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Interview: 'A family that does justice'

 |  31 October 2016

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. Here is their full interview with Australian Catholics:

1. Tess, I know your activism has been inspired by your parents, but who or what inspired your parents to become passionate about social justice and activism? 

Maryanne Hemsley: My parents were very inspired by Vatican II. They were educated and fervent in their faith and very involved in Parish life and in lay Associations of the Faithful. Lumen Gentium’s lesson of faith engaging with the world, and being unafraid of what happens then, underpinned my faith development. I was committed to social justice (I remember being totally opposed, in my teens, to the building of a Parish Church - Mass was celebrated in the school hall - because I thought the money could be better spent alleviating poverty), but I wasn’t an activist until I met Richard. 

Richard Corkish: I was a teenager in the 1970s, a turbulent period of protest and progressive social change. I saw the power of an engaged and active democracy to offset some of the greed motivation that underpins capitalism. People can drive better outcomes if they have good motivations and are willing to decline to be railroaded by the incumbent controllers of our society and economy. 

2. What role does your faith play in your activism and in your family life? 

Maryanne: My faith is fundamental to my activism. It isn’t possible for me to hear the word of God and pretend that we don’t have a duty to fight social inequity. 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. I also think that God made us to be happy and the surest way to real happiness is to build communities of love (the Kingdom of God) and do good. Of course, living up to the ideal is another thing and always a work in progress! 

Richard: The New Testament guides us to be concerned for the welfare of others and there has always been a part of the broad Church that has focussed on this as the main message. The nuns and priests and lay people that were at the forefront of imaginative anti-war and anti-nuclear protests and the Central American Catholic theologians and activists who directly challenged tyranny understood the New Testament and their actions inspired more subsequent actions than they would have dreamed.

Tess: Faith has provided a great foundation for me to fight for justice. It’s given me this burning passion and drive to make right all things that are wrong (when I have the time) and be a voice for the voiceless. Mum and I have always sung together at mass, and theology has been a big part of the lively debates that we have over dinner. It’s helped form our relationships with each other and our shared experiences.

3. I believe it’s unique to have a nuclear family all be activists. Do you know of other families who are activists together? What does it mean to have the support of your family in this area?

Maryanne: I have met other families who do it together but I don’t think there are lots of them around. I think of the importance of this the other way around, though – I think our family is stronger because we are all activists. We are all very different and having very strong common interests in common unifies us. However, we also have some pretty tough debates – but I think we all enjoy them, at the end anyway. Richard always challenges me, and I’m very proud of Tess’ commitment to justice. And it’s difficult for young Catholics these days, particularly young women, who are passionate, intelligent and aware. Thank God for Pope Francis! 

Richard: Not unique, I think! At various public events I see families, not only those with children too young to decide.  

The family that is active together stays together! It definitely bonds us and Tess’ connections and online networks engagement keeps us in the loop. A recent activity I was closely involved in, for example, benefited immensely from a connection that Tess made.

Tess: I have plenty of friends whose siblings have also gotten in on the activism game, and a few families where a mother or a father is also keen and engaged, but none quite like us I think. When I was younger I was the one who was taken along to events and now it’s me who walks into my dad’s study and the dining room of a Saturday morning saying that there’s a refugee rally on in the city in a couple of hours and that we’d better get a wriggle on so we’re not late. 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 just as disturbed by injustice and who are willing to walk, march and chant beside me. There’s also a lot of pride in it as well. I’m so proud of my parent’s commitments to justice and to creating a better world.

4. Please share some of your family’s favorite activism stories.

Maryanne: Before Tess was born Richard and I visited the Coolangubra State Forest as part of a forestry logging protest. Two things really made a big impact on me: the first was the beauty of the forest. Having experiences of the beauty of the natural world it’s hard not to want to fight for its protection. And the natural world is the most frequent subject in Scriptural songs of praise – you really can’t praise God without acknowledging the wonder of God’s creation!

The other thing I will never forget was how some of the organisers of the weekend were able to facilitate a large group of people to get consensus on a decision. That example has provided a benchmark for me of what is possible at a meeting, but so rarely achieved. 

Of course, BreakFree (from Fossil Fuels) in Newcastle this May was the biggest event when the whole family participated. Tess’ idea, naturally! 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. Turns out there were so many people registering for the event that they decided to plan a non-water Action, and I was in fact the only family member arrested. Richard has been arrested before, at an anti-arms sale exhibition in Canberra, but wasn’t on the line this time. My nephew went and paddled a canoe but the police had obviously decided not to take any action against the protesters on the water. 

Richard: See Tess’ story below – also my favourite. Also, having Tess make contacts with key change leaders.

Tess: I really can’t go past Newcastle for this one. On Mother’s Day this year we all headed up on the train to Newcastle to participate in the Break Free 2016 action. I was on the media team as a spokesperson and Mum and Dad spent the Saturday before training up for a civil disobedience action (unfortunately Dad had to go out of the country for work in the next couple of weeks so he couldn’t risk arrest). The photo of Mum getting arrested was one of my most popular Facebook photos ever, and I’m immensely proud of her for standing up for her convictions. I was just floating on air all day. Dad was sending me photos of the action (including a photo of them all on the railway bridge that got picked up by media including SBS) and I was darting here there and everywhere. I had the opportunity to head out onto the water in a kayak with a couple of friends and while Mum was being arrested I was rafting up with a whole bunch of other activists in boats singing and chanting about climate justice. My heart was so full that day, and is every time I think about it.

5. Richard and Maryanne, what role has faith and social justice played in your parenting?

Maryanne: Faith and social justice are the same things: I want Tess to have a relationship with her Creator: this God loves us all and wants us to be happy and flourish. That relationship requires of us that we do our bit to bring about the Kingdom God, which means working so that everyone has an opportunity to flourish and so give glory to God. However, I’m no better a parent than the average, just a more judgemental one which isn’t a recipe for success in that area! 

Richard: I hope we have led by example of concern and occasional action for those on whom the system bears harshly (apologies for paraphrasing the wonderful Hal Wootten).

6. What has the Pope’s encyclical Laudato si’ meant to your personal faith and your family’s faith?

Maryanne: Wow, it’s been a breath of fresh air! In this encyclical the Pope has written something which is full of things which affirm our family’s view of the world, God’s activity and the crisis which is facing the planet because of climate change. It’s been a wonderful door to more open and more faith-focussed discussion at home.

Climate change is such a huge problem with potential catastrophic impacts on the world, and the poor firstly, that ignoring it would have made the Church voiceless in the most serious problem facing our generation. And the damage we are doing to the earth, our common home, is fundamentally an insult to God who created it all and saw it was good. We’ve been reading the book of Job recently at daily Mass – in Job we get a wonderful statement of God’s creative power and activity, and what should be our humble place in the scheme of things, in God’s amazing answer to Job: 'Where were you?' (Job 38). The reality is that we have taken God’s creation and are damaging it probably irreparably. 

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis describes the problem beautifully, but also, showing his grasp of human politics, gives an outline of what can be expected of governments and big business in response to the crisis. In this he anticipates the problem facing Australians at the moment as we have governments which are incapable of formulating adequate responses able to meet our international obligations in moving to a more sustainable economy. 

Richard: What a breath of fresh air. This is a wonderfully clear and well-founded guide to take seriously the conservation of the basic systems that support all social and economic systems.

Tess: It’s strengthened my faith and has given me more quotes to break out when people doubt that what I am doing is right and necessary. From the perspective of a student, however, I’ve found myself writing long essays about climate change that quote Laudato Si’ and the chapter: 'The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis'. I put together a problem tree for a class where I broke down the causes of climate change and right at the bottom was anthropocentrism and a lack of integral ecology. It hasn’t just affected my faith, it’s permeated every aspect of my life!

7. Maryanne, you’ve recently been arrested in Newcastle for protesting coal. Take us through what happened:

a) Who you were protesting with? 

The BreakFree event was arranged by a number of different groups including 350.0rg, AYCC (Australian Youth Climate Coalition) and others.  So people came from all over the east coast of Australia and parts of the Pacific (who of course are very affected by rising sea levels), young people, older people, people of faith and none. In the group arrested was an Anglican priest, a woman from Canberra, and her husband.

b) Why were you protesting? 

Fundamental to reducing the effects of climate change is a move from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy. Both the NSW and the Federal Governments seem unable to grasp the urgency of this move and peaceful demonstrations have not seemed to have made much impact either. The protest at Newcastle, the largest coal port in the world, was meant to send a strong message that we are determined that the governments listen to us about this serious issue. 

Rising temperatures and an increase in extreme weather events will make the planet a very hard place to live in when I am dead and my children and her children dealing with this problem. Yet, it is the behaviour of my generation and past generations who have caused it! Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, had recently made the point that 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.

c) What did you hope to accomplish? 

We hoped for publicity, to raise awareness among individuals and governments of this critically important issue. It isn’t enough to do nothing when the consequences are so serious. 

d) What was it like to be arrested? 

A bit humiliating. 

i) Were you surprised or did you think you could be arrested? We were aware that we would be breaking the law and could be arrested.  

ii) If yes, how did you prepare yourself, your family and possibly your work? My family were on the spot so knew what might happen. I had told my boss I was going to a demonstration (although not that I could be arrested). I was not likely to be put in gaol. 

8. Richard, you’ve been working to save ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency). Why is ARENA important to Australia’s sustainable energy future?

Solar cell research is vital because, along with wind energy, it is the best hope for maintaining high-energy societies into the future. Cheaper and better solar cells are the most effective path to cheaper renewable electricity.

ARENA grew out of the Australian Solar Institute (ASI). ASI was set up in 2009 when the government had been convinced that solar energy was important to Australia in ways similar to the other research areas that have special set-aside funding: medicine, nuclear, defence and marine science. ASI led to a rapid growth in solar energy research, based on prior gloal leadership in solar cells research. ARENA had much broader scope but a large budget too, a small fraction went to R&D (Research and Development) and that small fraction underpinned to globally leading solar research community here. 

Blocking ARENA from making grants for R&D would have directly destroyed much of what has been built up and stopped many promising advances. The people would have been lost to other countries or to other fields and we would never have been able to put it back together again.

a) How have you been working to save this agency? Partnering with other researchers around Australia in multiple co-signed letter writing, a massive online petition of international researchers, through members of parliament and through engaging the top-level management of universities.

b) Do you think progress is being made? We have saved half of the most recent $1b threatened to be taken from ARENA and saved its ability to make grants. We wait to see how ARENA will plan to spend the retained funds but I see no need for R&D to suffer now.

9. What’s next for your family?

Tess: I think my graduation is going to be a big adjustment for everyone, but really I think we’re all working out when is the best time for all of us to get arrested together, Mum hasn’t got a good behaviour bond so there are no impediments there! I kid (sort of), but I think we’re just all keeping our ears to the ground. Mum is doing a bunch of human trafficking stuff at church, I’m still doing my Catholic Earthcare stuff and using my voice to talk about my experiences in the Solomons and Dad is always tirelessly working to make sure that renewable energy survives in Australia! He’ll be heading off to Vanuatu in January though – and taking my cousin – to set up some more great renewable energy projects there. Keep an eye out for us in marches and actions though, we’re almost always there.

10. Do you have any suggestions for families wanting to get involved in social justice?

Maryanne: Join organisations and sign petitions – that will get you on mailing lists so you hear about what’s happening. Then pick an event which you think might be enjoyable as well as useful. Try and learn as much as you can – there are lots of people out there who are pretty ignorant, and it will help to have the facts at your fingertips so you can help them understand. 

Richard: Tess may have a different answer, since she is young and keen to right all wrongs ASAP, but I like to focus primarily on the one big issue that trumps all the others – climate change. If we let it get away on us, everybody suffers. Secondly, I have learnt that activist groups can too easily fall into the trap of wasting efforts on squabbles between similarly but slightly differently oriented or focussed groups. We tend to argue with our friends over the small differences while the enemies of social and environmental justice go on their merry way. Let’s concentrate on our agreement, not differences, and work together (Easy to say!!).

Tess: I’d like to add on to both of those responses and say that one of the best things to do is to find friends. We have people that we see at marches, actions and events all the time, people we exchange hugs with and people who will tell us about all the other things that are going on. Creating relationships is one of the most fun aspects of being part of a movement. I would also like to give a word of advice, it’s not for the faint hearted. It’s hard work committing to social justice, and especially environmental activism. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating. I’m just lucky that I have such strong, supportive and loving role models in my parents, without them I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have.

 

Read the article 'A family that does justice' here

View the reflection questions and activities for ‘A family that does justice’ here

 

Topic tags: familylife, spiritualityandtheenvironment, catholicsocialteaching, socialjustice–australia

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