This story is part of a series created from interviews undertaken with five women who stayed at Camp Binbee for one week in late 2017 to take action against the Carmichael coal mine development. The interview project was organised by Robyn Gulliver, who hoped that recording these stories would both give a greater voice to the women who have played such a vital role in the Australian environmental movement since its inception, as well as demonstrate the immense sacrifices people often make in their efforts to stop ongoing environmental decline.
Each interview was recorded and transcribed, and then lightly edited and compiled into a narrative tracking the key elements in their stories and the key moments that changed them (note names have been anonymised). The stories begin with a note from Robyn about the context in which the interview was conducted.
Meeting Jenny at Camp Binbee
The interview with Jenny took place at the very end of our week at camp. After a 1 a.m. wake up, Jenny hopped in the car with me. We were part of our convoy of 25 activists settling in for a 3 hour drive out to the action site. Jenny and two other women in my car were ready to lock their necks to three different gates, each of which were entry points for a construction camp for workers clearing bush for the railway. We got there at dawn, and for two to three hours workers in their utes drove between the gates trying to get through the gates and make their way into the work sites. 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. She was not moving. She was resolute; this was not just a one-off action after a one-off choice. She was one of those people for whom frontline activism was not really a choice at all. She was very young but had been around the movement for a while and that experience showed through: there was no way that she would give ground to these contractors. Their work was held up until three hours later when police sped up and necks were unlocked. We made our way back to camp, pleased to have achieved a little moment of respite for the bush from the destruction of our environment.
On the ensuing journey towards camp, we were followed for hours by the police. Over this time I got to know Jenny a little bit and to hear some of her story. Five of us in a comfy car played cat and mouse as police waited behind us at each intersection, then sped up behind us as the lights turned green. It was a long ride, so I started recording Jenny as she told her story during a 15-minute beach stop in Bowen, five minutes driving through the town and ten minutes talking under a big tree outside some shops.
I learnt snippets of a fascinating story of a woman who is a leader in her own way in the movement. She 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 20s. Jenny gave me hope for the future.
Why do I do it?
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 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 six 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. 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.
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 in 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 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. I really take inspiration from both my parents–I have two mums. And one mum especially–she was at the Franklin River Blockade. It’s their integrity and the way they are just really trying to, in quite small ways, to 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 one of things that’s really been helpful for me is that my family and my friends have supported me in doing lots of different things, like being arrested. That’s fine. They’ll support me, it’s not as if I have to lie about any of the things that I do. I think that’s really great.
Somebody I knew invited me to the Leard Blockade front line. I went for two 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, for two weeks. And then I was doing more and more organising in Sydney as well. 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 was kind of a full-time job 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 really hard to balance.
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 these kind of things have on people.
I guess I realised that maybe the consequences for me 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 just a learning curve for me, learning how to hold a long-term commitment, rather than short-term.
Guilt and hope
But I do deeply feel that sense of responsibility or the need to do the things that I do. I guess in the past I’ve really struggled with feeling guilty when I don’t do as much as I think I should. More recently I’ve really been trying to tackle that, because I don’t think that guilt is a very good motivator. I think we should be driven by 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 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 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 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 become a little bit disenfranchised with how slow political activism is. Or how unable it is to really deal with the issues. I don’t know, I still really respect The Greens, but I guess I also feel that is something that I can come back to later in life and that 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 chosen 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. 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 kinds of more direct frontline actions. Sometimes I still feel like I should be doing other things. But I also know that I have commitments to my other projects. These projects are also really important, so again, it’s a hard balance to maintain. But once I’m finished with 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.
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