Student activist speaks out on gun violence, climate change

By Daniel Dunkle | Jan 22, 2020
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle Student activist and columnist Pearl Benjamin speaks at the Camden Library Jan. 21.

Camden — An audience of mostly elderly residents gathered in the Camden Library Jan. 21 to listen to a high school student talk about the challenges facing today’s youth and the threats to our collective future.

“My generation is facing the constant fear of school shootings, the looming threat of financing our futures, international conflicts, and of course, mass extinction. We really don’t have a choice but to fight what’s going on,” said Pearl Benjamin.

Benjamin is a student at the Watershed School, an activist who co-founded the Maine Teen Advocacy Coalition, and a political columnist for The Camden Herald. She also serves on the Camden’s town committee on energy and sustainability and raises a herd of 14 sheep.

“I believe that youth voices are under-represented in today’s media,” she said. “The biggest political issues of today like gun violence, climate change, student debt, cost of living, will all be most detrimental to my generation, so we should probably have some say in what is put out there.”

She sees a generational divide among activists.

“Teenagers feel like we’re living in this new age of digital movements and cultural acceptance that is being run by people of an older generation, who don’t necessarily pay us the respect that we want, or think that we care about any of it,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re watching all of these huge issues pick away at our futures, and the adults that we’re supposed to look up to aren’t really doing enough to solve those problems.”

Young people are limited in their ability to fight for change, partly because they're busy enough to the point of being overwhelmed. Getting into a good college requires attention not only studies, but activities, sports, musical instruments, high SAT scores, and community service. On top of that, the high cost of education means having at least one to two jobs. This leaves little time for political activism, and yet she points out that many of the key movements around the world today advocating for positive change are being spearheaded by younger people.

Students also live in the shadow of looming college debt. She said the cost of higher education has doubled since 1989, even after adjusting for inflation. That’s eight times faster than wages have increased.

Younger people have shown that raising their voices can gain national and international attention. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg started out alone in her strike on climate change outside Swedish Parliament. More than 1 million students around the globe have joined her in climate strikes, she has spoken at the United Nations, has been nominated for a Nobel Prize, and was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

Benjamin also pointed out the “March for our Lives,” which also galvanized as many as 2 million young people across the nation seeking legislation to prevent gun violence and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Social media has been a tool for organizing these strikes.

Benjamin said that in the past three years, more than 100 children in the U.S. were shot and killed on school grounds, and 21 children and teens are shot in this country every day.

She said climate change has been proven and our nation needs to move beyond arguing about this. The horrific consequences are being realized in the form of bush fires in Australia and in that, 40% of Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta is underwater.

Benjamin criticizes public school systems for their fearfulness in talking about political differences and their reluctance on hot-button topics, including climate change for fear of offending someone.

“I think that learning about political differences is probably the most important thing for teenagers to learn these days,” she said.

Benjamin urges adults to vote as if their children live on Earth, supporting candidates and measures that help deal with climate change. She noted that while young people cannot decide to install solar panels on their houses or buy electric cars, adults can. She even suggested giving grandchildren solar panels for Christmas.

She advocates cooperation among activists of multiple generations.

“Working with us, throw formality out the door,” she said. “Try your hardest not to comment on our ripped jeans or our dyed hair or our piercings or our striped overalls. We are really not concerned about how we personally look in that sense. ...We’re focusing on changing the world.”

She also urges older activists to not be defensive. “Some of the greatest idols and people I most look up to are boomers. We really value your experience and wisdom. But we want to shift the conversation away from 'you teach and we learn.' We want it to be more of 'What can we do to save our futures?'”

Her free talk was presented by The Camden Conference and titled, “Making Change With Gen Z.”

Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jan 22, 2020 14:59

We will see who is listening when we see the turnout at the Presidential primary.  

" The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy." Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Hold your head high, Pearl.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 22, 2020 11:59

Kudos Pearl. WE "older's" are listening.

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