I have always identified as an activist. I remember writing ‘activist’ on my social media accounts many years ago and being warned by friends and colleagues that this would be off-putting to others; too many connotations with anger or working outside the system. If this was true then, it’s not the case now. Whilst it has been grating to see the term co-opted as a trend in the advertising campaigns of harmful products, this has happened as a result of mainstream acceptance. Just in the last few years major institutional UK charities have adopted the term within their campaigning teams, we hear parents, educators and even businesses described as activists. And of course, that’s all right – we all have some power to make intentional, positive social and environmental change.
While digital communications have enhanced our collective understanding of activism and the amazing activist communities all over the world, there are a thousand ways I’d prefer to spend time with my family. I don’t want to be a Mummy Activist. It’s not a game. It doesn’t feel like a choice. But it can be both powerful and beautiful for our families.
We are all activists
I think lots of people are nervous to enter the environmental activism space, not just because they don’t know what to expect, but because they feel they will be judged for all the actions in their lives which do cause harm. This can be particularly true for parents of young children. Already riddled with guilt over out-dated/impossible parenting expectations in a fast-changing world, we are usually too exhausted to even begin to figure out how to go about changing our shopping habits, energy supplier or travel plans.
There’s a lot my family has been doing at home for a while. We have green energy, a predominantly vegan diet, use chemical-free products, buy little ‘stuff’ and rarely drive. But there’s loads more that we could be doing. I can be sloppy with my recycling, could be stricter about plastic packaging, we only recently acquired a food waste bin and we flew to Cyprus earlier this year. And this is all okay – we are moving in the right direction. I think it helps to think about just one area at a time and find a way to make it enjoyable. Over the last couple of years, we have encouraged biodiversity back to our London garden. It’s something we can do as a family, teaching our children, spending time together and enjoying the beautiful, buzzing rewards!
But critically, as a movement, Extinction Rebellion welcomes our imperfections. We accept everyone and every part of everyone and the focus is on system change. I was so drawn to the group because there is a deep understanding that we are making our choices within the framework of a toxic system and that we are all making the changes that we as individuals and groups can manage at this moment in time. Our demands will require radical transformation of our economy and democracy and we don’t blame or shame any individual. I co-ordinate a truly inspiring family group in Waltham Forest and although it’s a great space for chatting through ideas, we have never spoken about our personal commitments around consumption in meetings. The focus is on systemic global change.
Activism can build hope and resilience in children
Most engaged parents are worried not just about climate and ecological breakdown and the subsequent pain and violence, but about how we talk to our children and protect their mental health. I have long conversations with family, friends and local activists about how we can overcome this challenge while so engaged in the crisis. Understanding the developmental changes of children, focusing on empowerment and the examples of transformational projects around the world can be useful in deciding what is the right approach for you and your unique child. In our local XR group we see providing a safe space to explore this area as equally important to our work developing protest actions. There are many wonderful people such as Jo McAndrews who offer loving wisdom in this space.
There is a further complexity with parents concerned about how they engage their children in direct action. Some children love giving out leaflets or dressing up as endangered species, but do they understand what they are sharing and is this information age appropriate. Part of building resilience in children is teaching them about their own agency and belonging in community and this means embracing their concerns or suggestions. We are in the process of planning our next Waltham Forest protest and are exploring a Children’s Assembly to highlight the voice of the child, a printing workshop so that children can design their own protest clothes and interactive ‘climate lessons’ where we teach some of what is missing in schools.
We can protest as a family
I have taken my children to protests in utero, as babies wrapped in slings and holding their hand as we travel by tube. For me, growing up aware of your responsibility to engage in social change is important. But as they grow up, I face two new challenges. Firstly, they will run out of patience or simply run into a crowd if not entertained and watched. Secondly, I worry what they may start reading on placards or understanding from more visibly angry protestors.
There is a stunning family movement developing in XR with several committed organisers providing a great deal of inspiration and support for local groups. There were safe, creative and fun family spaces at all the sites we held during the International Rebellion this year. And there have been several family-led activities since including the Beehive Baby protest at Buckingham Palace.
In Waltham Forest we protested with our children at the Town Hall asking the council to declare and act on the climate and ecological emergency. Children marched from their schools and on arrival we planted flags with local endangered species as well as lavender plants in a vacant bed in the shape of the XR symbol. This proved to be a great way to give children some choice and autonomy in HOW they engaged in an environment that was safe and fun and critically modelled the kind of community collaboration that we will need to overcome the crisis.
Activism is sustainable when integrated
I’m not going to pretend that finding time for activism on top of work, kids (and poor sleep), relationship and all else that life brings is easy. I have found it in many ways energising and my heart has swelled meeting incredible local people with shared values. But at times I have buckled under the pressure and my husband is missing me.
I do believe that the secret is to integrate our activism into our lives rather than seeing it as extra-curricular. The truth is that in in order to reach net zero carbon and prevent further loss of biodiversity, all decisions that we make in the personal or public space need to be made within this context. Personally, I think that is what needs to be taught in schools. And consequently, it makes sense to incorporate the power we have as families to make change into all parts of our life. It is good for our health to spend more time in nature, connecting to the earth. There is much creativity in protests so find a way that you enjoy being involved and don’t over commit. Get the kids involved in painting, building, making. Or bake brownies to share with the people on the front line. Whatever you enjoy doing with your children now, link it to supporting the work of protestors and change-makers. That’s family activism.