We’ve all read the negative press when it comes to tertiary education. Some see them as ‘educational dinosaurs’ that have no relevance and immediacy to the markets they are preparing students for. Our local Southern Cross University (SCU) can pretty much smash all that apart.
Stabled up on the top of the hill in the School of Law and Justice, is Aidan Ricketts. Almost 10 years ago, Aidan pioneered a University-accredited activism training course, which still runs through the SCU’s week-long Byron Bay Summer Law School program. His knowledge is now being disseminated via workshops through the anti-Coal Seam Gas (CSG) campaign and through the release of The Activists’ Handbook.
The journey from activist to a social change educator seemed a natural progression for Aidan. His campaign work dates back almost 30 years, including a 12-year commitment to the North East Forest Alliance. As an educational designer, Aidan merged these dual talents to ‘help train up other activists [so that] hundreds, possibly thousands, of campaigns may benefit.’
I wondered how the spawning of activists sat with SCU. ‘There is a clear answer to that. I work as a consultant and it is part of my community outreach to engage in community education. My area of expertise is activism, so I teach communities about such things as non-violent direct action.’
I questioned Aidan whether he ever consulted for a group whose aims he didn’t believe in. ‘What I am about is community empowerment and local participative democracy. It doesn’t matter if I agree or not with the issue that people might be fighting for. As long as it’s non-violent, and from a public interest rather than vested interest perspective, then that is the only outcome that I would expect from my training.’
One issue that Aidan is involved with as a consultant that he also feels personally passionate about, is the campaign against CSG mining in the Northern Rivers. ‘What is different about the CSG industry is that it is coming to you. It is coming to your farm, road, backyard… so you don’t have a choice whether you are affected by it. Apathy really isn’t an issue with this campaign, you don’t need to go somewhere else and fight this. It is here. This is a powerful movement because people are being forced to take a stand.’
Water and food security are major concerns of the opponents to CSG mining. Generations of democratic citizens are seeing the current model being abused by vested mining interests. Active democracy, or as Aidan calls it ‘activocracy’, is an opportunity for people to determine the management and quality of crucial resources such as water. The values we identify now will hold the Northern Rivers in good stead to oppose any corporations, not just CSG miners, which threaten our shared and valued resources.
Non-violence is at the core of all his teachings. I suggested that the CSG mining companies would be almost encouraging his work, as a form of crowd control. He believes the opposite. ‘If it was a messy and/or violent campaign, this would make the movement look unprepared and lacking focus. An organised and non-violent campaign is far more threatening.’
Non-violent activism training can vary, depending on the teacher. ‘A lot of non-violence trainers further south push quite an ideological form of non-violence. They are actually against the style of blockades we use in the Northern Rivers, believing that the only way is with complete passive resistance where large groups of people may go and lay on a road for example. I disagree with that, you can have 20 people lying on a road with 40 police who then come up, grab people and can start sticking their fingers in peoples necks, causing excruciating pain via crowd control pressure points. That is violent and some of those people can then lose their temper and lash out. It is an ugly scene.
The northern way of doing things I would say is very different. It is based on strategic arrest and the use of particular blockade devices. In that situation the crowd there is completely peaceful and standing back where they are not even arrestable. There is not an occasion for the confrontation of the crowd with the police.’
If Aidan has turned his activist experience into training, what advice can he give other activists who are not involved in coordinated action?
‘As long as they are non-violent and responsible than that is OK, but if they want to do things that the groups working on these issues do not endorse, then they should not try to hide behind the protection of these groups. We are very challenged with the anti-CSG movement. It is fast growing and is involving vast numbers of people who haven’t really been involved at this level before, so there is a huge need for non-violent activist training.’
I wondered if the fact he runs a tertiary course, consultancy services and has completed a book on the subject, point to an evolution in methods of campaigning, particularly since he first engaged in activism.
‘Absolutely, it is changing all the time. I have a whole chapter devoted to digital activism, email, SMS, Facebook, websites etc.’
These new styles of activism do not replace historical tools such as letter-writing, rallies, marches and blockades for example. They simply add to the breadth of it. Campaigns have become broader in their strategies, which Aidan believes makes them harder to penetrate because ‘it is a dispersed movement with no central organisers. Whilst there are local, regional and national alliances providing intellectual, logistical and process-oriented support, this new movement is a grass-roots movement that directly empowers locally autonomous groups. There is no centre so you can’t deconstruct it.’
The final chapter of Aidan’s book is aptly titled Empowerment and personal sustainability: Staying active and avoiding burnout. Different levels of burnout can manifest as lack of sleep and anxiety, right through to extreme cases such as a nervous breakdown.
‘Burnout is ever present for activists and it eventually brings you into the spirituality of your activism. It is almost unavoidable. Examining the ways of avoiding burnout, you enter through the psychology and you exit through the spirituality. As an activist you see and experience the pain of what is wrong with the world. You commit yourself to take action about that. The key moment is that you do not attach yourself to personally solving it, or you will burnout. An ordinary meditation technique is sitting and accepting things exactly as they are. There is a psychological, intellectual and spiritual conversation that people need to have because we are built into a framework where we think by accepting the world as unjust and threatened, is the same thing as approving of the world being unjust and threatened. It’s not.’
It is clearly not an asset to any campaign – or yourself – if you are in a state of stress or burnout.
‘Damaging your body does not save the planet. You need to be calm about your mission and accept that you may fail. Again, accepting failure doesn’t mean that you will. If you accept failure then come back and commit to action, you are no longer vulnerable.’
The Activists Handbook: A Step By Step Guide to Participatory Democracy was released this year. The book is published in London and available globally. For purchasers who buy directly from the author’s website there is a 10 percent donation back to your nominated organisation. Aidan jokes that ‘most authors don’t write books to make
money… it is more about passing on information that is accessible… and it saves my voice!’ Details at www.aidanricketts.com