Activism and government

Fridays For Future press conference on Africa and the climate crisis

In today’s press conference about the climate crisis and Africa organised by Fridays For Future International, one of main concerns was getting the message about climate change across and creating wide-spread awareness. Activists do not seek to govern, especially not the young. They see their role as using actions like strikes and demonstrations to force those who govern to act appropriately. In addition, putting their faith as they do in science, their activism seeks to shift scientific knowledge from the laboratories to the hands of activists and policy makers in a quest for urgently needed solutions. The fact that some elected leaders refuse the idea of climate change and deride science is just a further indication that we need to revise forms of government including the way leaders are chosen, how decisions are reached and how policies are put into practice.

Much was said in the press conference about the way mainstream media sidelines the discourse of all but the few. This raises the question of whether effort should be put into convincing the media to cover such subjects or if other relays might be appropriate. This ties in with a comment by Naomi Klein in a webinar also organised by Fridays For Future about developing multiple channels of communication so as not to be dependant on a limited number of media platforms that don’t always have our interests at heart.

At the same time, the very nature of this multimedia press conference and the discourse of the young people taking part underlines the need to have the best possible narrative. In other words, not only do the neglected stories need to be heard, but also the narrators need to present their stories in a way that can be heard and adhered to.

Both my books, Stories People Tell and the sequel, Local Voices, are traversed by these themes. The following extract from Local Voices illustrates that, even when you’ve got the ear of those in power, many factors conspire to make action difficult. Annie, the young head of a nation-wide movement of girls and women, is talking to Underwood, the Prime Minister, and Dillinger, Deputy Prime Minister. Alice, mentioned at the end of the extract, is a surrogate grandmother, an elderly professor who acts as Annie’s mentor and friend.

Extract

Dillinger took a seat next to Annie and looked expectantly at Underwood who in turn looked at Annie. She took a deep breath. She had started this, so maybe it was up to her to end it. “You want to know how to abandon your healthcare initiative without losing face.”

Underwood winced, saying, “As direct and to the point as ever.”

“I don’t see how we can abandon one of our main manifesto promises without losing face,” Dillinger said. “The opposition will slaughter us.” If the news on TV was anything to go by, the opposition had them backed into a corner and three-quarters done for already.

“Go on TV and announce you have heard the concerns of the healthcare community. Invite the unions to London for talks. Channel their energy into official discussions. At the same time, send all your MPs out to their constituencies and have them talk to the people. Send out civil servants. Send scientists. Send everybody.”

“Hold constituency surgeries, you mean?” Dillinger asked.

“No. That would be too limited. Not just your voters. Everybody. Find out what difficulties people are having with healthcare. Include mental health and social services. Explore local initiatives, collate findings and begin to look for ways to help without necessarily intervening. Leave the initiative to the local community, wherever possible. Talk publicly about your findings, praise what people are doing locally, but promise nothing.” Halting to catch a breath, she added, “And brace yourself to cease your drive for austerity. It’s hurting the poorest and weakest worst of all and will undermine any effort you make to improve local healthcare.”

Underwood looked alarmed. Dillinger whistled between her teeth. “I wonder why we bother. We might as well just hand you the keys and let you get on with it. At least you’d take the brunt of the blame and recriminations from the rich and the conservatives.”

“Even if my replacing you were remotely possible,” Annie replied, remembering a discussion she’d had with Alice, “I wouldn’t be interested. I’m the ideas at the periphery, the person who stands astride worlds, who bridges the gap between widely different communities, not the prime mover at the centre of things who gets things done.”

Learn more about Local Voices

Homelessness

Tiles for the homeless

It’s all very well telling people to stay at home to combat the Corona Virus. But what about those who have no roof over their heads? Those who have no home to return to?

Extract about homelessness

In Stories People Tell, amongst other things, Annie sets out to publish the stories of those whose voices don’t get heard, using video and the Internet to enable people to bear witness. In this extract she is listening to a homeless grandmother forced to look after her granddaughter, Pet, who has ceased to talk since her mother died.

“My daughter had a flat and a job. It wasn’t well paid. The place was a dump. But we got by. The three of us. The father was supposed to pay. But he never did. Then my daughter lost her job. Cutting back on cleaners the supermarket said. We got benefit for a while. Then that ran out. Some hitch in the system. They have no money either. The landlord threatened eviction. My daughter took to the street. She was desperate. The money was good. Sometimes. It paid the rent. And we had something to eat. But one of the blokes got violent. Exploded in a frenzy. Roughed her up. Couldn’t stop punching and kicking. The ambulance arrived too late. Pet was there when her mother died. Saw it all. I remember it so well. She sat there like a doll, frozen, her eyes blank, not understanding. How could she? It was too much. She was just five. That’s when she stopped talking. Hasn’t spoken a word since. The police never caught the guy. If ever they tried. The landlord kicked me and Pet out. Didn’t want such sordid people in his house. Folks give us food. From time to time. Or a bit of money. Like this afternoon. I was to get a fiver. For taking part in the demonstration. We muddled by. Then Pet got ill. There was nothing I could do. Doctors don’t want to treat homeless beggars. The hospital wouldn’t have us. Thank heavens she recovered. On her own. Sometimes I wonder why. But the worst is not having a place to go. When evening comes. People are hurrying home to a good meal. And we have nowhere. And nothing to eat. It kills you in the end. I’ve seen loads of people give up. They find a quiet corner. So as not to disturb. Then just lie down and never get up.” 

Find out more about the novel Stories People Tell.

Greta the Great!

Greta

Greta the Great. No irony is meant by the title. Few adults can claim to have been such a powerful advocate for social change confronted with the climate crisis. Few people have been capable of mobilising so many, in particular the young, in such a short time. She has captured people’s minds and hearts and inspired many. The way she cuts through the misleading if not dishonest discourse of many politicians is both admirable and urgently necessary. Her actions move me deeply. Not only because she has pitted herself against the powerful in a struggle that our survival depends on, but also because she reminds me of the girls who are the heroes of my novels, Kate in the Boy & Girl Saga, Annie in Stories People Tell and Local Voices, Sally in The Storyteller’s Quest or Sami in Chimera.

All my books are about the self-empowerment of the young, girls in particular, in a world that tends to curtail their opportunities, belittle their abilities and discourage them from doing great things. My goal in writing fiction is to imagine inspiring ways forward, despite the difficulties thrown in the way of these young people. I began writing these novels long before Greta came on the scene, but to see a young girl manage so much is encouraging and heart-warming.

That said, the treatment of Greta by the media, in particular those that are favorable to her and her cause, raises questions that I evoke in my latest novel We Girls Show the Way. The elevation of a young person to ‘saviour-like’ status is troubling. As Kate suggests in the following extract, the media capitalise on the glorified image they portray of her. What will be the impact on her and the cause she defends? Will Kate’s strategy, just like that of Greta, attempting to deflect media attention to other actors in the struggle, be enough.

Extract from We Girls Show the Way

Twelve year-old Kate – head of the Lost Girls choir, a group of some twenty girls that escaped from dire conditions in a convent-run orphanage – is being questioned by a young journalist about her reactions to the escape of another group of mistreated orphans girls…

“But as leader, surely you have an opinion,”  the journalist asked.

The word ‘leader’ brought Kate up short. She was indeed the leader and it was only right she be recognised as such. Yet she’d already seen how the press singled out an individual as a figurehead and glorified that person, repeatedly talking of her and only her, shaping her public image till she became a currency they could cash in on. That said, there was probably little she could do against it, less it be to push other members of the choir into the spotlight as she planned to do with their pamphlets. Thinking of which, she turned to Suzanne who was busy sorting dried herbs.  “What do you think?”

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

We Girls Show the Way – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye. (Yet to be published)