We talk to Lara Spirit about her aims, fashion’s role in activism, and the ever-growing power of young people.
When Lara Spirit co-founded the anti-Brexit youth movement, Our Future Our Choice, even she could not have imagined that, in less than a year, she would be one of those leading 100,000 people through the streets of London to march on Parliament and demand a People’s Vote on the final deal.
Having gone from university lecture halls to being fixtures on BBC News in just a few months, Lara and her colleagues at the aptly entitled OFOC (try and pronounce it) have managed to tap into a nationwide sense of dissatisfaction among young people, and engage the UK’s youth in politics on a scale that has not been seen for some time. Now, on the eve of the People’s Vote March, we talk to Lara about the movement, the importance of a visual identity in activism, and her belief in the power of young people.
Hey Lara! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hey guys! My name is Lara Spirit, I’m 21, and I’m a co-founder of Our Future Our Choice.
Tell us a little about OFOC?
OFOC is a youth group who think Brexit is a disaster for young people. We’re pushing for a People’s Vote on the final deal – which should return to Parliament in the next few weeks – because we believe people deserve a say on whether that deal is good enough for their futures. We’ve gone from four people working out of a living room in East London to the largest youth anti-Brexit campaign in the country. There’s now thousands of us, from all over the country, who are pressuring their MPs to listen to the voices of young people and vote with their consciences rather than their political interests or their party’s electoral ambitions.
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to go into politics?
Absolutely not. I wasn’t alone in being angry and upset at the result in 2016 and most of the young people who work on the campaign would also cite Brexit as the sole reason they are in activism so early. I’m still studying politics at university, and I’ve always been interested in it, but I never thought I’d see young people drive a national debate in the way we have.
In under a year, you guys have managed to help re-mobilise Britain’s youth, and really change the conversation around Brexit. How did you do it?
Having started working solely in universities, we gained momentum when we began appearing on national media, and people have been really receptive to the message that this is an issue which affects young people the most and that they deserve a platform to make their voices heard. I think we’ve been able to mobilise in the way we have because Brexit was about more than trade deals and economies – it was about identity and the relationship the younger in our country feel towards our continent. A lot of the stunts and events we’ve held have challenged this notion of patriotism as being the exclusive preserve of Brexiteers: young people do feel proud of our country, but we are also proud of our relationship to an institution which, imperfect as it is, has allowed us to grow up in a safer and more prosperous environment.
Do you think politicians are doing enough for young people in this country?
Not at all. Brexit is the most conspicuous failure of politicians to understand and act in the interests of young people, but it isn’t the only one. Politicians are still failing to treat the mental health issues faced by young people with equal parity to physical illnesses. Theresa May introduced a new minister for suicide a few weeks ago – a person who has consistently voted for welfare cuts, and who hasn’t even been given a budget to work with. On climate change, politicians continue to espouse the myth of ‘personal responsibility’ at the expense of real political change to the most important issue of our time. Both of these issues are hugely important to the majority of young people, and yet they are consistently met with vapid platitudes instead of meaningful action.
On Saturday, you will lead over 100,000 people through the streets of London for the second time – how does it feel to see all these people come together for something you created?
I am so excited to march and be part of the People’s Vote campaign, an amalgam of over ten grassroots pro-EU movements who have made it all possible. This march is particularly special to me because it’s led by young people; it’s a march for their future, and it will hopefully propel the topic of Brexit and the future of our generation to the forefront of the national debate – and keep it there. This will be one of the biggest marches in peacetime history, and it could mark the moment where this uphill battle becomes a reality for campaigners like us. When we launched this year we were labelled traitors for suggesting Brexit could be halted, that we could have another say on our future and that we could reconsider the direction this country is heading in. Now, when hundreds of thousands march, those who labelled us ‘anti-democrats’ will be proven wrong. Polling shows it but tomorrow will prove it: the country has changed its mind.
How important are young people in making changes in today’s society?
Young people should be at the centre of any debate about the country we want to live in and the change we want to see in society. It is they who will come to determine the future of this country, and their incredible dedication to this and to other causes over the last few years has amazed me. You hear a lot about a ‘generational divide’ in Britain post-2016 and I think that’s true. A lot of families have been damaged by difficult conversations around and after the time of the referendum, and many young people have emerged from this feeling disenfranchised and their voices overridden. There’s a myth that we care about this but not enough to vote – actually, the turnout among young people in 2016 was double what had been originally reported and was well above typical turnout levels for our demographic. Ignore young people and we risk leaving a whole generation isolated from politics and from the most important levers of political change. The Trump march, March For Our Lives, our march in June and now this one are all signs of hope that we won’t let this happen.
How important do you think it is for movements to have a visual identity?
Very important. We actually just ran a competition in collaboration with Wolfgang Tillmans to design merchandise for the march. He is a personal inspiration of mine for his work in 2016 and for his sustained activism both here and in Berlin. Wolfgang’s political pieces are proof of how important visual identities are to these movements. His work cut through so much of the toxic noise in 2016 – especially for young people – and remains one of the most memorable representations of what it means to me for Britain to remain a member of the EU. It was great for us to see so many young artists and designers submit pieces for this and the breadth of these entries showed just how personal an issue this remains for so many.
How can the fashion and creative industries help in engaging young people with social movements?
They’re essential. From Vivienne Westwood, to Katherine Hamnett’s ‘CANCEL BREXIT’ t-shirts, the fashion industry has always been an ally for activism, and will always be one as long as people use what they wear as a form of expression for their views. When we had an activist attend their university’s Conservative association wearing one of these tees, it unnerved people, and reminded everybody in the room that this is not a done deal. However, it’s important not to be reductive. If you wear a ‘CANCEL BREXIT’ t-shirt, you should be willing to come to the march or to get involved with the campaign directly. Activism is more than your attire and this is a fight we could still be set to lose: if you are genuinely passionate about securing a people’s vote then combine these pieces with your own commitment.
What’s next for you?
Carrying on trying to achieve what we set out to do. And I should probably finish my degree at some point!