Students unite Cheltenham against climate change
Written by Yolande Booyse, 3rd year (BSc Hons) Ecology and Environment Science
My name is Yolande Booyse, I am 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.
Initially inspired by the incredible young lady Greta Thunberg, who really brought home the urgency of action against climate change, the Cheltenham march gained even more traction than we could have possibly imagined.
Cheltenham: a town united against climate change
I was incredibly proud to be a Cheltonian on Friday, as people from all walks of life were there to stand up for all life forms and make their voices heard and presence felt.
Local and national businesses, the University of Gloucestershire Students’ Union, local government, student societies, religious institutions, political parties, social groups, environmental organisations, and schools – as well as just concerned individuals.
We wanted to grab as much coverage as possible: before the strike, we contacted the press, local and national environmental organisations, local government and the police. We invited key members of local government to address the crowd and share their plans for action – which they happily accepted! UK Student Climate Network, the national organisers of this event, were incredible in helping us gain traction for this event across the UK.
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, and 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.
The start of an epic day
The morning of the strike I received an email from our MP asking to attend, having altered his plans last minute. I did 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 prepared myself for the sheer 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 hanging and taping banners, being interviewed and panicking about the PA system. 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. 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.
We want climate justice, and we want it NOW
Our first speaker, Carol Scott, a woman who is 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. Carol reminded us that change does not happen by standing around and waiting. Change happens when brave people like us get uncomfortable, make noise 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 huge 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, and gathered more troops along the way, 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 hearts out! Maybe it 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!
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?” 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.
This is an emergency, and we need leaders to act like it is
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. The troops were unstoppable, and it was a relief that they fully accepted this was their march and didn’t need me to lead them. Ever individual knew what they wanted, they were there to make it known: we are fed up of being lied to, of being fobbed off, of being told there is no problem.
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.
First to speak was Lib Dem Counsillor Max Wilkinson, who was supportive of the strike right from the word go. During those dark moments, when everyone had given me the cold shoulder, Max was there to reassure me that he would not let the crowd down. He assured me he would give the crowd the reassurance that they needed: a promise that local government were taking action on the matter.
After Max’s address, Conservative MP for Cheltenham, Alex Chalk, spoke to the crowd. My heart did go out to him: 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 (to whom I must apologise, as the megaphone I bought on a student budget was inadequate for carrying his voice through the crowd!). Steve 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 share with everyone.
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, and from Tolly, from Extinction Rebellion Cheltenham, who have been key in bringing awareness and urgency to the climate emergency.
And then a 500-strong crowd of school girls appeared…
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 College 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 the enormous energy and enthusiasm they had just jet-plane landed onto us! For me, exhausted as I was, this was like angels descending from the heavens. I knew that today would go down in history: not just for me, or even for Cheltenham, but also for the world.
The youth have spoken and they are angry.
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. In order to ensure they listen, we have started an online petition. When we have 750 signatures, our local leaders 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 you to stand with me and sign the petition? The faster we get those 750 signatures, 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
- Petition: Cheltenham Urgency on Climate Emergency
- Facebook: Green Team at the University of Gloucestershire
- Photos: Photofabs, AH Photography and @e.photography2351
- Read more about why we’ve been named as the most sustainable university in the UK* (*People and Planet University League 2019)
Discover how you could enjoy a vegan or vegetarian diet in Gloucestershire
Find out more about Student Societies on the University of Gloucestershire Students’ Union website