For Teens Wanting To Make A Change - Advice From An Activist
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
From Greta Thunberg helping lead the fight for climate action, to X Gonzalez fighting for gun reform, from Jazz Jennings spreading awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ childhoods, to Amanda Gorman advocating for countless changes through her art, the work of fellow Zoomers can seem inspiring yet daunting. Millions of followers, interviews with talk show hosts, and mass media attention make it seem like change is as unattainable as fame.
However, it isn’t necessarily so. I talked with Student R (pseudonym for anonimity), a 17-year old activist from Hong Kong who was the leader of one of the largest pro-democracy student activist groups in the region, to hear his story and his advice for anyone thinking of making a change.
Student R was abroad in England when he went to his first Hong Kong pro-democracy protest. A month later, after returning home to Hong Kong, he was tear gassed for the first time. He was 14 years old. Student R said that the police brutality against everyone, including children, made him angrier, and that anger fueled him to fight even more.
« I was super scared and super traumatized, but I saw that as a global citizen and as a citizen of Hong Kong, it’s my obligation to voice up for justice. »
After that summer of protesting in 2019, Student R and a few of his friends at school started an underground club (some teachers and the school executive committee knew who was leading the club, but the majority of the students didn’t) at school dedicated to fighting for democracy. They made sure that everyone knew that though school was back in session, the fighting would not stop. And so, on the first day of school, they were one of hundreds of schools in the autonomous region to strike. Student R’s club continued throughout the school year setting up emotional support groups for frontline protestors, hosting chants in the school lunchroom, and even organizing a 500-person human chain outside of their school. Student R was particularly proud of the Lennon wall the club created; Lennon in reference to the Beatles member John Lennon known, among other things, for his anti-Vietnam War song Imagine. The Lennon wall was a place for students to post notes about their opinions and feelings without the risk of censorship.
However, in November of 2019, the conflict grew. On November 11, following student protests, the police engaged in a siege of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 119 students were injured and the event triggered widespread protests. « After all of this, I felt really angry, » Student R said, « the school started to suppress us; they tore down the Lennon wall. » As the suppression escalated and the situation became more dire, Student R saw the necessity and urgency to make a larger group of different schools dedicated to protesting to transcend school politics. Student R joined an organization of 80 schools and was elected as a representative of his district. The organization printed posters, held press conferences with the media, and hosted strategy and communication meetings.
However, on June 30th, 2020, China passed a new national security law; within that law there was the provision that acts of secession or terrorism were punishable by a life sentence in prison. At this point, teachers started to back out in worry. Student R and the alliance organization he was a part of had to go even more underground. Later, in October 2020, he became the internal secretary and spokesperson for the alliance organization (one of two leadership roles).
« We had street booths, we gave out leaflets, we had rallies and press conferences… We had lots of media interviews. »
Student R (black shirt with white writing) being interviewed by the media.
Student R said that schools across Hong Kong tried to stop their students, disallowing them from wearing a certain color of mask and even going as far as suspending them. « A bunch of these ridiculous things you’d read in 1984 happened, » he explained. In collaboration with other youth activist organizations, 20 street booths throughout Hong Kong were set up; Student R was in charge of four of them. « There was literally police surveillance and they were following us around everywhere, » he described. However, the joint endeavor thrived: 100,000 leaflets were printed and almost all of them were given out; Instagram posts were engaging around 50,000 viewers; international press interviewed the students. Student R explained that he was interviewed by Bloomberg but his interview wasn’t allow to air because the news company did not have his parents’ authorization. He reminded me that he was only 15 at the time, making him and his organization the youngest mainstream activist organization In Hong Kong.
In the first few months of 2021, the movement was faced with a tremendous hit: dozens of the leaders of the pro-democracy fight were arrested and tried. « They also attacked student organizations, » Student R remarked, « and me ». Student R had been identified by the government as the leader of the street booths; subsequently, his last name, his age, and a reference to his school were published on the second page of Wen Hui Bao, one of the largest newspapers in China. « I was basically blacklisted by the Chinese government… they said I was the leader of a separatist movement. » He continued on, explaining that that exponentionally increased his chances of being arrested. Student R has friends to whom the same thing happened; his friends were blacklisted and then arrested after stealing some school chemistry supplies on claims of terrorism. They are currently still in jail.
« I knew that if I didn’t flee Hong Kong son, I was going to end up with them [in jail]. »
In June of 2021, Student R moved to the US. He is expecting not to be able to go back home for a long time.
Through all of this, Student R was going through one of the perhaps most difficult times in life: adolescence. He and his protesting peers struggled with family conflicts, mental health, and school.
Though his parents were both teen activists and were generally supportive of his protesting, Student R received pushback from other family members. His grandparents would bring up that he was risking his future by going to protests; they said he was too young and should instead be studying. Some of his friends had pro-China families who would abuse them and kick them out of their houses.
All of this caused significant mental health issues. Student R has friends who have been hospitalized following traumatic protest-related events. He himself started having panic attacks whenever he is interrogated (similar to how the police interrogated him) and whenever he sees certain scenes of the protests.
« The more protests you see, the more scenes you see of your friends being arrested in front of you, being hit with a baton by the police in front of you, and then you have to leave them because if you wait one more second you will be arrested and be in the same position as them. That kind of guilt is very traumatizing. »
Because of this, « school was pretty tough for me, » he explained, « I tried [to study] but it was really hard to study because of my mental health issues. » Alongside this, he added that being a student protestor takes up time. « Protesting on Sunday night until 1-2 AM and going back that morning at 7:15 Am is a very had thing to do. You just can’t do that. »
For all the teens out there, itching for a chance, a push, a trigger to fight for change, Student R recommends that you keep two things in mind. First, when you see injustice, remember that we have an obligation and responsibility to do something because we are the future and one day we will be in charge of the world. He added that we have to stop making the mistakes that the past generations did. Second, he commented that it is very important to keep up our academic career and continuously invest in our education. « Protesting is important, » he explained, « but your academic life is an investment… with a better education we will have a bigger impact on society. »