What’s A Digital Strike? 15-Year-Old Activist Mary Ellis Stevens On Protesting Safely In A Pandemic
A 15-year-old Charlotte high school student has become a role model for responsible climate activism. Effective protest during COVID-19 can take many forms, she says, and making cookies is one of them.
Mary Ellis Stevens, a sophomore at Myers Park High School, started protesting for climate change by sitting alone with a sign, outside Charlotte government offices, when she was 13. Since then, she has trained in former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps, hosted global youth activist Greta Thunberg, generated dozens of news stories, spoken at conferences and events, and lobbied government officials.
Eighteen months into her activism campaign, COVID-19 hit. Her challenge transformed into how to engage people’s interest without the visual impact of a street protest. What she’s learned, she said in a recent interview, is that responsible activism looks like all kinds of things.
“There’s kind of a narrative that youth activism is like, you know, ‘kid with sign,’” Stevens said. “But your activism should reflect you and it should look like you. We have a person in one of our organizations who is an incredible baker, and her activism looks like she makes food for every one of our protests. And so when you go to a strike, you get a cookie from McKenna. Your activism needs to feel authentic to you or else it’s not going to be impactful.”
Other activists make art, shoot photographs, speak at conferences, and lobby government officials. She said one of the newest forms of activism during COVID-19 is the digital strike. Protesters gather on a Zoom call rather than in the streets, create photo collages of themselves with signs, and post them online.
In March 2020, her groups started digital strikes at 3 p.m. every Friday. Because some online tactics lack the visual power of in-person public protest, the organizations she works with sometimes rely on documentary photographers to create newsworthy images.
Many climate activists face health challenges, and she said safety is their first priority for responsible protest. Additionally, while levels of political conflict increased during the pandemic, long hours of indoor isolation are sapping energy levels.
“There is becoming this great rift in what we have the time and the resources and the energy for, and what is needed, and what is possible,“ Stevens said.
Taking care of herself, the people she works with, and prioritizing projects into what is doable have become essential. The climate activists she works with are now organizing for Earth Day on April 22.
While many tactics have shifted to virtual venues, it’s still possible to conduct public protests in the streets. The city of Charlotte’s website on planning outdoor events describes some of the permit requirements for festivals, demonstrations, and parades. Current pandemic requirements include social distancing and masks.
Being a teenager is a great strength for a climate activist, she said.
“Don’t allow people to underestimate you, and if they do, utilize that,” she said. “The power that we as youth have to imagine a future that hasn’t already been written for us is extraordinary. I’m determined to keep going because it’s my responsibility as a person with privilege and as someone who has a future in this world. It’s my responsibility just as a citizen to take action.”
Sam Carnes of Apex, North Carolina, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the Queens University News Service in support of local community news.