Billie is 14. She’s been living with the effects of climate change in her hometown of Townsville, Queensland, so she took time off school to make a stand. Star of the new web docu-series Youth On Strike!, Billie spoke to Asanga about the highs and lows of fighting for climate justice in her local community.
Videos and articles flooded Billie’s screens as more than 320mm of rain fell in under 24 hours in the town of Ayr, just south of her own home of Townsville, Queensland. Utes and sheds floated down streets and thousands hunkered down in their homes to guard against the rising floodwaters. The images and words of this one-in-a-100-year event are still etched in Billie’s mind. It’s a sobering thought that a year on, “there are still people that I personally know that aren’t in their houses because of the floods,” she says.
This was one of the catalysing events for 14-year-old Billie to become involved in environmental activism and go on to lead the School Strike 4 Climate movement in Townsville.
More than 500 people turned up for the strike in Townsville. This may seem small but Billie says perspective is important. “500 people by Townsville’s standards is a lot of people, and the enthusiasm and the vibe there was incredible,” says Billie.
It’s important to remember that “Townsville is small and secluded and quite rural so we don’t have as many resources [as major cities],” she adds.
There are a number of barriers to environmental activism in regional towns compared to bigger cities. Billie explains:
“The unemployment rates are a very big issue here in Townsville with decreasing jobs, and this is where mining comes in…It’s definitely a bit of a challenge as the opinions [of that community] are quite strong.”
Mining remains a historic pillar of the town and “transition [away from coal] is quite hard for some people especially in Townsville where that’s what they’re used to and that’s what Townsville is known for.”
In a community that relies so heavily on mining for employment, navigating the conversation about climate action can be a tricky one. For Billie, it’s about reframing the debate.
“We want jobs for Queenslanders, that’s without question, but it’s just finding what alternatives to mining can be…[through] renewables and more sustainable ways of living.”
Billie says it’s important to remember that “unemployment rates hurt, but so does climate change”. The message is being received well among the community who are “enthusiastic and more excited about it…in these kinds of mining communities, there are still people who care about this topic and want to do something about it.”
Balancing schoolwork with activism can be a difficult task and for Billie when it comes to finding a balance but still prioritising school work.
“When I have a meeting and I have to study, I study. But I also find time to catch up and to do a bit of both.” She says there is lots to be learned from activism itself: “If you don’t want us striking then why teach us science? That’s what I learn when I strike…I’m actually putting it into practice. I find that a lot more effective for my learning than sitting and reading a textbook.”
An added challenge is a school that isn’t supportive of Billie’s efforts. She says her school claims it needs to protect, “its reputation and stay neutral [which is] disappointing and a bit disheartening. Despite the difficulty, Billie sees the silver lining, and says it is “actually quite empowering to know that I’m not just relying on school”. Billie likes dispelling notions of being “spoon-fed”.
Billie stars in Youth On Strike!, a web docu-series following leading climate activists.
Support quickly coalesced around Billie thanks to help from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, which she first came across through social media and family. “If you can’t join a local group, make one. You can do anything about it. You can do it,” she says.
Billie acknowledges the benefits of running campaigns both online and in-person. “My town is definitely not digital so postering, flyers, going out and word of mouth are definitely effective ways of promoting the bigger message.”
Despite the traction the campaign in Townsville developed, Billie says local politicians “have definitely not been supportive” and that “it’s quite patronising when they look down on you and talk down to you. It’s a bit of a slap in the face”.
But Billie takes dismissal and negative comments in her stride. “I actually find it makes me more determined when someone says a bad comment. I’m like, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong’”. She knows that it’s not the same for everybody and adds that, “it was quite a big obstacle for my [climate action] group as a whole”.
“Even if you try to look beyond it, it still affects you in some way, but you’ve got to look more in the long run, you are doing an amazing job…inspiring so many people and you may not even be aware of it,” she says optimistically.
Billie’s parting message is one of empowerment and being confident to take a stand no matter your age.
“Empower yourself to say you want things that politicians aren’t doing anything about. That I can do something and I can do anything as a child. I have just the same amount of rights and I have just as much power as anyone. And I can do something. And that’s really inspiring. I think if you think that to yourself, it’s really motivating.”
Billie stars in Youth On Strike!, the three-part documentary series about a group of Australian students in the lead up to Australia’s first youth-led school climate strike in March 2019. Watch now