"When you start from fear, you lose the ability to think critically" - Heather from Keduzi interview

Early 20th century painting on a square canvas of a black and white swan (each on a background of the opposite colour to its own feathers) touching each other's beaks

Heather is a Colombian-USer who spent 17 years in England before moving to Colombia in 2020. She works with organisations on EDI/DEI (Equality, Diversity, & Inclusion), offering a non-tick-box approach. Her background includes being an economics lecturer, an interfaith minister of spiritual counselling, founder of a refugee and asylum seeker organisation, project coordinator for Education for Sustainable Development in UK universities, a hospice volunteer, founder of a Transition Town in England, trainer for Extinction Rebellion International and UK, a volunteer coordinator for an AIDS organisation, and communications coordinator for Deep Adaptation Forum. She considers herself a communitarian-anarchist.

visit Keduzi.org for contact details

**Content warning - this interview contains mentions of violence and brutality on small and large scales, and also references insensitive public comments made by Roger Hallam about such subjects**

Submitted by quietfire on February 16, 2024

How would you describe your work, activism, and intentions so far in life?

I started a Transition Town near Bristol in England, back in 2006. It was a very middle class, white group, and I didn't realise that at the time, but that was where my climate activism began, and then, at some point I started to learn that one of the results of climate change would be refugees. At the time, there was what I call the Racism Crisis of Europe, in 2015, when many migrants were entering Europe. In Lincolnshire, where I was living at the time, people wanted to do something for refugees. There wasn't an opportunity, so I started an organisation for refugees and asylum seekers called East Lindsey Area of Sanctuary.
I learnt a lot through that work, I noticed a lot of racism and cultural unawareness with white English families who wanted to support refugees.

Then I began working with Extinction Rebellion (XR). At first I was taken in by their purpose, but many people around me said XR was alienating and that it wasn't listening to working class people, refugees, people of colour. So that was where a lot of things came together for me, and, eventually, it led to what I do now, which is anti-racism and anti-oppression work, and also supporting people who are marginalised by society, and people who are leaving XR or Just Stop Oil (JSO).

How have your intentions changed?

In Transition Town and at the beginning with XR, I was under the impression that we just needed to pressure the government. Now I feel it's quite obvious why that doesn't work , and that, even if the state did go along with these things, it would be eco-fascist. Now I see that a different approach is necessary, where we're actually working with people who benefit the least from the way the system is set up, because, otherwise, we end up trying to protect our privileges, and that's what can lead to eco-fascism.

What sort of world do you wish to see?

I want to see a world where we understand why we got to where we are, and where we understand why relationships are so important. Relationships between people who haven't and others who have benefitted from the system can highlight the false solutions that are being offered to the privileged. I'd like to see a world where we are focusing on taking care of each other's needs, and those needs include belonging and being creative and doing things we find meaningful. I want to see a world where that's emphasised, where we focus on keeping each other as safe as possible.

The prognosis of the planetary ecosystems isn't good, but what’s important is being grounded in the reality of it.

Can you suggest a way these aims could be made a reality given the present situation?

We need to start where we are; through dialogue and relationship building, helping people see that anything they're suffering is connected to this broader picture, and that's why we need each other. Rather than being distracted or confused by demanding the state do something, instead, people would know that 'we are all we've got', and start focusing on transformative justice, conflict training, all of the things we need in order to support the relationships that are necessary for survival.

What do you think is likely to happen in society over the coming years?

I think we're going to see further polarisation; more people moving towards mutual aid but also more people moving towards eco-fascism. It feels this is where it's going with conspiracy theorist rhetoric. But others are waking up to why we need to show care for each other more.

If things are moving towards eco-fascism, an appropriate response is creating a counter narrative. I feel that this has been missing all these years, there isn't a good counter narrative to what the far right says.

What form could a counter-narrative take?

The far right is good at building relationships, acting like they're doing mutual aid, and giving their narrative of what's wrong - blaming immigrants and creating further polarisation. I think groundwork needs to be done, where people who have the counter narrative (hope, collective action for mutual benefit) are actually going into communities, building relationships, supporting people where they are, and offering consistency. It could include Ad-hacking in neighbourhoods that are being targeted by the far right, making the real enemy visible; showing that the system benefits very few people (elites) but mainly it needs actual relationship-building.

How do you think we can enable the best societal responses to crises?

We need to find one another, actively support each other, and find out what's going on. I think an appropriate response will come from having the perspective of the people who benefit the least from the system; and the only way we're going to get that is by earning each other’s trust, and we can only do that by making friends with more people.

The middle-class white activists think relationship-building doesn’t sound good enough because of the overwhelming urgency around climate change. They think it's a waste of time, and we're all doomed. Yet, if we don't have the relationships, it's clear to me that we actually are all doomed.

We need to build communities so that people can regulate their nervous systems and think about the complexity of the situation together. When you're in a state of anxiety, you can't think clearly, you end up leaving out a lot of important information and you just do something, not caring if it's effective, if it alienates other people. I believe that comes from having a dysregulated nervous system. They're feeling desperate and therefore not seeing that there are more appropriate responses.

You met Roger Hallam at a Fridays For Future conference in 2019, can you talk about your experience of him?

It was in Switzerland, it was a coincidence that Roger was there, I'd taken my daughter, who was 10 at the time, to go meet Greta. We were having lunch, and someone said "Roger's coming", so I texted him saying I wanted to speak with him. At the time, I was supporting someone who wanted to change the messaging. He wrote back agreeing to talk, and told us when he would arrive and requesting me to find him accommodation (even though the conference had already arranged it). We picked him up from the station.

The next day, we did a workshop for young people, to try and get them to join XR or to take certain actions. I remember there were some XR Youth UK people in the audience, and they were so angry with him. They felt he was being irresponsible towards young people. The non-UK youth were just enchanted by him, and that was a really interesting dynamic to see.

We went to an XR meeting that night in Lausanne, they asked me and Roger to do a Q & A session. It was funny, they would ask really good questions of Roger, he would answer, “Oh everything's going fine”, and then I would basically contradict everything he’d just said about the organisation. People came up to me afterwards saying they were so glad I was there, otherwise he would have got away with saying all this rubbish.

Was this a turning point in your view of Hallam and the organisation?

I'd already left XR but I didn't fully understand his cult of personality until I saw people defending the Holocaust comments, and that the Transformative Justice process didn't change anything. People continued to defend him, and they still do, even though he weaponises the Holocaust, rape, constantly referring to them, which of course does something to a person's body and nervous system when they hear them being used.

What do you think about the current trends in the environmental movement, and where do you think we should go?

I think it is dangerous to go to extremes where people lose relationships because they're saying things are so urgent. Because things are so bad, people say “I don't know what to do, I'm just gonna do something”. I think it comes from our discomfort with complexity. People think there's only either moderacy [in activism], like influencing the government in a 'safe way', or it has to be extreme.

Whereas the complexity of it means we need community in order to think clearly and respond appropriately, and we need to do things outside of our comfort zone that community enables us to do. I think, for a lot of people, relationship building, in their own community, is outside their comfort zone, and that's why they might rather go block a road, which is exhilarating, but the important work of organising on the ground, of getting to know people, finding out what the local needs are and figuring out how to get those needs met is much harder and much more uncomfortable.

Roger Hallam’s organisations, particularly Just Stop Oil, have eagerly distanced themselves from the general public. In recruitment, they distort historical movements to back up their theory.

Why do you think their leadership clings to this logic despite it not achieving what they claim it does?

I think founder syndrome is at play, they want to keep hold of the narrative and protect their role in the movement. Roger Hallam seems to want to hang onto his theory of change at all costs, even though there’s plenty that shows his interpretation of the research was flawed. He’s not a humble person, he’s not open to hear other people’s perspectives or change course appropriately. I was in a meeting when he was getting very biblical, wanting to be like a prophet; if you have that kind of narrative in your own head, any contradictory factual information won’t fit the narrative.

That’s what can happen, considering the fantastic way they founded this movement, capturing the imagination of people all over the world, it was great but it’s been difficult for them to let go of leadership.

They have a fixed idea of which actions are good enough, while claiming their goal is to just to get people active generally. Hallam says “you have no choice but to enter into civil resistance (…) to do otherwise violates yourself”, but JSO says the only valid action now is mass arrests – ignoring that this has only achieved anything within much broader movements, or efforts that could equip people for survival, or which don’t reinforce the strength of the power structure.

I think it’s ego, not wanting to admit they got it wrong. They [XR] did well to raise awareness, but they didn’t have a next step, and the demands were supposedly met.
When you ask something of the state and they say, “OK, yes”, where do you go from there? They’re continuing to beg as if the state has the power to do what it needs to do.

I think people find it very hard to understand that the real work is in addressing the suffering in our communities, and backing the leadership of frontline communities around the world. We could be putting resources towards supporting them while building relationships locally.

But our culture has separated us from one another, especially middle-class people. For them to put themselves in the vulnerable position of getting to know people who aren’t benefitting from the system is a huge ask for them.

They cherry-pick movement examples neglecting the context of what enabled, for example, the militancy of the early feminist movement, or the success of the Freedom Riders – which took place within much broader movements, with huge diversity of theory and action.

Do you think they really believe in their theory because of those examples, or is this just what they think the membership needs to hear?

They’re missing the context that these people were being directly oppressed at the time, whereas, with climate change, in much of the western world, that’s not the case. This isn’t a select group of people who are being targeted by climate change; it doesn’t work the same way. From the global north, it’s an existential threat, it’s something you can’t see, unlike being denied the vote or the same civil rights – those things you can see happening.

I suppose the idea was to inspire people that Von-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) works, but they ignored the contexts, the reality that it wasn’t ever just nonviolence alone, and so it’s set people up with unrealistic expectations as for what the movement could achieve. There’s this philosophy that anything’s better than nothing, which isn’t true because they are alienating people.

I mean, some people won’t like anything, some said “don’t disrupt the roads” and others said “don’t disrupt Rishi Sunak’s house”, many prefer targeting Sunak’s house than blocking roads. But the question remains: is it effective? What is it going to accomplish? I think people have started to feel hopeless so they just want to do something.

Peter Gelderloos, How Non-violence Protects The State

“There is a pattern to the historical manipulation and whitewashing evident in every single victory claimed by nonviolent activists. The pacifist position requires that success must be attributable to pacifist tactics and pacifist tactics alone, whereas the rest of us believe that change comes from the whole spectrum of tactics present in any revolutionary situation, provided they are deployed effectively. Because no major social conflict exhibits a uniformity of tactics and ideologies, which is to say that all such conflicts exhibit pacifist tactics and decidedly non-pacifist tactics, pacifists have to erase the history that disagrees with them or, alternately, blame their failures on the contemporary presence of violent struggle.

Roger Hallam is a social scientist, so he’s not naïve to the impacts of his language use, nor the general normalising of coercion in those groups. Do they think this is passable because they’re attempting to accelerate a movement to militancy?
(purposely triggering listeners with repeated reference to increasing likelihood of sexual violence in crisis situations, aiming to coerce listeners to follow his line of thinking)

Roger Hallam definitely believes that violence is inevitable, so it does seem like he’s willing to provoke it, then it becomes self-fulfilling.

It’s hard to generalise XR now, there’s a lot of more anarchist local organising going on now; mutual aid, connecting things globally. But their way of recruiting in the beginning, with the ‘Heading For Extinction’ talk, used people’s fear and anxiety to move them toward action, but when you start from that place you’re not able to think critically. The existential threat means a lot of people still can’t bear to think they’ve failed, and that’s why it’s so important that there are alternatives where they can be honest about what does and doesn’t work, and build community to figure out what the appropriate response is.

What do you think has been missing from the past few decades of social movements?

When I read Peter Gelderloos' book ‘The Solutions Are Already Here’, I could sense that there are a lot of initiatives happening around the world that we just don't know about because it would be dangerous for us to know about them. They're doing good work like vandalising equipment and stopping things that are causing direct harm to people. I wouldn't be able to say what others should be doing, I just respect that there's a lot of things going on, and if we get familiar with people in front line communities, we can redirect resources towards them.

In the west, maybe more middle-class organisations need to understand that the state isn't going to save us, and maybe then they would start to redirect their time and energy to something that is going to effect change and improve people's lives. I think people need to see the direct effects of their actions. To me, the white middle class climate change movement is constantly focusing on the future, creating anxiety, and it isn't improving anyone's lives. For example, yesterday they were blocking roads in London; it's hard to believe that it's effective in doing something about climate change and it's also not bringing more people on board. Some say that they're raising awareness but the awareness is already there. Definitely in 2019, XR succeeded at that, and yet nothing has been done.

How do you keep level-headed despite the unpredictability of this kind of life? or the clash between expectations/hopes with reality?

I'm part of a community that does peer counselling where we have in mind the theory of why we got into this mess, and the kind of stress that can get in the way of us doing good things. I've been doing it for 14 years, and it's been key in keeping me from getting stuck. I usually feel open and optimistic because I know that humans have this incredible flexible intelligence, and it's not anyone's fault if they can't access that intelligence; it's because of things that happened to them, or the way society and the system works. But everyone can recover that by going through the process of realising what was done and understanding that we're all born with a kind of capability. Everyone I meet has some capacity, so I see it as fun to connect with people and work out how we can use the best of human ability to respond to these crises. That really helps.

How do you keep yourself organised?

I quite like the bullet journal concept. Other than that, it's regular times with other people every week. On Sundays, I always meet with someone and we support each other in planning the week ahead.

What behaviours of your comrades help you in shared efforts?

I have an affinity group that I meet with every week online, and we're continually in touch through encrypted instant messaging. It's fun, educational, and it's supportive. You care about one another, you support when someone’s trying something new; again, it’s relationship-focused.

What boundaries do you draw in organising? maybe when it comes to collaborating with others, potential risks etc.

Due to the nature of my organising, I tend to get self-selecting people. I don't feel like I've had to draw any boundaries. People have been pretty respectful, I support people who've left XR and JSO, I haven't seen people take advantage of that. People reach out at a regular respectful interval. I see boundaries coming more into my life in other things; for instance I support someone in prison who's in Pennsylvania, and with him, I've had to put boundaries because, understandably, he really has a lot of needs for connection. Every Monday, I just read whatever he's written, write back, and do whatever he's asked me to do on that day, because otherwise the needs are so great. Luckily, he does have other people who support him as well.

Would you say there has been a reduction or increase of interest in autonomist and abolitionist ideals? what should we do?

I would say it's increasing. The book 'Let This Radicalize You' is supporting that, there has been a lot of abolitionist groups. I think I'm an example of how it's growing because only in the past few years did I start learning about it.

What could we do to help its increasing popularity?

As the authors of that book suggest, having conversations with people, for example, saying what is the purpose of police? And when there's an example of something asking 'what's another way that need could be met?' So every time we think an institution, or a state body is the answer, we can say what they are delivering, what's missing, and what are other ways that can be delivered? I think having these conversations is a really good strategy.

How do you study subjects that are relevant to your actions? how do you take notes and familiarise yourself?

Generally I try to expose myself to people who are different to me. There's a whole perspective that I don't understand because of my privilege; like disability justice or trans rights work. Yesterday I listened to a podcast about Sex workers in the US. There's so much out there that I don't know about the way the system works because I benefit too much from the system. It's hearing these other perspectives, reading books written by such people.

I take notes because, for me, the best way of learning is by writing even if I never look at the notes again, there's something physically going on between my hands moving and the information going to my brain.

What subjects would you like more comrades to become familiar with?

Learning about conflict and how to handle it, Transformative Justice, restorative justice framework - really tackling that, because that seems to have been lacking. People in activist movements talk about the toxic culture, the sexism, there's sexual abuse - and society is terrible at handling things like this. For most people, the easy answer is to report it to the police, but rarely does much good happen when you report it to the police. Getting good at interpersonal conflicts, putting in place processes for people to communicate better and have a healthier feedback culture.

To familiarise ourselves with these subjects, can you recommend any texts, podcasts, or documentaries?

There's an anthology called ‘Taking Sides’, which was edited by Cindy Milstein. It gives different perspectives on activism. Then, the new book, 'Let this Radicalise You' by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba. For people who think that climate change solutions can still come from the state I would recommend Peter Gelderloos, ‘The Solutions Are Already Here’.

Mariame Kaba has a lot of resources on transformative justice and different ways of dealing with harm in communities. And Dean Spade's writing on Mutual Aid.

What forms of paid work should comrades do? there's significant antagonism between time constraints and pay scales (worker coops? how to simplify?)

Speaking of Dean Spade, he's a lawyer in the US who writes really great stuff, but he said to not expect to do your activism in paid work. He's an example of someone who's got a nice academic job, and who is doing the best they can, but using the money and free time this affords him to do the actual work. I think some people could go into poorly paid work, but with the purpose of organising on the job. Or you could do some highly paid work, work less, and have more time to do the actual work, or you could have a high paid job and donate most of your money to frontline communities. I think there's a range, but obviously I would prefer people don't go into work that's very harmful.

Any further comments you would like included?

Something that keeps coming up for me is people's idea of hope. I think it's a really tricky concept, and some people say 'Hope means we're going to solve the climate problem', or that some big thing will happen. But, if I have to use the word 'hope', I would say I have hope that more and more people are going to realise that we need to care about each other, support each other and skill up, which I think happened somewhat during the pandemic. But otherwise I wouldn't use ‘hope’, I wouldn't project it into the future like that. I read an article with Amitav Ghosh where he said it’s a very privileged western idea to be looking into the future like we’re going to solve climate change, when really we already have so much to look at on the ground.
For me, the hope is that we’re going to get better at taking care of one another, that more people are going to take that on as a project.

I’m so grateful to have had this conversation with you, and I wish you the very best!

Visit Keduzi.org to read more about Heather's work or to contact.
Responding to the absence of open discussion space for activists within XR/JSO, Keduzi are running online discussion space for people to talk through the pros and cons of the actions and impacts of those groups and related, resuming in March or April.