A large part of New Zealand’s School Strike 4 Climate movement has formally disbanded, saying it had been racist and insufficiently responsive to activists of colour.
In a Facebook post, the movement’s chapter in Auckland said it had “avoided, ignored and tokenised BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] voices and demands” and that it had been “a racist, white-dominated space”.
The group, which did not respond to requests for comment, said it would no longer organise strikes and instead pledged to “uplift BIPOC-led climate justice spaces”.
It also claimed the national group had a “big problem” with racism, though it said it “can’t speak on their behalf”, and that its members had separated from the national team.
The global School Strike movement emerged under the leadership of Greta Thunberg, who began skipping school in 2018 to protest outside the Swedish parliament. In the first global strike on 15 March 2019, more than one million students in 125 countries protested government inaction on climate change.
New Zealand’s School Strike movement has been one of the world’s most successful. About 20,000 New Zealand students attended the March 2019 protest. And despite most coverage of the strike being overshadowed by the Christchurch terror attacks, which happened on the same day, many decided to continue organising events.
In September of that year, School Strike New Zealand hosted an “intergenerational strike”. About 170,000 people are estimated to have attended, making it the second-largest protest in New Zealand’s history. Of the attenders, 80,000 were Aucklanders, firmly establishing School Strike’s Auckland chapter as a dominant part of the movement.
Simultaneous with its success, however, the movement has also grappled with issues of representation and race.
Its initial organising committee was largely white and scheduled its first national event in 2019 for the same day as Polyfest, New Zealand’s largest Pasifika festival, preventing many activists of colour from attending.
In an attempt to address the criticism which followed, School Strike partnered with 350 Pacific Climate Warriors (a network of Pasifika youth) for its subsequent protests – giving prominent speaking slots to members of the group at its Auckland and Wellington rallies. The movement also partnered with Indigenous advocacy group 4 Tha Kulture on its call for a green response to Covid-19.
But in its Facebook post on Sunday the group said: “BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, so the fight for climate justice should be led by their voices and needs, not Pākehā ones.”
The announcement drew praise from some. Anevili, a spokesperson for Indigenous youth climate advocacy group Te Ara Whatu who goes only by their first name, supported the decision.
Noting that racism is prevalent in many New Zealand organisations, Anevili said, “Decolonisation is a big task, and it’s a brave call for them to say they have problems with racism … and then step back and say that disbanding is the right thing to do.”
Others were more critical. Mary Moeono-Kolio, the Wellington coordinator of 350 Pacific Climate Warriors, said that while there was “no room for racists in the climate movement (or anywhere)” the announcement was “not something to be celebrated”.
“It is sad, disappointing, and most especially divisive. The climate movement needs everyone’s involvement and commitment,” she said.
Sophie Handford, who founded School Strike in New Zealand and was its national coordinator through 2019, said: “There is a real need to cede space to Indigenous-led kaupapa [policy] and to transform the movement so that it can properly uphold the collective aspiration of climate justice.”
But she added: “I’m a little concerned that this sends a message of division or that not everyone is needed.”
School Strike’s New Zealand chairperson, Alfie Smeele, said the national team supported the decision. According to Smeele, “every region is currently reflecting and considering what their region’s next steps should be”. They did not respond to questions about the movement’s plans at a national level.
The Auckland group said its decision had been prompted by “the suggestion and guidance of the BIPOC members of our group, as well as individual BIPOC activists and organisations”.
Many – both those in favour of and against disbandment – criticised this and other aspects of the Auckland chapter’s announcement.
Anevili, whose group Te Ara Whatu was mentioned in the statement, noted that they hadn’t been informed ahead of time and said they were concerned some of it could be read as blaming activists of colour for the disbandment. But they said, “These are people all under 20. We all know how difficult that time is in figuring out how to act.”
Anevili went on to say, “I hope their decision destigmatises disbanding. I think there’s quite a few groups who could do the same.”