13 Life Lessons That Young Female Activists Taught Me, Because Wisdom Knows No Age
Over the past few months, I have dived into the lives of more than 50 women. Not just any women, but children, teenagers, and twenty-somethings who are fighting to make a difference in the world. They come from all over the globe and are all campaigning in different areas, whether it be gender equality, LGTBQ+ rights, or climate justice. But the one thing they all have in common is their wisdom. And the life lessons these young female activists taught me are worth listening to.
Across the world, it's common for young people to be pushed aside and to told they know nothing. But these campaigners are changing the game. Each and every one of their stories are detailed in my book, Resisters: 52 Young Women Making Herstory Right Now. While their triumphs are nothing to be sniffed at, it's the way they spoke about their life experiences that really captivated me.
They had already realised things that I hadn't and were willing to express where we as women were sometimes going wrong. Like the fact that it's still routine to feel jealous when a female friend, colleague, or stranger achieves. These young women know that this is a by-product of growing up in a sexist society, but what is most impressive is that they have solutions to these problems.
With that in mind, here's a few pointers I think every woman could benefit from.
1. Be Bold
Certain people find it easy to raise their voice. But if you're anything like me (aka a bit of a wallflower), quietly pleasing others is your go-to method of communication. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to force the change you want to see in the world. Amika George — the founder of #FreePeriods — and Lane Murdock — the 16-year-old behind the National School Walkout — taught me that going above and beyond what you're comfortable with is the way forward.
This doesn't necessarily mean shouting from the rooftops. It could be speaking up in a one-on-one conversation when someone says or does something that you feel is problematic. It could be going against pre-determined rules because, deep down, you know there's a better way. It could be anything that rejects the status quo of living. Discomfort makes people stop and think. The more of it, the better.
2. If You Want Something To Happen, You Need To Make It Happen
I'm sure I'm not the only person with big ideas, big dreams, and big ambitions. Or the only person who struggles to turn the thoughts in their head into reality. Whether it's a personal achievement you're trying to wish into existence or a world-changing plan, you have to make it happen. Wadi Ben-Hirki — a young woman who set up her own non-profit organisation to fight against child marriage and push for child education — summed it up perfectly. "Life does not give you what you deserve or desire. It gives you what you demand," she told me.
I suppose I'm proof that this works. When I had an idea for a book, I ummed and ahed over it for a while. If I hadn't have pushed ahead and sent my proposal to a literary agent, it would still be just that: an idea. So crack on with the things you're longing to do. With time and patience, you'll get there.
3. Learn From Your Mistakes
It's all well and good reading about everyone's achievements, but what is rarely highlighted is the number of failures or mistakes that successful people have had to go through. The idea that an individual swans through life without messing at least one thing up is absurd. Whether it's a simple error that resulted in chaos or a project that really didn't go the way you wanted, don't panic. Everyone has been there.
As a few young activists told me, the only difference is that some people take failure in their stride. Instead of giving up, they learn from them and pledge to do better in the future. They realise that they're never going to know everything and are open about it. Katie Sones — the founder of socially conscious beauty brand Lipslut — also brought up an interesting angle. She said you should be the first to admit when you make a mistake. So the next time you do something wrong, don't cower away from your colleagues, your friends, or your social media audience. Own up to it and move on. I guarantee everyone else will too.
4. Use Your Privilege Wisely
Most of us have a certain degree of privilege, whether it's our skin colour, family background, or gender identity. Too often, people use their privilege to boost themselves to the top of the ladder, leaving others grasping for the first rung.
What the likes of Deja Foxx (an 18-year-old campaigning for accessible reproductive health services) is saying isn't to dismiss your privilege entirely. That's not going to advance any cause. Instead, she is urging people to recognise the types of privileges that they have in order to help those who don't.
Be a voice for people who don't have one (but make sure you amplify what they're actually saying, not what you think they're saying). Pass an opportunity along to someone who would never have been offered it. Use your privilege for the greater good.
5. Focus On Finding Solutions
Negativity can often hold you back. As app developers Asha and Ima Christian say, work to find solutions to the problems that you see. The sisters first dealt with police brutality, by developing the Five-O app, they found an effective way to change things and help communities work towards a more positive relationship between law enforcement and the average person.
Fighting for something, rather than against it, is what climate justice activist and Zero Hour founder Jamie Margolin is also all about. Although she does highlight the environmental statistics that people need to hear, she also paints a picture of what the movement is campaigning for and organises initiatives to make that happen. Try doing the same in your life. It's easier than you might think.
6. Realise That Life Isn't A Competition
It's common for women to think they're in some kind of competition. Opportunities can still be scarce and jealousy in certain areas is rife. But a couple of the young women I spoke to, including Foxx, emphasised that battling each other for a space only serves to shut women out even more. And they're right.
Life is not a competition. Yes, there may be times where one person comes out on top. But don't resent them for their achievements. Don't try and find a way to take them down. Ask them for advice; learn from their successes. Eventually, they will create an opening for you and other women too.
7. Spend According To Your Principles
From allegedly sexually abusive Hollywood honchos to retailers that cover up their less than ethical manufacturing processes, both individuals and companies continue to get away with things. It happens for two reasons: power and money. And the two are inextricably linked.
Holly Jacobson is a 16-year-old filmmaker and actress who couldn't have been clearer when she said: "Vote with your cash." But still society feeds its bad apples. If you have had enough of the way things are, think carefully about what you spend your money on. Research the brands that you regularly buy from. Check the backgrounds of the people whose films you pay to watch in the cinema (and whether they actively involve or sideline women in their productions).
It'll take time but, one day, failing profits and decreasing power will lead to the rising of people who deserve a place at the top.
8. Be Kind
Kindness is underrated, but it's the way to a better future. Maya Ghazal is a Syrian refugee who, after one small act of kindness from another person, changed her entire outlook on life. Now, she's studying to become a pilot. Her story demonstrates how empathy and understanding can literally change someone's life.
By asking someone how they are or understanding why they feel the way they do, you can help people feel seen and slowly eradicate emotions like hatred or anger that are directed at certain communities. Everybody undergoes different experiences; kindness could just be the one thing that binds us all together.
9. Don't Try, Just Do
To me, the word "try" connotes a message of failure. And although there is nothing wrong with failing, the fear of experiencing it can easily put you off attempting something in the first place.
Lipslut founder Sones tells people to just do things. It was her strategy for her beauty brand. She explained how she had tried and failed at plenty of things in the past, but starting a company that would raise money for various organisations was something that she simply did.
If you get into the mindset of doing things, the concept of failure seems much less terrifying. After all, the worst you're ever going to hear is the word "no".
10. Don't Be Afraid To Take A Step Back
Life can be overwhelming, especially if you're an activist. But you don't have to be campaigning for a cause to struggle. Amelia Roskin-Frazee, founder of the Make It Safe Project, espouses the need for self-care, no matter who you are or what you do.
You could feel completely drained from work or mentally unable to cope with your current social life. If that's the case, don't be afraid to pull away from the situation and focus on the things you love. Try spending some time with animals (they are the best stress reliever), gorge on a Netflix boxset, or just while away a day doing nothing at all. Everything will be just as it was, or even improved, when you finally return.
11. Don't Define Your Worth By Your Likeability
I am so guilty of this. If I have an inkling that someone doesn't like me, I want to know why. I even let it detrimentally impact my self-esteem. But LGBTQ+ and mental health campaigner Ellen Jones taught me that I am not what others think of me. And that all that should matter is my happiness within myself.
This also plays into how women are traditionally expected to behave. People presume that you will be nice as pie 24/7, never say or do anything that fits outside of the box you have been told to fit in, and do your utmost to put everyone else before you and your own needs. Breaking out of that mould is truly freeing.
12. Trust Your Gut
Sometimes, you just know you're right. Ciara Judge certainly did. Together with two friends, she invented a potential end to the global food crisis, despite being told by experts in the field that her experiment would never work.
Listening to criticism is occasionally essential. It's an important part of learning, after all. But never let go of something you truly believe in because someone — who the world has deemed to be smarter or more respected than you — thinks you're wrong.
Always trust your instincts. It's a cliché, but, in most cases, it's 100 percent true.
13. Remember The Power Of Female Friendship
Last but certainly not least is a lesson that many women forget from time to time. In a world still filled with inequality, bonding with other women is of utmost importance. A female friend is a person you can spill your guts to, a person who can empathise with and relieve you of your worries, and, in Girls Against's Hannah Camilleri's case, a person you can embark on a life-changing mission with.
So here's to all the girls and women out there continuing to inspire and impress. With the help of these life lessons, I hope I can become one of them.
Resisters by Lauren Sharkey (with illustrations by Manjit Thapp) is out now in paperback from Wren & Rook