Picture the scene: September, 2012. Young Ellen takes a flyer from a silent figure outside the QM. It has details of an upcoming anti-austerity march. People who don’t like the Tories! Just like me! A few days later I ascend the stairs of the Boyd Orr looking for the meeting of this organising group. Nervous and wearing lipstick to make a good impression, I enter the room, the only new face there. The group chatter and introduce themselves. One heads up the feminist society, and tells me about living with the guy with painted nails sat next to her quietly eating hummus.
“It’s great because we’re both vegan!”
An androgynous goth relays a story of arguing with the Socialist Workers’ Party that afternoon about rape apologism. Another mentions Billy Connelly’s involvement in the Commonwealth Games, and someone sighs,
“Is that something else we have to boycott?”
Soon the meeting begins and everyone says a little about themselves and their experiences. The Hetherington comes up a lot, and they explain to me that it was a building they occupied to protest cuts to the university budget. I’m out of my depth with little idea what they are talking about, despite their encouragement. Soon their eyes are on me, friendly but wildly intimidating, as I say,
“Hi, I’m Ellen, and I just moved here, so… uh…”
I go red trying to communicate the lack of radical left-wing scene for teenagers in Inverness. Then I nod along as plans are made to make signs for the anti-austerity march, then leave. On the day, I wake up with a Cheesy Pop hangover realising I have long since missed the bloc.
One arts degree later and here I sit scribbling in the Botanics with my badges on my backpack, my long words, and more photos online of myself holding placards than anyone needs. It took a year after that experience to get round to attending my first Amnesty International event, a rabbit hole I fell down which led me to a world of learning, unlearning, and endless meetings. Joining social justice-oriented groups and circles has been the defining feature of my uni years, and I can’t really remember what my thought processes were like before it all.
Identifying as a capital-A activist can feel uncomfortable because the word suggests making some kind of difference. In my experience, even when trying your best, you are often not making the difference you want to be. Maybe you’ve picked the wrong battle and the institutions you are up against are like brick walls. After hours spent typing up minutes in meetings, standing in the rain with flyers until you catch a cold, and arguing over the best plan of action, your efforts don’t come to fruition and few people recognise your labour. Everyone rolls their eyes at your idealism while you burn out. Or so it goes on bad days.
What I’ve realised on the good days is that it’s worth it for the sake of building a valuable community. Widened perspectives and alternative ideas are most powerful when translated into creating supportive relationships based on an ethic of mutual care. Many people turn to organising because the dominant culture has alienated or wronged them. We come together to educate each other and make empathetic tracks away from (while undeniably existing within) structures of patriarchy, racism, cis-heteronormativity, and so on. This is how we bond as weirdos and queerdos. Signing a petition doesn’t make you a better person, but being an open and loving friend does.
Feeling the need to protest bad shit with other people has led me to many an odd place, from a church basement full of snoring climate marchers in Manhattan, to debating conflict minerals in the senate office of Glasgow Uni, to indirectly coming out as bisexual to my dad onstage in front of a hundred others, all the way to this column and you, dear readers.
Now my first week of indefinite full-time working life has made me fear even more the demands of capitalism-sans-SAAS. But even if our lifestyles change when we are expelled crying from the womb of university, the lessons we learn can stay with us. I sincerely hope that even in the years of minimum-wage work before the day writing pays, I will always find community in the places I end up in. All I ask for is plant-based sustenance and pro-feminist friends to get existential and angry with at 3am.
Thank you for staying with Disruptions. Let’s stick together with our ideals even as the world tries to swallow us whole. Peace.