An Evening with Suzanne Dhaliwal

Podcast & Transcript

This is a recording of the event An Evening with Suzanne Dhaliwal. This event took place at ONCA gallery on the 27th of November 2019.


Suzanne Dhaliwal: Thank you so much, it’s so amazing for me to be here as well. This evening is really more about coming into conversation and I really wanted to share some of the work I’ve been doing.. Yeah, um.. Because I don’t actually think fearless or I don’t feel – no, no, it was a great opening. ‘Cos I feel why I really love doing these talks is to show actually just how much at this time I’m struggling to understand how to move forward. The questions that we share together about how, y’know, in the midst of this election, in the midst of, y’know, the rise in facism that we’re seeing, how do we actually build a movement together that’s full of care and is gonna get us to the future? While at the same time we’re feeling so overwhelmed, like ‘Oh my gosh’… Yesterday … Persephone was just mentioning about the recent UN report that came out that could leave us feeling quite overwhelmed. Um, but that’s why for me as well it’s really important to be in community, it’s really important to share some of these stories and to share some of these movements herstory. Because what I think has happened is that in the last 18 months we’ve had a proliferation of action and an amazing scaling up, but what’s been lost in that maybe is the little bit of the history of understanding: how did we actually get to this tipping point, where suddenly we have been making amazing work that you’re doing with the climate strike work and the Extinction Rebellion work.. What – where did that come from?  And for me as someone who, y’know I’m not that old, I’m getting close to 40, but I actually feel a lot of burnout and mental health impact and a lot of that health impact has been from not just the content itself but the violence and the racism that we often experience within environmentalism itself.  

And so for me as well as doing the activism, and I’ve worked in different spaces, um, like Doctors Without Borders, more at the interface of indigenous rights and extraction before I came to climate change. And so for me at the heart and centre you mention, a lot of the issues around gender violence, extractivism and work camps and how that affects women and consent around our bodies and also how that relates to consent on the land are real core issues for me. So as well as being an activist, I’ve also been thrown into being an anti white-supremacy, um, anti-oppression trainer. So I really come at these topics with a lot of – I hope – honesty and care but it’s always in the spirit of, like, how do we have these difficult conversations so that we can learn and move forward? That’s my little spiel, but I’m gonna do a little bit of presenting of some of the work on some of the images as well. 

Now we’ve mastered this… Actually I’m gonna talk about this so this image for me is about turning around the microphone and literally listening in, and for me this practice was actually an artwork that I did as part of an art masters when I was totally burnt out from activism. I was like, I’m going to do an art masters. It was my dream, and so I actually studied social sculpture at Shelley Sacks. Um and so for me I remember one day I literally just picked up a megaphone and put it to my ear um and my partner at the time took this photograph and it seemed to embody everything of this, the invisible skills that we have sometimes as activists. So y’know before we even get on the front line what is all that work that happens when we listen to a community. When you listen to a situation that they’re facing um when you listen to the land and you stand in your humility …um to actually understand what is happening to that context. So I actually reversed the wiring in the megaphone as well so you can actually hear from it and so what we did is we took walks with people where you could hear the ants, you could hear sounds. And so a lot of my practice as an artist has been to make visible some of the care and culture of actions that happen because sometimes as you know omg it’s tomorrow, i’ve only got a bed sheet, what am i going to do. So how can we build in that careful listening, the careful sensitivities um the colonial messaging into that work when we’re facing such a catastrophe. 

Um to zoom it out a little bit um … the work that I’ve mainly been doing, as I mentioned before I got into climate change was more about extraction and indigenous rights. I was working in Canada at the time and I was mainly looking at Columbia and the impact on mental health of violence and extractivism on communities there. And then when I was working with Doctors Without Borders in 2009 you couldn’t actually talk about climate change then. If you spoke about climate change you were a conspiracy theorist, you were wacky, um you were alarming people um. And so I found it very difficult to work within that non-profit industrial complex um as you could call it and the whole humanitarian aid space is often very difficult to be as a person of colour in and I also… y’know we were in Toronto so you walk outside, there’s indigenous people high on mouthwash, there’s huge suicide epidemics and again you couldn’t talk about what was happening with indigenous people within Canada. So that’s something i found a lot… is that often when we’re talking about climate change and extractivism, when we’re bringing it to the heart we’re talking about colonialism and those human impacts it can be really difficult. So I actually left my job at Doctors without Borders and packed up all my stuff and moved to Tinkers Bubble. I don’t know if any of you have heard of it, which is a transition town. Because at that point I then realised that it was 2009, it had reached peak oil, so I was in a community, and again it was very interesting to be in a transition community um as one of the only people of colour … trying to find that relationship of, y’know, what does this transition look like? 

Um, and then I ran out of money, and I left Tinkers Bubble then got a job at Survival international. And when I was there, um again I was working at that interface of indigenous rights and extraction and I just happened to see the tar sands on the internet. So how many of you know about the tar sands? Yay! Fresh audience. So the Tar Sands is … um, one of the largest…. [ ]. So the Tar Sands is in Alberta Canada, it starts there. So, many of us know about the Amazon – so the Amazon is like one of the longest of the forests, and the Boreal is in the north of Canada and so what’s actually been happening in Canada is that it’s actually one of the fastest rates of deforestation that’s happening on the planet. So what is happening there is that they are removing the forest which they call ‘overburden’ – well, we would call it life – they roll it up, the sand, and they put it into storage and they extract from underneath the oil. So as I mentioned we’ve hit peak oil, so this isn’t like a conventional oil that just spurts out the ground – it’s heavy oil. So you know, instead of transitioning from conventional oil to renewable energy what all these oil majors did was switch to fracking, to tar sands oil, and so this is what it looks like… it basically looks like the moon. I’ve walked through these mines a few times, and basically you can fly over them and there is no end in sight, the actual area that has been carved up is the size of England and Wales, so that’s the scale of the deforestation that we’ve seen there and these are plants because to make this oil you have to mix it with erm, every barrel of oil needs three barrels of water, it needs chemicals before it can even move through a pipe line. So this is the kind of oil that we’re seeing come out of Canada; so this is why Canada you know, Trudeau, flippy hair, seems so liberal but what we know is that actually Canada is pushing climate chaos, and the biggest part of this –  why Canadians don’t know about this? Because it’s happening on indigenous territory. 

So the way that I got involved in this was that the chiefs and the communities were actually looking for support because they were going through rare auto-immune diseases, rare cancers, they weren’t able to get the funding and so the research to explain what was happening to them, and that was back in 2009. So, yeah that’s just another side of this, so this is what we would call ecocide and many of you have heard about the amazing work of Polly Higgins, she’s the lawyer who, and her work continues to actually have ecocide recognised as a war against peace so we actually worked very closely together, Polly and I, because tar sands is plainly ecocide and she actually had a mock trial in Westminster where the corporations responsible for tar sands were found guilty of ecocide. So that’s what we’re dealing with, you know when we are talking about climate change, climate catastrophe and sometimes we can think it’s in the future, this future scenario that is coming. When you walk through a place like this, when you see what’s happening we know that actually many of us are already living through this, through the colonialism, the genocide, ecocide that started five hundred years ago which is interesting because it taking right now so… Yeah so just wanted to bring up that concept of time, this itself has been going for fifty years, this extraction. 

So what we did was we really worked in solidarity with the communities and I think this is an important part of it that you know we see a lot of climate activism right now and some of it looks very similar to a lot of the stuff that’s been happening, but again i just wanna bring it back to that invisible megaphone, that deep listening that was happening. Every part of the UK Tar Sands Network was designed in consultation with the communities so. Yeah so one of the first actions we had outside Canada House and we developed the logo with the chief of the community, in Blackheath actually, in the climate camp, in the dark with torches, and it’s a massive banner and the chief actually said to change – the blood drop was initially black – and he said to change it to red, ‘cos it’s our blood. And so for us that level of care and consultation and design has been something that’s been core to it, and I think that’s something, talking about solidarity, that when we take stories that we build in that time for consultation and feedback, and so for us every press release that went out, every action, the tone, everything was done in consultation, and because of Skype, that’s you know makes for, messed up working hours… But it really is possible and I think that’s something that, you know, after, we have to push back on, and when we are talking about this culture of care and careful work, that it really matters. And so for instance with the tar sands, you know, some of the first actions that you might have been at, there outside BP, when those actions happened outside of BP the chief that we worked with at the time actually had, when he got home, helicopters on his front door step, threats to have contracts removed from his communities, because a lot of indigenous communities, you know, they’re economically hostages and they actually work with industry, you know they have like food deals or contracts, and the mancamps, so that was a massive lesson for me in terms of, like, ‘holy shit, when we do this stuff in London it’s not us who feel the impacts of it, it’s the communities on the ground’. So when you’re designing actions that are in solidarity, all of the political implications on the ground need to be thought through and then doing that extra work, I think that was something we made sure there was always quotes from indigenous communities, they always led on the framing, and I think something that happens is that often the way communities are reported on or communicated in campaigns is that they’re the victims, but it’s really also to show the sophisticated analysis as well of the situation. 

So for me I was actually trained, in divestment training, by indigenous women who are mums, they’re like taking their kids to school and then in their spare time they’re like ‘holy crap we’ve got to get the world’s corporations out of our doorstep’. So I think that’s a really important thing to know about as well when thinking about the history of divestment movements and the history of that work, it’s really been led by indigenous women, like hardcore nerds who, you know, we taught ourselves a lot of this work, we taught ourselves about the financial market, so… And I’m just bringing that history up because it’s been lost a little bit in this space.. And also a lot of the actions that we did, they weren’t always direct action. That was really fun; like, we had, like, these gimp suits – I don’t know why. Sometimes you just come up with big ideas to keep yourself warm in the rain…! (laughs). And you know, so that action was, as well as showing the corporations that were involved in the tar sands, we also did a lot of exposure of lobbying that’s been happening with the UK government, so the UK government was actually undermining trade negotiations between Europe and Canada to push through legislation that would allow tar sands to come into our market, like, we fought for like seven years to try and stop tar sands from coming into the markets, working with European partners as well, and eventually the UK government was able to stop that because they’re whack, and [….] And so some of the other actions that we did were, so with direct actions I was trained by the Indigenous Environmental Network, so the UK Tar Sands Network was actually a project of the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network is basically like the Indigenous Black Panthers of the US, they’re a network of organisers who are big resisting extraction. So that was another part of it as well in terms of talking about autonomy and freedom and anarchism. 

So for me my, I was working like an anarchist, shutting petrol stations down, but my anarchism was grounded in community accountability, and so I think that is something really important as well when we’re talking about when we are doing direct action and shutting down infrastructure and we are working with, within our freedom, who are we accountable to. So some of the actions, the one below was actually a healing walk, so again it’s coming back to this point that we can be really creative when we come to think what are our actions? And for me, I’m not sure if, probably many of you know the work of Adrienne Maree Brown? She’s a crazy amazing scholar who’s come from a tradition of healing justice, she is also an organiser and a lot of that, looking at how an action itself is science fiction, all organising is science fiction, so when we are creating an action we are actually creating the world that we wanna see and I think about that a lot when we are creating actions and sometimes they’re angry and they’re rowdy and sometimes we need that but with this we did a healing walk. 

So you saw the mines, we actually walked through those mines on a hot day in July and the community said they wanted to pray for the land. They wanted to show the press a different side of the community and also it was just really important to pray on the land. So I think that’s something that is really important around the culture of organising, and sometimes in Europe we can inherit a very, like, nineties roadblock drum and bass, which is awesome, erm culture of like grunge throwback anarchism, but i think we have to really really note that that is a culture of organising, and I think when we can start talking about the culture of organising we can move forward into understanding why there’s barriers, why people don’t feel.. And I mean, a lot of us have been having these conversations around XR and strategies but i think if we can put it back to understanding the cultures of organising, that really helps. So, I know for me, everytime we had a banner we had to smudge it, my sister would offer Sikh prayers for the cloth, we would bless it on the Guru Granth Sahib erm, we, all of the ceremony of prayer went into it and like that’s why I think I have never been arrested because there was so much… (also I’m privileged because I’m lighter brown..) But there was so much care and we were never intending to get arrested… there were times to get arrested, and there was time to escalate that. 

So I think that’s another thing as well that we had to really think about: when do we use our arrestability? When do we escalate to that? When is that necessary and when is that a misuse of it? As we are seeing now, there’s increased policing around protests and that, and that’s a question if that still makes it accessible for people like me? So for me I’ve been someone who’s doing this for like, forever, and I’ve been pushed out of that space to actually do the kind of direct action that I used to do because of the increased policing and also the funding and that, but we can go into that… So yeah, just a little bit more, this is IPS, so as well as challenging the banks and the corporations, like, you should know that a lot of the campaigns against these banks have been going since like 2006, 2007, to get them to no longer invest of course in coal and tar sands… but again another really important part about divestment is that when we went to these companies and these […] we weren’t just asking them to divest because of the climate impact, we were asking them to divest because they are illegal when it comes to indigenous rights. So all those projects you see on tar sand, they actually haven’t had consultation with the communities, the communities don’t know the cumulative impacts of the projects, erm, as well as the horrific climate ticking bomb that is in the tar sands. 

So that’s something to think about when you’re going to corporations, when you’re going to banks, that you aren’t just asking them to stop specific projects, that what you’re asking for also shifts and changes in lending policy. So for instance we actually got TD Canada Trust, which is a Canadian bank, to change their lending policy so that any project that doesn’t have the Free Prior Informed Consent of a community, which is enshrined with the UN, is illegal. So that’s how you actually start shifting markets, you start showing that the projects are illegal, they’re dodgy, that it isn’t a very good part of your portfolio (laughs). So working with people with that sophistication with the divestment work, I think that’s really important and I would urge you to look into Platform and Art not Oil and some of those groups, so you know if you’re coming to a bank there’s already the leg work been done for you, that you’re building on that legacy, erm, and we also have some really great case studies of some of the shifts in that as well. Um, and again, so, we always used, like, cheeky culture, and, like, we see a lot of this action now, how, erm, that was to really – to get the press at that time, ‘cos the financial press, you know they really, you can really play with that and court them if you give them something interesting to play with. But again, always think: what does that look like? How does it reflect back in the communities? Do they feel alright with that tone? And does it amplify them? Erm, and you know with this one it was just, it was quite fun. 

Erm… So this is, and actually i chose that picture as well because it’s part of this erasure of a lot of the women who have been actually in this movement. So I was part of Art not Oil back in 2009, I was doing a lot of direct action on those actions, but actually holding your space as a woman of colour in those spaces is really difficult. Erm, for me you know I think those actions were successful, they worked really well, they were in tandem with the corporate work we were doing, but often, you know, keeping the community, erm, the community environmental justice core at the center of it, is sometimes difficult. So I think that’s kind of how you design these actions, sometimes it’s like – well we need to get, we need to get the right person in power to notice, so we will just talk about financial things or just talk about things, and I think it’s really important that we always weed the environmental justice messaging in there because it has to, but also if you’re doing arts activism, the biggest crux of the argument that BP and Shell should not be at those art galleries is the social license it gives them to operate. So it’s really a social, social and human rights violation argument that we are making. So it’s really important as well, just to be an effective campaigner, as well as being a good human, to keep that messaging around the environmental justice impact and also communities need that allyship and often you know there’s more opportunities when you’re doing these actions that you could be lifting up the stories, the front line needs of that campaign. So I think that’s just something, you know we’ve gone into this moment of Extinction Rebellion and this real increase in activism and how can we stocktake now, our allyship as narrative storytellers, as media makers in that… So, that’s just something I wanna bring up about how the mental health impacts that it puts on communities of colour to constantly have to fight for front line communities to be in those campaigns. So how can we work more to build principles of organising and designing? And I think that’s why it’s really amazing to be having this conversation in this space, ‘cos I think as good designers we can get through some of these impasses that we’ve been in, about saying ‘Oh well,  maybe we will diversify the movement in ten years…’ It’s like actually, as cultural creators, assuming that these are actually design decisions, behind all these actions we can actually diversify it and do that care work a lot faster. 

So as well as the tar sands, when the UK Tar Sands Network set-up we basically created a network of really responsive solidarity that was happening here, and with groups like Rising Tide, Climate Camp, erm…And what happened then was then the BP spill happened. So when the BP spill happened in 2011, we felt like we also needed to support those communities that were resisting there. So again like a lot of these actions were like the kind of actions that have been coming out here, but even to design this action we got on Skype with fisher people erm, with the communities that were doing the clean up, with EJ organisers, and we sat, we were actually in um, with Coexist who are in Bri- Bristol? Coexist. And we worked together, and we made sure that we designed the visual that they wanted next – they decided that they wanted that; they wrote the press release, and they told us all the key dates of the litigation, so that we weren’t just doing the action at BP just to get The Guardian – ‘cos let’s be honest, it’s easy to get The Guardian! We know how to do that now, erm… But how do we use that press strategy to be really functional to support those communities. So a lot of these fisher people were asking for, you know, compensation, acknowledgment that BP could kill people in that space. So when we went to this AGM, I think that’s a really, another really important, erm, venue of theatre space for us to think about -how can we be using those AGMs even more so in the coming years to really do that community justice work? And I think it’s really important to know that sometimes the communities aren’t just asking for Shell to be shut down or BP to shut down, there can be specific asks. So when we’ve worked around Shell sometimes communities in Nigeria are asking for very specific funds for clean up, or a community was asking for caribou protection. So there’s always that allyship in understanding, well, how can I do that? And I think a really good way to do that is sometimes to just make up new groups; like, ‘oh this is ‘Shit on Shell’ and we’re gonna do the hardcore action, and another group is gonna be there..’. 

So how can you, erm, we did that really well – we had, like, a network, so UK Tar Sands Network was such a network from like, pension people over here to Rising Tide over here, and behind the scenes we would coordinate that together but when we actually went to the AGM it looked like we didn’t even know each other. So how can you use coalitions more effectively so that we’re not, you know, we can stand in our power of privilege – those pension people can be like, use that privilege, go and speak to those people, and those of us who can work in those other spaces, and i think that’s something.. we need to, erm, complexify (if that’s a word) organising again, because it’s been reduced I think a little bit with the model that’s been put through Extinction Rebellion, of, like, direct action, tactics… but there’s a real, erm… And the reason why I’m just bringing these cases up with you is to show the sophistication, coordination, the legal and financial campaigns that can be in the back of these campaigns even though they look like just direct action.

And this is, okay, so this is er, so as well as doing lots of direct action a lot of the work that, erm, we did was like brand-damage – brand-damaging Canada. So trying to really um, I think this is part of going out of the usual suspects, so like most of us, most people who are gonna be activated at this point have been activated in our spaces. So how do we reach, like, the pop culture? How do we reach the audiences? And so for me, I really love pop music, I love pop culture, that’s partly where I get inspired by. So we did this action where Kate… what’s her name? Kate Middleton? Ah okay she was in Canada and she was on a tour and, a royal tour of Canada at the time and she was going to an area that had been ravaged by fire and there was no mention of the tar sands at all so we commissioned this hat maker to make a whole series of hats for her. This one’s really fun, I’ve worn it to a lot of halloween parties, but it was this attempt to… And we got Grazia banner ads …So it went out as a full photo shoot in Grazia, we had banner ads there and it went out in the news there. So it was this way to sort of, y’know, still poke fun at them, play with them, but also play with the ‘strange’ of it. Y’know, it’s strange enough that you’re not sure what it is, erm, but at the same time it’s very obvious that it’s about oil, and ducks. So again, this was something that I continued to do with my practice because I got really bored of standing outside Canada house at 10 am in the rain and so, we really challenged ourselves too. I also got tired of only seeing the same activists show up to things so i started collaborating with my friends who were artists who I work with. 

Erm, this is Lucy Sparrow, urm some of you might know her: she’s a felt artist, and she makes, like, whole shops of food out of felt, she just made a whole sex shop out of felt… And so I was just hanging out at her house, and thought ‘lets make some animals’… they’ve got tumours in them, and we made a whole scene… So you can just see there is a whole scene that we laid out outside Canada house, erm, and we were working on this really boring piece of fuel legislation to keep tar sands out of Europe, so we thought, how can we make that interesting? So we made this action, and the other part of it was that then we could invite many of the women in my life who weren’t ready to go to direct action, but were up for sewing, they were up for coming together, so I would hold spaces in my house, where we would sew, we would… erm, there’s even a fluffy, like, flag and all these things… So always creating these entry points in a process and just slowing it down, and just that thoughtfulness that you know people want to take part, they want to be part of that… even the guy who sold us the fabric was like, ‘ahhh send me pictures after!’ How can you… how can you bring people into that part of it, that’s not just like making them do all the labour, but entry points into it. So I think that has been…. that was something that we enjoyed about UK Tar Sands Network was that we, you know, we moved into different spaces – and also it meant the action itself, it was quite safe because they were so freaked out! They were like, what are these animals?.. And we covered it in glitter, so people were sweeping up glitter and it’s like 10 in the morning, so I think again how do you play with that sense of strange, it’s enough to get the Guardian there, it’s enough to get it in BIAS news… But it’s not arrestable, and it’s safe. So I think that’s what I really feel like we need to reclaim that. It’s that place of strange, of play, erm, to broaden it out a bit… Let me check the time… I want to get to questions in about 10 minutes… 

Erm, so again, this is actually the…  AGM in the Hague, so yeah as we started working, the network actually started expanding from the tar sands to the gulf coast, erm, down to South America, to Nigeria, and this was actually, erm, there was a gulf spill that happened with Shell that didn’t even get in the news. This is literally my friend Monique, she’s an amazing filmmaker, I recommend you watch a film My Louisiana Love, it’s heartbreaking, she’s an indigenous  Houma woman, she’s an artist, she works with floating structures in New Orleans, erm and she… they had a spill and we were like we can’t not let this spill go noticed. So what happens often, is that it can be really hard to get resourcing from a lot of the bigger NGO’s and a lot of the groups, so for this we literally, we funded it ourselves. We put it on a credit card, we made the banner, we got there, we had friends from Platform who helped us. So a lot of the responsive environmental justice activism that has got us to this point has been happening through that. Has been happening when you know groups like, I would ask them for, like, you know, money for this and they will be like well here’s 25 quid and you’ll be, like, okay 25 quid, I’ll ask my mom, erm… So I bring that up to say you know there’s a real resourcing urm, issue in this and I think that that is an extension of white supremacy in non-profit industrial complex. So that’s another question: How are we going to creatively recenter and resource the people that have been holding this movement, how are we going to build that responsiveness. Because I can imagine, a lot of us see it all the time I see it all the time people being like crowdfunders… or climate catastrophes happening urm, and as someone who has been in the non-profit space for a long time they, they don’t have a plan. A lot of the big organisations like…[…] are still writing policy places to decide whether they are going to respond to climate chaos.

So I think as creatives, as people really thinking about how we are going to build that responsiveness to it as well, erm… you all know this picture ( shows picture.) Yeah, and I think that was a real turning point in our movements where, you know, a lot of us have been talking about racism within environmentalism, white supremacy, erm and during this action that was just before the COP, we literally had NGO’s setting the police on us, we had Vivienne Westwood, the giraffes trying to take us over, that was so surreal, erm, it became very visible that there was an actual physical violence towards us being activists…So I just bring up that picture to say, you know, these questions that we are having about domestic tactics around power and privilege have been happening for a while, erm, yeah… And so for me, I think, you know, a way I have responded to that has been in different ways, I’ve had to physically pull back from doing some of the organising, and quite a lot of it has been shifted towards understanding what I would call my environmental justice ancestors as well. Erm, people I’ve been learning from, from my own culture, from my own faith, erm and in 2011 I think was the 20 year anniversary, i’m going to check that year, since the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa  and the Ogoni Nine…So what we did was we really wanted to bring together the narrative of environmental justice and to talk about the Ogoni Bill of Rights, I really urge you to read the Ogoni Bill of Rights… It’s incredible, one of the first documents that really shows how indigenous rights are connected to environmental justice rights and Ken’s just an incredible writer, and the people who write that…So I would say that’s a cornerstone text of environmental justice. And it just shows that, you know, many of these environmental struggles that have been happening over the past 500 years, erm, have incredibly sophisticated analysis when it comes to how the indigenous rights and environmental justice connects together. We have to remember that 80 percent of the land that is biodiverse and still in tact is under the legal or treaty title of 5 percent of the population of indigenous people…So 80 percent of the land that we have got to protect, to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, that’s still intact erm, is under the legal title of 5 percent of the population of indigenous peoples. So you know, as well as being in solidarity and being environmentally justice for every movement, also as strategists I think people need to start having this question: Where does indigenous rights sit within the strategy, within the tactics, within the common mission…because those are the communities who have the specific legal title to stop Shell to stop these corporations going in as well. 

And yeah so, this is an artwork by a British-Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp – it’s really cool, she built this truck and inside it was actually a cinema and a library, it has the name of the Ogoni Nine who were killed, and it says “I accuse oil companies of practicing genocide in the Ogoni’…So this bus actually travelled across the UK for about 10 years and it was a work of solidarity between Platform and the MOSOP, which is the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, to educate people in the UK about Shell’s, erm, global legacy… Then when it was the anniversary of the death, the communities in Nigeria said ‘we want the bus back for a month’ – and it was like, it was this incredible moment of, it’s not actually the most practical thing, but we all knew it had to happen, and so we actually worked…And it was just such a beautiful display of this solidarity coming home and so, I worked with Platform on the logistics of getting this bus to Nigeria… It didn’t actually make it. It fell in the water, in the dock here, we got it out and cleaned it… erm, fell in the water… and then we cleaned it and we sent it again, we sent it in a boat, and when it got to Nigeria the guy who was the colonel who was actually responsible for the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine suddenly became a customs officer, and he erm, withheld the bus, he put it into storage, and we never saw it again. But you know, I am a comms person so we quickly turned that around, and we turned it into a story, and it went international. And what we did was, the Ogoni people actually used the bus to negotiate with the Nigerian government – so, tried to get meetings about the bus, but then the meetings turned into talking about the clean up and the remediation by Shell and now actually one of the wives of one of the Ogoni Nine has finally had a court case, which shows how Shell was implicated in their murders…So again there are when we talk about… sometimes in the news it’s like ‘oh, in the last 18 months climate justice has just emerged’… I think it’s really important that we remember this history and these legacies because this is how we got to this point. 

Now I just want to show a little bit more of the visuals that came out of this… So this is actually by the late Jon Daniel, who was an amazing graphic designer who passed away about 18 months ago. He is amazing, he did the artwork for like parliament like amazing music and he just used to, every morning when the bus was gone, he would just gift us another visual, they would just like show up in our inbox…So we actually used these in Nigeria, erm, to support the youth in Nigeria who were trying to save the bus suddenly. It became this campaign and it really went viral on hip hop radio stations, so it was really interesting because even though the bus was gone it brought this story to this new generation to understand Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy and also to understand that there’s this deep solidarity movement in the UK that’s working alongside this… So again, you know, often we talk about artists and activists working together, but I think it’s so important because sometimes the quality of design that comes out of activism can be… not that great… is that alright to say? And sometimes we need that elevation and we need to see it become professionalised so for me sometimes when i’m working with artists it’s to be able to take it into that pop space, how do we take it into mainstream media… how can I see something differently that I haven’t seen before because I’m too close to it… and also just the skill with visual communication, erm, and also his networks and the networks he opened us up to as well… so I think that relationship between artists and activists is really, really  crucial. 

During the work of being more of a campaigner, I found for me that the thing that was becoming the most important was actually being a media maker, because it was becoming so difficult to get stories in to the press about these environmental justice messages…So this was during COP21 and I was there with IEN and we had a delegation then and what we did was we started making urm, we had a channel called Indigenous Rising Media, so what we did was the principle media that we created that came out of COP was for us and by us, so we actually made all the content for indigenous people back home to be, like, ‘yo, we are in Paris, and this is happening’, and something happened with the media where we started hitting, like, a million hits per story – because there is actually a power when we’re in control of the narrative… So, often, we are always making the press for the Guardian or the BBC or whatever, but when you actually flip it and we start making the content and the narratives to lift us up, there is something quite interesting that happens, you drop into a different narrative story telling, you know… So for me sometimes I can figure out something in 30 seconds but, like, you can’t rush a grandma! So now we are going to have three minutes, we are going to hear this story, and going into that storytelling… So for us, story-based telling, narrative strategy work has been a crucial strategy that we have used to decolonise. So it means no, we have got this digital space, we are going to hold it, we’re going to tell them our story, we are going to talk about colonialism, and we are going to imbed that into that narrative, and I think that is something that has happened, really good in those spaces, something that we need to hold more in the UK about how we are not just trying to court the latest Vice article or whatever, because it’s so easy and they are thirsty… We can hold the space and be like, actually you are going to hear the long story, you know? I will pull a story if I don’t like it in there… Like the Telegraph tried to pull a story about protestors, like, ‘no you’re changing it, everywhere it says protestors, to water protectors’ –  and they will threaten to pull that story. But that’s another line that we have to hold: how are we going to tell a story? How are we going to tell a narrative, which voices we want in there… okay. 

So, just to bring us up to now… As I said, as many of you know, the last 18 months have been on some levels amazing in terms of this, you know, a lot of us who were considered conspiracy theorists never thought we would have this moment, where we are, in this moment; but it has been one of the most painful times in terms of, like I say, those of us who have been holding this work, holding these legacies, being moved out of this space, being erased by the sheer size of Extinction Rebellion and the intentional omission of us from that space. We know that’s not just accidental, but a willful ignorance to remove those of us who have been doing this work from that space… So, I have been trying to, erm, yeah, hold more of these conversations, loving conversations, to question it – because I think we really need to talk about how that it’s not just excluding people, it is hurting people… It’s putting those people who need to be at the front and center of this conversation at the front of it. So with the Canning Town action that happened, I think that was a really really pivotal moment for me where I was just like, you know what…Screw it. I am going to go hard, I am calling this out because I have seen too many of the young women, young people around me who are hurting… So i think, yeah, how can we come into the reality that it is not a question anymore, Extinction Rebellion isn’t inclusive for us, and yeah, to be honest I don’t want to talk about it anymore… In a way, how can we build a movement to support those of us that have been doing this work and speed that up a little bit, because I don’t want to talk about white supremacy and environmental activism for another 10 years… So I think we now need to think about this culture of care, where we believe, and we see people and it’s just accepted. If we say that it’s excluding us… I think that is something that we need to talk about. How we are moving into the culture of care and moving from having allyship to accomplices. So how are people who know that those spaces are not safe, how do we move quickly from our ship which might be committed to learning, committed to unpacking that privilege, towards becoming accomplices; so for instance resourcing, supporting POC, black activists, indigenous activists as well – so I think that is something we can talk a bit more about in the breakout sessions: about understanding how we can all be accomplices in this space.

And so this is just the last image, because for me it has been really painful to hear… and that’s Greta in the corner, and I’ve put her into this image because with all those conversations that came out about her being the figurehead of it, I think it was really painful, because my brother is autistic and part of me was like ‘Go Greta, you are killing it! Like, your facts are on point!’, but it was also a very painful moment to see – oh no – again, another generation where we are forced to confront white feminism, this time in a child. And how she is being, I don’t know what’s controlling her but how we can make sure we don’t go through another generation where I’m in animosity with my white sisters where at this point we are actually starting to be in allyship… So what I did with this image was, when, we put four youth activists, and it is US-centric, I apologise for that but it was for a US outlet, and we recentered the image so we put Austin Potelier in the image as well as…. And this was the spirit of recentering our voices, we are bringing those back in. So as a media maker, as culture makers when you’re, even who you put on your panels, who you invite to your events, you have so much power, to recenter and, erm, do that work. And for me that’s very important because it’s not about attacking Greta, I mean she’s dope she’s doing her bit but the infrastructure around her and the culture that it is creating is really perpetuating white supremacy in that movement…So I think how can we be creative how can we be culture makers in how we address that and protect our children from having to go through that as well.

You know, I get a lot of females, especially black moms who are working around pollution in london and who are like George Monbiot’s a mad racist, I can’t talk to him, why are you talking to him …Literally we shouldn’t be doing this kind of work. So I think for me as a creative I think that’s really where the question is now which is how can we be in this moment where things have like woah they gone up and they’ve … out…How do we bring the histories of environmental justice globally, the work that has been done here back in? How do we hold the white supremacy accountable without burning out the women of colour who at the moment are holding that work, you know I have asked – facetiously – Extinction Rebellion to pay my emotional labour invoices, haven’t heard back. But yeah there’s a real crisis…for instance, someone like me, I should be talking about insurance campaigning, financial campaigning, what do CNN want to talk to me about? Extinction Rebellion. I’m like, dude, let’s talk about anything but that. So how do we quickly and responsively restructure the culture of organising, support those who are vulnerable and use our creative capacities to come up with forms of activism – and accept they are forms, like there’s no reason why we have to have a placard anymore, and march, and do those things; like, how do we come up with new forms as well…So I’m going to stop there and have some room for questions…Thank you.

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Posted on February 24, 2020
Categories: Environmental Justice & Activism
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