My interview with Jenny took place at the very end of our week at camp. After a 1am start to head out to the rail site, Jenny joined our group of 25 activists, for a long trip out to the action site. Of the group, three women were ready to lock their necks to three different gates, all entry points for a construction camp for workers cleaning bush for the coal railway. We got there at dawn, and for 2-3 hours workers in their utes drove between the gates trying to make their way into the work sites. These workers were all big burly men, decked out in their high-vis, some puffed up with a sense of righteous authority. However, Jenny was one of those who faced them off with non-confrontational, non-violent, passive civil disobedience. She was at the third gate, keeping up spirits and keeping up the enthusiasm, and within her was a cube of solidity. A cube of resoluteness. Of all the people I spent time with there I found her cube to be the hardest, the one for whom these choices to undertake frontline activism were not really choices at all. She was very young, but had been around in the movement for a while. And that experienced showed through: there was no way that she would give ground to these contractors. And so they took no ground, until 3 hours later when we made our way back to camp, necks unlocked, work held up, a little gap in the destruction of our environment.

On the ensuing journey back to camp we were followed for hours by the police. Five of us in a comfy car played cat and mouse with the police, leading them to Bowen rather than returning to the camp with our new entourage in tow. On this trip I got to know Jenny just a little bit and to hear some of her story. We started recording for a brief 15 minute session at a beach stop in Bowen. We got 5 more minutes happened in the car. And 10 minutes took place outside some shops. I learnt snippets of a fascinating story of a woman who is a leader in her own way in the movement, who showed all the qualities of leadership that I so admire: respect for others, humility, hope, certainty in the face of adversity and an inner strength that immediately conveys that she is here to stay. And all this from someone in their young 20s. Jenny gave me hope for the future.

The practice of a theory of change

Read a story about the Leard Blockade from Edwina Landale, published in Woroni in early 2016.
The Maules Creek mine was subject to a two-year blockade prior to construction. Hundreds of people were arrested trying to protect the 544 hectares of critically endangered forest, home to variety of threatened species. Five years on, Whitehaven Coal has still not secured the biodiversity offsets they required as a condition of the mine’s approval.

Why do I do it? I guess I do it because I think that the world needs to change a lot and so far, putting our bodies directly on the line seems to be one of the only ways to really get our message across. Or to have any kind of impact, because other avenues that I’ve explored have been less effective. Or… I don’t know. Maybe they are all effective in together. But my theory of change really revolves around both trying to create the alternatives that I want to see in the world as well as really challenging the things that I think are wrong. And so that means doing direct action.

I have thought of myself as an activist or someone trying to make change for about 6 years. I moved to Sydney when I was 19, and I started to get involved in politics and activism. I went to my first blockade – the Leard Blockade in 2014 and it was really such an eye opening experience. I met a lot of great people that are still some of my closest friends today. But also it was really radicalising for me, to be on the front lines.

I lived in the city and I grew up in a rural area, but it was not affected in the same way as the Hunter Valley is affected by coal. So, to see the front lines, to see and meet people, to hear their stories about corruption, injustice, what the coal mines had meant to their lives, why they wanted to protect the places that they did, meeting traditional owners, hearing about the process that they’d been through in trying to protect their sacred sites and how ineffective that had been…. seeing the cops behaving so badly just really made me realise and really opened my eyes in a way that living in the city as a young, privileged white person just never would have.

There is so much injustice and corruption. It’s not just a matter of this particular mine; the whole system was not geared towards helping these people that I was meeting. And to realise that was, I guess, something that I’d thought about before, but I had never really encountered.

Creating Change

So when I first moved to Sydney I had to make a lot of new friends, because I didn’t know many people. A lot of the friends I made were activists, and I think that partly the reason that I got involved in the things that I’m now involved is through personal connections. I really think that personal relationships and close friendships are really important in making change. And I think that it’s really important to like try and make big political change. But I also think that we should try and create the relationships and communities that we want to see in the future. So having really good, personal relationships is really important to me.

My family and my wider family as well, they are all very politically minded and very supportive of activist endeavours. Yes, it is in my family, and I really take inspiration from both my parents – I have two mums. And my mum especially – she was at the Franklin River Blockade. It’s just their integrity and the way they are just really trying to in quite small ways, live the best life that they can. Hearing and living that passion for justice is something I think I’ve definitely inherited from my family, and that I am really trying to do myself in different ways.

I think that like one of things that’s really been helpful for me, is that my family and my friends have supported me in like doing lots of different things. Like being arrested. That’s fine. They’ll support me, it’s not like I have to lie about any of the things that I do. I think that’s really great.

So it was somebody I knew who invited me to the Leard Blockade front line. I went for 2 days. I did my first NVDA (non-violent direct action) training, which was very thrilling. And it was all just so exciting you know. I got sent on a scouting mission. I was so keen. I guess I hadn’t realised that it wasn’t just a game. It really seemed like a game at the start, and it wasn’t until later that I really saw, or realised, that it’s not a game.

I went for a week and a bit later 2 weeks. And then I was doing more and more organising in Sydney as well. So I was also doing support around that organising. It was blurry over a few years … I was still doing a bunch of different stuff, even at the same time as going to the blockade. I was really involved in my student organisations at the time. I was trying to get people up to the blockades and I was trying to help in that process. Which I was kind of a full-time really. That was really intense. It was a lot of work. And so I kind of just put the rest of my life on hold, for the last year. Which again, is like really hard to balance.

Blockading Whitehaven Coal at Leard State Forest near Maules Creek: Image credit Leard State Forest, CC 2.0

It’s really important to balance things, because I’ve done that before. I’ve done the burnout thing before. And that was pretty bad. The other thing is that when I first became more radical, I thought I would be able to change more than I could. I thought that everyone should be able to work as hard as I was, but then kind of in a sustainable way. But when I was there at the Leard Blockade for longer, I saw what the toll of these kind of things have on people. I guess I realised that maybe the consequences for me are not, are not the same as they are for other people. And at the time I think I had less of an understanding about why workers might need to work in mines. And why people might be unable to live at a blockade for a long time. Why people have many other reasons for doing what they do. The things that they have to do in life. I think that was like just a learning curve for me, learning how to hold a long term commitment, rather than short term.

But I do deeply feel that sense of responsibility or the need to do the things that I do. I guess like in the past like I’ve really struggled with feeling guilty when I don’t do as much as I think I should. And I guess in the past, more recently, I’ve really been trying to like tackle that, because I don’t think that like guilt is a very good motivator. I think it should be passion and excitement and really believing in change, rather than feeling really guilty. Guilt is a rabbit hole. You can never do enough as one person. And that’s something I’ve been trying to work on more recently; I guess I try and focus more on like collective stuff, rather than individual stuff. I think that if you think more about yourself as an individual, that’s maybe where the guilt stuff comes in. I’m also really trying to work on being more hopeful. Because I feel like 25 is too young to be jaded and cynical.

I think it’s also really difficult to think about what’s effective too. I’m constantly unsure if what we’re doing is the most effective thing. Or what we could be doing differently. Or worrying that it’s not enough. I guess that plays into my concerns a lot. That’s what I find hard, and I wonder, I just don’t know. I often just feel like I don’t know what’s the best thing to do.

Over time though I have became a little bit disenfranchised with how slow political activism is. Or how unable it is to really deal the issues. I don’t know, I still really respect The Greens, but I guess I also feel like that is something that I can come back to later in life and that like, not everyone can do the work that I do now, and so I really should take up that task now. So I’ve prioritised and choose the issues and campaigns that seem to be strategic at the time. I also in some ways choose based on what I am able to sustain. Because I can’t do it for too long. I actually find it, that’s why I drop in and out of refugee activism. Because it’s so demoralising. It’s really, really, difficult …whereas environmental activism is I think equally important and something that we’re all facing. It’s really, really important. But I guess, in Australia I find it a little bit more…maybe the community who works around it is different too, I’m not sure but I find it a bit more hopeful or something.

I think I’ll still be doing it in 25 years. I really do. Things I find really rewarding are things like sharing practical skills. So, I’ve learnt to climb, and I’m really happy to teach other people to climb. That is something that I find really rewarding and I think is very beneficial and maybe less straining than some of the other kind of more direct front line actions. Sometimes I still feel like I should be doing other things. But I also know that I have my other commitments to my projects. These projects are also really important, so again, it’s a hard balance to maintain. But once that I’m finished my studies, I’ll definitely be doing a lot more work in Sydney to get people here, to support the campaign more broadly.

I think I would have found my way there or here eventually. Maybe I would have, because I was involved in a bunch of different stuff, and this is kind of where I’ve ended up.

Women on the Frontline

Sue’s Story

For many women as their family responsibilities expand, being on the frontline is not physically possible. For Sue, with work, family, art and volunteering commitments, a growing business and a thousand demands each day, this was the case. But people’s bodies are not what’s needed the most: for every person locking onto a gate, or chaining themselves to a rail line there are many hundreds of people behind them making that brief piece of civil disobedience happen.

Jenny’s Story

I’m also really trying to work on being more hopeful. Because I feel like 25 is too young to be jaded and cynical.

Olivia’s Story

There are different ways to be an environmentalist. Some people do what they can at home to recycle, compost their food waste and use public transportation. Some people are active in their local communities planting trees in reserves, helping native plant nurseries or caring for injured wildlife. And others become advocates.

Nora’s Story

A movement is more than the sum of its parts. Through its numbers it derives a greater strength. This strength might seem to be small in the face of resistance: yet looking back over the successes of social movements in the 20th century, certain moments focussed that strength at a pivotal movement to capture the hearts and minds of larger populations and change history.