Catholic Social Teaching principle of participation seriously if we don't allow young people to have agency to not only decide to join the action but to express the desire to respond to the urgency in the first place?

It must come from the young people themselves. For them to truly experience agency, it must come from them.

What does this mean for schools when local, national and international actions are taking place? It can be a time when the quality of Catholic education is most tested. Perhaps this is the real NAPLAN test of Catholic schools.

The Catholic tradition tells us that advocacy in schools must be invitational, grassroots, grounded in a deep understanding of the issues, and realised through nonviolent action. Once students have chosen to use their voice, it is the responsibility of the school to ensure they do so within the framework of a learning experience, supported and safe to experience what active citizenship looks and feels like.



Jo HartJo Hart is a member of the Identity and Liberating Education team at Edmund Rice Education Australia. Part of her role is to support EREA schools to be educators for justice and peace.

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg joins Hamburg climate protest in March 2019 (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jo Hart, Catholic Schools, climate change, advocacy, protest, Catholic Social Teaching



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Existing comments

I admire Greta Thunberg and all those who support her initiative for student climate action. I also admire Pope Francis for his excellent encyclical, Laudato Si', an easy to read document meant for everyone on the planet to read. Just download Laudato Si' on the internet! The two greatest challenges of our time are climate change and poverty and they are both interlinked. The world's poorest people are the least able to respond to the escalating ravages of climate change and have done the least to cause it. Some Pacific Islanders have already begun to abandon their low-lying islands because of rising sea levels and salt intrusion into their fresh water supplies and food gardens. Instead of gloating over a lump of coal he brought into our Federal Parliament, our Prime Minister should stop his party accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry and formulate a climate policy that will help to avert the worst ravages of climate change and help give future generations a chance to have a habitable planet!
Grant Allen | 13 March 2019

As much as i am keen to get involved in this as a student, my school which is part of the Edmund Rice Tradition, Is not allowing us to leave school? Out of curiosity do you believe they can do this?
Anonymous Student | 13 March 2019

Thankyou. I currently attend a EREA school and see it as my responsibility- not just as someone involved in catholic teaching, but as a child who wants to see a safe world to attend the rally.
Darcy Border | 13 March 2019

I couldn’t agree more. I lead faith and mission in a Catholic school and these are opportunities for profound learning. Having spent extensive time in South Africa learning from the amazing power and leadership that young people experienced in protesting against the injustices of the apartheid system I have seen and heard the passion, agency and deep spirit that develops in engagement for justice. My job is to support and encourage this in the young women I am privileged to work with!
Kate Garrone | 14 March 2019

What a truly inspirational contribution to the vexing question of climate change. Inspirational in that it shows that leadership is coming from the youth and is based on the solid counter-cultural teachings of the Christ in whom we are graced to live. Perhaps it also signifies an answer to the fear held by all parents who have entrusted the education of their children in the Catholic schooling system: "Where are out young people in the Sunday worshipping community?" They may be heralds for a true practice of living the faith we profess to proclaim in Jesus Christ.
Terry Cobby | 14 March 2019

Great Article Jo Hart! I'm hoping all of Australia will listen to https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-roundtable/the-climate-kids-are-coming-for-you/10882394 And, everyone, please note they made an open invitation to all concerned citizens to join in their protest against eco-crass global pollution.
Dr Marty Rice | 14 March 2019

Thank you Jo. An important article for all educators to heed. Young student protestors have much to offer the debate on climate action. Not only are they exercising their rights as citizens, they are working towards a better world for the generations to come, their children and grandchildren. Schools must encourage student advocacy if they are to fulfil their obligations to develop well informed citizens who espouse values of democracy, equity and justice. The future lies in the hands and minds of the young. As educators it is our duty to provide rich opportunities for them to flourish and to encourage them to strive for new answers to the vexed questions previous generations have provoked.
Anne Doyle | 14 March 2019

Educating “the whole person” is oft quoted as the aim of Catholic schools. Teaching students to act on their informed convictions is crucial else we are educating students to be compliant with laws that may well be immoral. An act of civil disobedience - that is knowingly and deliberately breaking a bad law - is an important learning that should be taught in all Catholic schools. Well I remember how proud I felt as a teacher when the principal of a school at which I taught in Melbourne called an assembly of senior students at which he told them that he had only two requirements of any who wished to attend a rally on the next (school) day. They were to wear full school uniform and were to carry a letter from their parents authorising them to be present.
Ern Azzopardi | 16 March 2019

So, I think what you're suggesting is that my daughter should not only have been allowed to leave school (after her physics class, which she felt she really needed to go to), but that the school should have sought out those girls that were going and offered to accompany then to the march? So they could march together under their school banner? Now that would have been a powerful statement of catholic grass roots values. Instead we fudged the truth and said she had to leave for "personal reasons"....
Cathy O'Dwyer | 16 March 2019


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