By Robert Wood
The West Australian publication Semaphore recently put forward the question ‘how do we build a sustainable practice of activism’? This was some months ago, but it is a question that has stayed with me. After all, sustainability and activism remain, no matter what happens on the day to day. I wrote this in response, thinking of my primary identity as an artist who works with text, and thinking of a long involvement with politics. The simplest thing, and perhaps the most important, is that any action is better than non-action when it comes to activism and you have to do what is right for you at the level of form and content. Do something small and do it for a cause that fits with you as a person. If you cannot finish the rest of this article, take that lesson onboard.
A personal history of politics
My grandparents on both sides were active in their youth for a number of causes. My father’s father was a baker and partook in labour strikes during the 1920s in Scotland before he came to Australia. My mother’s parents were involved in decolonisation during Indian Independence in the 1940s before they migrated to Singapore. That legacy informs my own practice, but perhaps just as importantly they were bedrock upon which my parents could build. My father was an economics speechwriter for Bob Hawke and has always been an ALP loyalist while my mother is an ambivalent supporter of the Greens and a past national president of Amnesty. An uncle on my father’s side is a Vietnam veteran with a disability who became a State and Federal minister in Labor governments, and, an uncle on my mother’s side was Lee Kwan Yew’s bodyguard during Singaporean decolonisation. Another one is still involved with Extinction Rebellion and was recently arrested in non-violent direct action. My mother’s sisters work against the removal of Indigenous children, for refugee linguistic rights, and other social justice causes; another aunt is known as the ‘Mother of Civil Society’ for her role in second wave feminism in Singapore. I have always been surrounded by politically involved people just like lots of others.
My own turn to activism happened in an independent way when I lived in Philadelphia during graduate studies. I would pack parcels for prisoners with Books Through Bars and Decarcerate PA; cook vegan meals for the homeless with Food Not Bombs; and helped start a campus group called Penn Against War. With them, we organised one thousand students to bus to Washington DC for a million person march protesting American involvement in Iraq. We put on a lot of agitprop theatre. When I returned home, I was part of a grassroots group in Margaret River. This was the Witchcliffe Progress Association (WPA) and we advocated for sustainability in our neighbourhood. One day on a protest walk, we had a gun pulled on us by an irate property owner who threatened to shoot the president’s dog. Afterwards, I worked for United Voice as a union organiser in aged care. I would go around to nursing homes and be harassed by management while trying to help new members change their industrial rights. This was up in Perth, and when I moved to Melbourne, I volunteered every Monday for several months for a refugee led support group, Tamil Feasts. We would cook curries with asylum seeker chefs to raise awareness and funding for people on temporary visas. I cut a lot of onions with them. My activism has often been mundane repetitive tasks precisely because I am on the lowest rung of the ladder.
Now, I am the Chair of PEN Perth, which defends responsible freedom of expression. For the most part it means I have written articles in progressive journals like Counterpunch, The AIMN, and Independent Australia. And, helping to put on events, speak at protests, and write letters. We have hosted talks with Peter Greste, who was in jail in Egypt; with Geoff Gallop, our former premier; and have one planned with First Nations author and activist Anita Heiss. I have spoken at rallies put on by the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance, and, I send about five to ten letters a week. This is on a range of issues like imprisoned writers overseas, linguistic rights of incarcerated Indigenous people, media ownership, data and privacy, and how to help citizens live free from hate speech. I also make a monthly donation of $10 each to RTR FM, Trillion Trees, Asylum Seeker Resources Centre, IndigenousX, Extinction Rebellion, and Australian Poetry. It beats paying that cash to Netflix, and, is a good spread that reflects my politics.
Taken together, this is around twenty years of activity that has been done on a volunteer basis outside of political parties. I have handed out how to vote cards, phone banked (including for Obama in his primary campaign in Pennsylvania), sat in on branch meetings and pre-selections (for ALP and the Greens), and scrutineered in a federal election. But for the most part, my engagement with the state has been secondary to creating an ethics that is critically aware and creative as well. Twenty years, or my whole adult life, probably constitutes a sustained level of involvement. And it has not come at the cost of my artistic practice and work-life balance. If anything, it informs and helps it, even if I am not invested in the discursive constructs of relation, socially aware, or leftist aesthetics.
What I have learnt
Create A Practice
Research first – read, ask questions, listen, look in yourself for your values, come up with what you think is an ideology in the world. For me, the best way to do this has been to look at what is around me. You might like the label Marxist or the brand liberal, but what are the daily actions you take where you are already situated that make sense as a politics? This is not to suggest pragmatism is the only way. It is to say that we can make sense of our ethical subjectivity and civic responsibility as a philosophy when we change our basis of evidence. Look to the sources you find important and that will lead you to a politics and the type of action you can take.
Get into good habits – don’t be simply reactive but proactive, don’t wait to be enraged, there are always problems there. Choose an issue that has been forgotten. It will turn out someone is already working on it and your help will be invaluable. This approach is about finding things the media is not attuned to, and is where politicians have the wrong idea about what needs fixing. For example, I am very passionate about overturning parens patriae which is analogous to terra nullius for people including those in public asylums, prisons, foster children and others. It is the principle that sanctions state violence to individuals at the level of the body itself. That is something not many people care about and no politician has ever addressed it in the context of contemporary Australia. That simply gives me more work to do.
Do it with other people – find a group that you like; no matter what issue that grabs your interest, there are other people out there. Activism works well when you have someone to talk to. Not only about the issue but about tactics and when you are in the holding cell. When I was at the WPA, I learnt most of all from Todd Giles and Ken Collins. They were calm, wise, older committee members who helped me understand the local concerns of Witchcliffe. I am always thankful for their community and support more than anything else.
Have a target – conversely, once you have found your people, put pressure on specific politicians. Choose a nemesis and harass them. This means accepting that activism often comes with conflict, which may be the historic nature of our democracy. At present, I write about Indigenous incarceration to Joan Jardine in the Attorney General’s department in Canberra, and about Australian prisoners of conscience overseas to Andrew Todd in DFAT. Both of them are senior bureaucrats who have real structural power and respond to criticism. Find your enemy and challenge them.
Let it influence your life – let it come into your practice, make space for it in other parts of your life. For example, this is where being an artist matters for how to do politics. Make exhibitions with protest signs like Cool Change has hosted in the past. Turn to your ideology for a way to answer questions of aesthetics, let it influence what you hold onto from your creative outlet when you enter into arguments, think once more of the special role creativity plays in civic duty more generally.
Don’t always take it with you – switch off from politics, let go of the small stuff, don’t take it home. Sometimes micro-aggressions are simply small annoyances that one does not need to focus on. You can let it go at the Christmas Table, which is to say, choose your moment and when to stop being an activist also.
Be prepared for the losses – along the way, you will have setbacks. Laws you are fighting might not get overturned, a refugee might get sent ‘home’, there might be another death in custody, a sacred site will be destroyed, or no one will show up to a rally. This is when your faith in activism will be tested, and that includes on every election night.
Embrace the wins – they do not come often and it is always important to be a person who looks for a lost cause most of all. I fondly remember the day when two Reuters reporters were released from prison in Myanmar – Wa Lone and Kway Soe Oo. I had written letters for them to ambassadors and ministers. It was a day of freedom for them after they were locked up for reporting on Rohingya massacres against the government’s wishes. The wins do not happen often, which is why you have to enjoy them.
Plan for Time
Think long-term plan and think longer than a media cycle, longer than an electoral cycle, longer than your own life. For me, this is where I believe in First Nations religious freedom; nature first not later; a home for the stateless so they can heal. They are long term projects and one can choose to be optimistic about the future, to make a go of it, which helps with the day to day action that is the foundation for politics in the world as it stands.
Start again – listen last, make space for others, be open to critique. And do it all again from top to bottom. Activism and politics is always changing and we should too. It is important to be open to difference and to keep going most of all.
* * * * *
Politics is a field of practical action but all the lessons above are useful for making art. To call it practical is not to say politics is not theoretical or conceptual or that one should not think deeply about one’s values. But, it is also a place that rewards clarity and results. Those are things to question, and yet, when it comes to what you can do as a citizen with some privilege it is important to use your voice to articulate a vision based on justice, healing, solidarity, freedom, and non-violence. The arts can be useful to politics, can inform one’s own practice and draw on your expertise. It helps me get out of my head and engage with the vulnerable with a sense of deep respect. Surely, now more than ever, the world needs more of that. The world needs more artists willing to make themselves activists where we live.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.
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