Greta Thunberg is one of my heroes, and there are so many lessons to glean from her inspiring story. She began a global movement at the age of 14 raising awareness about climate change and advocating for change in environmental policies. Two years ago, Greta was a shy Swedish teenager. Today she has become the face and voice for millions around the globe and a symbol of a growing global rebellion. Hers is a story of how a perceived weakness ended up being a strength.
An article in Time Magazine about Greta related that her activism began after her primary school teacher showed the class a video about the effects of climate change, including starving polar bears, extreme weather and flooding. The whole class felt discouraged by the video, but Greta couldn’t shake the images in her head. This sensitive 11-year-old became so depressed that for months she barely spoke and became malnourished for lack of eating. She recalls feeling confused. “I couldn’t understand how that could exist, that existential threat, and yet we didn’t prioritize it,” she says. Her grief eventually was channeled into her first climate strike in August 2018, sitting alone for hours in front of the Swedish Parliament. Within a month, the Fridays for Future movement was born, with tens of thousands of students across Europe skipping school on Fridays to protest their government’s inaction. In the 16 months since, she has addressed heads of state at the U.N., met with the Pope, sparred with the President of the United States, and inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history.
According to her website, Greta has Asperger’s syndrome which means that she processes information differently and has a tough time with social connections. According to her interview in Time, Greta is uncomfortable in crowds, is mostly immune to caring what others think about her and has little interest in her growing fame. She also tends to see the world in black and white and doesn’t like compromising. These qualities have helped her stay focused on one issue with an intense dedication. Greta’s message is delivered in brief, direct and straightforward sentences, making it easy to understand and relate to. She doesn’t mince words, is unafraid of ruffling feathers, and uses shame and anger to deliver her message. Listen to her words of inspiration. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” “My name is Greta, I am in ninth grade, and I am school-striking for the climate. Since you adults don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either.” We too often focus on the deficits of people’s disorders; Greta teaches us that there are also strengths and benefits to people’s diagnoses.
Don’t underestimate the leadership ability of young girls
The other lesson I take from now 16-year-old Greta’s story is to not overlook and underestimate the abilities of young people. Kids today are conditioned to follow one, linear path: high school, college, grad school, and finally begin your career and start making a difference. History has demonstrated the fallacy in this kind of linear thinking. Hatshepsut became the Pharaoh of Egypt in 1500 BC at the age of 15. Joan of Arc led the French army in defeating the British in 1431 at the tender age of 17. In 1914, at the age of 12, Margaret Knight invented a stop motion device to shut off malfunctioning looms after witnessing a mill accident, thus saving many limbs and lives. Harriet Tubman first helped a runaway slave at age 15, resulting in a beating that put her into a coma for weeks. Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the now famous book, The Outsiders, as a sophomore in high school. Mayra Avellar Neves at age 15 organized hundreds of students in Brazil for a protest march demanding violence stop at least during school hours, winning her the 2008 International Children’s Peace Prize. Aklane Kramarik began painting at age six, and as a teenager today has now shown her art on 50 international TV shows and sells her paintings for as much as $3 million. Neha Gupta at age nine founded the nonprofit Empower Orphans and has raised over $250,000 and impacted the lives of over 150,000 children, earning her the prestigious World of Children Award. I could go on, but better yet read along with your daughter the book, Girls Who Rocked the World by Michelle Roehm McCann and Amelie Welden.
Teens step up to lead in Black Lives Matter movement
Fast forward to the present day and we are seeing young people rise up and make a difference in the Black Lives Matter movement. Six teenagers in Nashville organized and led a 10,000-person protest against racism and police brutality. These girls, Jade Fuller, Nya Collins, Zee Thomas, Kennedy Green, Emma Rose Smith and Mikayla Smith , ages 14-16, met on twitter and began FaceTime discussions to form the new coalition Girls 4 Change. They were quickly backed by Black Lives Matter Nashville and their rally soon followed. Other young people are doing similar actions around the country.
Greta Thunberg’s life is a reminder to look past labels and instead value the strengths in children. And let’s also value what kids bring to the table and to provide opportunities for them to lead the way. Greta is doing just that in the environmental movement and Girls 4 Change in protests against racism just as kids throughout history have often been the agents for change.
For ideas on how to raise your daughter to be an influencer and leader, read Dr. Jordan’s new book She Leads: A Practical Guide for Raising Girls Who Advocate, Influence, and Lead.