Cheltenham Climate Strike: students leading change
25th September 2019
Hi my name is Yolande Booyse, I am the president of a student society called the Green Team and I initiated a Cheltenham representation of the Global Climate Strike on the 20th of September 2019 which was initially inspired by the incredible young lady Greta Thunberg, who really brought home the urgency of action against climate change.
I was incredibly proud to be a Cheltonian on Friday as people from all walks of life were there standing up for all life forms, making their voices heard and their presence felt. Local and national businesses, our student union, local government, university departments and staff, student societies, religious institutions, political parties, social groups, environmental organisations, schools as well as just concerned individuals.
As soon as I went public, people from all over rallied to spread the word. School parents were written to, working groups were formed, sponsorships were offered and volunteers stepped forward. The support was immense, numbers grew like wildfire. The event page on Facebook alone peaked at just shy of a 13,000 people reach! It was insane, and we really had no idea how many would turn up.
We contacted the press, local and national organisations, local government and the police to ensure we had as much coverage as possible. We invited local government to address the crowd and share what their plan of action was which they happily accepted. The national organisers of this event which is the UK Student Climate Network were incredible in gaining traction for this event across the UK.
The morning of the strike I received an email from our MP asking to attend, having altered his plans last minute. This was straight after an interview with BBC Gloucestershire who were making the event their main story. At that point I had a feeling it was going to be big. But I could never have been prepared for the enormity of the event. In particular the sense of pride and unity I felt, not only with each and every person at that Cheltenham strike, but each and every person in the world striking for our planet.
I nervously paced around the chapel in between being interviewed and panicking about the pa system set up. Every now and again I got a glance at the crowds growing bigger and bigger, every glance increasing my heart rate.
I had heard a song that I was determined needs to be sung, so I begged and pleaded for singers, and in the end I had to be one of those, when really I should not (no really, my singing is only equipped for the shower), but it was how we started our proceedings, and it was beautiful. Penelope our lead singer has an angelic voice and the words “We are all your children. If you hear us, join us now.” drew everyone’s attention towards the start of an epic day.
Our first speaker, Carol Scott, a woman deeply passionate about this preservation of our planet, and a big reason I came forward as organiser for this event, led the crowds into deep contemplation by reminding us that change does not happen by standing around and waiting. Change happens when brave people like us get uncomfortable, make noise, make nuisance and take action. Women didn’t receive equal rights through sitting on the side lines, racial inequalities did not subside through inaction and sexual diversity was not respected until people started challenging social norms. We are facing these issues again but on a much larger scale and therefore it is time again to stand up for what is right and what is just.
With the crowd lit, megaphone and marshals in tow, we headed off on-mass, to town, shouting at the tops of our voices “WE WANT CLIMATE JUSTICE AND WE WANT IT NOW!”
We mesmerised drivers, we gathered more troops along the way and we were rooted on by the spectators. As we headed through the Brewery, our voices echoed off the walls forcing shoppers, shop keepers and passers-by to stop dead in their tracks and look on as we puffed our chests out and sang our little hearts out! Maybe that was just the little boy next to me, but boy the atmosphere was a delight and the energy I felt around me gave me the boost I needed as I ran up and down that 400 strong crowd squeaking and squawking “What do you want?” They wanted climate justice. “When do you want it?” They wanted it now.
I won’t lie, I was slowly flaking, my feet were aching and I hadn’t slept in days, but that crowd kept me going and were patient when I stopped hassling them about what they wanted to take short breathers. Finally we got to the council buildings. I had arrived with the latter part of the crowd so seeing how the crowd had grown since we first left university campus was humbling.
Chant, after chant, after chant. They were unstoppable and it was a relief that they fully accepted this was their march and didn’t need me to lead them. They knew what they wanted, they were here to make known they are fed up of being lied to, being fobbed off, being told there is no problem.
They were ready for a fight.
I had prepared a few words which I delivered to our town’s leaders pleading to them to take us seriously, to not give us lip service or sweep this under the carpet. This is an emergency and we need them to act like it is, otherwise step aside and let us sort it out if they won’t.
Lib Dem cllr Max Wilkinson was first to speak who, to be honest, was supportive of this right from the word go and those dark moments of everyone giving me the cold shoulder he was there to reassure me that he would not let the crowd down and that he would give them the reassurance that they needed, that local government were taking action on the matter.
After his address, Alex Chalk our Conservative MP spoke to the crowd and my heart did go out to him as the crowd were not very patient with him, nor were they very accommodating and I remember him discarding his speech in an attempt to connect directly with the crowd. I do honestly believe he is a good man and wants to do the right thing, but maybe instead of us vilifying those in the system, perhaps it is the system that needs vilifying.
The third address was from head of council Steve Jordan whom I must apologise to as the megaphone I bought (on a student budget) was very inadequate of carrying his voice through the crowd, however he has invited me and a film crew to sit down with him and fully explain Cheltenham’s plans regarding the Climate Emergency address which I will of course feed back to you on.
We then had further addresses from the Green Party’s Campaign’s Lead, Tabitha Joy who gave an honest account of the frustration she feels as a public citizen.
We also heard from Tolly, from Extinction Rebellion, Cheltenham who have really been key in bringing awareness and urgency to the climate emergency.
And then the magic really happened. As we all directed our attention to the noise coming from the north, we saw a 500 strong crowd of Cheltenham Ladies school girls with a banner the length of a bus shouting at the tops of their voices “System Change Not Climate Change”. We could do nought but part the crowds and envelope them, if only to soak in their enormous energy and enthusiasm they had just jet-plane landed onto us. For little knackered me this was like angels descending from the heavens and I knew that today would go down in history, not just for me, or even for Cheltenham, but also for the world for the youth have spoken and they are angry and if you thought hell hath no fury like a women’s scorn, best you run from a young person’s scorn.
This is by no means the end. In fact we have promised the council we will be following up with them in six month’s time to see how they are getting on, and in order to ensure they listen, we have started an online petition whereby, when we have 750 signatures they are legally bound to provide us of such evidence, and I can personally promise you that I will see that happen.
So, if you are reading this, and you live, work or study in Cheltenham, no matter your age, may I urge to stand with me on that and sign the petition. The faster the get that 750, the faster they get their skates on. And it is time for getting skates on.
Thanking you on behalf of those that can’t.
Your friend, Yolande