Earlier this year we interviewed Tess Corkish, an impassioned young social justice activist working for Catholic Earthcare. When we heard her mother, a parish secretary in Sydney, was arrested protesting at a coal port in Newcastle we decided to get in touch with the family again to see where their spirit of activism comes from.
Tess Corkish says her activism began early. So early, neither Tess, nor her parents quite remember the first protest she attended.
‘But I have a distinct memory of marching through the streets at an anti-war rally when I was about eight or nine years old and leading the chants’, recalls Tess. She says she can often still be found with a megaphone in hand, leading chants and songs at protests.
Tess’s parents, Maryanne Hemsley and Dr Richard Corkish, met at RMIT while doing Engineering degrees. Her mother, Maryanne Hemsley, is the parish secretary at St Joseph’s Enfield, NSW. Tess’s father Dr Richard Corkish is a researcher at the University of NSW and CEO of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics and has been working to save the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, an agency that funds renewable energy, which the government has threatened to cut.
A Gospel concern
For Maryanne, there is no separation between her faith and activism. ‘My faith is fundamental to my activism. I can’t listen to the Gospel and hear about Jesus’ concern for the poor, and warnings to the rich, and pretend that they don’t provide the core Christian principles on which we will be judged at the end’, she says.
Richard also points to the New Testament to prove the strong connection between activism and our Catholic faith. ‘The nuns, priests and lay people that were at the forefront of the imaginative anti-war and anti-nuclear protests understood the New Testament and their actions inspired more subsequent actions than they would have dreamed’, he explains.
Tess says singing with her mum at Mass, debating theology around the kitchen table, and her family’s passion for faith and social justice has bonded their relationships and made her who she is. ‘Faith has provided a great foundation for me to fight for justice. It’s given me this burning passion and drive to right all things that are wrong and be a voice for the voiceless.'
Celebrating Mother’s Day
On Mother’s Day, the Corkish Hemsley family travelled to Newcastle, NSW for Break Free 2016, a protest calling for the Australian government to divest from fossil fuels to combat climate change. ‘I went there not expecting to do much except hang around with a banner. In fact, the organisers told me beforehand that it probably wasn’t worth me going if I wasn’t going to paddle a canoe’, Maryanne recalls.
But approximately 2000 people showed up to protest at Newcastle’s coal port that day. In addition to kayaks blocking the port, protesters marched across one of the port’s vital railway bridges. Tess joined friends in a kayak. Tess’s dad, Richard, was low key as he had to travel internationally for work so couldn’t risk arrest. But Maryanne, wanting to take a stand for climate change, joined the protesters on the bridge. The police didn’t arrest those in kayaks, just those on the bridge – Maryanne included.
Although Maryanne says it was humiliating being arrested, Tess couldn’t have been more proud of her mum. ‘The photo of Mum getting arrested was one of my most popular Facebook photos ever. My heart was so full that day, and is every time I think about it’, Tess proudly recounts.
For both Richard and Maryanne, the responsibility to stand up against climate change is that of concerned parents. Paraphrasing American environmentalist Bill McKibben she explains, ’It isn’t fair that we leave it to the young people to fight this battle and risk the consequences (like a criminal record). This battle to change the hearts and minds of our communities belongs to all of us.’
In the end, Tess feels lucky to have a family that gets her and that she gets. ‘At the risk of sounding gooey, it just makes me so happy to be able to do these sorts of things as a family, to know that I have people immediately around me who are just as passionate and disturbed by injustice and who are willing to walk and chant beside me. I’m so proud of my parent’s commitments to justice and creating a better world.’
View the reflection questions and activities for ‘A family that does justice’ here
Read Australian Catholics' interview with Tess and her parents here