Disappointed, discouraged and attacked.
Those were just some of the feelings Waitaki deputy mayor Melanie Tavendale was left with, following an influx of social media comments tearing down the district’s youth after last Friday’s School Strike 4 Climate Waitaki protest.
More than 120 people – school pupils and members of the wider community -marched from Orana Park to Friendly Bay, holding banners and posters with different slogans demanding more urgent action on climate change in Waitaki and throughout the country.
The group stopped at the Waitaki District Council office in Thames St and handed over their demands to Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher.
They requested the council honoured its responsibility to the Pacific Islands, reduced its agriculture admissions, and promoted climate education.
In person, they received toots and applause for their efforts.
But online, it was a different story.
People commenting on social media attacked the pupils for taking a “free” day off school, owning cellphones, and for their stance on climate change.
Mrs Tavendale, who joined last week’s march, said the online reaction was disappointing, and she believed the community needed to encourage young people to speak up and have brave conversations, rather than tearing them down.
“I don’t like seeing our young people being discouraged from doing that, and not based on the actual argument of the subject, but based on someone questioning whether they’re at school, or questioning whether they’ve got a cellphone – I don’t think that’s helpful,” Mrs Tavendale said.
“We have some kids that really stood up, and I know that it’s a daunting place to be, and I don’t like to see us writing them off rather than just listening to what they are saying.
“I feel like some of the online community let them down when they personally attack, rather than just talking to the issue.”
School Strike 4 Climate Waitaki representative Ethan Reille (16) said the online reaction had only encouraged them to keep going.
Oamaru was a conservative community, and the school pupils had expected to come up against online hecklers.
“It doesn’t tear us down, it actually gives us the fuel to keep on going,” the Waitaki Boys’ High School pupil said.
“We’re not angry at these people, we’re not getting annoyed by their comments .. it just gives us a reason that we should continue to do what we’re doing, because there is still room for improvement and there’s room for education.”
For change to happen, people had to speak up, he said.
“Regardless of what happens, change will most likely be made and it’s whether or not you want to be on the right side of history or not.”
Mrs Tavendale’s support of the group was appreciated, Ethan said.
“It feels good to know that there is someone within that generation that is supporting us – and it doesn’t feel like we’re the minority that’s having to battle against the majority.”
Ethan, who is also a national media representative for School Strike 4 Climate, hoped Oamaru schools could be more supportive of pupils voicing their opinions and campaigning for change.
However, he also acknowledged the group could have worked more with the schools in the lead-up to the strike and said they would like to sit down with principals before future strikes.
“We hold a lot of respect for our schools so we wanted to be communicating with them every step of the way, whether they supported it or not,” he said.
Additional reporting Rebecca Ryan