Actions speak louder than words

Helping our young people to become ‘action competent’ will enable the next generation to become connected and empathetic – and encourage them to push for real change

Dr Genevieve Hall, Asia Education Foundation, University of Melbourne

Dr Genevieve Hall

Published 24 September 2019

Three years ago, 193 governments around the world agreed to an action plan to end poverty, protect the planet and foster international peace by adopting the UN´s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To mark the anniversary on 25 September, more than a million people in 140 countries will take to the streets to raise awareness for the goals and to hold governments accountable for their slow rollout of national implementation programs.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who has led global climate change protests. Picture: Shutterstock

Many of those taking part will be young people, and the day gives us a chance to appreciate all those young activists making a real difference around the world – and there are many impressive examples.

Just this month, hundreds of thousands of young Australians took to the streets in climate change rallies in one of the largest protest events in our country’s history.

These young Australians joined millions more in the Global Climate Strikes which saw 2,500 events in more than 163 countries on all seven continents.

The protests were inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, and may end up as the largest mass protest for action on global warming in the world’s history.

Then, there’s 18-year-old Parkland school student, Emma Gonzalez, who last year led 200,000 people in Washington DC to protest against gun violence in the USA.

In 2014, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigning for the rights of women and children.

What these young women have in common are characteristics of ‘action competence’ as a response to a diverse range of issues.

Eighteen-year-old school student, Emma Gonzalez, led protests against gun violence in the USA. Picture: Getty Images

Action competence is a term that has been defined as “an individual’s capacity of critically selecting and conducting possible actions that may solve societal problems through democratic mechanisms”.

The elements of action competence include having knowledge and insight about an issue which young people are committed to resolving; having a critical intention to address the issue through future positive solutions, and taking concrete action.

There are also examples in Australia where young people have created change through taking action, such as the decision by major supermarket chains to phase out eggs from caged chickens and to only stock free-range eggs.

In 2016, following a petition launched by 14-year old student Angelina Popovski, supermarket giant Aldi Australia committed to removing cage eggs from its shelves by 2025.

Angelina started the petition after completing a school project about the factory farming of animals.

This demonstrates how ethical consumerism can lead to large-scale systemic change and highlights how the power of many individuals can lead to change.

Digital activism is another effective form of taking action.

Many organisations increasingly rely on the internet to more easily create social action. These often feature online petitions or pledges, offering visitors the chance to ‘click here’ to make a difference.

Helping our young people to become ‘action competent’ helps them push for real change. Picture: Getty Images

Digital activism has been spearheaded by organisations such as and They have provided a platform for social change by rapidly connecting millions of people through online petitions in a way that could never have been achieved in the past.

In a recent media interview,’s founder Ben Rattray described how having a personal and local connection to a global issue is a vital part of successful digital activism, so that it is more than just clicktivism:

“Humans are the sort of creatures who access issues not through abstract ideas or numbers but through the lens of personal narratives.

“We enable people to tell the kind of stories that mobilise the size of the populations that are required to move issues. And it ends up building this solidarity where people aren’t acting out of a sense of charity, they are acting out of a sense of solidarity – which is a very different thing.

“We live in a nationalised and globalised media environment, but actually the way they can have most impact is to get involved in what’s happening in their immediate proximity.”

For young people, taking action is a complex concept.

Their actions need to be framed in ways that are not too difficult or too simplistic but that have some impact. Young people need to raise awareness about issues without being perceived as well-meaning but naive do-gooders.

Educators can support the development of the next generation of globally competent learners. Picture: Getty Images

They also need to recognise the responsibility of advocating on behalf of others without disempowering those people they advocate for.

Action competence provides a useful framework for educators to understand how young people can engage in issues that matter to them, both within the classroom and beyond.

Through an understanding of action competence, educators can support the development of the next generation of globally competent learners who are inter-culturally aware, connected, empathetic and action oriented.

Dr Genevieve Hall works with the Asia Education Foundation which runs Global Goals Youth Forums for school students, enabling them to learn about the Sustainable Goals and how to take action in their local communities to support their implementation.

Banner: Thousands of school students in Sydney take part in a global day of protest demanding action on the climate crisis/Getty Images

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