9 powerful social change movements you need to know about

Rights are hard won and easily lost. Fortunately, the world is full of determined people ready to stand up, organise, and take collective action. Here’s nine people-powered social change movements that are sure to fill you with hope.

Protestors chant and bend down on their knees. They hold handmade red, yellow and black signs saying 'stop don't shoot' and Black Lives Matter. Woman in front raises her fist and is wearing an Aboriginal flag tshirt.
‘Black Lives Matter’ rally on June 02, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

1. Black Lives Matter

With the killing of George Floyd by a US police officer in May 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement is an important one to support right now.

Activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created the Black Lives Matter hashtag in 2013. It was part of their response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of African-American teen Trayvon Martin.

Although it started in the US, Black Lives Matter is now a global human rights movement. It campaigns to end violence and systemic racism towards Black people and other people of colour. In Australia, Black Lives Matter has become synonymous with the 434 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in police custody since the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Here’s some ways you can support Black Lives Matter in Australia.

“Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter”

Alicia Garza
A teenage girl with a beanie and two long plaits holds a big handmade sign with words in Swedish: Skolstrejk for Climatet. Next to her, a dark-skinned man holds a handmade sign saying: What Greta said.
Greta Thunberg and Amnesty’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, 2019. AI

2. Schools Strike for Climate

One girl with a protest sign outside Sweden’s parliament every Friday inspired a worldwide movement in less than one year. The Schools Strike movement (also known as Fridays for Future) wants politicians to act now on the climate crisis.

Greta Thunberg and the Schools Strike movement dominated headlines in September 2019, when around 6 million people attended their climate protests.

“I want you to panic”

Greta Thunberg
Vincent Lingiari (left) holds out his palm. Gough Whitlam (right) holds his hand above Vincent's and pours red earth into Vincent's palm. Brilliant blue sky above them.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory, 1975. Credit: Mervyn Bishop / Art Gallery of NSW

3. Indigenous land rights movement

The struggle for Indigenous land rights spanned decades. In 1963, the Yolngu people from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land presented parliament with the Yirrkala bark petitions, protesting to have their land and their rights returned.

A few years later Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari led 200 stockmen on the famous ‘Wave Hill Walk-Off’ for fair pay and decent working conditions. It soon sparked the Gurindji people to demand the return of their lands.

Torres Strait Islander man Eddie Mabo also played an important role. His campaign for land rights led to a High Court case that eventually overturned the lie of terra nullius.

“We want to live on our land, our way.”

Vincent Lingiari
Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education was presented with an International’s Ambassador of Conscience award.
© Amnesty International

4. Girls’ rights to education

Malala Youfaszai grew up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan at a time when the Taliban had banned girls from attending school. Her peaceful promotion of girls’ education made her a target; the Taliban shot her on a school bus.

Malala survived. Today she still promotes women and children’s rights to education, working with young activists across the world. She is the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. If you haven’t yet read I Am Malala – do it.

“Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”

Malala Yousafzai
Nelson Mandela revisits his prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison, South Africa, 1994.
Nelson Mandela © Jurgen Schadeberg (www.jurgenschadeberg.com)

5. Movement against apartheid

South Africa’s apartheid policy of the mid-20th century sanctioned racial segregation. It barred non-white South Africans from political and economic equality.

People held strikes and protests against their government’s apartheid policy for decades. This, along with economic sanctions, led to the end of apartheid in the 90s.

Nelson Mandela played a central role in the movement, and spent 27 years in prison for it. After the dismantling of apartheid, Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected leader.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Nelson Mandela
A close up photograph of people taking part in the Women's March on Washington DC on 21 January 2017. The image shows a mixed crowd of men and women holding placards and marching, some of whom are wearing pink hats. A young woman at the front of the shot holds a sign that says 'We wish not for control over others but for control over ourselves.'
© Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr

6. #MeToo

American activist Tarana Burke sparked the Me Too movement in 2006. She wanted to break the silence surrounding sexual assault, rape and harassment, and empower women through empathy and strength in numbers.

In 2017 the ‘Me Too’ hashtag went viral in connection to Harvey Weinstein. The movement has grown to include both men and women of all colors and ages, and aims to support marginalised people and communities.

“People are ready for something different.”

Tarana Burke
Amnesty activists at Brisbane Pride Festival. © Brisbane Pride
Amnesty activists at Brisbane Pride Festival. © Brisbane Pride

7. Marriage equality

On 9 December 2017, the right to marry in Australia was no longer determined by sex or gender. Hurray!  Equality Australia estimates that 15,600 people volunteered for the Yes campaign.

Marriage equality happened after decades of work raising understanding and acceptance. In 1978, around 500 people marched in Sydney to protest inequality for LGBTQI+ people. Supporters would go on to hold this event every year, becoming the Sydney Mardi Gras.

There’s still a lot to do to ensure equality for LGBTQI+ people in Australia, such as banning harmful ‘conversion’ practices.

“We just made the country a fairer, more equitable and just place.”

Ian Thorpe
A young woman with dark hair and wearing a white shirt smiles at the camera. Tree foliage is visible in the background.
Loujain al-Hathloul, freedom fighter in Saudi Arabia © Marieke Wijntjes / Amnesty International

8. Women’s rights to drive, Saudi Arabia

Determined, peaceful protesters pushed the Saudi Arabian government to overturn its ban on women driving. The Saudi authorities arrested many for their peaceful protests. The authorities overturned the ban in June 2018. But it came at a cost; they again imprisoned some of the campaigners who had worked so hard to win the right to drive.

Activist Nassima al-Sada is still in prison. Saudi Arabia’s authorities have detained Nassima without charge since July 2018.

“The rain begins with a single drop”

Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening

9. Amnesty International

Amnesty International began in 1961 when two Portuguese students were jailed for raising a toast to freedom.

In response, British lawyer Peter Benenson decided to collect and distribute information about ‘prisoners of conscience’ – people imprisoned, tortured or executed because of their political views or religious orientation. He gave life to the vision of collective action that defines our work today.

Since then, Amnesty  has grown to a global human rights movement of over 8 million people in more than 150 countries and territories.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Is there a social change movement that inspires you? What human rights injustice are you ready to change? Let us know!

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