What Would it Take to Change the System?

Lessons from Aliénor Rougeot’s Journey in Climate Activism.


Editor's note:

On a rainy fall day in Vancouver, CoSphere team members Meg and Brooke spoke with Toronto-based environment and human rights activist Aliénor (Allie) Rougeot. Her devotion to helping others and protecting the planet began during her childhood in Southern France, in hearing about the Syrian refugee crisis. This passion for activism soon cascaded into her lead coordinator role in Canada for Fridays for Future Toronto, joining other like-minded youth in fighting climate change. Now, working for the NGO Environmental Defence Canada, Allie continues to push for action against social and environmental injustice.


Over the course of the hour, Allie discussed her journey — from pushing for systems change, to her advice for youth who want to get involved. We’ve kept the richness and depth of the full conversation, but in a lightly-condensed version below.

Image by Joshua Best

Q: You have been an activist since the age of 10, from your efforts to support refugee rights in the Mediterranean to starting a local chapter of the Fridays for Future movement in Toronto. At what point in your journey did you decide that structural and systemic change was needed—that incremental changes are not enough?


A: When I started, I was a concerned kid saying to my parents, “Should we host a refugee at home?” Then, I started caring about climate justice—and still, I didn’t fully realize the systemic part. So I did what a lot of people do when they start caring: I completely changed my lifestyle. I changed my diet and became super cautious with food. I started being really ashamed and guilty when I was flying, because I have family abroad. It became “Should we even be flying?” and some big questions like that.


Then, I moved to Toronto for university, and there on campus, again, I was doing things really focused on incremental change where I was saying, “We have to get this composting facility on campus. It’s shameful for a leading university not to have those.”


It really took the election of a government in Ontario that I didn’t agree with. Then, I had the realization that no matter how great compost bins in my university dorm would be, the government was going to take away every policy that was getting us closer to climate justice. It was seeing how my daily efforts for the past few years to try to make things change could be counterbalanced in an election. That’s when I realized there needs to be some bigger system change.


And then once I joined the climate strike movement, really rapidly I was confronted with ideas of other people that were saying, “Yeah, so obviously you need to ask for bigger system change—but think bigger than even the energy we produce. Question the economic system. Question governance systems.” And so, it’s interactions with other activists that got me there.


Once that seed was planted in my mind, it was reinforced by going to university for Economics and Public Policy because that is the Enforcement of the Status Quo 101. I was sitting in classes that were talking about how there’s a massive problem and we’re going to solve it with a framework and a directive. I thought, “What? There’s no way we’re teaching that to future leaders!” I think the more that I was going into classes that were trying to enforce that incremental change was the solution, the more that I was imploding inside thinking that we need system change.


Q: Can you expand on how the provincial election in Ontario made you think about systems change?


A: I think the election really made me realize that we shouldn’t have such a fragile situation when it comes to existential questions. We know from the science that we need to get somewhere. But with the election of this new government, it meant years of inaction on the greatest crisis we’re facing.


It made me think that our governance system is not adapted to the problems we’re facing. We’re dealing with complex problems at the planetary scale, but our governments are still operating as if we’re just dealing with minor disagreements. It almost feels like we’re doing local politics, but for issues that obviously imply much bigger things.


It reinforced the idea that we need to change this entire system when I realized how hard it is to give your honest concern to the government. It shouldn't be that a concerned young citizen needs to literally be screaming outside of parliament to get an idea across. I had this realization of, "Wait, I have a complaint. Where do I go?"... Nowhere.

Image by Joshua Best

Q: In international and domestic policy contexts, approaches are founded on the idea that current systems are sufficient for solving the ecological crises, exemplified by COP26. Do you think youth activists are of the same mind, or how many think that system change is needed? For those who do, what do you think they imagine system change to be?


A: What I see is that most youth activists are able to identify that there needs to be a system change. A lot of youth will say, "Change the system" or, "We don't want to see capitalism" or, "Get rid of the colonial state." At the same time, a lot of us are incapable of saying what that actually looks like and talking about what that would mean. I've rarely heard us—and I really will include myself in this—be able to illustrate what we envision instead. And I don't think that's a requirement to criticize the system, I really don't, but I think that is our limit.


And so our demands end up actually still being demands to governments—to the existing system—and demands that are closer to incremental change. Some of these demands can be necessary steps in decarbonization. But it's ironic because we're able to identify the problem but then we're still trying to operate somewhat within the same system. I think a lot of us feel torn because we don't know where else to go and what else to do.


At Fridays for Future, we had an important conversation before the last federal election. We were thinking, well, elections have strong limits when it comes to being able to address climate and justice. But if we don't engage with it, or if we talk of it in a negative way, do we actually risk feeding into some of the conspiracies about the government? We don't want to accidentally fuel completely anti-government or anti-democracy sentiments, or the idea that it's useless to engage.


On one hand, we want to campaign hard and say, our demands are this, we have to see this from you. On the other, we're feeling apathetic that we're again spending all of our time on an election that we know at best will limit damage but won't actually give us the change we want.


Q: In your experience, how does the media play a role in clarifying—or perpetuating—this distinction between wanting systems change and appearing anti-democratic/anti-government?


A: I think there’s a fear that—especially on the internet where a lot of information comes as quick and sound bites or flashy headlines—there won't be the depth of conversation needed to articulate that I'm critical of the system, but still in a healthy way.


For me personally, there has been this fear that, with the media, I can't engage in a more complex conversation to articulate my full thoughts. So sometimes I think it's better to not express them at all in case it gets twisted and used against my intentions ... which—I realize, saying that now—is pretty sad.


Q: What prominent obstacles have you faced during your efforts to create change? What were some approaches that you found especially effective at overcoming these obstacles and which didn’t spark the change you were hoping for?


A: One of the obstacles is capacity, and related to that, prioritizing. It is very difficult to be in these spaces and decide what to prioritize. For example, my focus was often pulled between municipal, provincial, and federal levels. Especially as someone at the forefront of the media, you get bombarded with questions asking you about issues at various levels of government.

There is this need to be on every climate and justice related issue, which can be a barrier to sustaining activists. When I was a student I also had to go to class somehow. Now, I have to prioritize what is in the constraints of my job, and then do the rest. At the same time, I am a human and I need to sleep and see my friends. So, there are always times when I can’t do things.


I think what has been very helpful are collaborations and being in networks. When you have an issue that you care deeply about and you’ve spoken to someone who is taking a lead on that campaign, you feel less like you’re abandoning it. It can be hard to think, “I am not speaking out on this important thing.” Working in coalitions helps you to alleviate this fear of not being a part of every issue, get access to other resources, and learn about new demands. Sometimes, it can be very difficult though because it does mean more time being asked of you and, as a youth, there are massive power dynamics to navigate.


Another barrier in creating change sometimes has been not knowing what to ask for. Sometimes our demands were not strategic because, while we knew we wanted a just world, we weren’t sure what to ask for specifically. How we have overcome this is through patience and trying to find our position in the movement. Sometimes I would say, “Hey, I am 19, it is not my job to do the policy drafting.” Other times it was actually sitting in on calls with bigger ENGOs and listening to their asks, then using those as our demands. But this takes up time that you are not using to organize a strike, so you have to balance that out.


When we do have demands to put forward, it is not always hard to get access as a youth, but it is hard to get meaningful access and then to do the right thing with it. Sometimes it can be tough to know who we should be targeting and trying to get a conversation with. So, the obstacle there is more on the strategy-side.


Our efforts weren’t as successful when we tried to do something beyond our scope. For example, school strikes are powerful because you get people to withdraw their labour and presence to send a message. But when we adapted them so people could come during lunch times, it ended up becoming more like rallies. What we thought would get more attendees was actually less powerful because it didn’t have the massive walkouts, the shock of teachers seeing students not attend class. This comes back to strategy. Sometimes when you are trying too many strategies at once, you end up doing poorly on all of them.


When it comes to evaluating what truly sparked change, the difficulty in answering this is proof that we never actually evaluate our impact well, which is a massive issue. Sometimes it can be difficult to know if something has happened because of you or if it even worked to begin with. Sometimes you are so overwhelmed with a new campaign that you don’t have time to evaluate a past one. It is really hard when you’re working on an emergency to make time for looking back.

Image by David Keogh

Q: You’ve taken a range of approaches to spark change, one of which has been leading protests and marches with Fridays for Future. What is your advice for young people who want to contribute to change, but for whom protests and marches don’t resonate?


A: I see so much power in protests and marches and I also know that they are not a safe place for everyone. Accessibility, policing, social anxiety, disabilities—there are so many good, very valid reasons not to go to a protest or march. So there are a few things I’d advise youth to do.


The first is realizing the power that young people have because they are seen as a more candid voice. It can be bad in the sense that people often see youth as the cute kid with a sign. You can feel hurt because you have thoughts, emotions, and good ideas. But sometimes that candor can get you in more meetings and more meaningful conversations than adults who might be accused of having an agenda or political ideology.


If young people can engage with their parents and their educators, and say, “We need to have a conversation about climate change and we need to do something,” that is instrumental. I think this is a huge starting point and I think that if every kid in Canada went to their parents tonight and said, “We have to talk about climate change,” tomorrow morning we’d already be doing a little better.


Second is using the skills they do have. I can do policy work, but I’m not the most creative person. We need people that have artistic and creative skills to help us envision a future that is not just electric vehicles flying around Toronto. Help us imagine what a well-run community looks like, one that is connected and where people have a good life. So, we should really use these skills and promote that as a legitimate piece of expertise.


With Fridays for Future Toronto, yes we have people striking, but we also have people that never come to strikes. They will do graphic design, social media, videos, writing demands, or policy research. Some people are really good at checking-in, taking care of others, and conflict mediation. We need the whole range of skills, even though the ones you see are like me, the loud kids. Decide what you like to do and then offer that to the movement instead of thinking that you have to fit into what you see of the movement.


I don’t think it’s an exaggeration in saying that there is a place for every skill. But the one thing I can’t do is meet a new member and know their skills. So, it is really helpful when someone tells me, “I’m really good at writing,” and, bam, I know what to do with your skills now.


Q: What’s your vision for the future? What do you want the future to look like?


A: What I like about nature is that it has built-in feedback loops. There is this feedback that is meant to help. Same with our bodies—when you touch a hot surface, you automatically take your hand off and it is almost counter instinctive to stay on the hot surface. You feel pain not because your body wants to punish you, but because it tells you to get your hand away from the burning surface.


So, I’d like to see communities that have very good feedback loops. Communities that are really good at getting feedback rapidly and acting on it. That should be implemented in governments first, but also in economic systems and in every aspect of our lives. This could be annoying for those actually in government, having a system that forces you to address feedback when you get it, but deep-down we know that that's the best thing to do. We should set up our constitutions, agencies, and elections so that when there is feedback (especially if it’s from three quarters of the population!) you have to address it.


The other vision is to have “slower communities", removing the pressure of time. I remember when I graduated from university I thought, “I wish I could take time to think about what I want to do or who I want to be,” but I couldn’t do that because 22 is young, but 25 is no longer considered young, so if I haven’t kickstarted either a masters or my career by then, it will be too late.


I think it means allowing for time to come into our lives, and I think being able to do that has a lot to do with knowing that you’ll have a safety net or that you’ll be taken care of. There are a lot more questions I have on that, though. For example, how do you make sure people are still motivated to go forward? So, we still need incentives, but they shouldn’t be life or death existential threat incentives.


What I also imagine, in a more simple way, is a lot more green spaces and greening. But this doesn't mean just nature; I also want to live in communities with people. I imagine there to be little or no cars, and public transit instead. These are just a few changes I’d like to see, but there are still so many things that I can’t imagine.

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