Act: Inspiration

Sharon Adetoro: How to Make the Movement More Inclusive? Do the Work!

April 18, 2019

PLEASE, read all of this. PLEASE share it in all your networks.

Sharon Adetoro is the mother of Lillia, a young climate striker (interview here). She kindly took the time to interview the following questions.

sharon.jpg1. Can you say a bit about who you are, where you live, how you came to be concerned about environmental issues
Who am I? That’s always a difficult question. So, I’m an Ex Teacher and now a Childminder and Tutor and mother to 3 very different and unique individuals. I live on the border of Oldham and Manchester. I was born and raised in Manchester and I am Manc to my soul.

As far as the environment is concerned, when you grow up in poverty, issues about the environment get pushed from the fore as parents are more concerned about putting food on the table and see “those issues” as belonging to someone else, so as a child I suppose that my interests were not nurtured although the concerns I had never went away. As an adult that was very different. Although I never found my place within the Environmental Movement, I was brought up with a mend and make do mentality through necessity. I have always lived my life in a way that is very environmentally conscious and I have always kept up to date with issues as they relate to the planet as a whole but also the intersections with people of colour (POC). However it was not until Lillia came along that I started to take activism more seriously – for her, to nurture that curiosity as I know how it can affect you when something you feel strongly about is not. She has been a catalyst for me making more changes to our lifestyle as well as facilitating her education with regards to climate issues and also her activism.

2. Lillia seems a bit of a force of nature. When did she start being interested in environmental issues, and how have you supported her?
Lillia has always loved nature. She is in her element when she is climbing trees, identifying insects or learning about different animal species. She is also very opinionated. I Home Educate her and her elder brother. So it has been a natural progression to facilitate her learning, going from learning about insects to species that were endangered. That is when I think it really hit home to her that what we are dong as humans is impacting wildlife. She became increasingly upset and frustrated by it all that I had to look at ways we could help the environment on a personal level above what we already did.

We have always recycled, it was a natural thing to do, but last year we were passing a council run recycling stall in Oldham town centre and they had just changed their recycling rules and were trying to spread the word and she became incensed that they had stopped recycling thinner grades of plastics due to cost. Her frustration increased after this. She wanted to know what the council was doing about helping the environment so we researched it, and it turned out not much. And so she kept researching and every so often she’d find a piece of information she had to share from climate change, to rising carbon emissions, threat of animal extinction, plastic in the oceans, pipeline/oil developments on indigenous land,and the more she found the more I knew I had to find her an outlet.

We started collecting plastics on walks and reduced meat consumption to add onto what we were already doing as a family but still it wasn’t enough as she knew that although we were making changes others were not, so again I had to find a way that she could maybe impact others. That’s when I stumbled on an article about Greta Thunberg and about Fridays For Future in February of this year. I showed them to Lillia and she just lit up. We joined the Fridays for Future group outside the Town Hall the next Friday. She was in her element handing out leaflets, talking to people asking them to come to the first Youth Climate Strike that was due to happen a few weeks later and that’s where she gave her first speech.

Youth Climate Strike Speech 15th February 2019

3. What sorts of things would you like to see organisations and sympathetic individuals do to support the school students, both in their strikes and other activities?
I think there needs to be a greater support for the student who do strike, in regards to other established environmental groups joining them. Allowing them to take the lead but being there to show solidarity as they are all there with the same objective in mind. Which would in turn be a great opportunity for them to pass information along, because a lot of young people have the passion and want to see change but are uncertain about how to make that change. It would also be valuable for established organisations to pass on their knowledge about striking itself. I often hear young people at the strike who have congregated say ” well what do we do now?” It would be fantastic for organisation to set up stalls, have representatives handing out leaflets. How to get in touch with their MP’s etc . And also facilitate with planning, especially with regards to how to engage a crowd – there is wealth of information out there. The younger generation are very savvy when it comes to social media but they need guidance in how to channel that in a political way to put pressure on MP’s/ policy makers and big business.

I also think there is a need for established organisations to create links with schools. Create educational programmes that go further than just tackling recycling, but talk about how they impact the environment – make it relatable. Especially with teens they are huge consumers and they often don’t relate how their consumption has a direct impact not only on the environment but the people who are living in the areas that are being affected directly by climate change right now. We are not just talking chocolate here but the clothes they wear, the phones they use, the food they eat – although younger people are more open to changing their diet and embracing vegetarian, or veganism.

I would also like to see organisations embrace younger activists into their groups. Their views are very heavily constricted at school. Schools use gaining environmental awards and having school councils as a marketing ploy to raise the profile of school and gain brownie points with Ofsted. School councils and environmental groups are compartmentalised and the students are not given true freedom to actually lead on their ideas. Ideas are presented to them and that is what they have to work with and that very rarely translates to outside the classroom. My daughter is usually the only child at any organisation’s we attend whether that’s the local growing hub,Green Belt protests or Friday’s for Future. The Youth Strikes and Friday’s for Future have been a platform for her to embrace her activism, to feel apart of something bigger than herself, to not be condescended too, patted on the head and told here let’s plant a tree or some wildflowers. All good and well, but to a child who is environmentally switched on and knows that doing those activities, although enjoyable, really doesn’t do much in the grand scheme of things it can be frustrating and feel hopeless.

4. What do you think the main obstacles for the students are, and what can be done about those?
One of the main obstacles is getting out of school in the first place to attend a strike. For younger children they are going to need a parent to attend with them and lets face it in the current climate of austerity and zero hour contracts the average working parents cannot afford to take time of work. They may want to support their children but also know they have to put food on the table. And for some it is as blatant at that, do we strike or do we eat this week. This affects Working Class and Single parent households massively. I know if I wasn’t Home Educating and self employed so I have a little leeway to work around the Strikes, financially I would not be able to take time out. It just so happens right now I do not work Fridays, and that is the reality of the situation. There is a real Working Class/Middle Class divide when it comes to the strikes. At the last strike a young lady got on the mic and said she had to work a full hour on minimum wage to be able to afford the transport cost to attend the strike. Not everyone has the privilege to afford even the basics to attend the strikes, or even the luxury for it to be an option to attend as they have to earn to live and sadly that is the reality for many working class students. So again I think that social media savvy may be a way for those who cannot attend to still have their voices heard – but the information has to be put out there.

Again on the younger end of the spectrum, we have schools threatening exclusions, isolation. detention and fines. Again a lot of working parents cannot afford those fines. But then we have schools penalising the children for upholding the values that our education system is supposed to instil in them. To be citizens, global citizens at that, To be thinkers and to stand up for what is right. There is an absurd dichotomy at play from schools, as if education and the strike is mutually exclusive. They are not! The Strikes are Global Citizenship in action, there are great learning opportunities here to engage students, and to actually get involved in the strikes themselves. Arranging groups of students interested to attend the Friday Strikes, and if schools cannot do that due to resources and costs of cover /transport and budget cuts then arranging strikes at school may be an alternative. Allowing the students to give speeches, inviting the community into schools to hear what students have to say on the issues at hand. I see so many wasted opportunities from schools. I also feel that older students with permission from parents should be allowed to attend strikes, there is this over paternalistic approach from schools. They want bums on seats, which is more about league tables and funding than anything else. They are increasingly taking control out of parents hands to use their judgement about what benefits their child, from taking them on holidays to these strikes – with fines being the penalty. It is a criminalising act, when all they are doing is practicing their democratic right to protest.

I am pleased to say that today reported on NEU teaching union have declared they are standing in “full solidarity” with students taking part in protests. With a motion calling for teachers to oppose “any reprisals” as striking is a democratic right. Which is a fantastic move forward, but I am apprehensive about how this will play out in practice.

5. You and your family are “BAME” or of “mixed heritage”. Does that raise any special challenges for being involved on environmental issues? Have you encountered any racism within the environment movement? If so, what would you like to see allies do? Do you have any examples of good allyship you’d want to share?
My children are white presenting, I am not. The Environmental movement is heavily white and middle class. Both of which we are not. There is an uncomfortableness about entering that space. Especially when there is no one within that space who reflect you or your concerns, and/or do not have your shared experience. You only have to look at major environmental organisations and NGO’s in the UK and the from the top down there is a very heavy white presence, ok, who am I kidding they are majority white. It is one of the main reasons I have stayed on the periphery of the Environmental movement, as I see it very much detached from my reality as a Black working class woman or even how those intersectionalities work together within the movement, let alone being concerned with the issues that face communities within inner city areas, which tend to be areas with high concentration of Black and brown POC where there are very few green spaces, air pollution reaching drastic levels – clean air zones never touch these communities nor are they campaigned for. There is a reluctance to move towards social ecology

Also people talk, and that news travels within the Black community. When The Wretched Of the Earth, Consisting of Indigenous Pacific Island Communities were disrespected at the Peoples Climate March in London a few years back that news travelled within activist networks that centred around POC but was not reported on in the mainstream. They were displaced from marching at the front when invited to do so,with organisers rearranging the blocs so that they no longer lead the march. Placards which read “British Imperialism causes Climate Change” were replaced with “more appropriate” ones, and when the collective tried to reclaim their space and held a peaceful sit-in outside BP headquarters, the police were called by the organisers. That kind of weaponization against POC is abhorrent.

So the catch 22 situation of the Environmental Movement being predominantly White is not always because Black and Brown faces are staying away because they are not engaged within the environmental movement, it is also because they are being erased from it – pushed to the fringes. It is this kind of erasure that is endemic and still needs addressing. However the more those with Black and Brown faces stay away, the more that other Black and Brown POC don’t see it as a space for them. In all honesty I cannot totally disagree with them as the example shows above. I could go on but racism within the Climate Movement is a whole discussion within itself, is far reaching and something that needs to be tackled within each organisation. There are bodies of work out there addressing allyship. A simple google search will bring up articles and books etc. So I feel that when people say how can I be an ally? How can we make the movement more inclusive for POC? I have to reply with do the working, because you are asking me to come up with solution to problems that are not mine.

They affect me yes but the root of the problem does not stem from me. If you can put the energy into the work that is done within the Climate Movement you can sure enough put the energy into figuring out how to make the movement more inclusive. You actually did a pretty good blog post on this recently. But from where I am sitting not many are willing to do that because it means really looking at the structures of organisations and what their foundations are based upon and no one least of all non POC in the movement want to hold a mirror up to themselves and how they contribute to racism within it. Because the work is not pretty. So instead when I post within my groups or ask questions on this issue I get crickets! Silence! Maybe because to others the issues I post about are seen as side issues in a movement that is predominately White but to a POC they most definitely intersect with the movement at large.

And that’s all I have got to say about that otherwise this interview will take a different direction.

Even so I have come to the conclusion that my presence at the youth strikes is necessary, because if a young person doesn’t see themselves reflected, as I did not, then how are they ever going to feel comfortable in that space. The cycle will just continue. I have not directly experienced overt racism, but I am conscious of not letting my self or my child be used as tokenism to show diversity when the movement has not diversified.

6. What you say to a parent who was worried about their child getting in trouble with school or the police because of their involvement in the climate strikes?
There are a lot worse things your child can get in trouble for, being prepared to stand up for their views and protecting the future of the planet should not be a worry. When dealing with school I would say if you are in a position to facilitate your child taking part in the strikes then please do not take what the school have said as law, particularly when it comes to exclusions and detentions, Challenge the school. When it comes to fines make yourself aware of your LEA penalty notice protocol which should be available from the LEA’s website, and yes be prepared that you may very well be fined but stand your ground and appeal against it. Striking is your child’s democratic right.

However I am very aware that my children can get in trouble with the police and potentially be arrested. I am all for no violent protest. As long as my children causes no damage to property or intentional harm to another person then I am fully behind them 100%. And this is something you have to discuss with your children because they need to know that they will not be the only people striking, there will be other organisations/groups that may not have the same non violent philosophy so they need to be aware. I think like I said earlier this is where established organisations can come into play and lend there expertise. Especially with regards to the law and what impact this can have on them.

I am also very aware about how race and class plays a part in this, and that statistically working class and Black and brown POC are more likely to be treated more severely than their white counterparts especially if they take part in direct action. So for any parent I will say the above but also to talk to your children about stop and search laws, especially parents who have POC children, as they are often seen as agitators and Black boys especially are often criminalised by virtue. I actually handed out stop and search know your rights leaflets to some children I knew were attending strikes, which is a sad reality but a necessary thing to do when their presence by authority can be seen as other and counter to what white protester’s are trying to achieve, even when it is not.

Even so I fully support my children in their need to strike for an issue that they feel is important to them. Lillia I have more control over how she strikes and protests, her older brother not as much. He is a young adult who has to make those decisions for himself, but what I can do is arm him with the knowledge he needs.

MCFly says: Fellow white people, fellow middle class people, fellow men.  It may well be that you skipped bits of the above interview because they made you uncomfortable. I implore you, I beg you, go back, read those bits – there are more important things on this planet than how you feel. Think about those bits. And please please please share this interview on social media, via email. Repost it on other websites. “We” are not going to “win” unless and until we learn to listen, learn and engage with these voices. That doesn’t mean they’re always right, that doesn’t mean that our voices no longer matter. But ffs, it DOES mean that  until we listen, until we engage, we are doomed to the irrelevance of clinging on to our own vanishing “privileges” on a doomed planet.

Teaser photo credit: UK Student Climate Network

Tags: environmental racism, school climate strikes, young people