How can we empower and engage young advocates? A conversation with climate activist Marie-Claire Graf

Around the world, young advocates are increasingly playing a role in addressing the major issues of our time – from high school students in the US advocating for their digital rights to youth in Bali launching a successful campaign to ban single-use plastic bags.  The next generation is often vulnerable to key concerns facing consumers - in digital rights, for example, only one in four say they feel in control of their data online.  

Despite capturing the attention of the media in recent years, young people participating in movements still come up against challenges – such as their demands being brushed off as youthful enthusiasm or their roles within movements superficial, lacking a genuine ‘seat at the table’. 

Ahead of COP27, we spoke with youth engagement specialist, Marie-Claire Graf, about how to engage and inspire the next generation in global movements. As a renowned climate justice advocate, change maker and public speaker she shared useful lessons for the consumer advocacy movement on effective messaging, building coalitions between movements and why recognising the different contexts of young people is key to any campaign. 

Her experience includes leading several youth associations and movements around climate action, sustainable development, food systems transformation and education, such as Sustainability Week Switzerland and the Youth Constituency to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.   

You have led national movements such as the Swiss Association of Student Organizations for Sustainability and Sustainability Week Switzerland. What considerations do you take onboard in running a campaign led by young people?  

It’s important to remember that in most cases, young advocates aren't being paid, there isn't much recognition and often there is a risk of backlash. In student movements, it can be very intimidating to question senior academics and directors. To bring large numbers of young people on board and build successful, energised movements, I believe you need to focus on empowering young people wherever possible.   

Last year, at the UNFCCC Global Conference of Youth, we led a global youth statement which presented the views of young people to ministers, negotiators and officials. The effectiveness of our demands was driven by the bottom-up nature of this process. We reached out to young people across the world to understand the issues affecting them most, successfully collating the demands of over 40,000 young people from 68 countries across the world.  

Similarly, through Sustainability Week Switzerland, we brought together 400 students from universities across the country to advocate for sustainability in Swiss higher education. We set up a model where students could take ownership of their campaigns and have the flexibility and confidence to spotlight the issues they are truly passionate about 

Finally, it’s important to emphasise that there is no singular ‘youth voice’. In climate advocacy, we are bringing together a hugely diverse group of people, who have varied priorities and demands. It’s vital to consider those who could be missing from the discussions we are holding. For example, in a university setting, which groups face barriers in entering that space? How can you ensure they have their demands heard 

In your experience, what practical support can be given to young people, to help them become effective consumer advocates? 

It can't be overstated how important soft skills are, especially public speaking. I often see young people who are highly educated on the matters at hand but who lack ability to use that knowledge to create impact. For many young people, it’s built into our upbringing that we shouldn’t challenge or criticise our elders. But our voice is valuable, and we have the right to use it In my own work, I'm currently training young negotiators through the Climate Youth Negotiators Programme, preparing them to participate in multilateral climate change negotiations.   

In saying that, it’s also important to know how to strike the right tone. It's often a waste of time to enter discussions by directing accusation or blame. I would especially advise young people looking to get involved in consumer advocacy to focus on systemic issues, rather than directing blame towards the individual sitting opposite you. It puts people on the defensive, and you miss valuable opportunities to find a way forward. 

We’ve seen how young advocates have captured the attention of the media and public in recent years. Do you think an unfair burden is placed on young people?  

I do think discussions about sustainability tend to place an unfair burden on young people. Often the media makes young people the focus of the story in a way which misinterprets their actions or demands. They also have a tendency to portray young people as victims. While it's true that young people have a lot at stake within the climate debate, we are also key actors in driving change, who are challenging the status quo and taking real action.

In my own interactions with the media, I take care to emphasise that I represent a wide collective of young people. If you allow too much emphasis to be placed on individual spokespeople, such as myself, the movement can become extremely vulnerable. Often the media will try and make the 'climate' story about one or two individuals. But I alone cannot speak on behalf of indigenous people. I cannot tell the story of a refugee. To do so would be a disservice towards the breadth and diversity of the movement young climate advocates have built.  

The climate, cost of living and energy crises increasingly call for collaborative action between consumer advocates, youth movements, government, and business. How can we ensure movements do not work in silo to meet global challenges

It's a difficult one. When I think of the young advocates I work with, we see the feminist movement, indigenous movements, Black Lives Matter, consumer rights, as inherently interlinked with the climate crisis. 

The issue is that youth movements suffer from a lack of resources, funding, staff, and turnover is extremely high. All are barriers to building established connections with other networks. So, the difficulty I see is practical, rather than ideological. By overcoming these barriers with better funding and support for young advocates, we can build broader and more inclusive movements.  

What are your hopes for the youth movement in the year ahead?  

I would love to see greater intergenerational equity in decision-making. With greater intergenerational equity and leadership, I believe we can drive forward the change needed.

Read more about our work at COP27 Hear the demands of young consumers in our latest video series featuring our Next Generation Leaders Network