Rax Interview with Robbie Gillett
29 November 2010
In July, New Internationalist published The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.
Robbie Gillett (23) lives in Manchester. Since he was a teenager he has been involved in campaigns around sweatshop labour, the arms industry, the war in Iraq, free education, coal, airport expansion and climate justice. Although he got in trouble for bunking off school to attend a protest against the war in Iraq, he has recently been invited back to his school to give a talk about climate change. He likes skateboarding, film and dubstep. The Rax team caught up with Robbie in January 2010.
How did you get started as a young campaigner?
I started receiving charity appeals for starving children in parts of Africa when I was about 13 years old. After a while I thought, "Why are these people hungry? There's plenty of food! There must be something wrong with our system." And I went from there.
What is the campaign that you are part of now, what issues are you addressing and what inspired you to get involved?
I'm currently looking at the role of aviation and airport expansion in causing climate change with a group called 'Plane Stupid'. I got inspired after going to a protest site called the Camp for Climate Action in Yorkshire in August 2006. I learnt about the science and realised that if we didn't do something now, loads of people were going to die from dangerous weather systems like drought, floods and hurricanes as well as the resulting wars and conflicts.
Climate change isn't just about the environment, it's about people and justice.
I went to the Climate Camp with a few mates - it was also loads of fun. I made new friends too. We felt that we couldn't just leave it to politicians and big business to carry on messing up the planet - that ordinary people needed to get together and take action.
One day, a load of us blockaded the taxiway at Nottingham Airport in September 2006. We got in a bit of trouble with the police, but it didn't really matter. There was a much bigger issue at stake - the role of aviation as part of the climate change problem.
What kind of work did you do to inform yourself of the key issues and what tips would you give young campaigners in this stage of 'critical thinking and enquiry'?
I suppose it's good to ask, "What is motivating this person to tell me this?"
So 50 years ago, tobacco companies would say, "There's no proof that smoking is bad for you." And now we all know it is - and that the reason they were saying that was to protect their profits. Similarly, if someone from the aviation industry says, "We can carry on expanding the number of flights and stop climate change at the same time." - you might think, "Maybe he's looking to protect his profit too."
We should do it for everyone. If green campaigners says, "Aviation is causing climate change." - we should ask why they are saying that. The answer would be, "because they want to stop climate change." So then in deciding who to believe, you would need to weigh up their motivations. One wants to make money and the other wants to stop the planet burning and people dying. Their motivations will influence what they say, and critical thinkers need to judge which motivations might affect the truth.
Did you ever use experts to back up your cause or inform your cause? How important do you think this is?
I got into climate change because I found the science worrying. Science is a tricky subject, so we often ask experts what their opinions are on certain issues. If someone has spent several years studying a subject at school and University, they'll probably know a lot about it. So we use scientific articles to back up what we say regularly.
At the same time, experts aren't everything. You don't have to be an 'expert' in order to take action (most scientists don't campaign - they focus on being experts). An expert might know a lot about one subject, but that doesn't mean they know everything or their opinions are more valid than yours.
For example, an economist expert might say, "Manufacturing guns and bombs is good for the economy." That might be true, but that doesn't mean we should do it. Just because an expert says something that doesn't make it morally correct. We all need to develop our own thinking skills to question and challenge the people in charge.
What tips would you give young people about how to be a good advocate for their campaign?
Talk to your friends. Ask them what they think of about a subject. Listen to what they say and don't rant at them. Make your campaign fun - use music, cool artwork, fancy dress, theatre techniques if you like. Take action together because you'll be more effective. Be calm but passionate.
If people tell you that you that you can't change anything, point to all the examples in history where people have changed things. Point to the workers movements in the 19th century that improved hours and conditions in factories and established the right to form a trade uniom. Point to the Suffragettes that got the votes for women, or the civil rights movement that got votes for African-Americans in the USA.
All these benefits are not given to us. We rise up and take them. It's important to remember that.
In what ways is 21st Century technology important for campaigning and how does your campaign use it?
The internet and mobile phones are really useful. We use email alot. And we put pictures on our website. But that's just to to talk to people we already know. If you want to meet new people, you need to go out and talk to them on the street, in the playground, at the workplace, the bus stop, anywhere. A friend on facebook is not the same as a friend in real life.
And history is not made up of people doing stuff on MSN messenger. It's just a method of communication. Real change happens outside of the internet.
Also, we have to be careful about electronic communication because the police and private detectives working for big businesses can read our emails and texts and listen to our phone calls. When we meet to plan direct actions, we take the batteries out our phones so that they can't be used as bugging devices. This isn't us being paranoid. I've got friends in court cases where the police have used transcipts of what she had said on the phone as evidence against her. So technology is a mixed bag and needs to be used carefully.
What kind of actions have you taken part in and why did you think they would be affective?
Plane Stupid is a direct action group. Direct action is when you directly intervene into a situation in order to create change, rather than asking someone else to do it for you. It's about taking responsibility for the world around you rather than deferring that responsibility to others like politicians or corporate businessmen.
For example, if an airport wants to bulldoze my house to build a new runway - I could write a letter to my MP and the airport and ask them not to do it. That's called lobbying and it might work, but it might not.
But if I get together with my friends and form a human chain around the bulldozers and prevent them from knocking down my house - that's an example of direct action. It's Doing-it-Yourself.
Sometimes, it's good to use direct action and other methods for creating change - such as lobbying decision makers, protest marches, media stunts, petitions, political graffitti as well as direct action.
What are your main tips to getting press coverage?
Think about the photo. What does your action look like? If you make it look exciting and colourful, it might get in the papers. But getting in the papers isn't everything. It's important to do actions that are genuinely trying to create change and not just photo stunts. It depends on the campaign and who you are trying to communicate to.
Crucially - write a press release. Check out George Monbiot's guide to Exploiting the Media.
What are the main obstacles you have come up against and how did you overcome them?
Working out how to create the long term change you want to see can be really difficult. It's easy to plan a one-off demonstration or a direct action. But making it fit into a wider long term plan is challenging. The best bet is to learn from history and to see how those lessons can be applied or readjusted to your current situation.
What issues do you think most concern young people today and what key advice would you give young people who want to set up their own campaigns?
I think the privatisation of public space really affects young people. Our town centres are increasingly turned into places to shop and consume. And when you're young you don't have much money - so you're excluded. And then people get bored and excluded.... and when you're bored and excluded you do all sorts of stupid things.
Set up a campaign that is relevant to you and that you can act upon in lots of different ways, with lots of different people. Sometimes, if you're tackling a big problem like aviation - it's good to find a bigger organisation that is also working on the issue. That way, you're smaller actions fit into a bigger picture.
When you face a big problem by yourself, it can seem really scary and daunting. But when you take action collectively with others, you feel empowered and stronger together.