I've always wanted to Make a Difference. While other children were selling lemonade for petty cash, I was selling hot-glued pom-pom critters to benefit environmental charities. This passion continued into my adulthood, influencing my higher education. With my graduate school essay detailing the inspiration of Sister Dorothy Stang, who fought for indigenous rights in the Amazon, I would clearly never allow my masters thesis to sit in a dusty library for all eternity. It was just a matter of figuring out who to focus on and how I could help them. However, contrary to my own vision and the purpose of my program, I ended up with far more of a social education in how not to do activism than an academic one.
The subject for my thesis came to me almost unbidden. Shortly after some quick Googling on “environmental justice,” I found out about the community of Erris, Ireland. The community appeared to be fighting the good fight against Shell, who wanted to build a natural gas purification facility despite local environmental and health concerns. Coincidentally, my college showed a film about Erris only a few days later.
By the end of the film, I was completely in love with the place and community. Ireland was so beautiful! How could Shell wreck this? The community members were so brave, going up against such a powerful corporation. The cause was so righteous! The farmers were defending land that had been passed down from their ancestors. It was an activists' fantasy; but as with any real-life fantasy, I should have known better than to take it at face value.
At first, I wanted to help the community members defeat Shell. But as I learned more about the situation, I realized that my own skills were hopelessly unqualified. The community had been fighting Shell for nearly a decade. The project had gone through countless community meetings, local newspaper commentaries, and even books written about it. Four of the protestors had been put in jail by their own government for not allowing Shell on their land. If they couldn't solve this problem, who was I to think I could rescue them?
A bit stuck, I hoped that my first trip to Ireland would help me understand what was happening on the ground. Initially, it seemed to be everything I had expected. The rural countryside was the essence of sublime, making me both stare in awe at the cliffs and shiver in an unending chill. The people I interviewed were even more accommodating than I imagined. The hostel owner where I was staying was one of the main activists and she allowed me to mooch a ride to their protest site. On one side of the road stood a dozen protestors, wrapped in wool scarves and drinking steaming tea. They huddled together in the space between the shoulder's white line and the ditch created by the eroding peatland. Brandishing signs reading “Shell to Hell!” they'd yell at the smoky trucks passing through the construction site gates. Behind them stood eight white crosses symbolizing Nigerian protestors against Shell who were executed by their government. Away from the construction site, out-of-town protestors welcomed me into their poster-bedecked camp in the sand dunes. They were all so willing to let me in, take part in their fight, chat with me like I was one of them. Admiring their commitment, I falsely felt like these were “my people.”
My second trip wasn't nearly so comfortable. I focused on interviewing people who were in favor of the refinery or had no official position. Not long into my interviews, my absurd naivete lifted as I realized how different the situation was from the film's and other media's shockingly oversimplified coverage. Every story I had seen or read was either “heroic villagers vs. big bad corporation” or “ignorant impediments to progress vs. economic saviors,” depending on the source. Seeing the complex reality of the situation, I felt rather ashamed by how much I had bought into the black-and-white portrayal.
Needless to say, the supporters were far from hand-rubbing villains or greedy leeches. Instead, they were just as diverse as the protestors – small business owners, farmers, teachers, and politicians. One thread ran through every conversation I had – they desperately loved the area and wanted prosperity. Like the protestors, they too had watched generations of children leave the region for lack of opportunity. One man told me that he had worked at the local peat-fired power plant for nearly 50 years and retired just as it had shut down two years earlier. He had six children and wanted them to have the opportunities he did without needing to leave the area. He simply wanted them to be able to stay near home if that's what they truly desired. Others expressed pride that their area would be able to supply one thing – just one thing, the natural gas – that Dublin didn't have. Although I didn't agree with the supporters, as I found it unlikely the refinery would bring economic revitalization, I certainly sympathized with them.
At the end of the second trip, with more than 30 interviews completed, I was left with a dilemma. Taking sides was out of the question. Beyond the issue of academic objectivity, the problem was too complex, wrapped up in cultural and personal histories that I could never fully understand. But I slowly came to think that there was a good use for my outsider status. I believed I could do the one thing for community members that they could no longer do themselves – give them an opportunity to hear each other's stories. So I dutifully wrote up my paper, complete with summaries of both sides' narratives and suggestions on resolving the community's fissures. After getting positive feedback from a few people on both sides, I was pleased as punch that I had done something Good and Useful.
Or so I thought. I realize now that each side always had the ability to tell their stories, but it was up to them to decide when, where, and how to do so, not me. I recognize that much of what I saw as me “helping the community” was actually muscling in on their story. I was trying to make meaning for my own presence, justifying why my project was important.
In reality, I needed them far more than they ever needed me. I was yet another temporary resident, passing through with my own agenda. They were used to seeing people like me in Erris, and Ireland in general, cultural tourists with academic or literary ambitions. Like so many others before me, I tried to figure out what they needed on my own instead of just asking. My confidence buoyed by my many hours of library research and academic credentials, I brashly assumed I knew what was good for them. Although not much negative impact came from this particular situation, in part because I did listen to an extent, similar “good intentions” have paved the road to hell for the “subjects” of other research projects.
But some good did come of my thesis, even if it wasn't anything like what I anticipated. I see now that the community members are the ultimate authors of their relationships and community's future. By letting go of my role as “world-saver,” I realize that fundamentally, people must tell their own stories – not just in Erris, but everywhere.
Even though what I was doing was ostensibly academic research, what I've actually applied this lesson more than anything else to activism. Now I know that listening to the people affected by a problem must be the first step before taking any action to address that issue. Learning slowly and patiently to understand what people need is essential. Although intellectually easy to acknowledge, this principle is far more difficult to put into practice. Even if the activism addresses something that personally affects you, hearing other voices widens the picture, building a better comprehension of the issue beyond one's own perspective. (The Occupy movement and Slutwalk are learning this the hard way, with those who are being ignored suffering the most, sadly as usual.)
The fact is, everyone has a story to tell. Most people want to tell it, especially to a truly engaged, respectful listener. In some circumstances, there may be a place for you to help; in others, there may not. But the act of listening itself, or just offering to listen, is empowering to both sides in a way that has worth independent of any other action. Needless to say, for all of the notes I took, I wish I had listened even more before writing – or even starting – my thesis.
So thank you to the people of Erris. Thank you for welcoming me into your community, for being patient with me in my naivety. Thank you for telling me your stories, for letting me into your lives for just a short period of time. Thank you for allowing me just to listen.
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