My activist history (or the start of my thinking, doing and changing)

Greenham Common song book

My beginnings and my dad

I was born in 1980 and grew up in Stevenage – the first new town to be built in the UK, opened in the 1950s, home to working class communities bombed out of London in the second world war. I was raised to behave altruistically, and take social justice seriously. I watched the miners strike unfold on TV and knew times were hard for many of my peers – about half the kids in my secondary school had free school meals. My dad himself was unemployed for a year in that time, and racked up a huge folder of job applications before he found work. He loves to quote ‘from each according to their ability; to each according to their need’ – although he never went to University and doesn’t attribute it to Marx.

My mum and the anti-nuclear movement

My obsession with campaigning for change has taken me on a long journey. My mum was one of the 30,000+ incredible women at Greenham common peace camp in 1982, holding hands around the army base to protest the decision to house nuclear weapons there. I remember being at a big CND protest in London, toddling alongside my sister in a pushchair and feeling very important when I was asked to sign a petition. I grew up concerned about climate change, the ozone layer, war and injustice. But the role the anti-nuclear movement played in my early life meant I always believed that change was possible, and that my actions could make some small difference.

Early campaign success 

My first taste of campaign success came as a teenager, when my sister and I succeeded in changing the rules at our school so girls were allowed to wear trousers all year round. The letter accompanying the petition to our head teacher included the line “The only reason we can see for girls to have to wear skirts in the summer is so that staff can look at young girl’s legs.” It was a very satisfying victory.

A decade of grassroots and direct action

I grew up in the late 90s going to the huge Mayday marches in London, saw the rise of Reclaim the Streets, and got involved in all sorts of climate and social justice activism. In the mid 2000s I joined the clown army, supported direct actions, camped in activist convergence spaces. I fought arms companies existing; a local incinerator expanding and the council closure of a leisure centre. I had all sorts of jobs in this time, from front of house manager in an arts centre to working on an organic farm (plus I managed to get undergrad and postgrad degrees).

The women’s refuge

In the late noughties I found myself working in a refuge for several years, supporting women and children escaping violence. The injustice of the local authorities’ gatekeeping of social housing infuriated me. It was terrible to make women and families wait months or years for a safe home of their own, or to encourage them into the precarious private rented sector, when they had already been through so much. I started a campaign on this but it was hard to make headway – it was outside of what I was supposed to be doing in my job. At that point I decided to change tack, and set my sights on working as a campaigner.

‘Professional’ campaigning

After volunteering for Oxfam and a fair few unsuccessful applications, I got my first break – a job with End Child Poverty in 2008 running their London campaigns. From there I went on to work for Concern and UNICEF, before moving into my current role coordinating activism at ActionAid. I’ve garnered a good spread of experience, from managing campaigns to lobbying and digital campaigning.

Winning small battles; losing the war

Lobbying can be valuable, but it’s most effective when huge public pressure is on your side. The rise of online petitions and ‘three-click’ email-to-target actions has been truly revolutionary in reaching and mobilising huge numbers of people behind the causes they care about. But the draw of this technology, where scale can be achieved so easily, has meant NGOs have neglected local groups and community activists; activism has withered on the vine. Even more worryingly, as each organisation plugs away at incremental policy change in their specialist area, these small individual victories blind us to the wider war we’re losing. Global inequality is off the scale and growing – by next year 1% of the world’s population is predicted to own more than the other 99% of us. C02 emissions and accelerating environmental destruction continue. And all the while, legislation like the UK’s lobbying act shrinks the space for protest all over the world.

What now?

To create the changes so many organisations and groups claim they want to see, for a more equitable and sustainable world, we need to work together and organise in our communities. We need to support and nurture real world activism and amplify its effects through all the amazing online platforms we can access. We need to go back to building social movements.

I plan to use this blog to explore my thoughts around how this can happen. I’m going to share my thinking, reflections on more practical ‘doing’, and celebrations of successful ‘changing’. Please share your ideas in the comments below, or feel free to carry on conversations in the Engaging Activists Facebook group I admin.

Late 2018 update

I’m now an activism and campaigns consultant,  specialising in social movement strategy and grassroots networks. I’m a co-director of the Organising for Change training collective and I co-lead two courses at the Ulex activist training centre in Catalunya, including a two week summer camp exploring The Ecology of Social Movements.

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