When I’m on my way to meet 16-year old Małgosia Andruszkiewicz — the main organiser of the 15th March School Strike for Climate in Białystok, Poland — I am not sure what to expect. It’s been a while since I last hung out with teens. But based on what I read and hear, it seems like being an adolescent is not a piece of cake these days.
I mean — all of that social media-based culture and self-absorption it encourages. The anxiety and depression that seem to be teenage epidemics. The loss of interpersonal skills and falling out of touch with the real world. These are the things that immediately come to mind when I think of teenagers.
But when I start talking to Małgosia, my whole image of “how teens are these days” collapses within minutes. In front of me, I have an intelligent, empathetic and open-minded young woman. I immediately realize how much I can learn from her at my “adult” age of 28.
Where is this self-obsessed, insecure kiddo with a smartphone glued to her hand that I was somehow expecting to see?
When I share these thoughts with her, Małgosia says that her view of herself and her peers is a completely different one:
“I think that we are the first generation raised in awareness of how big of an impact we can have in the globalized society. Although school education doesn’t teach us that, we have access to all the information online. This is where we learn about the climate crisis and other current issues.”
No: “this is where we spend our waking hours obsessing about Instagram selfies or watching porn.”
Talking to her further filled me with the kind of hope I was not expecting at all.
Skipping school was never as noble as it is these days. Joining the global school strike for climate is something every girl and every boy on this planet can take pride in.
The 15th March took global climate activism to the next level. According to Greta Thunberg’s recent Facebook post, over 1,5 million students in 125 countries on all continents didn’t go to school that day to join their local protest. 350.org says it was “the biggest day of climate action ever.”
To me, it is beyond question that if any one force is going to be decisive for solving the climate crisis, it’s going to be the youth strikes. The “kids” who are still in school are clearly the strongest environmental movement at this point. And no wonder why — it is their future we’re talking about.
But maybe youth climate activism can solve one other problem. Maybe it can pull young people out of these big black holes of mental health issues that various studies claim they’re in? Greta Thunberg says that starting to act for climate helped her get out of the severe depression she faced at the age of 11. Her parents confirm.
“It is like day and night, it is an incredible transformation” — says Greta’s dad, referring to how much better she’s doing these days. Engaging in something she knows can literally save the world obviously benefits her mental health.
As I speak to Małgosia, her eyes shine when she talks about the impact of her actions, and how realizing this impact makes her feel:
“On the Friday strike, I met over 200 people who agree with me, and who think the way I think. I saw clearly that I am not alone in this, and I said to myself: ‘See? You’re not a weirdo for thinking that climate change is a huge issue. There are so many good people around you who think the same — and want to act, too!’ I met people from primary school who I never thought would show up on an event like this. And suddenly, we were all in this together! This was very inspiring.”
The sense of unity seems to be a way out of problems such as isolation, depression and loneliness that so many young people face these days. The climate strikes give them the best imaginable cause to gather around: the survival and thriving of the human race. I mean, how can you not support that?
And the thing is, you don’t need to be “outgoing,” “popular” or one of the “cool kids” to join. Even an “invisible girl” (as Greta Thunberg refers to herself) can find a sense of belonging and purpose here. Better yet, she can become the leader of the whole movement!
It is easy for anyone to find their place in the climate strikes because everybody’s welcome here. And every single person counts.
I certainly felt that when I joined the local school strike on the 15th of March. Regardless of the cause that I wholeheartedly support, I just wanted to be one those “kids.” It is an innate human need to belong. And I never really had this need met when I was a teenager.
Maybe I can make it up to my teenage self now, by tagging along with the climate school strike?
Rewind ten years back, I see myself halfway through high school, approaching my 18th birthday. I often pondered on changing schools. I bounced between contradicting ideas and identities. I gave in to pretty much any cause or movement I encountered. Scouting. European Youth Parliament. Volunteering.
I was searching for any sort of purpose in life.
At school, I was a part of a little tribe of four. We would skip classes quite often in search of something more “meaningful” to do. Studying geography or English seemed anything but meaningful to us.
However, unlike the climate strikers today, rarely did we find any deeper sense of purpose in our escapades.
These were good adventures nevertheless. We certainly had fun driving around in one friend’s car, often in the trunk, trying to guess where the driver is taking us just by feeling the movements of the car. We carried instruments and played music. I had a harmonica, S. would play the ukulele and the two other girls would sing and drum. We usually left school in the middle of the day, went to the nearby lake and had our private jam sessions there. Then we talked about everything and nothing.
We despised the idea of taking the path the society had for us: college, work, family, retirement. We often spoke about how we wanted more from life, without ever really defining what “more” meant. Sometimes it seemed to be about travelling. Other days, making art and music. Such dreamy conversations inspired us — but only very briefly.
In the end, I always came back home to emptiness. The untamed energy of youth was still in me, unchanneled. My journal entries from that period mostly look like this:
I don’t know whether it is really so hard, or is it me who’s making it hard. I am not sure if I really don’t know where I belong — or I just don’t want to know it. I am literally shaking now, and what do I do with myself? It feels odd to be alive. We go out with the crew, and we play like little kids. But then I come back home and the sense of nothingness envelopes me.
My teenagehood was not a terrible one, but a rather typical mixture of dreaming, experimentation and drama. What I remember vividly was a drive to be a part of something meaningful together with my friends. The drive that was never satisfied.
This memory arises in me these days when I talk to Małgosia and join the teens on their strike. I remember how I used to skip school for no legit reason — but definitely in search of something. Now the reason these kids have is more than legit. They are skipping school to save the world.
I mean, how cool is that when you’re 16?
Actually, they don’t seem to be “kids” anymore. In the face of the climate crisis, they are growing up at an accelerated pace. It is quite clear when you listen to Greta Thunberg — but Małgosia is no different. From what she says, however, it is clear that teens being mature is not enough:
“I often see the following problem: adults accuse the youth of not being engaged enough, of being ignorant. And then once we actually start doing something, they say: ‘what do you know, you are just a teenager…’ But if we are not engaged now, then we are not building the civil society which is critical in any democratic system.”
The adults are not taking them seriously, so they demand to be treated seriously — and rightly so. To me, Małgosia seems a much more reasonable person than most of the politicians I see on the TV. The problem is that these incompetent politicians are the ones who get to decide the future of the youth. So the teenagers have no other way but to protest.
Saving the environment is the primary goal of the strikes, but Małgosia also points to another tremendous value of youth activism:
“Adults value being at school higher than civic engagement and strikes like this one — which actually teaches us way more than the few classes that we’re missing would. I think we can take away a lot from the strikes, not just in the sense of learning new skills, but also in terms of building an engaged, conscious society. I know for a fact that all the 200 people who were there on 15th March will go to vote as soon as they can. And this is so important, taking the low electoral turnout we are seeing right now.”
What struck me was just how aware these young people are of what is going on. They are undergoing an important lesson on solidarity and cooperation — and they know it. What’s more, they are not just taking that lesson themselves, but placing it in front of the entire world.
Quite frankly, this kind of learning seems to carry a lot more value than the few missed classes at school.
Going through teenagehood is no easy process by definition — and everyone who’s been through it knows that. But looking at the reports on youth mental health, internet addiction, body image issues and the whole lot of other problems they face today — it appears close to impossible to be a thriving teenager in the 21st century.
Yet, the youth climate activists seem to be on a path that somehow doesn’t include those problems. Or at least, it is not defined by them.
On the 15th March, I felt their vibrant collective energy as soon as I arrived at the protest. After handing the megaphone I promised to lend them, I stood nearby and watched how they were organising. I heard them discussing who’s going to say what and when. What was on the programme. Where the banner should stand and what kind of pictures they wanted to take.
But once the whole thing started, it was just so spontaneous and pure. Someone read a speech from a piece of paper soaking in the rain. A group of three musicians played a few songs and the crowd sang along and danced. Małgosia and other organisers encouraged everyone to leave a fingerprint on a dedicated banner, as a symbolic confirmation that we support the strike.
This was the first protest I have ever attended that made me genuinely enjoy myself. When I told this to Małgosia afterwards, she replied:
“It is part of our job to encourage people to come and gather in one place. And to do this, the protest must also be… good fun. Even if we are fighting against a serious issue like climate change, this is not about getting miserable. We will be much better received when we ask for change rather than just criticize — and when we say that we are coming in peace!”
It feels like I am witnessing the reincarnation of the 1960s and 70s counterculture ideals that I was not yet around to experience first-hand. Only now, these ideals of peace, love and solidarity seem to have even more substance. They are not held as counter-weapons against a secluded issue — but are becoming the voice of the whole generation.
Or… at least these are the ecstatic thoughts I am having when I look at the teens on 15th March. I admire them so much and, at the same time, I see they are pointing a way to something even bigger than “just” solving the climate crisis.
First of all, they are lifting themselves out of the popular narrative about the depressed, isolated, self-absorbed youth who inhabits social media more than they do the real world. Further, they are showing a way to do the same to their peers — and to anybody who wants to listen.
Finally, maybe for the first time in history, they are creating a change on a truly global scale. And it excites each of them to be a part of that change. When I ask Małgosia how she feels about all of this on a personal level, a wide smile flourishes on her face.
“On Friday I was so excited from early morning. When I woke up, I learned that in Australia already 150,000 students went on strike and that Greta was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize… A girl who is my age and started this movement that I am a part of! I feel shivers now when I talk about it. I see that the whole world is engaged, regardless of whether it is Poland, India or Canada. Everybody is afraid and hence desperate for change. So I think the decision makers will have no other choice but to finally listen to us.”