David and Goliath: The Power of Young People to Create Social Change

David and Goliath: The Power of Young People to Create Social Change

By Nina Gbor

Reflecting on the year that was, I wonder if 2019 went by without us realising that we witnessed a significant moment in global history. It was a year likely to reverberate in future history books, into several millennia and beyond. It was a year of David and Goliath, a year that saw the power of young people take on major power structures, calling for a better standard.

The ‘David and Goliath’ reference comes from the Bible story where Goliath, a giant and celebrated warrior, is killed in a single, swift combat by David, a young shepherd boy. In modern culture, we embrace the story as a metaphor for describing circumstances where the young, weak or underdog battle against the big and powerful. The concept came to my attention through Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David & Goliath. Through an array of stories of true stories, the book demonstrates that people who appear weak can turn out to be surprisingly strong. 

In 2019, we saw our Davids – the children who led the global uprising to influence governments around the world to take emergency climate action to protect animals,  the planet and their future – take on the Goliaths – the governments, leaders, institutions and power structures who criticised, ignored and threatened their livelihoods. This uprising was unlike any the world has ever seen. Millions of people across the world gathered in protest, calling for their respective governments to acknowledge the findings of the IPCC reports with measures to curtail global warming.

David and the Zeitgeist

This zeitgeist was instigated by Greta Thunberg, who is somewhat of a modern-day Joan of Arc. Greta is the newly minted and suitably appointed, Time’s 2019 Person of the Year. The now seventeen-year-old climate activist and leader of the Davids, went (within a year) from staging a one-person climate protest in Sweden to rallying millions of school children and adults around the globe to join the climate strikes. Through her initiative, School Strike 4 Climate (#FridaysForFuture) protesters have demanded governments enforce policies to end the use of fossil fuels, minimise greenhouse gas emissions and protect water bodies to keep global warming temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Climate change rally in Denver, Colorado 2019. Photo: Anthony Quintano.
Greta Thunberg arrives at climate change rally in Denver, Colorado 2019 to speak. Photo: Anthony Quintano.

September 20th 2019 marked the largest climate strike in history with over four million people worldwide participating in what was known as the ‘Global Climate Strike’. As I stood in the midst of the Melbourne protest on that day, I was suddenly struck with the notion that I was experiencing something rare, omnipotent and historical. Being there, you could feel the power pulsate through the atmosphere, the cumulative energy of millions of determined people, eager for systemic change. It was compelling, potent, and humbling. Inspired by Greta, children and adults of all ages, cultures, nationalities and backgrounds participated in this monumental occasion. In utter awe of what was happening, I felt privileged to be able to witness history, to be able to say, “I was there”, and “I saw.” It was breathtaking. 

The Goliaths of the climate crisis

Despite these substantive global efforts, the climate protests have not yet achieved the desired outcome. Despite their resources, many Governments have not made any sincere, nor hugely impactful efforts to shift the climate crisis and other powerful forces remain unwilling to change. Instead, activists received criticism, judgement and threats from Goliaths for leaving their classrooms to protest.

Spell ad 2019

Some schools warned students that if they missed tests or compromised class attendance to strike, they would receive a zero score. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted that children should stay in the classroom and leave politics to those ‘outside of school’. One commentator accused the protesters of using the strikes as an excuse to skip school, stating: “A bunch of stroppy kids wagging class to wave placards isn’t going to solve anything – and most of them probably couldn’t care less…Stroppy kids can make all the demands they like but it’s not going to impact real change, is it?” 

Even now, Greta Thunberg continues to be inundated with criticism, insults and threats from heads of state (including US President Trump and Russian President Putin), celebrities, media and the public. One Fox News commentator called Thunberg a “mentally ill Swedish child”, a nasty shot at her activism and autism diagnosis (Fox News later apologized). Jeremy Clarkson, former presenter the British series, “Top Gear”, berated the teen, describing Greta’s UN speech as a “full-on adolescent meltdown,” calling her a “spoilt brat,” and telling her to “be a good girl” and “shut up.” Canadian Member of Parliament Maxime Bernier called her “an alarmist and mentally unstable”.

Young people are capable of enormous social change 

Despite the mockery and criticism, history has shown the power of young people as change makers. At Melbourne’s Global Climate Strike, the moment felt highly reminiscent of another powerful uprising detailed in Gladwell’s David & Goliath. Albeit for a different reason, in a different era and in another context, this event too centred on school children taking political action to bring about the biggest legislative change in US history. Subsequently, the change became an inspiration for similar movements in other parts of the world. 

Related Post: Collective Action: The Environment Needs More Than Just You (or Me)

In 1963, during one of the most efficacious times of the American civil rights movement lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., African American school children in Birmingham, Alabama left their classrooms and took to the streets to march for their civil rights. This movement was the catalyst that saw the US Congress pass both the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and labour law that outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, colour, national origin or sex. It also prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, as well as racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.  

The American civil rights movement 

The American civil rights movement was founded in the 1800s, and was an extension of centuries-long resistance of slavery and racial oppression. In the twentieth century, the movement focused on attaining civil rights and equality for all African Americans, who faced major struggles to ensure their rights were protected and enforced at local and federal levels. The laws made it near impossible for black people to get jobs, proper education, or even use the same water fountains as Caucasian people.

An African American man drinking at a “Colored” water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Credit: Russell Lee via The Library of Congress.

Pre-dating the internet, protesters embraced collective actions to draw mainstream media attention to the issues they were facing. By the 1950s and 60s, the American civil rights movement was staging nonviolent protests, sit-ins, boycotts and marches, to fight segregation and racist laws and policies predominantly in the country’s South, hoping to garner enough national support to influence a change in legislation.

Signs carried by many civil rights activists during the March on Washington, 1963. Credit: Marion Trikosko via The Library of Congress.

Despite the enormous effort by the movement over several years, little progress seemed to be made. However, one fateful day, when school children had joined in the efforts, a photograph taken of a schoolboy in the midst of a civil rights protest changed everything.    

The civil rights schools strike

On the second and third days of May in 1963, twenty-one hundred school children in the city of Birmingham, Alabama left their classrooms to partake in a protest, hoping to bring about a better future. They were suffering racial segregation, inequality, discrimination and for most, dismal opportunities for quality education or careers. If they succeeded in getting the laws changed, it would have enormous ramifications on their futures. It would mean their human rights were respected. They would be securing freedom and a safer and better quality of life for themselves and their descendants. 

The Goliath of civil rights progression

Just like modern politicians and leaders who demand that climate strike protesters should stay in school, the school children of Birmingham were reprimanded by the city’s racist Public Safety Commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor threated the children, declaring that any student who skipped school would be expelled. Nonetheless, the school children came out in droves in absolute defiance of Connor’s threats. They held signs complete with slogans – “I’ll die to make this land my home”, “Freedom” and “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around”. 

Connor, determined to stop the children at all costs, imprisoned some of the activists, and used fire hoses on them in the streets. The water pressure was strong enough to tear off their clothing. He also set police dogs on the children in total defiance of public expectations. This was the scenario on May 3rd that set the scene for the most famous photograph in the history of the American civil rights movement.

The image taken by photographer Bill Hudson instigated the change in the law. The photograph depicted a shocking and horrific image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by a German Shepherd. Gladwell describes the image “the thin, well-dressed boy seeming to be leaning into the dog, his arms limped at his side, calmly staring straight ahead, as though to say, take me, here I am.” The nation was jarred by the distressing image. A newspaper editor said he was “riveted by the saintly calm of the young man in the snarling jaws of the German Shepherd.” A journalist described it as an image that would “burn forever” in minds. 

Media publication and legislation

The next day, the image was published on the front page of most major national newspapers including the New York Times. U.S. President Kennedy saw the photograph and was appalled. The photo was discussed on the floor of Congress, fuelled by worry that it would disgrace the country abroad and would become political fodder for America’s enemies. The image was also discussed in countless living rooms and classrooms. It was the subject of social conversations across the nation. It became a catalyst. Eventually the legislation was changed. The result was a progressive, billowing effect both in the United States and other parts of the world. The chain of events that brought about the 1964 legislation happened because the bravery of the Birmingham school children who went on strike.  

According to the BBC, US culture has arguably had significant international influence on many countries in the world in different facets. If this is the case, the 1964 legislation had far reaching impacts well beyond American life. It would serve as a framework, a blueprint and inspiration for many other groups seeking equality and recognition. There is still much work to be done in this arena worldwide, but the actions of the children created a colossal ripple effect in social change. It inadvertently contributed to a more just and equal world. The Davids had won.


Imagine if the children of Birmingham obeyed the authorities and never went on strike in 1964. Would the US still be struggling to desegregate schools, fight for basic rights or still have separate facilities for different races? And what if the legislation was only changed many years after 1964 – or not at all? Progress might have been slower, holding up many other vital conversations, including the one around climate action. And while the civil rights situation is still far from perfect, fair to say that things are far better than what would have been otherwise. American schools were desegregated, people have access to better quality education, jobs, business, and many other opportunities. And the legislation model might not have existed for others like it to draw upon as a guideline. 

Related Post: Climate Activism: Beyond Rebellion to Political and Economic Action

We’re already experiencing the impact of climate change in Australia and the rest of the globe. Even though the climate action demands of young climate strikers have yet to be met, this is a movement that will continue to unfold. The social change that has emanated from young people raising their voices is undeniable. From having the courage to stand up to Goliaths, defy authority, force leaders to listen, galvanise millions to rally, inspire sustainable changes, through to placing climate change front and centre of the world’s attention is monumental progress, Davids are continuing to fight. 

All significant social changes have seen Davids taking on Goliaths. These are stories of people who have fought for human rights, social justice, and political and environmental issues. Their actions have rocked the world and set us on a better path for progress. So, here’s to our Davids. Please don’t let the Goliaths get you down. And for all the Davids throughout history, past and present, we salute you.

Thank you for giving us hope, for showing us that we don’t have to settle for the status quo. For showing us that the future can be better. It has to be. We’re counting on it.

Nina Gbor is an award-winning advocate, stylist, public speaker and founder of sustainable fashion blog Eco Styles. In addition to ethical fashion, Nina advocates for global female empowerment, social justice and equality. Nina has a master’s degree in International Development and teaches sustainable fashion short courses at RMIT University. Nina was awarded Champion of the Year 2018 in the Canberra Women in Business Awards for social impact in sustainability.

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