I've been pondering recently why it was I first got involved with Friends of the Earth. It was early 2008, and I was working with two other major social justice organisations that had a global reach, was an active part of their community education units and felt like I was doing my bit. But there was something still missing, a depth of analysis perhaps, a lack of holistic thinking by professional educators who seemed like they were happy to 'sign off' at 5pm and head home at night to a comfy house. I didn't begrudge them this as such, but there was something there that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
The idea of Friends of the Earth Brisbane appealed to me originally because of its non-hierarchical structure, which spoke to my desire to work with an organisation that practiced what it preached and did not sacrifice the means in order to reach the ends more quickly. I had an eye-opening moment in a previous organisation where I was volunteering to do school education sessions on Fairtrade goods, only to come back to the main office (several stories up in a skyscraper, filled with suited middle-management types who had dropped out of their corporate careers for a more fulfilling role in a charity) and find that it was Necafe or the highway in the kitchenette. Coming to the FoEB house was a breath of fresh air. There was a deep sense that those working in the organisation were genuine to the core, and lived their values. It was the way FoEB made decisions could not be compromised, and that we were happy to work through tricky and at some times decidedly painful processes that comprised the utopia of our visions.
There was also a wonderful lack of professionalism in the organisation. Not in the sense that we didn't do things well, but that there was not a priority to be paid for the work that was done. It was done out of a sense of love perhaps, for the world, the people around us. The opposite of professional is of course amateur, and, in my understanding, 'amateur' is French for 'lover of'. It was this that I've finally been able to put my finger on and go, 'yes, that was what attracted me to this organisation'. It is a collection of amateurs, of those doing what they do for the love of it, with deep analyses and an uncompromising attitude on their principles and values. This, backed up by a DIY culture which doesn't ask 'why don't the politicians do this?' or 'why doesn't someone do this?', but that encourages an empowering thought process of 'what can I do to change this myself, in my own community, and in my own time?'
Unfortunately, this mentality also has a manifestation in perpetuating a cycle of volunteerism that could well be addressed in order to assist FoE's activists to be able to live their lives in (or on the margins of) the cash economy whilst focusing on their campaign work. It's almost like we shy away from getting paid and chasing after money. Money is most closely associated with the parts of the world we seek to change, and so we try and persuade ourselves we can live without it, should be able to live without it if we are true enough to our beliefs. But in reality, this just means that we marginalise our paid work, persuade ourselves that we are happy working shitty, dead-end jobs in order to support of work of the heart.
I've had more than my share of time focusing on having to gain work in order to support my passions here in FoE. In my mind, we need to start envisioning as the new generation of FoE activists how we will build the financial structures that will support us in our work. In the past, these have been the development of social enterprises such as Reverse Garbage and Bicycle Revolution which started off in my understanding as co-operatives where FoE activists could work and gain meaningful employment whilst continuing their activist work. Unfortunately, we appear to be stuck in believing that ongoing donations by a small to medium group of regular donors will solve these issues, but I feel that we are lacking the creativity of previous generations in this regard and are falling into the mainstream model that other environmental organisations operate off.
Let's harness our amateurism and our drive for building the world we want to see in our own work, and think more creatively. Is it time for another social enterprise that stems from the Burke Street house? A cafe downstairs perhaps? Or a divestment consultancy collective? What about a radical academic co-op working on alternative EIS / SIA processes? The ideas are there. The capacity is not at the moment.