School Strike 4 Climate's disbanded Auckland chapter was marred by 'racism', 'lack of structure' - former member

Auckland's now-disbanded chapter of the School Strike 4 Climate movement was marred by internal power imbalances that silenced the voices of less-vocal volunteers, says a former member of the group - who claims a "toxic" dynamic made it easy for members to fall through the cracks.

The dissolved Auckland division was a chapter of School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C), a global youth movement spearheaded by teen activist Greta Thunberg, who rose to international prominence in 2018 after she started skipping school to protest outside Sweden's parliament. 

The Auckland chapter had played a significant role in New Zealand's national SS4C campaign by helping to organise its annual school strikes, where students would rally together to protest against Government inertia towards climate change. The movement quickly gained momentum, with roughly 20,000 young Kiwis participating in the first international strike on March 15, 2019 - which was joined by more than one million pupils across 125 countries. 

Six months later, an estimated 170,000 Kiwis - both young and old - came together to demand urgent action against the looming climate crisis during an "intergenerational strike", making it the second-largest protest in the country's history. 

But on June 12, the Auckland chapter announced its decision to formally disband due to racism within its ranks.

In a statement issued to social media, the chapter declared it had been a "racist, white-dominated space" and had "avoided, ignored and tokenised BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] voices and demands". 

The group said it would no longer organise strikes and instead pledged to "uplift BIPOC-led climate justice spaces".

It added that the national SS4C movement also had a "big problem" with racism, but it could not speak on its behalf.

'Trying to make it about themselves as much as climate change'

Now, a former member of the Auckland chapter has claimed BIPOC weren't the only voices to be marginalised, with a core clique forming an 'upper rank' and largely dictating the narrative of the group. 

Phoenix, 18, formerly volunteered as a coordinator for the Auckland division from 2019 to 2020. Speaking to Newshub following the news of its disbandment last month, he claimed the chapter had been rife with toxicity, and said an internal power imbalance led to less-vocal volunteers being overlooked and their voices going unheard.

Phoenix claimed that even as a Pakeha, he often found the group dynamic to be "toxic" due to a small circle of people "who held a lot of the power".

"Because it's a student-led organisation, it was quite easy for social cliques and circles to form. Once those form - and those people might have more power in the organisation - it becomes very hard to work along with them," he told Newshub. 

"The same people were getting in the media, the same people were going to interviews without talking to the group about it. 

"A lot of people were trying to make it about themselves as much as about climate change." 

A SS4C protest in Auckland, March 15, 2019.
A SS4C protest in Auckland, March 15, 2019. Photo credit: Getty Images

Although Phoenix said he did not witness any overt examples of racism within the chapter's ranks, he agreed the team in 2019 was predominantly white and its diversity "could have been better".

He claimed the chapter's issues primarily stemmed from its loose structure and lack of defined roles, allowing the strongest personalities to muscle their way to the forefront, resulting in an extremely narrow representation of voices.

"A lot of the issues with racism came from a lack of structure where people didn't have entirely defined roles. It [became] very easy for people to slip through the cracks," Phoenix said.

And the chapter's central location may have also contributed to members from wider Auckland feeling left out or overlooked. As its meetings were primarily held in the city's CBD, volunteers living further afield would sometimes miss key meetings, Phoenix added.

"Especially for people who are coming from South Auckland - our meetings [were] in the CBD - that creates quite an issue," he said. 

"We had one incident where we were planning a strike and [the volunteers] were asked who was willing to be arrested. This was quite late in the meeting, and a lot of volunteers from South Auckland had already headed home. 

"We came to the conclusion we were ready to be arrested, and that got passed on to the people based in South Auckland, who had not had the korero about it. [It was eventually communicated] that they had the added stress or worry of police prejudice."

'It's really sad disbandment was the only option'

However, Phoenix acknowledged the overall lack of BIPOC representation did not necessarily stem from racist attitudes, as involvement in the movement is voluntary. 

He noted that as a volunteer-run organisation, the demographics of SS4C's membership are entirely dependent on who offers to take part.

"SS4C is a volunteer organisation, run by school students. It's not likely that you would get it right initially and it is hard to have the appropriate voices when the team is based on who joins," he told Newshub. 

"There isn't a recruiting process obviously - it's based on people who want to join, or those who join because some of their friends have joined. It becomes quite easy for the seed to be planted and [for people] to be excluded."

The former volunteer also believes disbandment was not necessarily the best solution to the chapter's internal difficulties, suggesting more could have been done to create an inclusive and collaborative space without sacrificing the momentum of the movement.

"It's really sad that disbandment [was] the option taken here, rather than work to fix these issues… School Strike has a big following, but it obviously needs to work better with BIPOC organisations. [An alternative could've been] combining them to collaborate - so actually having a strike under School Strike's name, but it's led by BIPOC communities," Phoenix explained.

School Strike 4 Climate's disbanded Auckland chapter was marred by 'racism', 'lack of structure' - former member
Photo credit: Getty Images

He suggested collaborations with Māori or Pasifika-led organisations, such as Pacific Climate Warriors - a grassroots movement for climate justice from the Pacific Islands - would have demonstrated effort towards increasing diversity and representation of minority voices. 

There are now concerns the disbandment may have sacrificed the positive progress the chapter had made, as well as its contributions to the broader movement. And without another group with the same reach to fill its void, Phoenix worries the national climate awareness movement may suffer. 

"It's disappointing from a personal perspective because the 2019 team put a fair amount of effort into building the organisation and trying to fix things… I think we do need to share the platform with BIPOC, and we need to push them to the front, but School Strike is the organisation with the biggest following - and I think that would be a great vessel for that, if we can do it appropriately," Phoenix said.

"Sadly there isn’t the same following of these other groups - which there absolutely should [be] - so I doubt there is going to be the same motivation... that SS4C [inspired]."

Newshub reached out to SS4C NZ for comment on these allegations, but have yet to receive a response.