Here are some basic principles for activists in pursuing their causes.
1) Know what you want and why you want it.
When you are deciding whether to protest against something, or join a cause, think hard about what you want to achieve and why.
For example, when I wanted to join the School Strike for Climate Action in 2019, my parents made me find out what the strike organisers were asking for and said I could only go if I agreed with what they wanted and if I wrote to my school principal and explained to her why I was going. This meant that I had to understand what I was striking for. This is important because you will not help your cause if someone asks you why you are there and you can’t explain it.
Similarly, when I was angry about a maths test in Year 8, it wasn’t just because I did badly in it, it was because I felt the reason I did badly was not because I didn’t understand or I didn’t study hard enough, but because of the disruption in the way the test was administered, especially getting half the questions halfway through the test.
2) Try to have constructive proposals as well as knowing the things you don’t want (the things you are protesting against).
Sometimes you just need to tell people in power to stop doing something, but it often helps if you also have some suggestions about what you want them to do. People in power want to know what they would need to do to stop you from protesting. This doesn’t mean that they will do it, but they are more likely to be receptive if you have a list of demands rather than just complaints.
For example, when Yassine was asking her school canteen to phase out single use plastics, she actually did some research into what items they might be able to replace, and how they might replace them.
3) Think about why they might want to do what you want.
People are more likely to change their behaviour and do what you want if you can make them see why it is reasonable, or better still, why it is in their interest to do it.
For example, when I wrote to my school principals in Hong Kong asking them to make homework optional, I pointed out to them that students were likely to learn more if they got enough sleep and had time to play with their siblings. Since the school was really keen to get good results from their students, this argument showed that their objective would be achieved with less homework.
4) Always be polite and respectful, even if the people you are opposing or petitioning are not.
People who don’t like what you are saying will take any excuse not to listen to you, and if your behaviour is aggressive or offensive then they will ignore what you are asking for and focus on why nobody should listen to such an aggressive or offensive person. If you make your arguments respectfully, then they have to focus on the substance of what you are saying.
So, even if you think your opponent is stupid or biased, you should present your arguments as if they were really clever and objective. It won’t necessarily work but at least they can’t then say that you are stupid and biased.
For example, when Yassine was told that the canteen couldn’t have wooden forks because kids might break them and use them as weapons, she thought that was quite a silly argument. But instead of saying so, she did a series of experiments with actual wooden forks to see how easy they were for kids to break and whether they would be sharp enough to be dangerous.
5) Remember that activism is its own reward.
If you work really hard on an issue and something changes, the powerful people who made it change may take the credit. This is very annoying, but it is better not to tell everyone that actually you made them change their minds and that they made concessions and backed down. This is because it will make it much harder to get them to change anything in the future if you do this, because nobody (especially a powerful person) likes people to think they are weak. It is better to remind yourself (repeatedly if necessary) that what you wanted has actually happened and that you have helped to make the world a better place, even if you didn’t get recognition for it. The people who are close to you will know and, most importantly, you will know.