Meet International award-winning Teen Climate Activist, Anjali Sharma
At sixteen, Anjali Sharma became a household name across Australia for standing up for what she believes in. As the lead litigant in the 2020 class action against the Federal Government (for failing its duty of care to protect young people from the impacts of climate change), she found herself receiving national media attention; some of it positive and some of it abhorrent.
Since the class action began, Anjali has gone on to appear on television and written for major news organisations such as the ABC, the Guardian and The Saturday Paper, and was awarded the international prize for climate activism, the Children’s Climate Prize, in 2021.
Most recently she was recognised as one of the recipients of the Australian South Asian Centre’s (ASAC) 2022 Stellar Women series, for exemplary emerging and established South Asian creatives, activists, founders and leaders whose voices and work are a force for good.
Anjali sat down with the ASAC’s Co-founder, Daizy Maan Kaur, and me to learn more about her remarkable, burgeoning career as a climate activist.
Growing up with Climate Change
When asked about how and when her interest in the environment and climate change came about, Anjali’s answer was deeply personal, harrowing, but relatable.
“To me,” Anjali said, “I never felt like it was an option [to not be interested], to be honest,” sharing that she took it upon herself to learn about the link between the devastating weather events occurring in India and the broader issues of climate change towards the end of primary school to high school, where began learning about the importance of sustainability.
“I moved to Australia when I was 10 months old. So these heat waves and these floods that have battered India time and time again are something that I haven’t experienced personally, but what I have experienced are the panicked phone calls and getting the news, sending money, and you know thinking, ‘How can we help?’”
“It was never really a choice to you know go and Google ‘climate change’. It was just a thing that I’ve grown up with.”
“That’s when I realised that the problem went much deeper than recycling and taking two-minute showers. It was a broader issue that needed to be tackled at a much larger scale.”
These personal stories left a lasting impact on Anjali. She described feeling scared and experiencing survivor’s guilt being so far away, living in Australia, and having so many privileges that family and friends in India didn’t. As a result, Anjali’s activism is guided by and grounded in community and wanting to help vulnerable people, especially people of colour, who are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change due to a lack of resources.
Talking about friends in India she used to play with on the street, she said, “Some of them lived in this makeshift tent village that isn’t protected from the elements. It’s just there on the front lines of climate change. I always think about how they would cough and were subject to constant asthma attacks. These are the people who don’t get noticed in the climate conversation because when we talk about ‘stakeholders’, we talk about fossil fuel mines and big gas companies. We don’t talk about the people who will be first and worst hit.”
Amidst having to navigate the complexities of advocacy and activism on a national stage as a young woman of colour, Anjali shared that what keeps her inspired are the phenomenal women that she surrounds herself with.
“My first and biggest role model is my Mum,” she said.
“Some people say that your parents shape your political views, but it’s been much of the opposite [for us].”
She elaborated, “I’ve helped shape a lot of her political views, but more so, she is the main source of my strength and me doing what I do. She’s my greatest enabler.”
“I remember, one day, I got an email from someone asking me to come to Sydney to speak at an event that was a few days before one of my major English assessments. I messaged her about how sad I was that I couldn’t go, and she goes, ‘No you can go. Like, why not?’”
She shared that her parents were initially hesitant about her attending her first School Strike 4 Climate meeting on a school night, preferring her to engage online instead, and questioned whether it would create any real change, falling into what Anjali’s calls ‘stereotypical patterns of thinking.’
Though Anjali explained, this changed over time.
“As I’ve grown into this space of being an activist, and my mom has met the people I get to do this with, she’s also grown into it and really embraces it.”
“The other South Asian woman who really, really inspires me is one of my friends. Actually, the person who got us (the School Strikers) connected with the law firm [for the class action]. Her name is Varsha. I actually also nominated her for this award,” she said laughing. Varsha Yajman was also selected as one of the finalists for ASAC’s Stellar Women series this year, read the full list here.
“She has been such an amazing advocate for climate justice and for mental health,” sharing how open Varsha has been with her experiences of climate change and mental health, speaking out against the systemic barriers that people of colour face in a traditionally white-dominated space.
“She’s given me so much strength, both in using her public platform, but also as an amazing friend who’s helped me embrace my South Asian heritage.”
Anjali’s advice for Young Activists
Listening to Anjali during this interview, it’s clear that her community-mindedness helps centre her work and makes her an effective activist.
When asked if she could share her knowledge of gaining media engagement, so others might learn from it she broke it down into 3 main points.
Number 1: “Always know your why.” Anjali explained she always has a clear narrative when reaching out to the media. Her why is, “I do this, not for my name to be in lights or for 15 seconds of fame, I do this because I’ve seen people firsthand face the impacts of climate change; and I want to use all the privilege that I have living here, in Australia, to change that.”
Number 2: “Don’t don’t be afraid to make the ask.” That’s how Anjali published one of her favourite pieces, an open letter to then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for the Saturday paper.
“I fought for that piece. I reached out and I pitched it. Then I worked with them on edits and then the word count. It wasn’t something that someone reached out to me to do. It was something that I wanted to do, and it was a story that I wanted to tell, so I made that ask.”
Number 3: “I think, for me, the biggest thing has been to just be authentic.” Anjali’s experience taught her that people relate more to someone who isn’t perfectly polished and articulate, than a person in a suit who has all their lines rehearsed.
Anjali shared that this rang true for the other activists in the class action too. She recalled one of her co-litigants immediately following the judgement was crying while speaking to the media, expressing how scared she was because she’d been evacuated twice because of fires and didn’t know when it was going to happen again.
“These are real experiences and this is a very real issue that affects people on a very personal level. Not being afraid to show that vulnerability has been really, really instrumental in getting the coverage that we did.”
What’s next for Anjali?
Anjali says she’s doing her best to prioritise her final exams while balancing her commitments as an activist.
“For me right now, it’s just about getting through Year 12. Some do say it’s a very important year,” she joked.
“I keep promising myself that I’m not going to take up any more events in other cities, that I’ve got to stop travelling and stay in Melbourne.”
“And here I am, this morning, accepting an offer to go speak at ANU in Canberra. But yeah, I’m trying to focus on Year 12 and taking up any opportunities that come up along the way; anyway that I can write or continue to tell my story.”
Although the decision recognising the duty of care Anjali and her co-litigants fought so hard for was later overturned on appeal in 2022 in favour of the Federal Government, Anjali says her experience being part of the class action has made her even more interested in environmental law and policy.
“In the long term, I also want to go into environmental law.”
“This has been my thing since before I took on the court case. It’s actually why I took on the court case. I’ve always been really interested in the way that the environment and policy can be shaped from a legal perspective, and the role that the courts and legal representatives have in the broader climate fight.”
“That’s why my Mum calls this court case, ‘the best form of work experience somebody could ever get,’ and she was completely right.”
To keep up with Anjali’s journey follow her on Twitter @anjsharmaaa where she shares more of her political and environmental views, or on Instagram via @anjsharmaa where she’s she shares about her personal life.
We’re honoured to have Anjali as one of the four 2022 Australia’s Stellar South Asian Women recipients and are in awe of her tireless commitment to environmental activism and the courage she’s shown in the face of adversity.
Anjali’s generosity and support of other women, activists, and vulnerable groups exemplify the values and qualities we’re so passionate about highlighting at ASAC and through this series.
We’re so excited to see how Anjali’s journey continues to unfold and wish her all the very best with Year 12 and her plans for the future.
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About the Stellar Series
In collaboration with South Asian Heritage Month (18 July – 17 August), the Australian South Asian Centre hosts its Australian Stellar South Asian Women’s series, recognising exemplary emerging and established South Asian creatives, activists, founders and leaders whose voices and work are a force for good. Our awardees are women who are not only successful in their fields but also generous and supportive of those around them; their presence paves the way for future South Asian community leaders.