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This is the gateway to finding more out about individual episodes from either Series 1 (2017) or Series 2 (2018), including being able to read the full transcript of the episode.

Series 2 – coming 29 October

Series 2 – coming 29 October

We are excited to be bringing you Series 2 of the ChangeMakers on Monday 29 October 2018. We will be releasing 10 story based episodes, 5 on 29 October then a further 5 at the end of November.

These stories include:

Episode One – an inside look at Hollywood TV show Brooklyn 99 and its story on systemic police racism.

Episode Two – the 2014 Umbrella Movement from Hong Kong when hundreds of thousands of people occupied Hong Kong Island for 79 days

Episode Three – origins of the Indivisible Movement, the most significant anti-Trump movement in the USA.

Episode Four – the Reclaim the City housing movement from Cape Town that is desegregating the city post-Apartheid

Episode Five – the Marriage Equality campaign in Australia.

The second group of stories include the Stop Adani campaign, the Chilian Student movement from 2012, the 100K homes campaign to eradicate extreme homelessness in the US and the Uniting Church’s campaign to change drug policy from one of criminal sanctions to a health issue.

In between we will also release a series of “ChangeMaker Chats” – interviews with remarkable people making change – where we explore why they became change makers and how they seek to make that change.

S1 Episode 8 – The Power of Vision – Fred Hollows

S1 Episode 8 – The Power of Vision – Fred Hollows

What does it take to improve the lives of millions of people? The late Fred Hollows knew. He was known across the globe for his groundbreaking work in disrupting the global medical establishment, and his legacy lives on among the doctors he inspired. His most famous student, Dr Sanduk Ruit, has helped bring sight to over 125 000 people and trained thousands more doctors. In the process, he has directly improved the lives of millions of people. But what does it take to achieve transformation at this kind of scale?

Professor Fred Hollows examines a patient while Dr Sanduk Ruit watches on. Photo courtesy of The Fred Hollows Foundation.

Click the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to the episode on PodcastOne, Stitcher or Apple iTunes.

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Full Transcript of Episode 8 – The Power of Vision

HOST: I want you to slowly close your eyes, and imagine for a moment you’re going blind. The world around you is closing over.

HOST: Now imagine you live in a country that isn’t rich enough to provide even the basic services required for the needs of the blind.

How would you get around? How would you go to school? Or work? How would you feed yourself? And your family?

Today on Changemakers, the remarkable story of a surgeon – who has personally operated on thousands of people, saving each and every one of them from a life of darkness and hardship. And the kicker is: that’s not even his greatest achievement. Let’s go.

HOST: When he was about seven years old, Tran Van Giap was playing with some kids in his village in Vietnam. They were mucking around as seven year olds do.

GIAP: One of the kids, one of the kids accidentally throw a piece of glass basically to my eyes.

HOST: He was rushed to hospital but it was no good.

GIAP: So my right…the right eye’s…could not see. At all.

HOST: Still his parents did not give up.

GIAP: I was very lucky to have my family at the time to support me through my eye injury, taking me from hospital to hospital. But even then, this wasn’t enough.

HOST: Being blind in one eye didn’t just make it hard for Giap to play with his friends. It made it impossible to go to school. His school was simply not equipped to deal with a child who was half-blind.

GIAP: I didn’t go to school for more than a year…because of the issues.

INTERVIEWER: So this, this was clearly going to threaten your future, having this eye injury.

GIAP: It’s not only the physical…pain and incapability that I was facing at that time. It was also the psychological distortions…that I had to face to go to school.

HOST: One day, a year after the accident had happened, Giap’s father took him to a popular local hospital. The best hospital in his entire region. If anyone was going to be able to help Giap, they would be here.

HOST: The hospital said there was nothing they could do.

GIAP: So my parents, my dad in particular, took me to Hanoi to seek further help.

HOST: There they went to a makeshift eye clinic. There was a long line of children, waiting to have their eyes examined. One of the doctors was a foreign-looking man, with a big bushy mop of silver hair.

GIAP: And this is when we stumble across Dr. Hollows, when he was with other doctors at that time examining other children’s eyes.

HOST: Dr Hollows. Dr Fred Hollows.

GIAP: So my dad pushes me towards the line.

HOST: Unfortunately, the hospital had limited resources. Their policy was they couldn’t just operate on every poor child who turned up half-blind, even if it was taking him out of school, and affecting his whole future.

GIAP: So according to policy at that time, there was only one older person and one younger person allowed to get the free surgery for the eyes at a time.

HOST: Giap’s father put Giap’s name down, hoping to be the lucky pick. He wasn’t.

HOST: Then, in a stroke of incredible luck for Giap, the boy who had been selected for surgery didn’t want to go through with it.

GIAP: And even though I wasn’t the first one to be chosen, the first kid forfeited because he was scared.

HOST: Giap’s dad leapt into action. Pressing the doctors to selected Giap instead.

HOST: What sort of cruel lottery was it that Giap’s future could hinge on an arbitrary decision by a doctor, enabled only by another kid’s reluctance to go through with a medical procedure.

GIAP: And that’s when I finally met and, you know, talked to Dr. Hollows. And he was kind, and…I remember perfectly everything that happened that day. How his eyes looked at me and how scared I was because I never really come in contact with foreigners before. And…that was the guy that saved my life.

HOST: Giap’s eyesight was restored, he returned to school, and became a diligent student. From his perspective, he’d been given a second chance, and he wasn’t going to waste it.

But in places where resources are sparse, for every happy story, there are many more that don’t have a fairy tale end.

Take for instance, Sanduk Ruit, who was 15 and living in the foothills of Nepal, when his sister became ill with tuberculosis. Although it was treatable, her family couldn’t afford the medicines required. The doctors said there was nothing they could do.

Meanwhile, Sanduk’s father had noticed that he was a bright kid, and arranged for him to go to the local school. But it wasn’t just around the corner.

SANDUK RUIT: was somebody who I was sent you know from my village to the school that I went to was almost about 15 days walk a real 15 days walk. There were no schools in between. And so that’s where I went. [16.6]

HOST: A 15 day walk. That was his local school.

For six months, his sister convalesced, but just as they thought she was getting better, things took a turn for the worse. Sanduk came home.

SANDUK RUIT: I saw her pretty much very thin and cataracts really you know. And so I was it was a very sad moment for me very sad to see her in a in a condition like that.

HOST: Within months, she was dead.

SANDUK RUIT: My father sent me to a small boarding school and so I managed to have this toughness in me from early on I didn’t really get that that fatherly or motherly closeness and whatever I got in terms of family was the closeness and sentimental relationship that I had with my sister and that that was something very strong bond and you know her death was a big blow big blow for me.

HOST: The total lack of adequate medicine had taken from him his sister.

SANDUK RUIT: It really hit me very hard for a few months and then I started really thinking very hard and saying that maybe this is the branch this is the future that is inviting me to properly take up medicine and see whether I can be useful to many of this, ah, people who need medical treatment in my country. So that was really an inspiration that made me take medicine.

HOST: And that is when Sanduk Ruit – a bright 15 year old Nepalese boy – decided to become a doctor.

HOST: Of course, nothing is straightforward. Unfortunately, almost immediately, Sanduk’s plan ran into trouble. First off, his schooling got cut short, thanks to a war.

SANDUK RUIT: I couldn’t complete school there because India and China started having war in the 1960s and all the schools were shut down.

HOST: Eventually Sanduk got a scholarship to complete his education in another school. But when he announced he wanted to go to medical school there was just one small problem.

SANDUK RUIT: Nepal didn’t have any medical school.

HOST: And so instead he travelled to India and did a medical degree, and then returned to Nepal.

SANDUK RUIT: And Nepal was one of the first developing countries to have a proper statistics on the magnitude and distribution of blindness. And I was very lucky to be part of a junior medical officer at that time and I had an opportunity to go into very remote areas accompanying senior ophthalmologist. And this was in one of those trips that I accompanied one of the senior ophthalmologist to the west of Nepal where in one particular rural surgical set up I saw him operating about four children in the family you know of cataracts congenital cataracts. And that evening after the everything was finished I started really thinking you know is just a branch where in such a short time you can make a difference to so many people’s life.

HOST: By now, Sanduk was a doctor specialising in eye care, completing the final stages of his training through a series of residencies. And in Nepal, his skills were in high demand.

SANDUK RUIT: So prevalence of blindness was about 1 percent. Yeah. And. The interest that I had was right on that beginning on cataracts.

HOST: For those who don’t know — and I didn’t when I began this story, cataracts form when the normally lens in your eye becomes cloudy. It’s a bit like the way a car windscreen fogs up on a cold morning. The only way to deal with it, is to remove the lens, and replace it with an artificial intraocular lens. Although it sounds icky, it’s actually a simple procedure, but the replacement lenses were about $150-200 at the time. In places like Nepal, they couldn’t afford the intraocular lens, and weren’t trained to do the surgery, so instead they just removed the cataract by removing the eye’s entire natural lens, with the result that patients ended up ridiculously far-sighted.

Aware that this was a problem, authorities had begun collecting detailed statistics in Nepal, and what it showed was shocking.

SANDUK RUIT: And the statistics told us that the type of cataract surgery done those days. Not only in Nepal but all the developing countries and even in some of the developed countries in rural areas were taking the cataract out. …And if you remove the cataract only you can barely count fingers in front of you.

HOST: The result was that patients had to wear ridiculously thick glasses just to see, and even then, a simple task like walking around was difficult. As he travelled around, more than 60% of the cataract patients that Dr Ruit visited, had abandoned their glasses. The surgery was essentially useless for them.

But that wasn’t the only problem.

SANDUK RUIT: 5 percent cause of blindness was bad cataract surgery.


SANDUK RUIT: Bad cataract surgery.

INTERVIEW: The doctors were part of the problem. 

SANDUK RUIT: Yes. Yes. It wasn’t like that because cataract surgery were those days and done without magnification. We could just you know we were doing it with reading glasses and torchlights you know it was.

HOST: So basically only 30% of cataract surgery in developing countries restored sight. Whereas in the West, pretty much every procedure restored sight.

SANDUK RUIT: You’re just making giving them navigational vision that’s all. So that was the situation in mid 80s.

HOST: So, inspired by the surgeon who guided him through his residency, Dr Ruit, started treating patients.

INTERVIEW:  So when you first started working as an eye surgeon how many people did you treat per year.

SANDUK RUIT: As a young doctor I would say I was pretty aggressive and used to see about I would say about 100 patients a day.

INTERVIEW: Oh my God! A day!

SANDUK RUIT: Yeah. And maybe those days like again we were all doing the surgery. That was that established those days you know and doing about 20 25 cataracts per day.

HOST: But even with all that surgery they still couldn’t afford the intraocular lenses that would make it so much more effective. Dr Ruit says he was troubled but didn’t know what to do.

SANDUK RUIT: I was trying to talk to you about all the frustrations and barriers of not being able to provide the kind of surgery that I have heard about. And for these people where these people are having so much unsuccessful they are not seeing after the surgery. And what are barriers and things like that constantly in my mind.

HOST: Then one day, he was sitting have a cup of tea with a friend of his, who happened to be the head of the World Health Organisation in Nepal. The friend mentioned he was about to go and pick up someone from the airport, a doctor.

SANDUK RUIT: So he said. If you are free why don’t you come with me…

HOST: So they head to the airport.

SANDUK RUIT: Normally when we go and we have this we used to have this thing in our mind that the World Health Organization consultant you know normally comes pretty much dressed up in a suit and ties. And probably those days They’re was to carry a little briefcase in their hand. And then there was nobody that we could find it was sort of fitting into our description.

HOST: Remember, this was the mid-80s. There were no mobile phones. They assumed the man they were looking for had missed his connection.

RUIT: So as we were about to leave and we get a we get somebody shouting at us are you folks looking for me you know. So we turned around and looked at this gentleman looking pretty you know sort of rough. And finally. He says, I’m Professor Fred Hollows, you know. And so that’s how we met.

HOST: Professor Fred Hollows. If you come from Australia like me – you’ll know who he is. He was a larger than life character, known as a prodigious drinker and extraordinary raconteur – as well as a prolific eye surgeon.

Like Dr Ruit, Professor Hollows had fallen in love with the transformative possibilities of eye surgery, especially for the poor. He ran his own eye clinic in Sydney and had scrambled the resources together to create mobile eye clinics throughout the outback and central Australia, catering to  indigenous Australians.

But Professor Fred Hollows was not in Nepal to look at cataracts. He was working on trachoma.

SANDUK RUIT: What is interesting to me is he was doing work on trachoma. He came into this space he saw and talked to you about the fact that the big issues were cataracts and he and he changed his focus. Did he did. He did. How important was listening to his work. You know he was exceptional in numbers. He was very good in what we call it that epidemiology.

INTERVIEWER: Really. I mean the fact that he listened to you not everyone listens right. Of course you know some people have a plan. They just want to roll it out better. Fred Hollows didn’t seem to do that. No. Why do you think he listened to you.

SANDUK RUIT: I don’t know. I don’t know. But there is you know he there were certain certain feelings that I got that this man is genuinely interested in listening to me.

HOST: Almost immediately, something clicked. Even in the car on the way back from the airport, Professor Hollows and Dr Ruit got talking. Soon, they were plotting. For the first time in his life, Dr Ruit found someone who was interested in hearing all the frustrations that he was having treating cataracts. The lack of equipment for doctors doing the surgery, the lack of training in the technique and the prohibitive cost of the lenses that would actually make the surgery just as good as what was standard practice in the West. Professor Hollows invited Dr Ruit to come and check out his practice in Sydney Australia, and also to see his mobile surgery in Central Australia. There, they kept chatting.

SANDUK RUIT: Fred and I used to sit over a glass of whisky in the evening and we used to sort of think about how we could do in intraocular lens surgery in a developing country when there is no other sources what microscopes to use how much the microscopes was going to cost how much the lens is going to cost what fluid do we use to wash the cataract. Other fluids that are available in present time are they safe enough. What are the results going to be. What needle to use. How can we do that for 50 cases. How can we do that for 100 cases. So all those questions we started asking ourselves [42.0]

HOST: It started consuming Dr Ruit’s life.

SANDUK RUIT: But as I started I started dreaming about the surgical procedures. You know I started really and then I used to recollect how the tips of the surgery that I was thinking about and started coming into my dreams. So it was very interesting. HOST: Eventually, it was time for Dr Ruit to go back to Nepal.

SANDUK RUIT: Fred give me a couple of intraocular lenses to take back. I think it was about 40 intraocular lenses.

HOST: Fred and Ruit set up an organisation called Nepal Eye Program Australia.

SANDUK RUIT: And that that raised the first one in fifty dollars that I could buy some instruments with that.

HOST: So armed with 40 lenses and the right equipment to do the surgery, Dr Ruit headed back to Nepal.

SANDUK RUIT: Two things I realized I knew I had to work very hard to fight with the establishment. And I to come out with a very smart system that the world was going to believe.

HOST: No biggie. Reinvent eye surgery in the developing world, while fighting the existing medical system. The first thing he had to do was work out how to refine the surgical equipment so that it could be used in a mobile set-up, without the fancy luxuries you get in an operating theatre

So we start it with a small team. We started doing mobile surgery as you know cutting our own microscope small different types of microscope practicing with different and different places and donated ocular lenses and sutures and other resource materials and doing. 100 there. 70 there and then refining on the technique.

HOST: It was the same method that a silicon valley startup might use. Launch, learn and then iterate. Eventually, Dr Ruit felt he’d perfected the technique.

SANDUK RUIT: So I said Fred I’ve done about two hundred it’s a very successful extra cases with the intraocular lengths implantation and the results look fantastic. So where did you do it. Is it in eye camps. Shit then I must come and look at it.

HOST: A few weeks later, Professor Hollows arrived, and asks to see the new techniques being used.

SANDUK RUIT: I had to demonstrate to him about 150 cases. He saw how the surgeries were being done and he saw the results. The second day we were I tell you we were drinking the whole night.

HOST: It was a triumph, but there was a problem. By now, the medical establishment had gotten wind of what Professor Hollows and Dr Ruit had been doing in Nepal, and they weren’t impressed. They thought Fred and Dr Ruit were endangering their patients by setting up mobile clinics rather than using established operating theatres. In short, they thought Hollows and Ruit were a couple of cowboys. It was decided that all the major players in eye surgery would meet in Nepal, to nut it out.

SANDUK RUIT: The who’s who of Ophthalmology I call the mafia as you know. They came and attended the meeting all big shots from America from each other from WHO from India and Pakistan from Sri Lanka Bangladesh this presentations were made on thousand cases of successful intracapsular surgery.

HOST: That was the old fashioned surgery, that left people ridiculously long sighted. A method that had already been superseded in the West by intraocular surgery.

SANDUK RUIT: Two thousand cases. And the sheer amount of IPB who was an American said this is a time tested successful method. We should continue to follow this.

HOST: Then Dr Ruit got up to present his new method that left people with much sight.

SANDUK RUIT: And there we stand Fred and I stand we present 150 cases I mean our ocular lenses done in the bush. Do not accepted. We were virtually made to sideline as an outlaw.

HOST: In essence, the medical establishment were saying that change was not possible. That the developing countries would have to put up with second-rate outcomes. It was a devastating blow.

Back in a moment.

HOST: At the global conference of eye surgeons in Nepal, Dr Ruit and Professor Hollows had been told that their new, safer form of surgery, that restored sight and meant patients weren’t required to use unwieldy thick glasses for the rest of their lives, had not been adopted as the new standard.

Fred Hollows could not accept that.

SANDUK RUIT: He got up and. And then said. You guys must listen that right now. WHO is providing thick glasses in the back of surgery will one day put an intraocular lens on that.

HOST: The problem was, before they could spread their methods to other countries and train surgeons in their new technique, they needed the medical establishment behind them.

SANDUK RUIT: I had to virtually write papers and international journals and gather a lot of other friends an international community invite a lot of other people to come and watch what I was doing. And convince people that this is correct.

INTERVIEWER: So you had to train you know the people above you before you could train their surgeons. Definitely. Oh definitely.

SANDUK RUIT: Definitely definitely. This was this was hardly accepted.

HOST: Slowly the tide of opinion started shifting in their favour. The evidence was undeniable. But that wasn’t their only problem. In many way, they had a bigger problem: the intraocular lens crucial to the surgery was expensive.

SANDUK RUIT: When we started at that time intraocular lenses there were that used to cost about 150 to 200 dollars.

INTERVIEWER: why was that a problem that they cost 150 dollars.

SANDUK RUIT: You know doing a spending one hundred fifty dollars twenty dollars per case was it would be impossible for us to make it as a make a public health program. We can only do that for patients who could pay for it and there were just handfuls.

HOST: In other words, it was great that Professor Hollows was able source some lenses from Australia for the trial, and they’d managed to get a few more donations here and there, but it would bankrupt any Third World health system to provide those lenses themselves. Until they could reduce the cost of the lenses, affordable eye surgery would remain the preserve of the very rich and the very lucky in the developing world. Hardly a basis for a public health system.

But Fred Hollows had a solution. Rather than importing expensive Western lenses, why not set up a factory in Nepal?

According to Dr Ruit, Fred talked about it incessantly. He could see that it was the only lasting solution. His plan was to build factories in Eritrea and Nepal, to radically reduce the cost of the lenses. Fred raised money from fellow Australians and work started on building the factories.

HOST: Unfortunately before he could see either factory built or hold one of the intraocular lenses in his hand, Fred Hollows passed away.  It was now up to his successor Dr Ruit and the growing team around him to make Fred’s vision come to reality.

SANDUK RUIT: So it was for us to look at the bricks and the walls and the equipment and everything. He cast just a vision. Yeah. Guys had to put into action. So it was very difficult very difficult going through the intricacies of technology and one technology not working and about bringing in technology. So it was a difficult thing.

HOST: A year after Fred Hollows died, the first factory came into operation.

RUIT: The first year when we started manufacturing about 30000 leonsis a year the cost of the lenses were 15 dollars for one. The second year we started manufacturing about 50000 a year. The cost of the lenses would come down to about seven dollars. And fourth year onwards when we were starting to manufacture about 200000 a year the cost of the lenses that come down to four dollars.


HOST At that price, the lenses were truly accessible. They would be able to distribute them to the entire world.

HOST: At the same time that Dr Ruit and Professor Hollows were imagining a factory for lenses, they were trying to work out how to solve the other major issue: how do you roll out a new surgical method across the entire global South.

SANDUK RUIT: Second story a very important story is training lots of people lots of good doctors and technicians to conduct this in other parts of the world.

HOST: The problem was that in country after country that Fred and Dr Ruit visited they came up against a medical establishment stuck in their ways of doing surgery. Ways that were often imported from much richer countries.

Just before he died, Professor Hollows made a commitment to train 300 Vietnamese surgeons. But there was a problem. Professor Hollows was sick, and had been hospitalised. So he checked himself out of hospital and traveled to Vietnam with Dr Ruit.

SANDUK RUIT: And those days the Vietnamese they believed in using the French Pax French system the French system used to actually an American ophthalmic pack’s very expensive you know disposable packs that they thought to do it in try lens surgery. They thought that was one of the mandatory things to do because that’s what that’s what the French taught them. And using those packs was very expensive. One pack for a patient would probably cost you a thousand dollars per patient.

HOST: They had two days to convince a group of skeptical doctors that his techniques were the way to go.

SANDUK RUIT: We had to first convince that our technique is correct so demonstrating couple of surgeries in the first half and then using the same disposable packs we didn’t want to hurt them. And slowly by lunchtime we gathered a little bit of confidence from them in terms of what we were doing. So we’re using part of the disposable packs part we were using non disposable packs. And what makes that is he was let them see the results tomorrow. Then you’ll have them in your hand.

HOST: One of the surgeons that Professor Hollows trained was Dr Phan Binh. He says that one of the things they emphasised was the sheer quantity of surgeries you could do with this new technique.

DR BINH: He said that with the old technique…a, a surgeon could perform around 10 cases per day, because it takes around 30 minutes to do a case. To do one operation. While the new technique, with the new technique, an ophthalmologist could perform around 30 cases per day. And it takes them around 10 minutes for each case.

HOST: Dr Ruit and Professor Hollows decided the best way to teach this was by doing.

SANDUK RUIT: So when about 50 cases we did that day. And for them that was a very big number. They would never see anybody coming from outside experts coming from outside. There were probably five or six cases per day. And that kind of number was. So they were saying you know we don’t have to see the results the complications and results.

So anyway the next day when the patients were seen. And luckily most of the patients had very good results. And they were they were totally taken aback by the results. So we had them in our. Really. So we started doing the way we want it now. We started virtually using non disposables. And you’re seeing and seeing them that it is possible to use cost effective appropriate technology and still deliver competitively better results than you expect. Can I. Yeah. It sounds Your method sounds it has some showmanship. You could.

INTERVIEWER: The method sounds it has such showmanship. You could do five to 50 operation. Is that part of how you were able to make this radical change. Do you think?

SANDUK RUIT: You know we have to lobby we had to lobby and we had to demonstrate that it is powerful it could do better it could do more. And you know we started out as underdogs.

HOST: The demonstration left a lasting impact on Dr Binh. But Professor Hollows knew it would fail if all he did was teach the new technique.

INTERVIEWER: So, when Fred Hollows came to Vietnam, he not only changed the technique but he also set up a training system for, for doctors. Is that right?

DR BINH: es, absolutely. When Fred Hollows came to Vietnam, he didn’t have much time left because of his illness, so he aimed to create 20 new doctor trainers. And he wants to set up the training system so that the Vietnamese trainer could train others.

INTERVIEWER: How many surgeons have you personally trained, Dr. Binh?

DR BINH: So I personally trained around 50 surgeons.

HOST: And remember, each of those surgeons has in turn, brought eyesight to literally thousands of people. That’s a lot of happiness being created.

DR BINH: Even though I have done 1,000 or 2,000 cases the 2,000th case still brings the same feelings of ecstasy. There was one time when I operated on one man, he was blind for so many years and after the operation I followed him back to his home, but he wouldn’t go into the house immediately he just went around touching everything, he touched the cow, he touched the bricks and everything, because all he could do before was touch but now he wanted to touch and see at the same time.

HOST: So Dr Ruit spread his technique to Vietnam, and then Pakistan, India, as well as countries across Africa, building a lens factory in Eritrea, and training surgeons how to train other surgeons along the way.

INTERVIEWER: How many surgeons have you personally trained.

SANDUK RUIT: I think I’m now from people who have been sitting closely with me for a few days to have spending a few months you know. But there must be more than thousand.

INTERVIEWER: My understanding is that it’s more than that

SANDUK RUIT:: More than that, yeah.

SANDUK RUIT: I mean what’s really nice is you know I don’t know what would you call this but we had a we had a French doctor who was an Marché and he came to going to lunch that system and he was there for three months and he learned the whole package and to get back to the French speaking Africa. And he went on to train more than 600 African doctors. Not only that but his he has institutionalized the system in the university in Cameroon. This is just an instance of how you know how these are scalable how they are replicable. I think these are these are very powerful very very powerful. They do nothing except good for a large number of people.

HOST: When you hear visionary stories, so often the logistics of how something was achieved gets brushed aside as the shining outcome becomes the point of focus.


The wonderful thing about this story is that it’s all about the practicalities.

Sanduk Ruit and Fred Hollows took the world as it is, and shaped it into what it should be, using techniques that could be applied to any problem.

Changing the surgical technique localised the way of doing things, making their method superior to the existing system.

Reducing the cost of the lenses, minimised the reliance on Western benevolence.

And training the trainers allowed their revolution to scale up and spread rapidly across the global, bringing sight to millions of people. But above all it allowed them to harness the biggest resource available to them — the local talent.

A more showy approach might have missed the details. But the transformation was in the details – the wasteful use of disposable equipment, the unsuitable surgical techniques imported from the West, and the arrogance of the medical elites who were happy for substandard outcomes to be the norm for those poorer than themselves.

INTERVIEWER: Well I mean Fred my understanding as you say talk about teach. Teach a man to fish rather than give him fish and you feed him forever.

SANDUK RUIT: He he said that we have taken that further. Yeah. We teach them how to sell the fish fishes and make money out of it and buy more fishing rods.

SANDUK RUIT: And this is this is where the idea is is a is a great business model. And it needs radical change. It is. It does. It does. People can see it as it.

How many people do you think that this Fred Hollows is work in your work. How many people do you think can see because of that now. I mean you know the basic straightforward I would say is you know between us and Asmara we produced about 8 million intraocular lenses. That’s just the basic. And you know on top of that maybe few more millions.

HOST: The Fred Hollows foundation is continuing Fred’s work 25 years later training doctors, nurses and health workers around the world.

S1 Episode 7 – Fighting Dirty – Standing Rock

S1 Episode 7 – Fighting Dirty – Standing Rock

What would you do if someone wanted to bulldoze an oil pipeline through your country, threatening not just your land, but your water and air? And what if the nation backing them had a history of playing dirty? That’s the situation the people in today’s episode found themselves in. The battle over building an oil pipeline in Standing Rock in South Dakota, USA. Should they take the high road? Or respond in kind?

Some of the thousands of indigenous leaders and supporters at Standing Rock

Click the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to the episode on PodcastOne, Stitcher, or Apple iTunes.

Or use any Podcast app with our RSS Feed).


Full Transcript of Episode 7 Fighting Dirty

LADONNA: Have you ever heard of an LRAD machine?

INTERVIEWER: No. Tell me, tell me what it is.

LADONNA: This is what the military use and it makes this kind of a weird noise. And it causes you to lose your equilibrium [37.34] fall down and throw up.

HOST: That’s the LRAD (Lrod) Sound Cannon. It was one of many high tech devices that the police used against the people we’re talking to in today’s episode.

But even though the devices were high tech, it was just a new way of doing something very old. Because today there is one quality about the people protesting that changes the rules of engagement entirely.

HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Changemakers, supported by Mobilisation Lab. They connect social change campaigners with what works. Check them out at

I’m not going to tell you where this story comes from. Not yet, anyway. Instead, we’re going to go all the way back to the beginning of this story, back in time two centuries. Let’s go.

HOST: What would you do if someone invaded your country? Would you accept it, or would you fight?

Now imagine that the country that keeps invading yours, signs a peace treaty. You’d expect them to honour that treaty, right?

But what if they didn’t. What would you do then?

HOST: This story starts in 1851.

It’s a territorial dispute. There are nine nations, basically at war with each other.

For decades they’ve been arguing over who gets what land.

One of them was a nation you might have heard of, called The United States. The people from the US, were moving west across the vast North American continent, looking to expand into land that belonged to various tribes.

The problem the United States faced was this: militarily they weren’t the strongest force on the frontier.

JULIAN:  it was really the Comanche who…were the important geo- geopolitical power in…that, that sort of southern part of the plains.

HOST: Julian Brave Noisecat is an historian at Columbia University. So, anyway, the United States, realising military reality, cut a deal. It was called the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

JULIAN: And basically, in, in part of an effort to protect settlers who are moving westward, the United States government signs this treaty, acknowledging the, the sovereignty and, and claims of the nations who live al- live along the path to, to that area.

HOST: All nine independent nations agreed on the boundaries. It was settled, it became law, and after a few more battles and skirmishes, 17 years later, the boundaries were set in stone.

JULIAN: The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty…actually came after Red Cloud’s war which…many historians will tell you, the, the Lakota and Dakota, sometimes called the Sioux, were actually the victors of, so the, the treaty…sort of gave them fairly favourable…terms of, of what their reservation lands would be, and what their rights to those lands were.

HOST: And let’s be quite clear here. It’s not the piece of paper that’s granting the Sioux sovereignty.

JULIAN: So from the indigenous perspective, it would not, it would not be that the treaties granted sovereignty. Indigenous people will tell you that we have been sovereigns since time immemorial. We had our own governments, we had our own…you know, languages. We had our own cultures.

HOST: The treaties were about the United States Government claiming sovereignty, while recognising the pre-existing sovereignty of the indigenous nations.

JULIAN: they were far out-numbered and far outgunned by the indigenous nations of this continent, they had no choice but to recognize their authority to land and people and goods.

HOST: Usually, when a nation has sovereignty, it means that they get to decide what happens to the land, right? After all, that’s what a treaty is.

HOST: Having signed the treaties, almost immediately, the US government ignores them.

JULIAN: Before the ink is even really dry on this treaty, gold is discovered in the Black Hills. This is the Lakota people’s sacred Black Hills. And the treaty is almost immediately violated by, by prospectors and, and settlers who come rushing in.

HOST: I know you’re shocked. It’s almost like the so-called “Settlers” didn’t actually respect the treaty or something.

JULIAN: to a certain extent it’s, it’s, it’s sort of an unstoppable force, right. These people are land hungry. You know they see land and the opportunity to create a farm as, as an escape from, you know, poverty in Europe so it’s seen as this, you know, land of opportunity. The overwhelming demand of, of the settler masses in these countries is to have access to indigenous land.

HOST: At the very least, you’d expect that a treaty between nations should mean that if there is a violent dispute between them, they are understood as acts of war.

But not here.

JULIAN: Throughout the West, there’s often a repositioning, firstly, of, you know, forms of indigenous sovereignty as, as, as criminal, right. Like, so if you make something criminal, you are asserting your…right to prosecute under your laws. Similarly, if this truly is a war between two sovereigns…even in the 19th century, the, the standard was that, you know, people who were captured in the war would be treated as prisoners of war. Yet repeatedly, throughout the, the Indian Wars, as they, they’re called, native people were, were treated as criminals.

HOST: In other words, the piece of paper that they signed, that acknowledges they owned the land, was, well, paper thin.

HOST: So in 2009, when a company decided it wanted to build a pipeline right through the middle of a reservation governed by the Sioux, it is perhaps unsurprising that history repeated itself.

Energy Transfer Partners were building the pipe to move crude oil from North Dakota all the way to Illinois, thousands of miles away.

Most of the land they wanted to cross was privately owned.

This made building it relatively easy. In fact, by late 2015, much of the pipeline had already been built. All that needed to happen was for the pipeline to cross the Missouri River.

HOST: And there was only one way to get across the Misssouri River – through the land of the Standing Rock Sioux.

To do that, the company had to ask the people who lived there, those who owned the land, who had sovereignty.

People like Kandi Mossett who grew up on the Fort Berthold reservation nearby.

KANDI: So my English name is Kandi Mossett. My earned name is which is Eagle Woman.

HOST: Kandi and her tribe had good reason to oppose the pipeline.

KANDI: To me it was always common sense that we had to take care our surroundings. (laughs) It wasn’t even something like I ever questioned. Where our food comes from. Where our water comes from.

HOST: To Kandi it seemed obvious that the people wanting to bulldoze through their land didn’t have the same attitude to their surroundings.

KANDI: That I grew up in a reservation that was surrounded by coal-fired power plants, uranium mining, coal mining.

HOST: When Kandi was 20, she was diagnosed with stage 3 sarcoma, a particularly deadly form of cancer. Even before she was diagnosed, she realised she had cancer.

KANDI: I mean, I knew it was cancer because everybody had cancer around me when I was young. There was a lot of people in my family, on the reservation, to me it was normal.

HOST: It wasn’t until she went to University that she twigged something was up.

KANDI: In college I learned from my other peers and the people around me that it wasn’t normal for them to have that many people sick. And so, I started learning then all of these things that I didn’t know the name for yet, like environmental justice or climate justice or environmental racism even, I really didn’t know I was living it.

HOST: So when Energy Transfer Partners rocked up and announced it wanted to build a pipeline, you can see why Kandi and her tribe said no.

KANDY: I know that they were contacting the people at Standing Rock at least since 2014, and the tribe always told them no, we do not want this pipeline. No, we do not want you to come through our area.

HOST: The company understood that the tribe was opposed, so they threatened to get the tribe’s land condemned. Essentially it was a tricky legal tactic that forced the issue. The tribe had a hobson’s choice: either put up with a pipeline and get some money, or the company would build the pipeline anyway, and the tribe would get nothing.

KANDI: And history has shown that when the government or a company says they’re going to do something, take something away from us, they do. And they have. Time and time again in the past, we’ve had things taken away from us.

HOST: Against the legal might of Energy Transfer Partners, they had no chance. So in the end, Kandi’s tribe folded.

But further south, at Standing Rock, the Sioux there were in a different legal position. Their land, was explicitly protected by the 1851 treaty. And they were in a mood to fight.

KANDI: They said no. No amount of money is going to make us. We don’t care if you bully us. We don’t, we don’t care if that’s your MO, Energy Transfer Partners, we’re going to fight you and we’re going to win.

HOST: Ladonna Brave Bull Allard is a member of that tribe.

LADONNA: When, when the pipeline was presented to us in 2014, I was called up to the tribal office to be informed that I was the closest landowner to the proposed pipeline.

INTERVIEWER: So you were the right person in the right place at the right time, in a sense.

LADONNA: Or the wrong person. However you want to look at it. I grew up here. I know every inch of the land. I can tell you every bit of the land for thousands of years. I know the history, the roots grow right out of my seat. I can tell you where every tribe lived, every grave is, every sacred site is. I can tell you about what happened there two thousand years ago. I know my home. I rode horses through there. We lived there, we played there, we fished there. When I was a child, we carried the water right out of the river.

HOST: When the company proposed the pipeline this time, the first thing the Sioux did was turn to their ancestors.

LADONNA: We still have our traditional culture very much intact. So we all went into ceremony to pray. And got guidance.

HOST: The company held a meeting with the tribal leaders.

LADONNA: The chairman of Standing Rock Sioux tribe stood up and said no. All of the directors of all the tribal programs said no. And the people said no.

HOST: The tribe could not have been clearer. But instead of listening to the sovereign owners, packing up and going home, the company instead took a more passive aggressive approach.

LADONNA: They stopped inviting us to the meetings.

HOST: I mean, you have to admire their chutzpah.

LADONNA:But they told the media, in fact, the opposite. Standing Rock wouldn’t attend the meetings.

HOST: With the company’s pipeline closing in, Standing Rock  realised they needed to organise. One of the main concerns they had was the impact the the pipeline would have on their water.

LADONNA: And then we sat down and said, How do we do this? And so we did, we went to the strongest people we have, our children. And we asked all the children to write a letter talking about how much the water means to them. And as the children wrote these letters, which were extremely powerful, from kindergarten all the way up to high school, we started publishing those letters. Then we had the children do a media campaign. And we started with the basic concept, water is life.

HOST: Ho Was Te Wakiya Wicasa was from Standing Rock, but was living in San Francisco. One day he received a phone call.

HO WASTE WAKIYA WICASA: Somewhere around February, my sister who lives right above where Sacred Stone was…She called me and said, Hey, they’re trying to put a pipeline. And they’ve been trying, they’ve been trying, previously, for a couple of years…but…This time, somehow, the…it stuck and they were really going to push the issue.

HOST: Howaste’s mind immediately turned to practicalities.

HOWASTE: So my first reaction was of course, I totally would be honoured to, to go home and see everybody and…to have this battle. And then I said, Ask them if we have money, do we have a campaign even there? Do we have folks…Like, I was one of the first persons (laughs) that they called because they knew that I had a good history in this.

HOST: It turned out they were kind of hoping that Ho Was Te would help them with the whole money thing.

HOWASTE: So I said okay, we need these things. We need strategy people. We need things to go. And my main skill I organizing was to go and hustle money, really, so that we could have flyers, so we could produce t-shirts, so we could get people out of jail.

HOST: He set up a Go Fund Me campaign, with a modest target.

HO: I first set it for like 5 grand but we had 30 people that showed up in camp by March and it cost us gosh  about 500 dollars a day to take care of everybody. And so I quickly changed that and we went to 10 thousand for our request.

HOST: La Donna and the tribal leaders had decided the only way to stop it was to physically stand in the way of the construction.

LADONNA: When the camp was started, we were, we were a small group. I think the camp started with only 4 people. And then expanded to 10 to 15 for about three or four months.

HOST: As the weeks turned into months, the camp dwellers turned to social media to spread their message.

LADONNA: I don’t know a lot about technology. But the young people taught us this thing that we didn’t understand and it’s called Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Livestream. They taught us how to touch the world. And we took the tool and used it.

HOST: Then in August, the camps started taking off.

LADONNA: Everybody was starting to watch every video we put up. I think on a given day we put up 60 different videos.

HOST: Word was starting to spread, and more and more people started arriving at the camp.

LADONNA: First our allies were the indigenous people in the area. And then that expanded to the other tribal nations. And then…as the other tribal nations were coming in, then we connected with our Canadian relatives, indigenous people there, and then, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador. And then Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. … And so the whole core from April until, I would say really, September, it was indigenous people.

LADONNA: One day at camp, this lady pulled up. From North Carolina. Her car packed with stuff and she got out. Because I asked everybody, Why are you coming here? And she said, I waited for this call my whole life. And when I heard the call, I sold my home, I packed everything up to come stand with you.

INTERVIEWER: Oh my gosh.

LADONNA: And that happened over and over and over again.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. That’s amazing.

LADONNA: People were saying, We looked around our world and things are not right.

HOST: By now, there were 2000 people living there on the site, peacefully preventing the company from building the pipeline.

Soon the original camp was so overcrowded, they had to set up a second camp.

KANDI: So many people came in August that we, they formed what was called the Overflow Camp. And that’s what it was originally called, the Overflow Camp, the Overflow Camp. And they said, well, you can’t really name it that, that’s not a good name. And that’s how the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ came about. The Seven Council Fires. That’s what it means in the Sioux language we had people starting to come from all over the place and it was a really beautiful intertwining of cultures. It was a really good feeling to be there together fighting against the same fight, and the same struggle and not being alone.

HOST: At its peak, it was one of the largest settlements in the state.

KANDI: There was so much organization that came about because it literally turned into a city. We had 15,000 people there at one point. That’s larger than most of the towns in North Dakota.

HOST: Then in September, a new set of faces started turning up.

LADONNA: Then all of a sudden the environmentalists said, Hey! Look what these people are doing. And then they started contacting us.

Who never really engaged with indigenous people before. And so, they started, they came in late in the game.

INTERVIEWER: Did- did that cause any disquiet?

Was it complicated, some of those relationships?

LADONNA: No. People came in when first started, people came in. hey understood indigenous people were in control and…and we continued…They offered additional training. They brought people in. I think they weren’t understanding in how we did things but they seemed that we were being successful. Most of the environmentalists I met were very respectful people.

HOST: As more people arrived, the company’s stance shifted from passive aggression to out and out aggression.

As has happened throughout history of the United States, the company called upon the police. Once again, the police stood shoulder to shoulder with company to criminalise the Indigenous people’s defence of their own, sovereign land.

One of the first things the company wanted to do was bulldoze across a sacred burial site. Even so, all the camp leaders agreed that violence was not an option.

HOWASTE: So every sub camp had its own spiritual leader. And we were trying to keep everybody together in prayer. That was our intent. And it lasted for, for quite a while. I was impressed with how long it actually did last.

But when it came down to the moment of truth when they started drilling into the ground and crossing on top of the burials, and those things, we had to make a physical stand.

HOST: Howaste and Kandi and LaDonna, and all their allies formed a cordon. Linking arms, to protect their own land.

HOWASTE: We went there to peacefully ask them to use their brains and to be human beings. And to not go over burials and not go through the water the people have to drink…And…But they didn’t have any regard for that prayer. And…they…The day that they unleashed the dogs on us and we all got bit up, it proved it. That, because they started the fight at that moment. Although we had counted two on them and we had interactions with them prior to that, it was the day they released the dogs and they- that really was a point of no return for us.

LADONNA: I remember on September 3rd, on the day of the dogs, and Amy Goodman was sitting there interviewing me and I was telling her about the Whitestone Massacre. And I got the call and they said, Ladonna, they’re over here digging up the graves. And I said, Stop them. And the man on the phone said, Well, we’re not quite sure what to do. You know they’ve never really had a conflict, you know. We’d been up there singing and chanting and praying. And I said, Push those men out of the way and call the women and children. Stop them. So by the time I got up there, I had watched that man jump out of his vehicle and pepper spray the whole line of women and children. And they wouldn’t back down. The women stuck there, covered with pepper spray hiding their children. And they stood up. And I remember standing up there as they were siccing the dogs on people. And I could remember, Unchi! Unchi! Or, Grandma, grandma! Stand behind me. And here comes the young men on horses, pushing the horses between us and the dogs and the men with the spray. And pushing the men back. It was the first time they inflicted violence on us was that day.

HOST: Back in a minute.


HOST: So the police had for the first time used violence against the Sioux. It was a shock for everyone at the camp.

KANDI: And it was weird that the police put themselves in between us and the pipeline so that they, they made it look that we were attacking them when they were attacking us and protecting a pipeline. Since when is it their mandate to protect the pipeline? As a police force. That’s when it really got ugly and weird.

HOST: Remarkably, La Donna says it was the police who were scared.

LADONNA: We scared them. What could they do?

INTERVIEWER: What were they scared of?

LADONNA: They were scared of the women. They were scared of the prayers. They were scared of the tears. They were scared of what we were making them feel.

HOST: Luckily, the environmentalists brought with them skills that helped them deal with this situation. At their peak, they were running workshops every day.

KANDI: We were doing non-violent direct action trainings every day. At 2 O’clock. You knew which tent to go to. I was helping in the Indigenous People’s Power Project, IP3, and the [51.02] Society, and some people from Greenpeace. We were doing trainings. Training thousands of people on what it meant to de-escalate, in- in what the actual targets were.

HOST: By this stage, the company decided it need needed reinforcements. The government called in the National Guard.

KANDI: I mean, we were literally standing there with our sweet grass and our sage against fully armed military, the Army National Guard. The United States Army National Guard was called in against us. For protecting water.

KANDI: There was one night when people were like – Hey, look at the Northern Lights! And we unzipped our tent and we went outside and we looked up. And the Northern Lights were just beautiful shining over everybody. It was really something amazing. You can’t explain unless you were there and experienced it and felt it. There was a feeling about it that was so beautiful. And it was all destroyed when the companies came and tried out all of these tactics against us. When it got really bad, I would say like, in November, December, January. They put a spotlight up on the hill so that we were constantly under these bright glaring lights. So that they always watched us. There were helicopters that started flying overhead all the time. Airplanes that flew overhead. All the time.

HOST: On November 20th there was a particularly bruising battle with police.

KANDI: It was the water cannons. And the people getting shot. That’s when Sophia had her arm nearly blown off. My friend got shot in her eye and lost sight in her right eye. She’s now blind in her right eye. And when so many people were shot point blank with this quote-unquote rubber bullets…Looking back on it now, it’s…it’s like a miracle that nobody died. It’s probably because of our prayers.

LADONNA: They had missiles. Where they were shooting missiles of our drones out of the sky. They had military degree mace. They had rubber bullets, percussion grenades. They had water cannons. We were unarmed. We stood there and prayed. We sang. We danced.

HOST:Meanwhile, the GoFundMe that Howaste had created with a goal of five thousand dollars had exploded. Money was pouring in from all around the world as Indigenous people and Environmentalists recognised the significance of the battle.

HO: By the time we ended, when I [14.24] stop, it was at 3.6 million.

HOST: Howaste says the money made a real difference.

HO: In one single day, we spent 250,000 dollars bailing out our p- water protectors who had been arrested. And that happened on several occasions. So the money that we raised really came in handy.

HOST: Faced with this resistance, the company decided it also needed to try a different approach. So it hired a company called TigerSwan.

INTERVIEWER: So who are TigerSwan?

JULIAN: So TigerSwan is a, is a they’re sort of the also-ran to Blackwater. Blackwater was a private security firm that was contracted during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And sort of TigerSwan is kind of a competitor private security intelligence firm. It gets hired by…Energy Transfer Partners which is the parent company of Dakota Access Pipeline to run security during the pipeline’s construction. And they end up engaging in…these, these very troublesome activities. Basically, monitoring, flowing, infiltrating…the…the Standing Rock and anti-Dakota Access movement during the…protests there.

INTERVIEWER: So they’re, they’re semi-military, is that right?

JULIAN: Yeah. They’re, they’re definitely. They…they’re definitely military. They have, you know, all kinds of high-tech surveillance gadgets. They refer quite often in…The leak shows that they refer to, they compare the protesters to jihadis quite often. I mean, there’s a very- They- They talk about the protest camps as a battlefield. I mean, there’s a very…charged use, and, and quite- quite frankly, Islamophobic use of, of words to sort of smear these- these protesters and to dehumanize them, to treat as if they were literally enemy combatants.

HOST: TigerSwan brought with them the latest gadgets in the latest installment of this centuries old conflict.

KANDI: And I know my phone was tapped into because it would act up. It would make weird noises. It would suddenly shut off and turn on again. It would have full battery and then boom, the battery would be drained like a minute later.


KANDI: And we found out why. We found out that they were using sting ray technology and we found out that you could pay- They were probably paying half a million a day to use some of this. We’re also starting to find out that some of this was actually illegal. Like there was no way, they had to get some pretty high clearance to be able to do some of the things that they did.

HOST: If this happened to you, what would you think? You’d probably hate the other side. I know I would. But instead, Kandi has only pity for them. Like they’re the ones that have lost out.

KANDI: And so it into perspective what money does to people. It can make them crazy. Because of they’re willing to these lengths to stop people that simply want to protect water, drinking water for their kids, then it’s gotten really bad.

HOST: TigerSwan was aware of the community spirit that kept the camps united and morale high. TigerSwan realised they needed to draw the camp dwellers into a fight to try and create divisions over the tactics. But the camp elders were clear that violence was not the way to win.

KANDI: And the answer that always came back was there was to be no violence. That if we were to be violent or engage in violence we would lose.

HOST: Howaste says TigerSwan decided to use the camp’s open, welcoming approach against it.

HO: Towards the end of it, it became increasingly difficult to manage because they had sent people in to infiltrate us. And so they were provoking everything and bringing in every kind of drug in and… All the negative stuff started happening towards the end because those guys fought on a…very covert level. They’d battle with us, and we weren’t necessarily prepared for that. So we weren’t prepared for them to bring methamphetamine and alcohol in, and all that and everything else that they ended up bringing into the camp.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. They just fought dirty.

HO: Yeah, there was cr- it was…oh, it was crazy, yes. And I don’t know if you saw, there was a day where we, me and a bunch of my nephews, caught a guy that was one of the employees and we had taken his truck and he had an AR 15 pointed at us, to shoot us. That day and we put, we surrounded him down in the water…And my nephew was able to get the, get the gun from him. But he was a [Dapple? 59.17] employee. And when I went to his, to his pickup truck, and I went to go look at the registration, I found every one of those drugs in there…His job was to go into the camp, and give that stuff away. And…we turned him in and he got nothing- he didn’t get prosecuted, got no charges or anything. They were trying to charge us for assault and battery because we surrounded him and…and lit his vehicle on fire. And so it was difficult to manage towards the end.

HOST: Faced with a focused militarised threat, the camp’s open spirit was now its greatest weakness.

HOWASTE: Because there was no genuine chain of command. We were going by what the elders told us. But when all of the pressure of…[1.00.18] as in all the narcotics they brought in, it started creating problems in managing everybody. Then pretty soon people were not listening to the elders, and not listening to the spiritual leaders, and not listening to the council of grandmothers who had the ultimate say.

HOST: Meanwhile, the confrontation had reached national level. President Obama was desperate to make sure the last year of his presidency was not marred with scenes of Indigenous tribes being violently removed from their sovereign land. On the ground, though, that counted for little.

INTERVIEWER: Were you aware that Obama didn’t want to have the optics of violently remove people from Standing Rock?

LADONNA: Yeah. The presidents of the United States have never been good people. None of them.

LA DONNA: Everything in America is indigenous issues, it’s my land.

HOST: Nevertheless, on November 6, just two days before the US Elections, President  Obama finally announced that the pipeline would be re-routed.

INTERVIEWER: Can I ask. When you found out that Obama had agreed to help the pipeline, how did you feel?
LADONNA: I didn’t believe him. I knew he lied. I stood up on top of that hill. Like everybody, Media Hill, and watched these people and said, This is a lie. Don’t believe them. And I was right. I did not go down when they celebrated. I was like, this is another American ploy. We’ve already had thousands of years of this. Don’t listen to them.

HOST: As it turns out, LaDonna was right to be skeptical. Within days of being elected, Trump declared the full steam ahead on the pipeline.

HOST:For Howaste, it was history repeating itself.

HO: And so, you have to remember we have these repetitive cycles of history that we’re engaged in. America is not is not the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s a plutocracy of racist white men that don’t care about us. And so…so I think in the end, the real reason is that they all got money to do that.

HOST: Anyone who views this story as just being about a pipeline, rather than an issue of sovereignty, would see Trump’s actions as a defeat.

But for people like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, this is just the actions of an occupying force no matter what happens, it’s still Standing Rock Sioux’s land. In the broad sweep of history, it is, at most a setback.

LADONNA: I’ll tell you a little story here. We had a family come to stay with us. And I remember the day they arrived. They said, Are we allowed? And I said, Yes, everybody’s welcome. And they said, No, we’re Muslim, are we allowed? And I said, Yes, you are. And I…I went down to the camp, and Mohammed walked up to me and said, Grandma, I’m going to the front line today. And I said, No, you’re not. He said, No, I’m going. He had a little bicycle helmet on, made himself a little breastplate, and a stick, and…And so I went to his father and I said, Ah, no kids, it’s too dangerous out there. And he said, I’ll keep him in the back. He’s so…so…insistent on going. And so I said, Take care of him. Because they were shooting people and everything. And so they went. The next thing I seen was a video. And there is Mohammed, 8 years old, standing at the fence, on his knees with his hands through the fence, with his stuffed rabbit. Offering the police his stuffed rabbit, saying, Please don’t shoot anybody. It was one of the first days that the police didn’t shoot anybody. And he stood there all that time, on his knees, on their front line, with that stuffed rabbit. To me, that was power.

For this little boy to stand there when so many people were being shot, and…everything else you can imagine.


LADONNA: And the police just standing there not knowing what to do. That was the power of the movement.




What would you do if someone wanted to illegally concrete over your local park, and build an apartment block on it? And what would you do if the authorities supported the illegal construction? Today episode looks at how to organise genuine opposition in a place where the one thing they hate is genuine opposition. How a small protest against destruction of a local park turned into a mass movement that’s sweeping Russia.

Click the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to the episode on PodcastOne, Stitcher or Apple iTunes.

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Full Transcript of Episode 6

Protesting in Putin’s Russia

HOST: (paraphrase) I am in Julia’s  kitchen. Its a cute room – rectangular and well decorated.

HOST: I was being polite. It was so tiny. The whole apartment was 45 square metres. That’s 480 square feet.

HOST: It’s got wallpaper made of fabric with lots of different colours of purple and yellow and green and the wall is covered in plates from all places around the world that Julia’s family has travelled. And I can see out the window that’s the side of the kitchen the beautiful green park where Julia takes her kids to play almost every day.

JULIA: So I feed birds here on the window. The birds are different types. There are are very unique. And we also have squirrels nearby in the market.

HOST: You might describe this apartment as a typical apartment that could be in any city in the world but for Julia it’s something else. [44.6]
HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, and this podcast is supported by Mobilisation Lab they connect social change campaigners with what works. Check them out at

HOST: Today on Changemakers, I’m in Moscow, feeling a bit homesick. Everyone has a special affinity with their own home. But what happens when the authorities where you live think they can do whatever they like to the place that you call home, mainly because, they have a history of getting their way? You fight. Let’s go.

HOST: There are 7,900 blocks of apartments like Julia’s in Moscow.. And when I say like, I mean, virtually identical. Five-storey, prefabricated, white painted, concrete rectangles.

JULIA: In Russia it is called Khrushchyovka because of the time of its building under Khrushchev, it’s our leader.

HOST: Like in the West, Russia had a baby boom after World War Two, but Stalin didn’t do anything about it. Instead, two or three generations of families found themselves crammed into small homes. It felt like that was how it was going to be for the rest of their lives. But when Stalin died, the new leader Krushchev decided that he wanted to be loved not feared, and so he built these apartment blocks for the millions of young families who’d been living with their parents and grandparents. They were a symbol of a new type of leadership.

They’re not the most beautiful buildings in the world, but 1.6 million Moscovites are proud to call these brutalist structures their home.

Now the Mayor of Moscow – a man named Sergei Sobyanin [So-bi-an] – wants to knock them down. Ideally, all 7,900 of them. In February 2017, he announced plans to demolish 50,000 apartments with more to come.

It goes by the benign-sounding policy of renovations, and it’s stirring genuine opposition in a country where the one thing the government hates more than anything is, well, genuine opposition.

HOST: Imagine living in one of those apartments. They look drab from the outside, but inside they’re warm, most of them are solidly build. Everyone I talked to said they couldn’t really hear their neighbours through the walls.

This was Krushchev’s legacy — under his policy — 25% of Russians got their own homes. It was a mass urbanisation the likes the world had never seen before.

So the idea was they were homes for young families. But imagine trying to bring up children in a 45 square metre apartment. Where the hell do the kids play?

Like everything else, Soviet planners had, well, a plan for that.


INTERVIEWER: Why did you want to live in this area?

JULIA: So when we were choosing where to live. I get the map and I searched for the green zones because I wanted to play with my children, to walk in the parks and that’s why we chose this part of Moscow.

HOSTS: Parks. Lots of them. Indeed they were called urban forests because these parks had always been there – before Moscow was an established city.

In true communist style, everyone’s backyard had been collectivised, clumped together and shared as public space.

For years, Julia had heard about the mayor’s renovation plans, but hadn’t thought much about it. But in 2016, she found out that the park next door – the whole reason she was living there – was going to be turned into an apartment block.

They were planning to replace the pine forest with another block of units.

JULIA: We knew about it almost by chance. Our municipal deputy was mail to the documents so we got information about the, a further construction.

HOST: So they had some documents that said it was going ahead. But when Julia enquired about it, the authorities reassured her nothing was happening.

JULIA: But our local authorities said us that no such construction would take place. They insisted that no such construction would take place.

HOST: Not totally trusting the officials reassurance, together with her local representative, Julia made further inquiries.


JULIA: So they said we knew nothing about it.

They said it was hardly possible that such a construction will take place.

HOST: And yet trucks were moving in. It was clear that construction was about to start taking place. So Julia did what any outraged local resident would do.

JULIA: I took pictures and then sended it to the local organization which do the protection of national resources.

INTERVIEWER: You contacted your local environment organization. What were they called?

JULIA: So it is called Mos… in Russian which means Moscow’s nature and this is an environmental protection organization. And we send them photos and we applied to them when we want to protect something.

HOST: But bureaucracy in Moscow is slow. While they waited for the environmental protection organisation to stop the construction, Julia started talking to her neighbours.

JULIA: In October I started talking with other families here to protect the park.

HOST: It was at that point, Julia discovered she wasn’t alone in wanting to protect her park.

JULIA: We live in huge city and if we don’t have any parks here, it would be impossible to raise children here without clean air, without any options to be walking them in the parks. So we found other activists, people with many children.

HOST: Meanwhile, the Mayor is not even acknowledging her concerns. When asked about protests against his development plans, he cites a pro-Government thinktank poll which says 80% of Moscovites support his plans. The mainstream media lapped it up.

At the same time, everyone in power that Julia talks to assured her nothing would happen to the park. It would illegal to construct anything on the park. After all, the pine forest has been there for hundreds of years. It’s essentially heritage listed. Even the roads leading into the park are illegal to drive on.

HOST: Weeks pass. Then one day, signs go up around the park, announcing that construction will begin. In a few days.

INTERVIEWER: You’d been told there was no construction then you found the signs. How did you feel?

JULIA: I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that such thing is possible in Moscow, in the center of Russia. It was a really shocking thing.

HOST: Any uncertainty was now lost. Julia decided to mobilise. How? They set up a Facebook page, of course.

JULIA: It is called Let’s Protect Our Park, [21.30] Park. We post photos there, our letters, and we try to attract people attentions in this group.

HOST: So they used Facebook to raise awareness.

And also place signs in the area so, so let people know what is happening. And we also organized 2 meetings, and 2 protests.

HOST: And for organising.

INTERVIEWER: How fast was it that other people got involved?

JULIA: So initially when the construction started, people around here was shocked. And they supported us and 16,000 people signed our petition.


HOST: 16 000. For a local park. Julia says 3-4 thousand of those were offline, with the rest coming through their Facebook group.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think so many people joined the campaign so quickly?

JULIA: So it’s really important for us. We all love this place. We have squirrels there, we can feed them in summer. We can ski there in winter. And we have beach there also. It’s amazing, everyone loves it.

HOST: That’s right, it’s even got a beach. In Russia. Because Russia is known for its great beaches. Unfortunately, the construction company pushed on.

JULIA: And also after that, some people all in black appeared in the park suddenly. And they pushed out the activists who were trying to protect the park. And it was unbelievable.

HOST: So Julia decided that if the authorities weren’t going to stop the illegal construction, she and her neighbours needed to take the law into their own hands.

INTERVIEWER: How did you that?

JULIA: We tried to block the road.

HOST: Remember, this is Russia. Where opponents of the Government are regularly assassinated. That said, it was a local issue. Hardly likely to get the notice of the Kremlin. At least, not yet.

Julia and her fellow neighbours took turns, blocking the roads from the trucks that were driving to the very active construction site.

INTERVIEWER: Before the protests in the park, had you ever been involved in a protest or social change campaign before?

HOST: No, never.

INTERVIEWER: So what did it feel like (laughs) to block a road to save your park?

JULIA: So it was really stressful and I spent this time with my children and family by the hedge to block the road.

INTERVIEWER: How did you do it?

JULIA: So its quite silent here and I heard the vehicles going to the construction site once.

So 3am we went there, with my husband.

HOST: Their neighbours who also lived next to the park joined in. The road they were blocking was through a protected area. Cars weren’t even allowed to use that road, let alone trucks for a construction site.

JULIA: So we called the police and we tried to stop the vehicles but against us was about 20 people and we couldn’t do anything. And then the vehicles passed through us … So we asked the police to check the, whether the vehicles are allowed to go there but they didn’t do it.

HOST: Then one day about a month after the construction begins, finally, Julia heard back from the environmental protection organisation in charge of stopping illegal construction. The one they’d sent the photos to.

JULIA: So. Only one month after the start of construction [Mosk…17.45] gave them the passes that they are allowed to go to the construction site.

INTERVIEWER: The nature organization.



INTERVIEWER: Oh my god, you lost your ally. They turned, they turned to the other side. That’s a disaster. How did you feel?

JULIA: So actually they were not our allies. They changed their side. We tried to account to them but they were…by the side…They were on the side of construction organization.

HOST: That’s how it rolls in the land of Putin. Still, they pressed on but when it came to blocking the road. Unfortunately for Julia, time wasn’t on their side, thanks to a very Russian problem.
INTERVIEWER: So, so you blocked the road for how long?
JULIA: So it was winter. So 24 [27.48] was impossible. And we did it from time to time when we could.

HOST: The Russian Winter. Sure, it stopped Napoleon and Hitler, but now it was stopping Julia’s protests. So instead, her group turned their efforts to navigating their way through the Russian bureaucracy, to find an institution or agency that would rule the clearly illegal construction – illegal. They wrote to the Mayor.

JULIA: So we got a reply from them that they didn’t see any illegal activities. And actual, actually, the construction is legal.

HOST: This was untrue technically, but the mayor was used to doing things that were technically illegal, and getting away with. He had the support of the Kremlin, and perhaps just as importantly, he was popular among Russia’s oligarch’s. The mayor’s attitude was that it was legal if he said it was legal.

HOST: So what was going on here? How did the construction companies think they could just barrell in and build an apartment block over a much loved park? Why did the Mayor think he could act with impunity? And what do you do when you’re fighting an opponent who doesn’t stick to the rules?

Elena Rusakova is a local activist, who ran in the 2012 regional elections.

ELENA: So it’s long ago, in 1990s, probably when local authorities first started to consider these green areas as their own property.

HOST: Elena says the problem dates back to the 1990s. Before the collapse of communism, the parks were controlled by the Soviet authorities. They were embedded in the idea of collective ownership. The idea that they could be privatised was anathema to the whole system. But then, when the iron curtain came down, the question of who even owned these spaces, who was in charge of the parks, became a genuine puzzle.

So, even though there was never any formal decision to make them the property of the city, over the years that’s what happened.

But because of this lack of clarity, authorities have become emboldened over the years to do as they wish without reference to the law.  

And from one perspective, you can understand why. Power abhors a vacuum. As the Soviet state collapsed, it was the people who simply took charge and started running the economy were the ones who set the rules.

And as they did, the ability of the law to reign them in, got weaker and weaker.

ELENA: So, this situation is definitely getting worse. I think in the past, it was enough to present a law to state that it is illegal to construct something. And then the construction stopped. But now, the government uses force and saying that it is illegal is not enough to stop it.

HOST: So what do you do when the opponent who doesn’t obey the rules is your government?

While the construction companies were private, the Mayor’s construction boom was very much a government thing, complete with a tick of approval from the Kremlin.

ELENA: Corruption is involved also. So even, even when people go to street protests and say what you are doing is illegal, it, it doesn’t work because police don’t help. And government do not respond to it.

HOST: Yaroslav Nikinten also lived near Julia’s park, and decided to get involved in the fight with Julia. But Yaroslav wasn’t just any resident. He was an experienced social activist.

Yaroslav decided to get involved personally to help save the park, especially since the reason for the construction seemed so openly craven to him.

YAROSLAV: Because the land around parks, it’s very expensive and they just want to construct and they don’t care about the future or they just don’t associate the future with this country and with this city. They just do want, they just want to make quick money here.

HOST: In other words, the people who have the power don’t have to live with the consequences of their actions. And they were there to make a buck, like any good oligarch would.

YAROSLAV: Cause we have fewer and fewer green areas in Moscow. And the centre of Moscow is just…some…just a concrete place. And there are very few trees there. And in the centre, it’s not only about air but there are many psychological diseases in the centre of Moscow because of lack of trees, because of huge number of automobiles. And this is awful.

HOST: So how do they do it? How do they get away with it? For a start, they kept it out of the press.

YAROSLAV: For example, in the northwest of Moscow there were absolutely no publications about our fight to save our Park. We call it self-censored. In official media.

HOST: That’s why the Facebook group became so important.

INTERVIEWER: So, how do people find out if their park or green space is under threat?

YAROSLAV: These are mostly local activists who just watch Facebook and see news, get news from there.

HOST: Of course, it’s not just the media. The political leadership also play a role. There again, Yaroslav, says, there is a problem.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think the mayor didn’t care?

YAROSLAV: He’s pretty confident. If he had no administrative resource, If he- if we had fair elections, I think he would care. But he just, he even said nothing. We had, we had no reaction from him. There is just censorship on his media resources and all that.

HOST: So they Just. Ignore. You. Yaroslav says the only thing standing between the mayor and the construction were the courts. There again, was a problem.

YAROSLAV: We have quite corrupt courts who are always on the side of power. Not always but in most cases. And there are practically no other means to change anything. So we only have public pressure.

HOST: Yaroslov and Julia had generated public pressure, and eventually one institution – an environmental court – ruled in their favour.

JULIA: It confirmed that the area was cemented illegally, that the vehicles had their passes illegally and the construction was illegal too.

HOST: It was a victory, of sorts, but it was too little, too late. Parts of the park had already been concreted over. The trees will take decades to grow back.

HOST: The residents still had some of their open space – even if their park was cast in the shadow of an apartment. And the calculus had changed: the Mayor and his construction company friends now knew they couldn’t just barrel into parks with impunity. Up until this point, they’d relied on a compliant media that kept the project out of the spotlight. But now Julia was shining a spotlight on it, it became too risky.

The developers and Mayor were no longer able to act unilaterally: they had to take into account the actions of the locals.

HOST: The reaction from the government was swift. In late 2016, the Mayor announced a new, breathtakingly audacious approach to stamp out the protests.

YAROSLAV: In the end of 2016, Moscow city Duma, like a parliament, they prohibited municipal deputies to…gather with their voters.

INTERVIEWER: That’s unbelievable.

YAROSLAV: Yes. It was pretty terrible. And I think we should organize, unite and…fight for our rights and fight for local self-governments.


HOST: That’s right. Local representatives are now banned from turning up to protests. It’s clear that somebody has a deep incentive to keep the construction boom on track.

But Yaroslav says the corruption is not about under the table payments in brown paper bags. In Putin’s Russia, it runs far deeper than that.

YAROSLAV:I would say that construction companies are government. There is no bribery.

INTERVIEWER: They make a bid, yeah?

YAROSLAV: So they initially make such bids that their own companies, I mean connected companies, they will give them, they will receive this. All rich people in Russia, they are…they are all pretty connected to government. That’s why it’s one command of oligarchs who rule the country and Moscow as well.

HOST: So the fact that Julia, and Yaroslav managed to stop the construction and sort of save their park was a remarkable victory.

Dogged persistence by the protesters changed the political calculations about whether stealing public parkland was worth it. It was shining too much of a light on a questionable activity. Moscow officials and their crony construction companies had to take the annoying protesters into account.

HOST: Back in a moment.

HOST: Okay, so, remarkably, Julia and Yaroslav had saved their park.

But by now, they’d realised that their fight wasn’t just about one park. It was a systemic problem that had been going on for years.

But what exactly was going on?

That’s when they met Sergey Menjeritsky (Men-jiri-sky). Sergey had been spent the last 7 years trying to answer the same question.

SERGEY MENJ:After 2009, I was absolutely…I supported Mr. Putin and current government absolutely. I was pro-Putin. So I grew up in a family full of people from army, and military-oriented people. My brother is now in the army and all my predecessors were there in the Soviet times and under the Russian tsars and all this.

HOST: But for Sergey, everything changed in 2009.

SERGEY: At that time I went to the Russian coast of the Black Sea near Gelendzhik, one of the more favourite places.Gelendzhik is a unique place because there are forests of pines there. And this is a special type of pines that covers only 1200 hectares all over the world It’s really unique.

HOST: It had special significance for Sergey.

SERGEY: For me, from my childhood, this place was like a heaven on earth because I enjoyed walking along the sea near this pine forest. And this is a really beautiful place. I loved it so much.

HOST: But in 2009, when Sergey went back there for a holiday,

SERGEY: I went there and I saw a fence. And I saw no end of this fence. So it was like a bad dream because I went to my favourite forest but I saw a fence and guards with dogs walking nearby. And it was a fence between sea line and forest.

HOST: The coastline, the beach and the forest had all been privatised. Enraged, Sergey found a gap in the fence and went through.

SERGEY: I saw thousands of unique pines destroyed. I saw area prepared for construction, for construction of a palace.


HOST: A distillery to produce wine and alcohol had also been built. The forest and the construction site were on protected land. Sergey wrote to the government and they confirmed that the land was essentially like a national park – something for everyone to enjoy. And yet there were fences and guard dogs.

SERGEY: So I consider this a crime, a crime not only against ecology, but against all people and all humankind. I consider it in this way.

HOST: Then, the following winter, all was revealed. Unbeknownst to the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a deal had secretly been struck between Russian businessman Sergey Kalashnikov, and the then prime minister

SERGEY: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

HOST: Vladimir Putin. It was a done deal. Regardless of whether it was legal, with Putin’s backing there was nothing anyone could do.

SERGEY: So Alec Berov who is head of the local organization, he arranged a fence there of 4 metres high. He put guards near the fence, so now it’s like his own property. His home, his family spend time there. He puts there statues and everything. And all this…Well, we don’t have a lot of beaches here.

SERGEY: So Russia is quite a cold country. And here are coastlines and beaches where you can spend time in summer is a unique resource. And…it has always been protected by the government. So what happened now with the privatization of the past unique natural reserves has no parallels in the history of Russia. It’s unbelievable.

HOST: To Sergey, this raised fundamental questions.

SERGEY: So after my research, I started thinking. What is our government and how could I communicate with it? So the government should help people solve issues but this, this situation was the opposite like the government created the issues.

HOST: For Sergey, all roads led to the people behind the scheme. Which included some familiar faces.

SERGEY: Everyone knows the current mayor of Moscow, Sobyanin, and Alec Beroff who’s head of [38.30] Lukoil Corporation there, are friends. Some time ago, Sobyanin was mayor of Kogalym, its region was central for oil business. So it is the same scenario each and every time. If you are in government or a friend of government, you can go illegal.

HOST:So Sobyanin came to power as Mayor of Moscow. He had a lot of business links to an oil rich region. But then in 2012, the US passed the Magnitsky Act. Yep. You might have heard of it. The law that sanctioned Russian oligarchs and drove Putin to support Trump in the 2016 election.

Before the Magnitsky Act, the Russia’s gas and oil magnates, would make their fortunes and then move their families and their fortunes to London or Monaco or Malta.

ELENA: So such representatives of the government get the resources and then move to foreign democratic well countries. And they had no obstacles to do it.


HOST: But after the Magnitsky Act, corrupt oligarchs — Putin’s support base — had nowhere to go, and nowhere offshore to put their money. Western banks were forbidden from touching it. It was a real problem for them. And a real headache for Putin. Suddenly the whole reason the oligarchs supported him had disappeared.

Suddenly, Sobyanin’s plans for Moscow seemed like the perfect business opportunity, and a perfect way for the Kremlin to keep their favoured oligarchs with plenty of profit making ventures on their hands. It was domestic, it was funded by the government – which was a fairly limitless resource of money, and best of all, it was being run by their old mate: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

SERGEY MENJ: So construction in Moscow, it’s like new oil. Because you cannot get so much money from anything else. And besides, these businessmen who are involved in construction, they are linked to the government. So it is a means…

HOST: In other words, if the government had truly wanted to do something about improving housing for 1.6 million people, they would have actually talked to residents about what they wanted. Instead, they brought in construction companies and gave them carte blanche. It suggested that serving the interests of the construction oligarchs was the true aim of the policy.

So in stopping construction on their park, Julia and Yaroslav had found themselves taking on powerful forces. They were taking on the entire Russian establishment. This wasn’t just about a park, this was about the future of the city, and who got to decide what it looked like: the residents or the billionaires. To win, it seemed obvious that they needed to broaden their front.

They’d heard about other protests, in other parts of Moscow. Someone had even set up a Facebook page to keep track of it all, but each group was isolated. Each group was fighting the same fight, against the same opponent, but not coordinating amongst each other.

Vasily Yablokov was the coordinator of Urban Project at Greenpeace Russia, and also, conveniently the head of Research. Yaroslav had a chat to Vassily about the problem.

The thing is, this was not usually the sort of battle that Greenpeace would get involved in.

VASILY: It’s very local and very small. And Greenpeace don’t…doesn’t have a position, a strong position about local problems.

HOST: Usually Greenpeace works on big, international problems, but Vasily had a very pragmatic approach. Many of Greenpeace’s potential volunteers were affected by the Mayor’s plan.

VASILY: Our people who can be our potential supporters live in the cities and we should work if their local reality…because we…we need people. Because we’re people power organization.

HOST: Vassily also had skin in the game. The government wanted to build a freeway through his local park, so he politicising these battles could be. He decided to tear up the Greenpeace rule book. The other side weren’t playing by the rule book anyway.

VASSILY: Now it’s our position that Greenpeace can work with all local problems. And we should rise activism in the cities.


HOST: They decided they needed to form a network of all the small protest groups.

But before they could do that, they needed to get a handle on what the hell was going on. Which projects were legal? Under Moscow’s planning laws, you can’t just build apartment blocks without also building the necessary schools, hospitals, shops and roads. This was something the Mayor had completely neglected.

VASSILY: We found a lot of illegal points of this project.

HOST: Yulia Galamania was a well known local activist in a different part of Moscow.

YULIA: So in March 2016, Greenpeace together with human rights institution organized a research into the problem and created a report on it. So at that time and before, the problem was understood.

It’s Moscow’s problem.

HOST: As part of the research, they spoke to the designers and the lawyers and suggested changes to the Mayor’s plans. But nothing happened. Vassily says that’s because in the political theatre the technocrats working on the plan were guileless to the broader political context.

VASSILY: This people have the role of stupid people who don’t understand anything.

HOST: Sergey Menjeritsky helped out, running a website called Open Coast. Initially it was just to monitor the illegal sales of coastal property, but has since blossomed into a registry of all the illegal sales of land.

SERGEY: It’s like a register on my website. It’s like a map of so-called stolen coastlines of Russia. And any citizen of Russia can go to my website and put a point on the map if he or she thinks this part of coastline is stolen.

INTERVIEWER: Does it include any sites or sales inside of Moscow?

SERGEY: Yeah, it includes Moscow. And there are a lot of illegal activities which is pointed there which took place previous. Yeah, I mentioned some examples.

INTERVIEWER:Is this, is this one way that many Muscovites can find out about illegal sales?

SERGEY:Yeah. I have a lot of other helpful resources on my site, not only the map itself, but also guidelines and instructions on how to act when you see a fence on coastline. So first, people who see they are shocked, they are angry. But if they go to my website they can see how they should act.

INTERVIEWER: So in my country, the government provides the information that you provide. Why doesn’t the government provide this information?

SERGEY: The fact that government do not provide such information proves that the government is corrupted and works for its own interest, not for interests supporting their people. So the head of Land Titles Office does not do such a register of occupied coastlines. They should do it but they don’t.

HOST: In effect, they were answering the problem that lay at the heart of their strategic dilemma: if the government wasn’t going to behave like a government, and follow the rules, the protesters would start writing their own rules.

They would keep track of the records, they would be the reliable source of legitimate information.


They were filling the vacuum of legitimate government.

SERGEY MENJ: So people are far away from all the mechanisms that works for decision making. And it is hard to fight against it. So, actually, Putin’s system is called the system of decorative democracy.

HOST: The protesters role was to bring decision making within the reach of those it affected. The residents of Moscow.

HOST: Thanks to the report, and several local green space victories, for the first time, the mainstream media were paying more attention. It was clear these people were not shabby radicals but a reliable source of information in the face of a slippery administration.

VASSILY: it was, it was very cool because we used media like a pressure for…government.

HOST: And thanks to Vassily’s network coordinating local groups, the protests started getting bigger. Suddenly it was part of the national politics in Russia, thanks to Greenpeace Executive Director Sergey Tsyplenkov.

VASSILY: Every year, Putin…has a meeting with…members of human rights council, and Sergey who is a member of this council…talked direc-…how to say, talked directly to Putin about the situation with…parks. Putin, and Putin was quite…how to say…surprised about this situation,

—Okay, I asked mayor of Moscow about the situation.

HOST: Putin was shocked. But surprise, surprise nothing changed. The Mayor kept going, demolishing parks all around Moscow, all but confirming which side Putin was on.


HOST: Then, in February 2017, just as winter was at its most bitter, the Mayor announced his boldest plan yet: 50,000 apartments would be razed to the ground as phase one of a massive so-called “renovation”. That’s 7900 apartment blocks.

HOST: Ironically, in a way, this was exactly the sort of overreach that the protesters needed. Now it wasn’t just your park that was being threatened with illegal demolition. It was your home.

The pace of organising picked up speed. Step one. Petitions. Yulia Galamania – who had previously run for office – knew how to organise.

YULIA:So there are about 30 houses per block of flats in the district where I live. And in a week, we gathered about one thousand signatures.

HOST: But they didn’t just stop at petitions…

YULIA: So after that, when we got connected to people, we found one or two activists in each house in our district.

HOST: They were organising at a hyper-local level. But they couldn’t just play locally on an issue that was affecting the whole city. They had to go broad as well.

ELENA: So basically we used internet

HOST: Facebook. Yet again. Several Facebook pages were set up. The largest was

ELENA: Muscovits Against Destruction of Buildings. So this group probably has about 30,000 followers but it’s not only one group.

HOST: To build on the momentum, they decided to hold a meeting in Pushkin Square. The idea was to show that they were not a fringe group, but a major political force. Through coordination of all the local protest groups on 14 May, 60,000 people across Russia protested, the largest in five years.

HOST: In the footage, heavily armed anti-riot police use batons to pull down protest placards attached to a statue in the square.

YULIA: And later, Alexei Navalny

HOST: That’s basically Russia’s de facto opposition leader

YULIA: Go near this scene of this meeting and he started to have some quarrels with police. Police tried to arrest him.

HOST: Remarkably and rapidly, the rally had an effect. The protest march was in mid-May. By the end of the month, the Mayor had massively scaled back his ambitions, halving the number of apartment blocks scheduled for demolition.

INTERVIEWER: And what kind of message do you think the rally sent to the mayor about renovations and about the changes to green spaces?

JULIA: So it’s really hard but anyway, it was worth it if before that you had only 60 days to relocate if your home is to be renovated, now you have 90 days. And it’s something.

HOST: It’s something because it allows protesters extra time to organise to stop demolitions.

You see, if you can get 70% of your building to oppose the demolition, you can now veto it. This change in the law gave people like Julia the space she needed to stop the demolition of her apartment block.

Beyond that, it shows that the protesters had achieved some recognition in one of the hardest sites for protest in the world. The rally made the Mayor realise that he must take the people into account.


Not only that, but one poll conducted after the protest said 58% of Moscovites supported the protest. Which greatly undermines the Mayor’s claim that 80% of people support the demolitions.

HOST: The fight is far from over. Some distant observers see echoes of the 2012 protest movement in this latest surge. Back then, 120,000 filed onto the streets of Moscow in the wake of a national election that was decorative democracy at its finest.

But there are key differences to this protest movement. For a start, it is grounded by very specific local concerns. Many of those involved are not there out of some political ambition, but simply out of a desire to protect their homes, and whose eyes have now been opened to the flagrant corruption of the system.

INTERVIEWER: How has this campaign, all this work changed how you think about the government?

JULIA: So my opinion of the government, it turned upside-down. And I understood that all power is in the hands of rich people. Only they can decide what is next in our country.

HOST: So what would you do if you were them? Here, the protesters themselves are divided. Some, like Julia Robanova decided that the only way to force accountability on the Moscow Duma was to join it. She decided to run in the local elections. After all, as Yaroslav points out, most of the local campaigns still lose to those in power. Perhaps they’ll have more impact if they have someone representing them from within.


YAROSLAV: Most of campaigns are being lost. But if we lose, we can win in elections, for example. It, it could be a good outcome from this.

HOST: And Yulia Galamania believes that only by participating can democracy become less rigged.

YULIA: In the past, people considered all elections in the government as [1.27.36] elections, rigged elections and so they didn’t participate, they didn’t participate in it at all. So the world will not change by itself. You need to do something to make change to the world.

HOST: Others, like Sergey and Vassily believe that acting outside the political system will bear more fruit. Sergey’s website will continue to be the definitive register of illegal land sales in Moscow, and Vassily coordination of local groups will ensure that protesters can bring city-wide scale to local concerns.

In sticking with his approach of simply doing the government’s work for it, Sergey is expanding the concept of a local boards, which are like standing citizen committees that keep pressure on the local deputies, and provide them with truthful information.

SERGEY: So when we create a normal independent local board, is, we can get this brain and, or these mechanisms of communication with the whole living organism. And in that case the government at the city level will get proper information about what is going on in the districts. Because now they have signals only from the high levels of power.

HOST: Every state has a power dynamic where the people can play a role. Even in Russia where the government has a track record of literally killing its opponents.

This social movement was particularly effective because it was based on the day to day experiences of Muscovites. It was first based on their love of their treasured green spaces and their attachment to their homes. It was grounded in place – in the spaces that people live in every day.

It meant that everyday people, people who had never been involved in political life, felt comfortable stepping into political action.

And the process of being political – of contesting power – taught them so much about how the system worked. They learnt the force they were up against when the environmental organisation sided with the construction company. They were taught about real politics when the apartment block was built despite it being illegal. These moments provided those involved with lessons about how the Russian state worked.

Then the state over-reached with its the decision to demolish tens of thousands of homes. This then caused an equal and opposite reaction by the people – that forced this decorative democracy to compromise.

These change makers haven’t won in Moscow, but they haven’t lost either. The most important lessons they have gained is they have learnt how to fight.



This is the second part of an exploration into how anger can be channelled into powerful actions. Part two comes from Brisbane, Australia where a simple vigil outside a hospital turned into a national flashpoint that overturned a decade of political consensus on Australia’s refugee policy. Remarkably, when they began the organisers of the vigil didn’t know what they were even aiming to achieve.

(Photo credit Ned Martin

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Full Transcript of Episode 5

“When Anger Works Part Two”

What would you do if you were in charge of a country’s immigration system, and a 12 month old baby did this in an immigration camp you ran?

NATASHA: She pulled a pot of boiling water onto herself while her mother’s back was turned. Off a table, inside the tent.

HOST: If you answered, deport the baby to a tiny island nation with inadequate medical facilities, then you’re probably an Australian immigration minister.

This is the story of Baby Asha, and the campaign to uphold the value of basic human decency. Sounds like a fairly uncontroversial idea, but in Australia, it’s anything but, especially when it comes to the issue of immigration.

INTERVIEWER: What would have happened if she’d gone back to Nauru?

ROS MCLENNAN: I fear she might have died.

HOST: Welcome to ChangeMakers, supported by our Launch Partner Mobilisation Lab. I’m Amanda Tattersall.

Today part two of our exploration of what happens when anger ignites a movement. In the last episode, I was in South Africa, looking at a movement that started out with throwing poo at a statue. It ended with students mobilising across the nation.

Today, another story borne out of anger, that also led those involved to take direct action.

It was a story with a sting in its tale. Ignited by anger, the students were driven into increasingly violent clashes with authorities. The students became very good at defending themselves from rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, but in the process some felt they lost sight of what they were fighting for.

Today, another story borne out of the anger, that also led those involved to take direct action.

HOST: And just a couple of notes about this story. To protect their privacy, Baby Asha is a pseudonym.

And during production, it was a race against time to interview some people in this episode before they were subject to a government mandated ban on discussing it. This means some of the interviews were recorded on the fly. So sorry if some of the recordings are a bit scratchy – but we have been restricted from going back to do follow up interviews.

Our story starts in the moments after Baby Asha received severe burns to her body and face.

Baby Asha had been imprisoned with her parents in a concentration camp on the small island of Nauru, a nation of 10,000 people in the South Pacific ocean. A place where medical facilities are, well, basic. As a result, whenever any major medical emergency happened, the Australian government had to medevac the patients on a Lear Jet back to Australia.

And look, I know if you’re not from Australia, you’re probably having a hard time understanding this story.

Yes, in my home country, we imprison babies in off-shore concentration camps. Even babies born in our country go there if they’re unlucky enough to be born to the wrong sort of parents.


I don’t use the term “concentration camp” lightly, but that’s what they are.

The Australian government intentionally makes the camps as awful as possible, so that families with tiny children live in sweltering conditions in tents with no air conditioning.

They are a place to persecute a specific minority, and they are intentionally awful places with inadequate facilities. That’s a what a concentration camp is.

And in case you’re wondering, just like other concentration camps throughout history, the people who are sent there have committed no crimes.

The government justifies all of this because these people fleeing for their lives. They are refugees.

Perhaps most shocking though is this: the deportation of a burnt baby back to a camp with scant medical services was likely to enjoy support politically from both major parties in Australia.

Ellen Roberts was an activist at the time, and she says that actually, the minister was surprised when he met resistance to deporting a severely injured baby.

ELLEN: that was standard practice and Baby Asha had not been the first baby treated at Lady Cilento and deported back to Nauru. I think what is more remarkable is why he had difficulty deporting Asha.

So something shifted around that time that made this a real flashpoint.

HOST: This is the story of what that flashpoint was.

But before I can tell you that story, first a bit of context about how Australia got itself to this point.

Many years ago, in 2001, a very masterful politician called John Howard started using refugees as a scapegoat to help him get re-elected. The previous election he’d done it with Australia’s indigenous community, and it worked.

His method was simple: pick a minority group, ideally with brown skin, and accuse them of being criminals, or bludgers, or just deeply suspicious.

The opposition party – who was on the left side of politics – would then leap to the poor minority’s defence, and Howard would then use that as proof that the the opposition was “weak” on whatever he was accusing the minority of doing. Weak on crime, weak on bludging, weak on national security. You get the idea.

What Donald Trump has done with Mexicans and Muslims.

And for Howard, in the heat of a six week election campaign, it didn’t really matter whether the allegations were true. As long as the mud stuck long enough for him to be re-elected, that’s all he needed.

But in 2001, just as Howard was ramping up a particularly nasty campaign against refugees fleeing conflicts in the middle east, this iconic moment flashed up on our screens:

NEWS ANCHOR: This just in you are looking at a very disturbing live shot. That is the world trade centre. And we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre.

HOST: 9/11. Suddenly, in the public mind, refugees got mixed up with terrorists. It was a great piece of luck for Howard. And devastatingly unlucky for refugees. Dave Copeman ran a large coalition of many of the biggest community organisations in his city.


DAVE COPEMAN: There had been stories in the popular press and talk-back radio that really portrayed asylum seekers as queue jumpers, as people who were rocking the system, as illegals, as people who weren’t to be trusted.

HOST: The result 15 years later, is that a minister of immigration has sweeping powers, and the most vulnerable immigrants are housed off-shore, outside the reach of Australian laws.

DAVE COPEMAN: There has been a long campaign of dehumanizing asylum seekers and of moving them out of Australia so that they’re out of people’s minds.

HOST: Whereas many saw the whole politics of our country in a stale mate, Ros McLennan – the head of the union movement in the Australian state of Queensland – saw an opportunity when Baby Asha arrived on that Lear Jet.

ROS: While many of us don’t buy the federal government’s alarmist hysteria over refugees and terrorists, some do, but everybody can relate to a mother’s worry about a seriously, seriously injured baby.

HOST: After all, how much of a threat can an un-armed, severely-burnt baby be to national security?

Natasha Bulcher was a case worker for people who were seeking refuge in Australia. She’d heard that a baby had suffered burns in the concentration camp on Nauru, but the government wouldn’t tell her where she was being taken.

NATASHA: There’s a phone app called … Flight Radar and you can watch planes move through the sky, and where they’re going to.


HOST: Her job was to represent the interests of Baby Asha and her parents.

NATASHA: And we just figured out where the … best burns hospital was in Brisbane.

INTERVIEWER: Wow. And so that’s how you found where she was.

NATASHA: And that’s how we found -Yeah. And so we called a few different hospitals and hit the jackpot.

HOST: Within days, Asha had been stabilised, although the medical staff didn’t want to send Baby Asha back to Nauru.

NATASHA BULCHER: The doctor in the Burns Unit was fantastic. They seemed to have made the decision not to discharge her until we could have her legally secured.

HOST: Problem was: thanks to all the laws they’d passed, it was up to the immigration minister to make the call. And he wanted her deported.

So a small group of activists decided to hold a vigil in protest. Ellen Roberts was among the first down there.

INTERVIEWER: How did you find out about Baby Asha in the hospital?

ELLEN: Had a couple of beers after Friday night work and just went home. I was actually just looking at Facebook and someone had posted, calling out for people to go down to the hospital

HOST: Soon word spread. Ros McLennan was almost asleep.

ROS: When I got a call late one Friday night, in February, after I’d just gone to bed. The makeup was off, my hair was in a ponytail, got into my pyjamas. The lights had just been turned off and there was a call on the mobile. My first thought was, “I forgot to put it on silent.”

HOST: Then she saw who it was. Ged Kearney – the head of the Australian union movement.

ROS: I thought it must be important, given the hour, so obviously I took the call.

HOST: She told Ros that there were 10 people standing outside Lady Cilento Hospital.

ROS: Because there was serious concern that Baby Asha and her parents were going to be taken back to Nauru, and Ged was expressing concern that these 8 or 10 people were out there in the night, and it would be good to give them a sign of solidarity or support, and if I could do it, I could.

HOST: Friday night. What would you do?

ROS: I looked at my watch, it might have been shortly after 10 o’clock at night, and I said, “Can I get down there first thing in the morning?” She said, “Sure.” Then I got back to bed, and then I had that look in the mirror moment. I thought, “Yeah, I’m getting back into a warm bed, and my husband’s here, and my two little kids are tucked up in bed, long past their bedtime. Everyone’s safe, snug, sleeping peacefully,” and I thought, “I think I can get out of bed because there’s another little nipper, obviously Baby Asha, down at Lady Cilento who wasn’t facing such comfort and security.”

HOST: Once she got down there, Ros put the call out on social media.

ROS: Other people came thick and fast throughout the night.

HOST: One of the first people she called was Dave Copeman.

DAVE COPEMAN: Ros McLellan called me on Friday night and she said get down here to the Lady Cilento, there’s a baby who’s been detained and we fear she is going to get sent back to Nauru. She’s an asylum seeker and we’re going to march in a vigil.

HOST: As the hours ticked over into the early morning, Ros and Dave chatted about the sheer logistics of what they were doing. It was clear that for this vigil to have any impact, that they’d need more allies. So Ros asked other unions to support the vigil.

ROS: In my heart, I knew that it was the right thing to do, so we made the call that we would. Happily, our affiliate unions felt the same

HOST: The union movement swung behind Baby Asha. But why? What did Baby Asha have to do with workers’ conditions.

ROS: The reason our members work is to provide for themselves and their families. Here, in another part of Brisbane, not too far from my house, is a mother desperately worried about her baby and what future for her baby’s health, wellbeing, and welfare, if the baby and her parents were moved back to Nauru. I just as a mother, as a unionist, I couldn’t have the capacity to make change at my fingertips and do nothing.

HOST: And it wasn’t just unionists. Dave Copeman rang around the churches.

DAVE: I called Dave Baker, the moderator of the United Church in Queensland and said we need support for this. And some of the local churches, Western Uniting Church, contacted the Catholic Archdiocese, Peter Arndt from the Commission of Justice and Peace, and I spoke to some of the community organizations we were involved with.


HOST: As the days went on, instead of the numbers at the vigil falling, they went up.

DAVE: Everyday pretty much we tried to organize and action, getting a couple of hundred people at the front of the hospital. In the kind of purpose-built, amphitheatre-style situation there. And we’d say, oh, let’s put out something on Facebook for tomorrow. And the hour would come around, and there’d be 200, 300 people. And there was just…it was. It was in the air. People had hope that something was going to change it. And they just thought I wanna be there, I want to be a part of this.

HOST: A vigil was a great way to peacefully make sure that Baby Asha stayed safe. They knew that while she was in the hospital, she would be safe.

HOST: But Baby Asha couldn’t stay in the hospital indefinitely.

The government’s position was that once she was discharged, she would be deported. To do otherwise would undermine their ‘tough on refugees’ stance that had unwritten their electoral success for 15 years.

Yet thanks to the Vigil, that was becoming a more and more unpopular stance every day.

The problem was nobody knew what would happen next. It was a genuine stalemate.

Back in a moment.

HOST: Baby Asha was stuck in the hospital. The government wanted to deport her, but the round-the-clock vigil outside was growing every day.

Baby Asha’s case worker, Natasha Bulcher, was keenly aware that without a sophisticated communications strategy, the vigil was likely to fail – no matter how big it was.

NATASHA: I think that the Department of Immigration and the minister’s office feel that they can ride out some campaigns to a certain extent.

HOST: But there was a problem. What the media love are personal details. That was the key to getting people to empathise with the family’s plight.

NATASHA: So in the asylum sector we have to be very, very careful… about informed consent and making sure that clients know what’s being done and are happy with the information that’s being shared.

HOST: Luckily, Baby Asha’s parents trusted Natasha and agreed to let their situation be made public.

NATASHA: So it wasn’t just an issue that was stagnant. The public was made aware of every step in this family’s journey, right. And they became invested in it. And I think that’s what resulted in such in such huge media coverage and such huge support, it’s that people were able to understand, day by day, what was happening to this family.

HOST: It was a tough situation, that required real courage on their part. Essentially Natasha was asking them to stand up and oppose publicly the government that had crazy amounts of power over them.

But they understood that it would help not just their family but everyone in their situation. Some days were better than others.

NATASHA: Some days it would be as simple as Oh, Natasha, I don’t want them to know how upset I am today, don’t tell them that. Just tell them that I said thank you, you know.


HOST: The head of comms was a man called Shane, and he understood that for the media to lap up the story, he had to humanise the family. Something Natasha had to get used to at first.

NATASHA: I wanna tell the stories of your clients but what I want to tell is what their favorite food is and what the band they liked when they lived in Iran or when they lived in Sri Lanka, you know. And I was like, that’s not the important information, Shane. These people are suffering immensely and you want to talk about what their favorite cereal is?

HOST: But the strategy worked. As the media coverage grew, public sympathy for Baby Asha grew too.

The campaign was called Let Them Stay and it sought to use the Baby Asha case, to argue that the 250 refugees who were facing deportation to Australia’s offshore concentration camps should all be allowed to remain in Australia.

Ellen Roberts helped run the campaign for GetUp, a large digital campaign organisation. She says that as the story dragged on with no resolution in sight, it allowed the campaign to broaden their sights further still.

ELLEN: Really, it opened up the ability to talk about the conditions on Nauru and Manus. But it did it via the specific situations for those people. And it was in that time that we saw a massive shift. Polling at that time showed among the Australian people what they thought…what they thought like whether they thought that was an acceptable situation or not.

HOST: Meanwhile, inside the hospital, the doctors — seeing the immense community support, strengthened their resolve.

NATASHA: Once the campaign kicked off and there was a lot of support there, I think the doctors realized that they were able to do more with their leverage. And so they then said we won’t discharge her until she goes to a house in community. We don’t accept a detention center to be a safe place for a child.

HOST: For a while, it seemed like the whole of Australia was focussed on what would happen to Baby Asha.

ELLEN: On that Monday morning, we had a live TV cross, 2 live TV crosses. And so we gathered people round, you know,to show the world and the nation that there was all these people here.

HOST: Then the following weekend, it suddenly seemed like the Government was going to try and get its way: by force.

ROS: My six year old daughter, Frances, and I were at my office in South Brisbane. She was doing some colouring, and I was doing a bit of work, and I got a call from someone down at Lady Cilento saying, “It’s happening. We’re on. We’ve seen federal police, we’ve seen heaps of uniformed security guards, the hospital staff are abuzz.”

HOST: The fear was the government was going to forcibly remove Baby Asha using Federal Police. Outside, the protesters were split on how to react.

ROS: There was a bit of a heated discussion about, “Okay, if they’re moving Baby Asha and her mother, what’s our response going to be?”

There were views being offered about, “We don’t want to cause more stress and upset to Baby Asha and her mother. They’ve been through a lot. It’s been a long vigil.” There was a suggestion that perhaps we have a silent acknowledgement as Baby Asha and her mother were taken away from the hospital to be ultimately deported. That was one view.

HOST: But there was another view.

ROS: Another view was that people shout and scream and noisily protest and endeavour to get themselves arrested to draw public opinion.

HOST: Ros had another idea entirely.

ROS: I said, “Look, this is what we’re going to do. We haven’t been standing here for 10 days, 12 days, to wave goodbye to Baby Asha. We’ve been here to stop them taking Baby Asha and her mother, so we’re not going to just silently stand there and wave goodbye. We’re actually going to stop it.”

HOST: Being a unionist, Ros and many of her cohort were used to pickets. But this was a very different type of picket. Instead preventing people getting in, it was to prevent one very special person, a tiny baby, from getting out.

Still, they approached the logistical issues like they would on any picket.

ROS: We identified the exits, the roads out of the hospital where Baby Asha and her mother could be taken. We organised into groups, we appointed a team leader, an offsider, in every group. We gathered the contact names, phone numbers so we could keep in touch with people who were leading the group at every exit. I explained that we needed to do was be on the lookout for a car. We had descriptions of the security uniform, so people knew what to look out for.

HOST: To be effective, it required a hugely disciplined show of force.

ROS: We explained to each group that what they were looking for was obviously a car with a mother and a baby in the car, and if we didn’t have eyes on the occupants of the vehicle, we were to move calmly and slowly into the road, stop the car, explain what we were doing in a calm way, eyes on the back of the vehicle, and when it was all good, we could move aside and thank folks for their time.

HOST: It meant not letting anyone get through the blockade unchecked — no matter who they were.

ROS: In one incident … a … colleague and I stopped a car that was a large, dark coloured car with tinted windows, which we thought looked like a suspicious vehicle. It was dark by that time, and it was being driven by two police.

Again, we asked them to wind down the window, we respectfully, politely outlined what we were doing. We indicated that we’d let them pass when we saw inside, had eyes on the back of their vehicle. It was all clear, the crowd moved aside, let them pass. That created a few smiles

HOST: It took the Government by surprise.

The next day, the Minister for Immigration announced that Baby Asha and her parents would not be deported.

It was the biggest reversal in refugee policy in Australia for a decade.

HOST: It was an extraordinary defeat for the government. Something that, when they started the vigil, they hadn’t imagined would be possible.

DAVE: I think the main lesson for me is that it’s alright to take an action where you’re not sure where the end is if you know you’ve got enough people and resources, networks of people who are willing to support…That was quite a scary move and I…I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do what Ros did, to say that we were going to this so clearly with so few people there. But the lesson was that that worked.

HOST: Let Them Stay was fueled by a growing sense of injustice that had been building for years, decades even.

That was a very similar situation to the South African students we met in part one.

But unlike those at the vigil, the students in the Fees Must Fall campaign forged their relationships on the battlefield, first through a series of occupations of university buildings and through bruising clashes with police in the streets.

While they trusted each other in the heat of the moment, certain segments of students felt free to push the envelope further than others. There were radical elements in the student movement that freelanced off — some even demanded the overthrow of the entire government.

This incoherent approach then led down the path of focussing almost entirely on the specific tactics they were using. They ended up spending so much time discussing how to fend off rubber bullets they forgot to discuss why they were using that tactic anymore.

In contrast, the Let Them Stay campaign relied on bonds of trust that had been established well outside of the crisis flashpoint. Many of the unionists, church-goers and community activists who came together had known each other for years, brokered by Dave’s organisation. That led to a trust where bold, decisive action, taken in the moment was possible. But the direct action was deployed only to address the larger goal of Letting Baby Asha stay.

Anger ignited both campaigns, but ultimately, Let Them Stay succeeded because their tactics served their strategy.

It was long-standing relationships that made that possible, not just in the heat of the battle but in the months and years beforehand.

DAVE: They stuck with it because they had trust in each other and they had trust in the organizations involved, that they would stick with each other and be true to each other. And that was the lesson for me…is that…building connections over organizations isn’t just useful for planned work, you know, that you agree on together and that you try to organize around. It’s really important so that you can react on an opportunity or to a crisis. And let us take a big risk together. It worked.

HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes.

Changemakers is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley and our sponsoring organisations are Mobilisation Lab, Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising Cities project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.  


Like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and check out for transcripts and updates on all our stories.


Episode 4 – “When Anger Works – Part One”

Episode 4 – “When Anger Works – Part One”

When a growing movement of young people places itself in harms way to stop injustice, it can be powerful and unpredictable.  Often it is fueled by the white-hot anger of knowing that you’re on the side of justice when those in power have failed to make the change you need. We can see this with the powerful #FeesMustFall student movement in South Africa.

This is a two part episode about times when direct action was used to confront an overwhelming force. Part one looks at the remarkable #FeesMustFall student movement in South Africa, that all started when someone threw poo at a statue.

Click on the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to this episode on PodcastOne, or Stitcher or Apple Itunes.

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Full transcript of Episode 4:

“When Anger Works – Part One”

It all begins with poo. Let me explain. For years, black students across South Africa, like Anzio Jacobs, had a problem with a statue at the University of Cape Town. A statue.

ANZIO: Oh, my word, we’ve hated that statue for as long as it’s been here…

HOST: The statue was named after

ANZIO: Cecil John Rhodes.

HOST: That’s right. As in the Rhodes scholarship. Cecil Rhodes. British mining magnate, politician and…

ANZIO: A good big advocate of racial segregation.

HOST: But it didn’t just stop at the statue. The entire university was littered with monuments, buildings and rooms all named after heroes of colonialism. The place was dripping in white privilege. The university just saw it as part of its history. But for many black students, the buildings were named after people who’d murdered their ancestors.

Then, one day in March 2015, Ramabina Mahapa – who was President of the Student Council – got a phone call.

RAMABINA: I actually got a call from my SRC colleague saying —There’s a naked black man throwing poo at the statue of Rhodes.  Go down and see what’s happening.

HOST: That’s right a man was throwing poo at Cecil Rhodes. When Ramabina got there he saw the imposing statue of the white colonialist – who believed that whites were superior to blacks – sitting in a chair, his chin resting on his hand – covered in human faeces.

RAMABINA: I was about 5 or so meters away, you know…There was a smell…you know, a smell of faeces, there was also a mixture of other things in it.

HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Changemakers, supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab.

HOST: Have you ever been so angry about the injustice of something that you’ve considered doing stuff that is way outside your comfort zone?

You see something on the news, and it sets your mind racing about what you’d do if only you had the power and resources?

Perhaps you’ve acted in anger at some small, and surprised even yourself?

Anger can be an enormous motivator especially when something feels unjust.

But unless anger is effectively deployed, it can also be debilitating and drive us to do things that aren’t really solutions at all.

Today, part one, of a two-part exploration of what happens when anger ignites a movement.

HOST: I’m in Johannesburg South Africa at Wits University where, two years ago, people decided that access to education had become so expensive that it’s become this generation’s battleground. It is a story of a simple demand that led to an explosive fight that opened up a Pandoras box of fundamental questions about equality, and how to achieve it. And just a warning: it’s a tough story. Let’s go.

HOST: The poo had been thrown by Chumani Maxwele, a student who lived in a township just out of Cape Town. A place, like many townships, with no proper sanitation. Instead they have mobile toilets with buckets to catch the waste.

INTERVIEWER: Why poo? Why’d he throw poo?

RAMABINA: He was saying people in this high tower called UCT must also experience what it’s like to live in a township where, you are on a daily basis exposed to the smell of poo…

And so he said it was an attempt to link UCT to the struggles in townships.

HOST: Not long after Ramabina arrived, Security was called, and after a scuffle, Chumani was charged with assault.

HOST: In the days that followed, students held a meeting to air their grievances. Chumani was not the only poor black student who hated the statue, but the university refused to remove it. They said it was part of the University’s heritage.

Lindiwe was a student at the time. A week and a half after the original incident, she was walking down the stairs towards the statue with three friends.

LINDIWE: And I saw a group of students,, protesting and I asked them:—What are you guys doing?— … And one of them was, like:—No, we’re protesting because we are tired of institutionalized racism that is happening in the school

HOST: They were demanding the removal of the statue. For Lindiwe, that statue went to the heart of what she felt was wrong with the University.

But Lindiwe’s friends were hesitant. They were black, but they also felt UCT had a reputation to uphold. As blacks, they felt pressure to behave like model students in this institution of white privilege. They didn’t want to rock the boat, because that would confirm everything that whites thought about blacks already.

LINDIWE: they cannot embarrass the white culture of this university. So my friends were, like:— Nah! No, no, no, Chubby, we’re gonna go, like, no, we’re not going to do this

HOST: So even though Lindiwe didn’t know anyone there, she decided in that split second to join the protest.

LINDIWE: And my friends were like: “No, we go”. And I’m: “Okay go, shop, I’ll see you guys.”

HOST: Little did she know, that that was the last time she’d see her friends for weeks.

LINDIWE: So we started singing and we students were like, protesting, protesting, it was just a very little group, right.

HOST: They decided to march down to the administration block to demand the statue’s removal.

LINDIWE: As we were walking down, some of the students kept on joining, you know, like, students, some of the students were like: Ooh, protest!

HOST: Nothing like this had ever been done before at the University.

LINDIWE: By the time we got to the admin building, there was like, a lot of us, right.

HOST: The University’s Vice Chancellor came out to meet the protesters, and he told them they didn’t know what they were talking about. That there was no institutionalised racism.

LINDIWE: We are the most diverse. Everything is fine. We were like, actually: We’re not good.

… This is Africa and the university looks like it’s in Europe.

HOST: The point that the protesters wanted to make was: sure, the University had black students but they were expected to study surrounded by symbols of those who’d murdered and raped their ancestors. That was not an environment conducive to allowing black students to thrive.

LINDIWE: And one of the students just like took the microphone away from the vice-chancellor and was like: “Let’s go in.” And that was it.

HOST: It was a complete shock to everyone. Nobody knew exactly why they were going in and occupying the administration building.

LINDIWE: We went in and we started singing and singing and singing.

HOST: A movement had begun. Complete with a hashtag: Rhodes Must Fall.

LINDIWE: Nobody had planned to stay—Tonight, I am definitely sleeping on a carpet—nobody.

HOST: But they did. And it wasn’t just one night.

LINDIWE: We slept in the administration building for about a month.

HOST: The students came up with a memorandum of why they were protesting, and told the administration they were not leaving until they’d won. All around the country, students had been protesting against fees, but this protest was different. And it wasn’t just about getting rid of the statue.

LINDIWE: When we said Rhodes Must Fall, we meant the legacy of Rhodes must fall. That means institutional racism, patriarchy, rape culture, all the things that you can think of, all the oppressions that you can think of that came with Rhodes.

HOST: Access to the university for black people was about so much more than fees. They wrote down their demands. But more importantly, they started discussing tactics. After all, they had time on their hands.

LINDIWE: What’s the next plan? What are we going to do next? How are we going to, to, to-Which pressure points are we going to use to get management to agree to most of the things we are saying. And…We learnt.

HOST: Every night, they would invite academics from universities across South Africa to come and deliver lectures to the occupation to help them work through the fundamental questions they were having about their education.

LINDIWE: What did we mean when we say decolonize all institutions?

HOST: One of their demands was that they wanted the curriculum to be less European, and more African, to decolonise the curriculum.

LINDIWE: That’s when we started like formulating the ideology of Fallism,

INTERVIEWER: What is Fallism?

LINDIWE: Fallism is an ideology that is based on 3 pillars which is black consciousness, pan-Africanism, and black radical feminism.

HOST: Fallism. A philosophy that united different identities behind a single united demand: to strip the colonial vestiges of white privilege that remained 25 years after apartheid had fallen.

LINDIWE: We had to learn to embrace our blackness, and, like, teach each other black consciousness and love each other in our blackness.

HOST: It was a period of intense politicisation.

LINDIWE: Being in that space and everything I learned in that space… It was just like…the best thing ever.

HOST: The protesters decided that white people would not be allowed to join in their occupation.

LINDIWE: It was like, for blacks only. And for the first time in the history of the University of Cape Town, me and many other black students, we felt like we belonged in the university. For the first time ever.

HOST: Why?

LINDIWE: For the first time, you could raise your hand in a room full of people and speak. And not be laughed at and be looked at as a person who has not been educated enough for you to be in that space.

HOST: Some white students started getting it. They started their own solidarity group, Disrupting Whiteness.

But Lindiwe says that being in a black-only space allowed her to realise for the first time that she was not alone in feeling out of place.

She was a 28-year-old first year student, sitting amongst a whole lot of 18-year-old white kids. But it wasn’t the age gap, it was everything.

LINDIWE: My education was teaching me how to learn how to type, so I can either be a receptionist or how to make tea, how to sew, how to cook.

HOST: The occupation was a space for students like Lindiwe to both learn and unlearn.

HOST: Weeks went on, and the students refused to leave.

LINDIWE: They thought we were going to get tired and move. No, we didn’t.

HOST: The Vice-Chancellor convened an emergency meeting of the University Council with only one item on the agenda. The removal of the statue. There were 30 members of the council. Just one was black.

LINDIWE: We were outside the building singing and they knew the outside, singing, you know, just like (hand claps) —You better make a good decision because it’s like about to go down, you know.

HOST: Realising it was the only possible decision, the council unanimously agreed to the statue’s removal. It was a remarkable turnaround. Within days, trucks arrived to take it down. As they drove in, the students left the building they’d occupied for weeks, and marched down.

LINDIWE: There’s a picture of me crying. I don’t remember myself crying but there is a picture of me tearing up on that day.

HOST: The statue had been removed. The students went home for their mid-year break. Meanwhile, Universities across South Africa started announcing their fee increases for the following year.

And that year, they were big. Fasiha was at Wits University, in Johannesburg.

FASIHA: it’s opened up at 13%

HOST: 13% might not sound like a lot in isolation, but that was on the back of years of increases.

FAHISA: Remember this fee increment essentially comes after a number of years of at least a 10% fee increment. So over 5 years, your fees increase by a, by 50% at least.

HOST: In fact, the fees were becoming prohibitive.

FAHISA: This kind of increment was going to close the doors of higher learning to the poor black child.

HOST: There were students who wanted to keep going with their degrees, but were being forced to leave because the fees were too high.

The stakes weren’t about the affordability of education so much as access to education at all.


But while students had tried to oppose fee increases for years, this time was different.

Rhodes had fallen.

By bringing down a statue, they’d learnt the University administration could be defeated. The students at Wits, inspired by what had happened at Cape Town University, decided to get organised and fight.

FAHISA: We get together a planning committee. We divide ourselves in to 3 main teams. The first is the research team, to look again into the financial element of it. … a social media team, And the third was the mobilization team

HOST: They called it “Wits Fees Must Fall”
FAHISA: Now traditionally in African society, it’s toi toi, you hand over memorandum, sing some struggle or revolutionary songs. You go home, you wait for a response. But that particular protest action was not proving to be effective anymore. It was out-done, it was dead.

HOST: They thought about the University’s weaknesses.

FAHISA: What is going to shake it all up and remind them that in fact, you wouldn’t have a university without students? That students are the biggest stakeholders here, not the chairperson of council. There would be no Wits without students.

HOST: A student strike. It seemed far-fetched.

FAHISA: Now, if I’m being honest, many of us didn’t believe we had the capacity to do it.

HOST: They printed some pamphlets and called a mass meeting on the 14th October.

FAHISA: We told students 12 o’clock at the west campus tunnel.


HOST: 12 O’Clock was a fairly standard time for a traditional student protest.

FAHISA: The idea being, we were also trying to trick management, that we would march up the road and hand over a memorandum. So that’s what management was prepared for.

HOST: Instead they did something completely off script.

FAHISA: Woke up at the early hours of the morning. Got to Wits about 5 or 6 o’clock. And we sat down…in front of the gates. There were not many people, maybe 20 or so. And we refused to move. And it was terrifying.

HOST: They had no idea how many people would turn up. Remember this was the first gathering they’d called. And all the pamphlets said it would start at midday. But word started spreading. The hashtag #WitsFeesMustFall and – presumptuously – #WitsFeesWillFall started trending on Twitter

FAHISA: From 6am, our numbers grew. We didn’t spend our whole time at the gates. We went through university. But by around midday…there were at least a thousand people, from 20, 30 people in the morning.

HOST: Meanwhile, their Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib, was in Durban for a conference and refused to engage.

FAHISA: So he doesn’t say anything on the first day. Okay, wake up, we do it again the second day. We said “Adam Habib, we’re waiting for you. We’re not going anywhere. Your university will remain shut down until you take us seriously.”

HOST: Finally on day three, a Friday, the Vice Chancellor returns. Negotiations to stop the fee increase begin. The students occupy the University’s Senate House, which they rename Solomon Mahlangu House, after an apartheid era hero. They demand that the negotiations are done on their own terms. And they live stream them on Facebook, as they stretched into the night.

FAHISA: That’s when other universities started to contact us. They started to say … you guys are not the only ones fighting an increment. And that’s when we shared ideas on how did you guys shut down.

HOST: They fail to reach agreement.

FAHISA: By Monday or Tuesday the next week, every single institution in this country was shut down.

HOST: The student movement was now united in its opposition to the national government. Remember, the party in charge of the government is the ANC. As in Nelson Mandela. As in, the party that brought down apartheid. Indeed many of the student leaders were in the ANC themselves.

FAHISA: And this is one of the first times in the post-1994 era, that you see young members of the ANC holding the ANC accountable. They were shocked.

HOST: The students decide to march, across Nelson Mandela Bridge, to the ANC’s headquarters.

FAHISA: It’s not like any governmental building you are going to. You are marching to the headquarters of the African National Congress. The liberator.

HOST: The government was not used to being criticised, and, to put it mildly, they didn’t take it lightly.

FAHISA: They had heard rumors that there was an attempted march… And that the riot police had closed off the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

HOST: But the student’s marched anyway. It had the effect of moving public perception.

FAHISA: The first few days was that we were hooligans, we were write-offs, we were radicals. Some people even called as monkeys. It was horrible. But by Days 3 and 4, we were called heroes. We were called a generation of young people who were not going to accept the status quo.

HOST: Busisiwe Seabe was also at Wits University. She says shutting down the bridge made them realise the leverage they could exercise with direct action.

BUSISIWE: It doesn’t only cause traffic, but it means that people who have to go to work in Sandton which is the richest square mile in Africa, that is where the middle-class works and that is where the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is, can’t get to work. Which means that particular environment loses money on that day and that disrupts the economy. And that’s exactly what we wanted.

HOST:Over the coming days, they ramped up the pressure on the government.

BUSISIWE: We wanted to affect the economy of the state so we could be taken seriously. So we thought of everything. Blocking the national highways. Blocking bridges. Stopping people from going to work. We even spoke to the taxi association, …So we had a transport shut-down of about 2 days in the entire province of Gauteng in order for us to affect the economy and get what we wanted.

INTERVIEWER: Can I ask, where did you get all these extraordinary ideas from?

BUSISIWE: They came through…what we like calling Makabulo sessions, and I hope people will learn this word. Makabulo sessions are essentially, for the lack of a better word, it’s not arguments, but it is…us lobbying each other, right.

HOST: Thanks to these tactics, it was a national issue. The President himself stepped in and announced he would meet with student leaders.

That’s right. Within a week, they’d thrust this issue onto the national stage, and forced the President to the negotiating table.

HOST: Back in a moment.

HOST: So the President had agreed to meet with the students. But the students who’d ignited the initial protest at Wits University weren’t impressed.

FAHISA: Wits took a decision not to attend. We said we’d be on the ground with everyone. Wits students on the ground.

HOST: The students thought it was more of a publicity stunt.

FAHISA: Yeah. Eat some lovely food. Take some pictures. I’m such a great president.

HOST: They say success has many parents, but in social movement campaigns success has many hangers-on, and unfortunately the Fees Must Fall movement was no different.

Sometimes they might be saboteurs, people who infiltrate your events, and want to undermine it.

When I was organising the Iraq War protests in 2003, at a crucial point, just as we were gaining momentum politically, someone threw red paint on a politician’s car. It totally undermined our message that our movement was respectable and mainstream. Many of us – including me – were convinced the man had done it to undermine our cause.

At other times the infiltration can come from people who share your political aim but disagree on the tactics.

I remember during the same period, one radical group decided it would be a good idea to use school students as cannon fodder against the police. During one confrontation, the police bashed these poor teenagers with batons. The radicals said it proved how brutal the police were, but that’s not something we were ever trying to prove. In fact, the police had been relatively accommodating up until then.

The only thing it proved to me — and more importantly, to the general public – was that our movement had been infiltrated by reckless radicals who thought it was alright to put school students in harms way.

Unfortunately for the Fees Must Fall protesters, the sudden mass mobilisation, and its attending media attention, brought with it its own set of hangers-on.

HOST: The day the student leaders were meeting with President Zuma, Fahisa arrived at around 10am.

FAHISA: It’s just anarchy. Burning things, rocks being thrown.

HOST: Up until this point, the students had been successful because they’d diverted from the normal script, taking university management by surprise when they shut down the campuses and then standing up and marching on their party headquarters.

And now it seemed their movement had been hijacked by people who wanted instead to follow a very, very familiar script.

FAHISA: Now you get a group of people who now say – This is a perfect opportunity to hijack something. And there was an attempt to make things turn violent.

HOST: It was the worst type of hijack too.

FAHISA: I’m a hundred percent sure, there were other members that had a different agenda that was not free education, who had entered into the space.

HOST: The radical elements were calling for an overthrow of the entire national government. An absurd demand that simply allowed the government to paint all the students as extremists. Fahisa talked it through with other leaders.

FAHISA:Okay what are going to do? We’re going to do what we do best. March. Because we march very well. So we gather all our people together.

HOST: By this stage, the authorities took the threat of students seriously.

FAHISA: As we …marched past, there were huge Caspers there. They had their guns loaded, ready, I mean ready to shoot.

HOST: So they march through the streets of the city, down to the Union buildings. By this point, the crowd was 10,000 strong, all of them waiting for the outcome of the meeting with President Zuma.

FAHISA: People had their radios on. And that’s how we heard.

HOST: President Zuma announced a moratorium on all fee increases across the country for a year. It was a genuine victory.

RAMABINA: That was amazing because I had thought that it was impossible.

FAHISA: But as soon as that announcement came, people didn’t disperse. I think they wanted to remain. They wanted to be with each other. But the police were not having that. They wanted everyone to leave.

Now it was not like a protest of a few thousand. There was at least 10,000 people there. At least. Coz it was a national thing. When people refused to move or leave…The police then started to use their water cannons, tear gas.

FAHISA: And the Caspers, they’re like big police vehicles, armoured police vehicles, basically drove down and forced the students onto the streets.

And then they got out. Some of them were on foot, some of them were in their vehicles. And then they opened fire with rubber bullets. That was the first time we came, I came into contact with rubber bullets, personally. It was horrible.

HOST: So they’d won. But then literally moments later, the police started shooting at them.

INTERVIEWER: Did you feel like you’d won?

FAHISA: Yes and no… Yes in the fact that we had brought this issue up. That we had done in 9 days what so many couldn’t do in 15 years. Yes in that we put the issue on the map. But, no, because…we’d only frozen it for one year.

Some leaders were worried that they would find themselves fighting exactly the same battle in a year’s time.


Others, such as Ramabina, over at the University of Cape Town, didn’t think it was much of a victory.

RAMABINA: It was a symbolic victory. …Okay, fine. Your 2015 fees and 2016 are going to be the same. But the main issue actually was the issue. People are not actually able to pay those fees, regardless of whether there is an increment or not.

HOST: And others still such as Anzio at Wits University simply refused to accept it was a victory in any way.

ANZIO: What does that help us? We’ve got this massive debt and you say there is no increment in 2016. But you’ll probably charge 20% in 2017 if we don’t address this issue, and so it just stayed.

HOST: For Ramabina the fact that the students couldn’t even decide on whether to call it a victory was exactly what the Government had hoped for.

RAMABINA: By the end of the week, it was so many factions and so many…it was all…you know, divide and rule even within the movement.

HOST: For many, Jacob Zuma’s concession proved that direct action worked. And that they should press harder.

They released an 18 point set of demands. They didn’t just want fees to fall, they wanted free education.

HOST: Over the ensuing months, fuelled by their initial triumph, the direct action team at Wits University, lead by Busisiwe and Anzio amongst others, decided to ramp up their militancy. This time to push for free education.

BUSISIWE: We didn’t want all students to be militant because that could turn into anarchy. Coz once everyone is militant, you can’t control who’s doing what, where they’re doing it and how they’re doing it.

HOST: The way they saw it, militant action required a sophisticated political approach, that made sure the right targets were hit.

BUSISIWE:The direct action team not only has the ideological understanding why the need for militancy but they have thoroughly gone through the strategy of what is that militancy and how that militancy advances the point we’re trying to get across.

HOST: The aim of direct action was to provoke the government into a violent response, that would show the government’s brutality.

HOST: In the closing months of 2015, students clashed repeatedly with police. As the battles escalated, the students became more adept in fighting back. They learnt to use balaclavas drenched with vinegar to counteract tear gas, they would use rubbish bin lids to protect themselves against rubber bullets, and cover their hands in condoms to stop stun grenades from burning them.

The day before the University returned from its Christmas break, students once again occupied the Senate House.

The Government was faced with a new year of unrest. Instead, they capitulated. They announced a commission to look at the idea of free education.

HOST: It wasn’t a total victory, but it was a step in the right direction. The academic year got under way, and things calmed down somewhat. The students – those who hadn’t been suspended for protesting – returned to their studies. Perhaps the government was at last listening.

HOST: Things settled down.

Then, nine months later, in mid-September 2016, the Minister for Education finally announced the plan for fees the following year.

I’ll give you one guess what he said.

Yep. The minister announced that fees would be allowed to rise by up to 8%.

To the students, it was like the Government had learnt nothing.

But this time, the students were ready. Just like the previous year, they jumped into action, occupying the main hall, and bringing with them all the stuff they needed for a confrontation. Vinegar, condoms, bin lids. The lot.

The police were also ready. They brought rubber bullets.

BUSISIWE: There’s a movie called 3000. It’s a Roman movie about Roman generals fighting. So one of the strategies we picked up from there, was they would shield themselves while the enemy was attacking them. But while they shield themselves, they advance and move forward slowly. And that’s what we did. So while the police were shooting at us, the dust bin covers … were there to protect us from the bullets. And even if they threw tear gas at us, the balaclavas with the vinegar would allow us to keep moving without choking. And even if they threw stun grenades at us, we were able to use the condoms on our hands and our feet so that the sparks from the stun grenades don’t burn us. So that’s what we did.

HOST: But whereas the previous year they’d learnt that direct action could achieve victories, this year, the lesson was different.

FASIHA: The reason why we were so successful in 2015 is that they didn’t know what to expect. This came out of nowhere. They were not ready. But if you use the same tactic every time. Of course they’re going to be ready.

HOST: The movement got so wrapped up in the tactics, they forgot to think about what they were trying to achieve out of this particular confrontation. And that vacuum was filled by chaos.

FASIHA: FeesMustFall in 2016 was very messy. We came on that year to police brutality.

HOST: This time the government refused to back down. And because the student’s tactics were the same, this time the Government were ready.

Remarkably, none of the student leaders I talked to regret it. They see the 2016 battle as part of a battle that’s been going on for decades.

Shortly before the battle, they met with some old student activists who’d fought against apartheid in the famous 1976 black student uprising in Soweto. Seeing themselves in the same light as their heroes from four decades before gave them enormous courage to continue the fight for free education.

INTERVIEWER: Do you in anyway regret having such an ambitious demand?

BUSISIWE: No. Not at all. It’s ambitious to those who don’t believe that there is money. It is not impossible for us who believe there is money and know exactly where that money is going to come from.

INTERVIEWER: So this is the domino?

BUSISIWE: Yes, this is the domino. … And I’m excited about that.

HOST: But that’ll only happen if they learn and adapt their tactics. Something, that at least some of them are aware of.


BUSISIWE: But at the moment, I’m more interested in a strategy shift.  We can’t be protesting the way we have in the past 2 years. It is unrealistic, and it puts too many people in the lie of fire and at harm than necessary.

HOST: The Fees Must Fall students forged their relationships on the battlefield, first as they were occupying the Administration Building at Cape Town University, and then when they were engaged in direct action at Wits. While they trusted each other in the heat of the moment, certain segments of students felt free to push the envelope further than others. This incoherence of approach then led down the path of focussing almost entirely on the specific tactics they were using.

The 2016 Fees Must Fall campaign was rebuffed by authorities because the students had spent so much time discussing how to fend off rubber bullets they’d forgotten to discuss why they were using that tactic anymore.

In the end, it’s almost like their goal was to become better at direct action, rather than being better at winning free education.

Next week, part two. It’s a very different story involving very different people from Brisbane, Australia. But like Fees Must Fall, it’s about a protest where direct action plays a key role, again, ignited by white hot anger. It’s an extraordinary tale. I hope you’ll join me.


Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes.


Changemakers is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley and our sponsoring organisations are Mobilisation Lab.

Our sponsoring organisations are Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Sydney Democracy Network and the Organising Cities project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.  

And for this episode thanks to the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action space at Wits University.

Like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and check out for transcripts and updates on all our stories.


Episode 3 – When women lead

Episode 3 – When women lead

Sometimes when you need radical change it helps to not know how things are ‘meant to be done’

Moms Demand Action against Gun Violence

In both of the stories in the third episode of ChangeMakers, we see women who had very little experience, entering male-dominated spaces and smashing it. By disrupting the business-as-usual approach, their innovations have had lasting impact. The first story is about mothers who are standing up to the gun lobby in the USA, and the second is about the women on the frontline of terrorism in Kenya.

Click on the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to this episode on PodcastOne, or Stitcher  or Apple Itunes.

Or use any Podcast app with our RSS Feed.


Full transcript of Episode 3:

Episode 3 – “When Women Lead”

HOST: In 2008 in Australia, a newly-elected progressive government announced they were considering setting up a paid parental leave scheme.

I had just fallen pregnant, so it was pretty front of mind for me. I was working in the union movement and was in charge of the state’s women’s committee. It didn’t take long for me to suggest “hey, we should call for 6 months paid maternity leave”.

My boss thought it was a great idea but some in the union movement didn’t like it.

The loudest opposition came from an older group of feminists who had been fighting for paid maternity leave for decades and thought I was a upstart who was hopelessly naive.

They lobbied strongly to try and have our demand fall into line, and ask for a mere 14 weeks.

I was – angry. We had a new government and a strong movement, why would we lead with such a minimal demand? Ever heard of the ambit claim?

Rwanda had 14 week paid parental leave. Couldn’t a rich country like Australia do even a little better?

So we battled it out. In my home state, a strong consensus grew around six months.

A Commission of Inquiry was charged with making the final decision. In the end, it declared 18 weeks paid parental leave. I remember it because I was on maternity leave with my tiny little baby at that time. We were snuggling on a couch and I cried. Although, that might have just been the hormones.

It wasn’t six months but it wasn’t 14 weeks. By breaking the rule that says defer to your elders we had won an extra month to spend with our babies.

We had been ambitious, but also recognised that winning was key. And as mums we knew personally, exactly what it would mean to win – because it was our lives that would change.

This is the powerful mix that can come when women lead a fight. It’s these lessons that lie at the centre of our stories today.

Welcome to ChangeMakers, supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab.  I’m Amanda Tattersall. Let’s go.

CHRIS MURPHY: One final question: Do you think that guns have any place in or around schools?

HOST: That’s Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut in the United States. He’s questioning Betsy Devos, the billionaire businesswoman at her confirmation hearing to become Education Secretary.

BETSY: Uh, I think that’s best left to locales and states to decide.

CHRIS MURPHY: You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools.

HOST: Hear the exasperation in the Senator’s voice? The woman who is about to be put in charge of all the schools in America refuses to say guns have no place there.

This is the story of how pure exasperation has spawned a campaign against gun violence that breaks most of the rules of organising. And the reason it’s working is not just about who they’re fighting, but who is doing the fighting.

On a cold day in 2013, an 18 year old teenager, dressed in black jeans and a black hoodie, entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut.

Jennifer Hoppe was at her home in Washington DC hundreds of kilometres South.

JENNIFER: You know it’s like one of those, those moments you never forget. it was a Friday, I was working from home because I was scheduled to go to my daughter’s school and give a presentation… to her kindergarten class. And I had the TV on in the background and I started hearing reports of a shooting at a school.

DEEP SOT V/O: This is CNN Breaking News. It’s just coming across the wires here. Police  responding to a shooting at Newtown elementary school in North Connecticut… There is a map there, Sandy Hook.

JENNIFER: part of the sad reality of living in the United States is that didn’t really register with me when I heard shooting at a school. And as it as the news started to trickle in oh, there may be some casualties, there may be some children. And it just started to get worse and worse. And I was walking out the door and I was just about to shut off the TV, and I had my hand on the doorknob, and I heard it’s confirmed that 20 children were killed in that school.

HOST: 20 children and 7 adults.

JENNIFER: And it’s hard-, you know, when I say that it loud, it makes me tear up all over again. So then I went to my daughter’s kindergarten classroom and I was in front of 20, 21, you know, 5 year olds and it was…It was very shocking.

HOST: Did you feel powerless?

JENNIFER: I did, I felt like I didn’t know what to do and I felt like I had to something though.

HOST: In any other country in the world, a tragedy of that scale would have led to changes to the law. But we all know America is not just any country. Instead, it has this:

CHARLIE DANIELS (NRA): To the Aytollahs of Iran and terrorist you enable, listen up. You might have met our fresh-faced flower-child President and his weak-kneed Ivy league friends, but you haven’t met America, you haven’t met the heartland… No. You’ve never met America, and you ought prey you never do. I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place.

HOST: The NRA is a genuine kingmaker in the Republican Party. It wields its power in two ways. It throws around cash to support pro gun politicians, and oppose anyone who dares to believes in any form of gun control.

It can afford to do this because it’s primarily funded by gun makers who oppose any and every restriction on gun ownership.

JENNIFER: The leadership of the NRA, … is absolutely, completely out of the mainstream. Not just of the American population but of their own members.

HOST: So this awful, awful tragedy at Sandy Hook happened on a Friday. The following Monday…

JENNIFER: I literally was having trouble sending my daughter to school in the morning. There was a policeman, a police car outside her school and I said, Oh my gosh, I have to do something.

HOST: Jennifer wanted to do something. Anything. But what?

JENNIFER: As that initial shock kind of started to wear off, I, I thought this cannot be the reality that I raise my children in. … And if I don’t do something now, the next time it happens. I’m complicit in that tragedy.

HOST: Shannon Watts, a mother of five who lived near Sandy Hook elementary, found herself in the same situation. And so she went online trying to find a group that she could join to channel her energy.

In the 1980s and 90s there had been a group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving which had successfully lobbied for tighter laws on drink driving.

JENNIFER: She was looking for the equivalent of that for gun violence prevention. And she didn’t find anything so she started a Facebook page.

HOST: Originally, she called it “One Million Moms for Gun Control”. It was an ambitious goal — to hold a rally of one million moms.

Think about that. Her initial instinct was to call for Mom’s to take action. This wasn’t about raising awareness, or signing up to voice passive support. It was a call to do something, anything. It resonated with how Jennifer was feeling.

JENNIFER: This feeling was replicated all across the country with primarily moms and women, and just really wanting to do something.

HOST: Within weeks, the Facebook page had thousands of likes. The thing that united everyone was the desire to take action.

HOST: One of the people who joined Moms Demand Action in the early days was Lucy McBath. Just months before, she had a series of conversations with her teenage son about gun violence.

LUCY: I specifically remember the day we had the first discussion about it, we were in my bedroom and I just kinda remember listening to him asking these questions. And I was trying to figure out how do I explain to my child that, as a young black male, there are many people in this country that won’t hold any value towards him and his life and his being.

HOST: They talked about the case of Trayvon Martin, an African-American kid who was shot and killed. His killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of all charges.

LUCY: And I remember Jordan saying – Mom, that’s not going to happen to me. You know that’s 16-year old bravado. I can take care of myself. That’s not going to happen to me, what happened to Trayvon won’t, won’t happen to me.

HOST: In late November – just weeks before Sandy Hook, Lucy was visiting her relatives in Chicago for Thanksgiving. Her son Jordon was at his dad’s house in Florida.

LUCY: Something just possessed me to go upstairs and into the bedroom. I really didn’t have any reason to go up there but I just…you know, felt like I had to go up the bedroom. I went up to the bedroom and I saw on the dresser, I saw, you know, my phone when Jordan’s father’s picture popped up and I, yeah, I picked up the phone said —Hey, Ron, how’re you doing? What’s, what’s going on? Happy Thanksgiving.— And he said —

…where are you? And I said I’m, I’m here, at Terry and Earl’s house in Chicago. And he’s like, but where are you? And I said I’m in the bedroom, why? He said go get Earl and Earl is my cousin. …And I said —Earl is downstairs. Why do I need to go get Earl? Where’s Jordan?

And there was just this deathly silence on the other end of the phone. And I yelled, I said —Where’s Jordan? And he said Jordan’s in the hospital. And I said —What do you mean Jordan’s in the hospital? Is he okay? What’s wrong with Jordan? And he said, you know, Jordan’s been shot. And I just…This primal scream from within my very core and my heart just came wailing out

HOST: Lucy’s son was shot in a dispute over the volume of the music he was playing in his car.

LUCY: And then when I found out that he was shot…you know…for playing loud music in the car. …I just couldn’t comprehend how that could be. But I understood immediately, as Jordan’s father did, that it wasn’t really about the music. It was really about the implicit bias, and the racism.

HOST: So when Mom’s Demand Action held a rally in her city, it was like a calling.

LUCY: I didn’t know anything at all about Moms, I didn’t know anything at all other than the fact that I was hurt… and I was not going to keep quiet about Jordan being gunned down the way that he was.

HOST: The problem for Lucy and Jennifer and Shannon and all the moms who’d liked the page was — they weren’t seasoned activists. They didn’t have a game plan. Shannon had set up the Facebook page with the idea of organising a rally, but it was becoming clear it was this was much bigger than that.

So she decided to hold some events, to allow people who were active on the Facebook page to meet face to face.

JENNIFER: In late January, there was a March across Brooklyn Bridge in New York City that hundreds and hundreds of people attended. And then about a week to ten days later, there was another March in Washington DC that Shannon Watts participated in. I came out. A lot of other folks came out. It was the first time I met Shannon in person and just got involved from there.

HOST: That’s when Jennifer got involved. Shannon had the idea that everyone would commit to doing 15 hours of work a week to build the movement. In reality, it quickly became much more than that. They also decided to change the name to “Moms Demand Action”.

JENNIFER: It was poorly branded

HOST: By the way, Jennifer worked in Marketing.

JENNIFER: But very quickly we changed the name to Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America. And because that’s what… that’s what are doing, we’re not going away.

HOST: So in a sense, the group decided that a One Million Moms rally was not ambitious enough. It wasn’t just about a rally. They were building a permanent, standing counterweight against the NRA. An organisation that moms could search for online and join so they could do something… anything.

They were for gun control, but they were anything but extreme about it.

JENNIFER: We are for…essentially coined the term ‘gun sense’ because we support the Second Amendment. It’s part of our constitution, it’s part of our culture. And we have many, many members who are gun owners…

HOST: What do you think of guns?

JENNIFER: I support a responsible American right to have a gun if they are… law-abiding, if they are responsible. If they secure it in their home and keep it inaccessible to children.

HOST: Have you ever owned a gun?

JENNIFER: I have not owned a gun. My husband however is a gun owner. He…was a recreational shooter for a while and still does own guns.

HOST: I’m going to just take a break from this story for a moment, because while we were doing post-production on this, the mass shooting in Las Vegas happened. 58 people killed by a man shooting from room high up in a casino hotel.

While I understand why, pragmatically, given where America is at, it might make sense for Mom’s Demand Action to endorse second amendment,

it makes no sense to me.

In doing this show, one of the things that has struck me is that often it’s the game-changer demands, the ones that seem deeply unpragmatic, but which actually contain a genuine solution, that end up being the most effective.

I get why Mom’s Demand Action and so many other moderate groups say they respect the second amendment. It makes them look moderate and sensible in the face of the extremism of the NRA. But as an outsider it doesn’t feel like much of a solution.

And in politics, if you’re just tinkering at the edges, and don’t provide an actual new way of reconceiving a whole problem, then you’ll forever be playing in your opponent’s court, and constantly reacting to their agenda.

Anyway, let’s get back to it.

HOST: So Moms Demand Action wanted to be a permanent fixture, and they wanted to do something about guns in America. But what?

DEBRA: They saw the Facebook page and signed on, and then there began this really amazing conversation about, well what should we do, what can we do?

HOST: That’s Debra Rosen, a campaign professional, from Washington DC.

DEBRA: Should we try to pass a law? Should we try to have a march on Washington? What does change, what does success look like for us?

HOST: The problem that Shannon Watts faced was that she was not a campaign professional. She was an accidental activist. She had no idea what to do. So she took the system at face value when seasoned professionals might have been more skeptical.

JENNIFER: Shannon and some other leaders you know, early leaders with the group, they organized a lobbying day on Capitol Hill where, you know, anyone could come and lobby their members of Congress.

HOST: Basically, they put a call out on Facebook, saying “come on down to Washington DC and chat to your member of Congress.”

JENNIFER: We had no funding at that time, no…no financial support. And all of these moms took it upon themselves to come and talk to their members of Congress and say, You know, we’re the mothers of America and we’re not going to take this anymore.

HOST: Jennifer lived nearby.

JENNIFER: It was easy enough for me to drive 20 minutes and come to that. But there were hundreds of mothers who flew into DC from across the country on their own dime.

HOST: Their idea was that they pick the lowest hanging fruit. A change that had wide community support,

JENNIFER: A very common sense measure that is supported by over 90% of the population and even 74% of the members of the National Rifle Association.

HOST: The idea was to close off a loophole that allowed people to get around the criminal background check required to buy a gun.

JENNIFER: In a  variety of circumstances in certain states, people to buy a, a gun and carry it no questions asked

HOST: So for a few days in March, instead of just holding another rally, hundreds of mothers booked in meetings and had face to face discussions with their representatives. The result was a bill, presented to the Senate.

JENNIFER: It was a bi-partisan bill, very uncontroversial.

HOST: The Manchin-Toomey Bill. Joe Manchin was a Democrat from West Virginia. Pat Toomey, a republican from Pennsylvania. The result? although it got more than 50% of the votes in the Senate, it didn’t reach the 60% needed to prevent pro-gun Senators from mounting a filibuster. The bill failed.

JENNIFER: It was really extraordinarily disappointing defeat, but, at the same time, it was also extraordinarily motivating because people, moms, the moms of America got incredibly outraged.

HOST: Remember, this is just months after Sandy Hook, and the US Senate couldn’t even pass a measure that 90% of the population agreed with

So if politicians weren’t listening to ordinary voters, who were they listening to?

The NRA. Its lobbying clout made changing gun laws there virtually impossible.

DEBRA: it very much felt like any change at the National Congressional level, any change in terms of national legislation was going to be really really tough.

HOST: But the mothers were not so easily deterred.
JENNIFER: So, …defaulting to oh, we have a broken system or there’s nothing we can do, that’s a recipe for not getting anything accomplished. And I think you can look over the, the course of American history and these things take time.

HOST: No biggie. They realised they needed to take on the the entire Gun Lobby including the formidable NRA.

Whereas hundreds of other gun control groups had given up at this hurdle, Mom’s Demand Action simply saw their loss as a lesson that they had to become more powerful and change tactics.

It was almost as if not knowing how the script usually plays out was an advantage. They didn’t know that the conventional thing to do at this point was to stop.

JENNIFER: Through that defeat, we actually became even more galvanized. And have grown exponentially ever since.

HOST: But how do you take on the Gun Lobby. In America?

First, they got commitments. Mothers from around America all committed to spending 15 hours a week working on the campaign.

And as Mum’s they had a very specific child focused way of articulating their frustration.

JENNIFER: At that time I had a baby and we would take our babies to Congress …We called them stroller jams. … our objective is very simple and pure and that is to protect the lives of our children and all American children. It’s pretty powerful.

HOST: Instead of just targeting Washington DC, and getting nowhere, they decided that ANY improvement, anywhere in America was better than nothing. They had Facebook followers in all 50 states. Why not use them? And why not go for a broader set of targets?

DEBRA: They targeted several businesses that they thought would be amenable to having a policy on not allowing guns in their business.

HOST: They may not been familiar with the halls of Congress but most Moms need a caffeine wake up. So, their first target? Starbucks.

JENNIFER: So there had been this steady trawl of people openly carrying guns inside Starbucks. No one is allowed to smoke outside a Starbucks… So we really seized on the irony of that … a second hand bullet is at least as if not more deadly than second-hand smoke.

HOST: They started small.

JENNIFER: We didn’t do a boycott per se, but we had ‘skip Starbucks’ Saturdays. So on Saturdays we would ask all of our supporters to take a photo of themselves at home, saying …we’re skipping Starbucks this Saturday because we want them to change their policy.

HOST: Which provoked a response from gun enthusiasts, who would go into their local Starbucks armed, and make their own selfies posing with their guns. Charming.

There are many, many, many of these photos still floating around the internet. A clean-cut couple drinking frappicinos in the very recognisable corner of a Starbucks store. The woman has a large black pistol holstered on her skirt, while the man stands there holding the drink’s straw to his mouth with one hand, while he holds an AK-47 machine gun in his other hand.

JENNIFER: And so we would amplify those photos as well, saying, look, this is what you’re welcoming into your stores, this is what you are encouraging, Starbucks, do you really want to do this?

HOST: By now, Moms Demand Action had Facebook pages and groups for all 50 states, as well as an overarching national page.

They used the groups to organise, the pages to broadcast to news feeds and then they had a national page to coordinate the message over the top of that. Every time they used the national page to amplify those photos, millions of people saw them. Even so, Starbucks stuck to their… guns. Sorry about that.

JENNIFER: Their…their line had been, well, we follow state and local laws whether or not you can carry a gun, publicly, openly carry a gun into a Starbucks. And yet, simultaneously, where tobacco was concerned, they went above and beyond the law.

HOST: Eventually however, they were forced to make a choice.

JENNIFER: It was basically which side do you want to be on? And they wanted to be on the side of Moms.

HOST: Starbucks became a domino target. Once it fell it became easier to shift a large group of retailers.

JENNIFER: Several restaurant chains Chipotle, Sonic, Chilli’s, you know, Panera Bread is another. They all, you know, very quickly responded

HOST:Are these victories important because they are symbolic or do you think they actually have a real, broader impact?

JENNIFER: Yeah, I mean, I think that they are…they’re both …What we’re trying to do is not just change the laws, of gun laws, but also the culture in the US.

HOST: It was their only hope in the face of an ineffective political environment. Widen the fight, and take whatever victories you can. Because victories give confidence to your people and build your movement. It made sense to Lucy McBath.

LUCY: Women like me, black mothers, were losing our children on the streets. And I felt like, …we’re the ones that are going to change the culture. We’re the ones that are going to spearhead the change, and we’re the ones that are going to get it done. Because what’s been done in the past apparently is not working.

HOST: And their corporate victories had an impact, even while they were losing the political fight. For example, during this period, in Texas, a bill passed to allow people to openly carry hand-guns. So the moms got organised.

JENNIFER: Our Moms in Texas started educating business owners and said, Hey, if you don’t want people to open carry in you stores, you don’t have to let that happen.

HOST: By the time the bill passed into law, 500 businesses had decided to prohibit open carry, thanks to organised action by mums.

JENNIFER: So that’s the kind of culture change that can come even in the face of, you know, legislative laws.

HOST: And seeing their fight in the grand sweep of history, gave them the patience to persevere.

LUCY: Anytime in this country we’ve changed a culture, it’s been years and years of grassroots organizing and movement that’s happened on the ground long before the policy change comes into play. The LGBTQ community, we’ve changed that culture. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has changed the culture here. The tobacco industry culture has been changed. And all of those cultural shifts have been years of work on the ground, grassroots mobilizing.

HOST: Mom’s Demand Action… and they’re delivering it — by doing it themselves.

LUCY: And that’s how it happens. So you gotta be in it for the long haul.

HOST: The reason Shannon’s Facebook page went viral at the beginning, was because people were wanting to feel like they were doing something.

They wanted to change the law, but when that didn’t happen, instead of giving up, they came up with an innovative way to start achieving victories, so that sense of hope didn’t die.

When their representatives failed them, they simply refused to take no for an answer.

And instead of channelling their anger at the obvious target: the NRA and the gun lobby responsible for the terrible gun laws, they channelled their anger towards cultural change.

Like a mum would tell you to do if a bully was teasing you, they sought out new friends like Starbucks, to channel their energies effectively.

Instead of confronting their enemy head on, they simply went around them.

HOST: Back in a moment.

HOST: Now another story born out of crisis, this time, in the heart of Africa.

HOST: Picture a busy shopping mall like you might find in any city in the world. This one is in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a normal Saturday morning in September, 2013.

Security footage from that day shows shoppers milling around. A couple stand still. They look as though they’re trying to work out which store to go into next.

A woman with an orange handbag strolls into frame and suddenly looks over her shoulder and starts running. At the same time three small kids grab onto their mother and then turn and run. They all run.

SOT: We have this breaking news overseas in the capital of Kenya. Gunshots in a shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi…

And then they started shooting, indiscriminately.

HOST: I’m in Kenya with an extraordinary tale of what happened in the months and years after the Westgate Mall Attack that left 67 people dead. It’s about the workers at the mall who survived that day. Remarkably, it’s an uplifting tale.

HOST: Stephen Injusi was working as a security guard at Westgate on the day of the attack. He was at the main entrance.

INTERVIEWER (HOST): And what equipment did you have?

STEPHEN: I have my baton, this one…and a remote button.

INTERVIEWER: When did you first find out that terrorists had arrived?

STEPHEN: It was around twelve thirty…and they started shooting people in the road. Then they went inside the mall…

INTERVIEWER: What happened next?

STEPHEN: I hear something like a…gun shooting on the other side, or behind, behind the others.

HOST: Stephen jumped over a wall to avoid being shot.

STEPHEN: I walked slowly because I was injured some parts of my body.

INTERVIEWER: Were you scared?

STEPHEN: I was scared.

HOST: The siege lasted 48 hours. At the end, the terrorists had killed 67 people, and injured 175.

Like most of the guards on duty, Stephen was armed with little more than a whistle.

ISAAC: At the time of the attack of Westgate, we are sure if the private security officer had been properly trained and been properly equipped, that damage could have been reduced.

HOST: That’s Isaac Andabwa. In 2007, he set up the Kenya National Private Security Workers Union.

HOST: Problem was, Isaac’s union simply wasn’t big enough to demand better standards. A few hundred members at most. So at the beginning of 2013, months before the Westgate Mall attacks, Isaac reached out to UNI, a kind of global union based in Geneva. That’s where Nigel Flanagan came on the scene.

NIGEL: 12-hour shifts, six days a week, no uniforms, no training, no safety, terrible wages, and then the other thing was that there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tiny security firms run by a guy who’s an ex-policeman, run by a guy who’s owed a favour, run by somebody who has criminal connections. The whole industry was kind of cowboy…

HOST: Nigel helped Isaac get some funding to pay for four motorbikes to organise more members. In July of that year, after training the organisers, the union started a big organising drive.

Nigel suggested a classic tactic: start by trying to unionise the company with the highest standards. They targeted an international logistics firm called G4S.

ISAAC: It has betters rules. It has better training. It’s a global entity. So when G4S changes, then you can believe…trust in them. The other small companies in Kenya also follow them, the trend.

HOST: Four motorbikes to organise one of the largest industries in a country of 46 million people. But you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?

I hitched a ride on the back of a union motorbike. Let’s just say, on Kenya’s pot-holed roads, it was… perilous.

HOST (INDICATIVE): I’m organising kenyan style!

HOST: Right from the word go, one of the problems the four organisers faced was finding the right people inside the company to talk to.

The weird thing is. The same was true for the workers inside the company. They didn’t know how to contact their union. Take, for instance, Gladys Mawindi

One day, Gladys was at work at G4S. She had the radio on, and she heard a union official talking about the new organising initiative.

GLADYS: And when they were explaining what a union is, we took their numbers. Because they gave their numbers into the radio station.

INTERVIEWER: On Kenyan radio?


INTERVIEWER: Wow. So you first heard about the union on the radio? And they gave their phone numbers on the radio?

GLADYS: On the radio.

INTERVIEWER: And you wrote it down and gave them a call?


HOST: Isaac had no idea what had fallen into his lap.

The four organisers that Isaac and Nigel had employed didn’t understand the issues at G4S as well as Gladys did. It wasn’t the organisers’ fault, it was because she worked there and they didn’t. It was the “in” the union desperately needed.

INTERVIEWER: What was the actual issue at the workplace that got you angry initially?

GLADYS: Unfair termination.

HOST: At any moment, Gladys’ boss could call her in, and sack her for no reason at all.

This was one of the reasons workers like Gladys were coming out of the woodwork.

The union leaders thought: okay, it’ll take two years to get enough G4S workers to force the company to recognise our union. Then 3 months into the campaign…

HOST: The attack on Westgate Mall. One of the security guards that day was Maurice Ombisa. Maurice’s shift that day started at 6am. He got up at 5 and got dressed… Because he was a patroller, he hadn’t been given a full uniform, instead he wore a checked shirt. As he left, he said goodbye to his wife Eunice. Westgate Mall was 10 kilometres away from his home, so Maurice caught a matatu – a kind of public minibus – to get there.

When the attackers went through the first gate, they refused to be searched by the guards who were there at gate. He came out to see what was going on. That is when he was killed.

NIGEL: He was unarmed, badly trained, didn’t even have a proper uniform.

HOST: Suddenly, security in Kenya took on a national significance and four motorbikes to organise the industry that was at the frontline of stopping terrorism started to feel pretty inadequate.

NIGEL: And the guy who stood with him was expected to be back at work the next week. That one guy, really, his situation dramatically changed the atmosphere.

HOST: People were angry. So the union decided to tear up the plan it had just started.

ISAAC: So we said we need to fight and have the sector properly regulated. The private security officer must be properly armed, equipped, to do the job.

HOST: Dorothy Chikane was one of the workers who’d gone with Gladys to meet the union once they’d found out it existed.

Initially, she was surprised that a union for guards was even possible, given how unwieldy the industry was, lots of different companies all with different conditions.

DOROTHY: But we did not know that security workers can have a union.

HOST: In some ways, this naivety born of lack of experience was to serve the union well for the campaign. The fact that they didn’t know what a union was supposed to do, was a strength.

The idea was bold.

NIGEL: I must emphasise this was their big idea, which instead of trying to organise in a particular company, they were trying to organise all security guards but they would organise them around the campaign to force the government to introduce some kind of statutory responsibility for the government to inspect and monitor security companies.

HOST: Nigel was somewhat skeptical.

NIGEL: Usually we would say, “That’s not a good idea. You don’t have the resources for that.”

HOST: Nevertheless, it was clear in the aftermath of Westgate, something had to change.

NIGEL: In a change of strategy, we said, “Right. We’re going to have to tell the four organisers it’s not working. It wasn’t growing quickly enough.

HOST: Instead, of using paid organisers, they enlisted volunteer shop-stewards, like Gladys and Dorothy to recruit guards to this much bigger, bolder idea.

NIGEL: They had something like 140 activists and we used it to pay their travel so they could move around the country, signing people up, rather than four people trying to do it as a full-time job. Suddenly, we went from being four people working really hard and getting frustrated because it wasn’t working to funding all these activists and growing the network week-by-week so that they sign up thousands and thousands of workers.

HOST: The volunteers channeled their anger at Westgate into action.

NIGEL: The union used that issue really, really well to get out their message about saying, “Kenya’s a country where there is quite a high level of terrorist threat.”

I do think, without the Westgate tragedy, we might have persisted with our old failing strategy for quite a lot longer so it definitely had an impact.

HOST: Under G4S’s company policy, they had to convince half the workers that a union was a good idea before they would be recognised by the company. The results, were, well let’s find out from Gladys.

GLADYS: Within 3 week we had around 5,000 employees in the union.

HOST: 5000 people in three weeks. Unbelievable. Somehow, Gladys manages to be modest about that.

GLADYS: That was not hard because our company has very many employees.

HOST: In fact, it was true – they needed 3000 more to get it past 50%. So they kept going.

GLADYS: And within another 1 month, we had those people.

HOST: So a union of a few hundred grew to 8000 new members in less than two months.

GLADYS: So the union wrote a letter to the, to the company. And they agreed, they had no option.

HOST: But the mystery here is – how did they do it? That’s the fastest the growth I’ve ever heard.

They employed some clever tactics.

They campaigned for workers to be trained, then used the new training centres as a site to recruit. Professionalising the workers became the key to also getting them unionised.

And they used a mix of new and old technologies. They used mobile phones to stay in contact across their growing network. But they also trained shop stewards to maintain face to face contact with their growing membership. The Face to Face was especially important. Just ask Thomas Kiptoo, the union’s organising director.

INTERVIEWER: How important is it was face-to-face for building trust with the security workers?

THOMAS: It builds more trust because you talk to him today, and tomorrow when he finds another different message, he will just call you and you will just go there and talk to him.

HOST: The union also took advantage of the fact they were much easier to spot when they were on duty in their uniforms.

THOMAS: To get them is easier to get them when they are on duty.

HOST: So by timing their efforts at a change of shifts, they could organise double the workers: those going into work, and then those knocking off for the day.

Within a year, the union had grown from a few hundred to 16,000.

HOST: One thing I noticed when we started doing this story, is that the organisers at the pointy end of this strategy all seemed to be women. Initially Nigel had thought it would be hard to recruit any women to the union.

NIGEL: If we found one woman, our attitude is going to be, “Oh, my God.” We were wrong. We were totally wrong.

HOST: Instead, the opposite was true.

NIGEL: There’s very few security guard supervisors who are women and so forth. Boom. What we found was that the issues about training and wages and uniform and time away from work and the length of shifts all came under … They had it at what you might have called women’s issues.

DOROTHY: They didn’t like somebody who is not married to have kids. They wanted to see that you married. When you are married, you take the…the marriage certificate … This is the father of my kid. So it was strict for the ladies

INTERVIEWER: Did that make you angry?

DOROTHY: Yes. … to stop this we need to join the union also, as a lady.  

HOST: Just like pretty much everywhere else in the world, women who worked as security guards were also the primary caregivers, and frankly did most of the housework.

DOROTHY: For me, I’m a security guard, I’m a mother, and I’m a union official. So this one, it’s very hard to manage, but I try my utmost. Because……Wake up around 4.20 am. From there, I start by making tea and make sure the breakfast is okay. …I’m at my place of work 5.30. So come 6 exactly, I have already put on my uniforms. I’m ready to work.

HOST: Women had too much on their plate to put up with the cowboy conditions that were endemic in the industry.

GLADYS: Ladies suffer …And that is why it was important, and it is important, simply because men doesn’t have many challenges at work. But for a lady, remember, we have maternity.

NIGEL: Consequently, what we found was there was a disproportionate number of women becoming union activists.

HOST: A year after WestGate, 2014, with 16,000 members, the union decided it was finally big enough to throw its weight around. Gladys, Dorothy, Isaac and their fellow organisers decided to march on parliament and demand the government pass a private member bill to regulate the entire security industry in Kenya. The held a rally in downtown Nairobi.

GLADYS: When we gathered there, very many of us.

HOST: They decided to march in their uniforms.

INTERVIEWER: And how did you feel on that day, marching in full uniform to Parliament House?

GLADYS: It was a bit nervous simply because you could be terminated from your work.

DOROTHY: We were almost 500 people, even more than that. So we were so many.

HOST: The march brought downtown Nairobi to a halt.

DOROTHY: What we were saying: Private bill! Private bill! Private bill! We want private bill through

NIGEL: That was clear, physical evidence of mobilisation. The workers who were involved in the campaign, it was their campaign. This was not a professional lobbying operation. This is workers coming out and saying, “We want change.” That was a real high. The whole day was just incredibly to me.

HOST: The result? Eventually, after more organising, more lobbying, and plenty of parliamentary procedure, the bill passed into law in May 2016.

DOROTHY: Your boss cannot just wake up one morning and tell you: Chikane, dismissed! He will think twice: what union will tell me?

HOST: The union’s membership kept growing so that today it’s almost 50,000 strong. The bill enshrines minimum standards of training and salaries across the industry, and regulation of everything from firearm use to dismissal procedures. The consequence has had a profound impact on worker’s lives, both at work and home.

DOROTHY: You feel you are somewhere safe. You are safe always whenever you go. You are safe. Your job is at…your job is safe, yourself you are safe.  

HOST: While the companies they worked for provided security to the public, now the union had the power to provide them with a sense of security for themselves.

But most importantly, security guards are no longer taken for granted.

The lesson of Westgate is not that terrible things happen for a reason, but that a terrible thing happened and the union gave it a reason.

And that’s the same with Sandy Hook. Out of tragedy came something new and enduring.

In both stories, crisis created an environment where radical change felt necessary. People had nothing to lose when they were responding to the threat to their husbands dying on the frontline or children dying because of how loud the music was in their car.

And out of each crisis came radically innovative tactics, and fueled a creative approach to the strategy.

But then it was more – in Kenya, the new, more open strategy of supporting union stewards to do the organising opened up the union to a set of voices that hadn’t been heard before – the women security guards.

And in the US, the failure of representative politics forced the Mums to forge new allies.

People like Gladys and Dorothy weren’t wall flowers. They were already masters of balancing work and looking after their kids.

They had different ways of organising.

And didn’t see the obstacles to organising that more experienced people saw, and as a result – grew their union far faster than anyone thought possible.

In many organisations, women don’t get to play a leadership role, but in these ones they did. And what a difference!  

LUCY: And who better to do that than a mother who’s protecting…the preservation of her own generations?

HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. It is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley and our sponsoring organisations are Mobilisation Lab, Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising Cities project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.  

Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes, like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and checkout for transcripts and updates on all our stories.


Episode 2 – How to win

Episode 2 – How to win

When the largest rally in human history in 2003 didn’t stop the Iraq War it makes you wonder what does it take for a coalition to win?

Bentley Blockade, Photo credit Brendan Shoebridge

In the second episode of ChangeMakers podcast we look at Brexit and examine how the types of coalitions used by each side influenced the outcome of the referendum. Then we go to the Northern Rivers in regional Australia look at how a different kind of alliance against Coal Seam Gas sought to organise across the entire community.

Click on the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to this episode on PodcastOne, or Stitcher  or Apple Itunes.

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Full transcript of episode 2:

Episode 2 – “How to Win”

HOST: In the months and years after 9/11, many of my friends thought that George W. Bush would be the worst US President of our lifetime. Yeah. I know.

I was working in the union movement at the time. My job was to help the unions establish meaningful links with other sections of the community – a job nobody but me took particularly seriously.

But then February 2003 comes around. George W. Bush places in my lap the most extraordinary reason for the union movement to talk to and join together with churches, mosques, sports clubs, synagogues, student groups and everyone else across civil society.

President Bush was baying for war with Iraq. His pretext was clearly fraudulent. If only we could mobilise everyone to voice our opposition, then surely our government would have to listen. This was winnable.

I jump into action. Together with a group of community leaders, we set up the Walk Against the War coalition. We decide to join a global protest march against war.

15 February 2003 was the largest protest march in the history of humankind. At least 10 or 15 million people marched. Some say it was 30. The Sydney march was the largest in my city’s history. The route went on a large loop around the city but there were so many people that day, the front of the march arrived before the back of the march had left, gridlocking hundreds of thousands of people in an infinite loop of protest. There just wasn’t enough space in the city for all the people who opposed war that day.

I doubt I’ll see a mobilisation that big again in my lifetime. Probably because… we didn’t win. Far from it. A bit over a month later, the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq. By the end, 100,000 Iraqis were dead.

But it begs the question – if mobilising the largest protest in human history doesn’t work, then how the hell do you win?

Hello. I’m Amanda Tattersall. Welcome to ChangeMakers – the podcast about people trying to change the world. Changemakers is supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab.

First up, I’m in England, where they recently had a poll to leave the Europe Union that nobody expected would win.

GARETH: Even the people that voted to get out didn’t believe we were going to get out. Nobody believed we were going to get out.

HOST: Let’s go

NIGEL FARAGE: Ladies and Gentlemen, dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an Independent United Kingdom! (CHEERS)

HOST: That’s Nigel Farage sounding like he’s doing a “hero speech scene” in a B-grade action movie. His nation has just voted to tear up the way it had been making laws for the past 40 years, so he’s trying to sound historic.

You might think you’d need a pretty broad coalition to convince a nation to take such a huge step. The truth is a little more surprising.

NIGEL FARAGE: Let June the 23rd go down in history as our independence day!

HOST: Thanks Nigel. Right from the start, campaigners who wanted Britain to leave the European Union had a couple of problems.

First — Europe was actually relatively popular. The side that wanted to remain inside Europe had an 18 point lead at the start. And that’s because it had tangible benefits — especially for business.

INTERVIEWER: When you take it into your own business, do you think that UK’s relationship with Europe has affected your business?

GARETH DAVIES: Well, it has, very positively… a business I’m doing an awful lot of work for, an old hotel is being turned into units, I’m doing all the painting it’s going to keep me busy for months

HOST: This is Gareth Davies he’s a small business owner based in Southern Wales.

GARETH DAVIES: … And they had a girl, a Polish girl, who has a degree in Interior Decorating. She wants to move to the area.

…she’s allowed to be here. She can be here. It’s an opportunity to have somebody working within our business who could be fantastic. … Though I wouldn’t have had the opportunity before if we weren’t in Europe.

HOST: This is the story of how Britain got to the point where a  small business owner in South Wales could easily tap the talents of a Polish interior decorator all starts forty years ago.

When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, they were, let’s say, politely late to the party. It had already been going for 20 years. Part of the reason for this is that just a few decades earlier, Britain had been the largest empire in the history of the world, ruling over one-quarter of the world’s population.

Britain had become accustomed to telling other countries what to do. Now they were joining a community that basically was going to tell them what to do. But most people accepted it.

INTERVIEWER: So when Britain initially joined the Common Market, what did you think?

GARETH DAVIES: Couldn’t have cared less. When was that, Seventy-three. So I was a teenager who was probably more interested in sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

HOST: As the decades went on, the European Union became part of the furniture in Britain. Labour standards were established across the continent, environmental laws were standardised. Polish decorators moved to South Wales and found gainful employment. There was however, one fly in the ointment.

WILL STRAW: You had a virulent Euro-skeptic right wing media who was strongly opposed to our membership of the EU,

HOST: That’s Will Straw, executive director of the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum. The side that lost, despite starting out with an 18-point lead.

WILL STRAW: And the right wing press was supported by large sections of the Conservative party who had a drum beat of anti-European sentiment over decades.

INTERVIEWER: Why was the media so Euro-skeptic? [Like] on what basis were they distrustful?

WILL STRAW: I think the main reason comes down to ideology. So the European Union at its best had harmonised standards for workers, for the environment, for corporate governance..

HOST: Basically, it was a way to prevent one country from driving down, say, their wages, in order to be more competitive than everyone else. It avoided what economists call a “race to the bottom”.

WILL STRAW: Now to me as a progressive, that is fundamentally a good thing

… The right oppose that and the European Union was one of the things that was bringing in that kind of protection. They painted it as being bureaucratic, elitist, out of touch, expensive

HOST: So the campaigners who wanted to convince Gareth Davies that Britain should leave the European Union had a few problems.

GARETH DAVIES: Politics has never really interested me.

HOST: The people in the middle that the leave campaign needed to convince, weren’t necessarily that engaged. On the other hand, there were a lot of interests with skin in the game in favour of Europe.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: I could see how all the business groups and the main companies speaking in the media were on the pro-European side of things. Saying how leaving the EU would be a terrible idea.

HOST: Matthew Elliott led the campaign to leave the EU. Essentially, in Harry Potter terms, he was Will Straw’s Vodelmort. His job was to convince Gareth that leaving Europe wouldn’t affect his business. Bit of an uphill battle.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: It was obvious that the government would basically wheel out all these big, major business leaders to basically say how it would be terrible for the economy.

HOST: So they needed to recruit some respectable business leaders to their side. Especially since the other major group arguing for leave had tiny bit of an image problem.

NIGEL FARAGE: I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be.

HOST: Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party.  You might call him racist. But apparently that’s just a boring media obsession.

NIGEL FARAGE: Your media obsession with attempting to paint UKIP out to be a racist party is something I’m getting really rather bored of.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: I could see how UKIP and their leader Nigel Farage only really had a limit in terms of their popularity, of about 1/3 of voters

HOST: To win, Matthew needed more than half the voters.  So the campaign decided it didn’t want to be associated with its single biggest ally. That’s a pretty huge call.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The trouble was that some of those messengers who we wanted to get on board to attract those swing voters, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove…. Those people didn’t want to be part of a UKIP based campaign. There were lots of negatives about UKIP and Nigel Farage.

HOST: Meanwhile over at the Remain campaign, it was the exact opposite.

WILL STRAW: It was genuinely cross-party. It was an open and inclusive campaign, that brought into in people from all party backgrounds and one that brought people from civil society, from businesses large and small, from the Trade Union, from faith movements. It was … we believe the largest cross-country campaign this country has ever seen.

HOST: Remember: this is the side that lost.

WILL STRAW: We had some extraordinary match ups. The two heads of research from the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, … coming together in our campaign.

HOST: So what on earth went wrong for the Remain campaign? And – perhaps more interesting – what the hell went right for Leave?

HOST: It’s not as if the remain campaign couldn’t mobilise its supporters.

WILL STRAW: In December, we started holding community meetings. The first weekend we had four community meetings around the country. By June 23rd we have the referendum, we had an average of thousand events taking place every weekend, around the country.


HOST: And it wasn’t the supporters themselves…

WILL STRAW: What we found is that the people who put themselves forward to work on this campaign came with a brilliant attitude. They were absolutely willing to put aside those party differences.

HOST: In fact, the campaign even found a way to make a virtue of the strange bedfellows it had brought together.

WILL STRAW: We always got new members of staff to introduce themselves, talk a bit about their background … to make a strength of the fact that we had people going right from the Green Party and the hard left of the Labour Party all the way over to some very, very Euro-skeptic Conservative Party, who believed it was in Britain’s economical interest to remain in the EU.

HOST: Compare that to the Leave campaign, who all seemed to hate each other.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The relationship between Vote Leave and Leave.EU and UKIP and Grassroots Out, was always very difficult. A lot of people within those groups thought there should be one campaign.

HOST: But instead of trying to embrace all those difficult differences like Will Straw did, Matthew Elliott went in the opposite direction, eschewing any sort of formal coalition.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: Because we were a separate campaign, the other Leave campaign never liked us, there were constant arguments, constant disagreements.

HOST: And those disagreements were about pretty  fundamental things, like what the message should be.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: So the message coming out of UKIP was, let’s leave the EU so we can pull up the drawbridge and basically have no more migration to the UK.

HOST: Remember – Matthew Elliott believed message would work on about one third of voters, but alienate the rest.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: We did a lot of market research on what people’s attitudes were towards migration. The point that we made at Vote Leave was actually much more in tune with what voters were thinking. Which was basically, Britain needs a certain amount of migration. We want to have the best software engineers from Silicon Valley and the best engineers from India and China. And on top of that, we need a certain amount of unskilled migration as well. To be frank, many British people don’t want to do some jobs that they would consider to be menial and beneath them. And people recognise that and the people in the northeast where we got high levels of votes, they understand that. But what they want is basically to, to coin our phrase, take back control of migration to the UK.

SOT: Take back control… vote leave on June 23rd.

HOST: So, by not entering into a big, broad coalition with Nigel Farage and UKIP, the Leave campaign was able to turn the message about migration into a far more respectable message around control. By having such a tight say over the message, it was much easier to navigate the dual task of washing migration of its racist associations, while retaining a focused emotional punch.

GARETH DAVIES: Thinking about it now they drove this very simplistic emotional campaign around immigration. Maybe they just got the fever of the people, they got it right. It’s like an advertising campaign isn’t it?

HOST: So with that in mind, what did Gareth – a man who employed a polish interior decorator – think about immigration?

GARETH DAVIES: We just can’t keep taking people in. You know, we’ve got to get this under control.

HOST: There it is. Control. It’s over 12 months later and the campaign slogan is still fresh in Gareth’s mind. Meanwhile, those further to the right could continue with more extreme rhetoric. A message that would bring some voters to the polls, even while the official campaign disavowed any association.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: There was actually one key moment as well, in the campaign, when a lot of people started emailing people to say you’re absolutely right to do it as you did.

HOST: A week out from the referendum, UKIP launched a new billboard advertisement. It’s was a new low, even for Nigel Farage.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: A picture of refugees from Syria walking across some of the East European countries.

HOST: Across the top of the billboard, in large red letters

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: it said Breaking Point. And it’s a very controversial poster, saying that Britain was at breaking point and migrants are marching across Europe to take our jobs and everything like that.

HOST: Then that same afternoon, terrible news breaks.

POLICE SPOKESPERSON (SOT): Just before 1 o’clock today, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen borough was attacked in Market Street Birstall. I am now very sad to have to report that she has died as a result of her injuries.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: A Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox was murdered, was killed by one of her constituents.

HOST: The attacker was a far-right Brexit supporter, who later gave his name in court as “Death to Traitors, Freedom to Britain”.

MATTHEW ELLIOT: So the juxtaposition of Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster with the Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox’s very sad death, done by somebody shouting “Britain First” couldn’t have come at a worse time for the campaign.

HOST: People now understood the wisdom of not being in coalition with Nigel Farage.

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: They understood at that point what a liability he was and understood how badly the campaign could have been thrown off course had we stuck with him or been part of his campaign.

HOST: It was an horrific crime and shows the wisdom in the distance they’d created. Nevertheless, it bears noting that Matthew Elliott’s Leave campaign were still happy to take Nigel Farage’s votes, while distancing themselves the violence that it had stirred up.

HOST: Over at the Remain campaign – remember, the big, broad happy family – the issue of immigration was causing no end of headaches.

WILL STRAW: My view, the view of people who were on the labour side of the argument felt very strongly that we could not ignore this issue. We had to take it on, we had to unravel the misinformation that they were giving about immigration.

HOST: The Remain campaign was hopelessly split. Should they address the issue of immigration head on, or ignore it and instead talk about the economic benefits of Europe?

WILL STRAW: The conservatives on the campaign wanted to move away from immigration and use every opportunity that immigration came up to pivot back onto the economy. And we felt that in the face of the leave campaign relentlessly going after immigration that this wouldn’t work.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that the campaign’s inability to really make the call around campaigning immigration was partly a function of this very broad political coalition that’s sat at the top?

WILL STRAW: I think that’s right. If you look at the leave campaign, they had a very small number of decision makers at the top of their campaign. …And they ran it by dictat. We didn’t have the same opportunity.

HOST: Every message they put out had to have the support from an absurdly broad group, from the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to active trade unionists and green groups.

Far from being a virtue, the breadth of the coalition was becoming genuine problem.

WILL STRAW: There wasn’t one clear message that the remain campaign was putting out. It was a mish-mash of different arguments … Whereas the other campaign had this very seductive idea of take back control, which they used again and again.

HOST: And what did the voters think? Well… let’s check in with Gareth.

INTERVIEWER:What did you think about the Remain campaign?

GARETH DAVIES: To be perfectly honest, 12 months on…I … The only thing i can say was that it was obviously not very convincing because it was the exit campaign that actually influenced me. Claire and I had a brief conversation. What are you going to do? I’m going to vote Leave. And I said, or she said, yeah, I’m going to vote Leave as well. And that was it. It became an emotional issue. It was an emotional vote for us …. A lot of people voted on a gut feeling. We voted on a gut feeling.

HOST: Will Straw’s campaign fell into a classic trap. When you are trying to win a majority of people to your side, it seems common sense to want to build your coalition as broad as possible – to match the diversity of the people that you want to influence with the diversity of your coalition.

But with coalitions, less can often be more.

If you have limited time on your hands, the broader you go when selecting coalition partners the weaker the trust between those partners. Without a strong common ground between the different players, the Remain campaign found itself in a messaging race to the bottom to find – something, anything – that they could all agree on.

Instead of pleasing everyone, its slogans became motherhood statements that didn’t offend any of the coalition partners — and in the process, also pleased noone.

The result – a tactical deadlock that meant they couldn’t respond effectively to their opponent.

It was like the coalition that brought millions onto the streets to protest against the war in Iraq. Within months of that protest, the Walk Against the War Coalition I’d been part of had disbanded in acrimony. The only common ground between the marxists, the unionists ,sports clubs and the christians and jews had been a single tactic, and once that had failed, the only thing left to do was to blame each other for the failure.

By contrast, the leave campaign took the opposite route. They had a narrow coalition, that let them developed a clear message about control that spoke to a majority. On the surface, their coalition looked much smaller.

With fewer people to please they had higher levels of trust which meant they could agree on a clear focused message that didn’t have to please everyone within the coalition. Instead they could focus on getting enough swing voters across the line – in order to win.

INTERVIEWER:Do you have any regrets about voting Leave?

GARETH DAVIES: I think so yeah. … the issue was bigger than we realised, I think than everybody realised. The out campaign did a better job. Were louder, brighter. Whatever they did and I can’t even remember what they did now. It must have been, it must have been stronger because the message got through.

HOST: We’ll be back in a moment.


HOST: Now, for a change of pace, a far more hands-on story across the other side of the world in Australia.

MEG: Terrified, absolutely terrified. When the government was saying there was going to be 850 riot squad police coming in, we just knew that it could be disastrous. And let’s face it a lot of us are not as young as we used to be. And not as nimble.

PETER: It could have been ugly. And the police didn’t want to do it. They knew there was going to be fatalities.

HOST: I’m at the site of the Bentley Blockade, visiting a bunch of neighbours who, a few years ago, decided, against all odds, to take on the fossil fuel industry. We’ll see how a hotch potch group that included farmers to firies, environmentalists, indigenous leaders, small businesses and grandmothers tried to stop gas fields from setting up shop around them. It is a remarkable story of brinkmanship that ended in an astounding way. An outcome that has echoed around the world.

HOST: Our story begins back in 2010 with a couple of grandmothers who had Mondays off.

CLAIRE: Well the Nannas got together – we started off as a spy network, if you like.

HOST: A handful of companies had started drilling holes, looking for coal seam gas in the small town of Keerong in New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia. Claire Twommy became concerned after seeing a documentary about it.

CLAIRE: I saw gas lands on telly and that opened my eyes. And so we decided, we both had Mondays off, that we would check them out each week and just watch what was happening.

They were building the evaporation ponds for the waste water, the toxins really that came from fracking and exploration. So we watched that for a while. That was when we were knitting, and that’s when the idea of the Nannas came about.

HOST: Claire and her friend set up a group called The Knitting Nannas. So what had the Knitting Nanna’s stumbled upon?

IAN: There were some flash Brisbane entrepreneurs, Steve Bissell and Mick Davies, got a hold of leases through their company… they drilled 19 holes.

HOST: Ian Gilliard and his partner lived nearby.

IAN: One of them was in our valley, 3 kilometres upstream from my and Vicky’s small patch of dirt on the floor of the valley.

HOST: Ian too, saw the same documentary and became concerned. He’d been living in Keerong for the past forty years, but there was something in his backstory that none of the companies would have known when they started drilling in his backyard. Ian had… well, put it this way. He had a, well, unconventional approach to authority.

HOST: As a young man growing up in New Zealand, Ian had heard the French government was testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific.

IAN: So with a friend, I organized a boat, went across the Pacific, went to Muroroa Atoll, and had a run-in with the French Navy got rammed. We escaped the clutches of the French courts and military in Tahiti. Went on to Hawaii. Provocatively, the US government put a submarine in the area, a nuclear submarine. So we swam out to that on surfboards.

HOST: When the gas companies started drilling in Ian’s backyard, they probably didn’t suspect what they were about to come up against.

HOST: What Ian wanted to find out was what it was like to live with a gasfield around you. Further north-west, gas fields had been running for years. So Ian went up and see the impact for himself.

IAN: The health effects in the Chinchilla gas fields on human and animal populations are devastating. There are people with nose bleeds, there are people with headaches.

HOST: To be honest, when I started this story, I’d heard of fracking, but I never knew quite what it was. Basically it involves injecting chemicals deep underground to break up the rocks to release the gas caught in the seams. The problem?

IAN: You lose your water table.

HOST: The water near the surface drips through cracked rocks and disappears forever. And water is pretty important. Especially on farms.

HOST: Ian came back from Chinchilla, and did what any self-respecting activist would do. He made a placard.

IAN: When I went to put up my own sign on my gate I was nervous. Coz I was one of the first ones, my own Lock the Gate sign. I said to myself, I’m making myself a target here, you know.

INTERVIEWER: What did Lock the Gate mean?

IAN: Lock the Gate means, you put up a sign on your place, it’s got a high court precedent on the bottom of it. And you say: Lock the Gate – to coal and gas companies. And it says you can’t come in here. You’re not welcome here.

HOST: Even though these companies had a licence from the Government to explore for gas beneath the land, they also needed access to the land. The easiest way to stop that is to simply lock the gate.

IAN: And in the end, we got busy and started printing signs, putting out literature. And other groups started coming to us and we formed rallies in Lismore. Didn’t ask any permission, just set up and did it.

HOST: A campaign was born.

HOST: By showing video documentaries, and holding meetings, the Ian and his newly minted Keerong Gas Squad went around the local community, educating people the impact of having gasfields in their backyard. People like Peter and Meg Neilson.

PETER: Peter Neilson, I’ve been a farmer all my life, born and bred on a farm. Yeah, that’s about the size of it.

MEG: Meg Neilson I work here on the farm. I’m sort of semi-retired.

INTERVIEWER: So when did you first hear about coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers?

MEG: Well, initially they were sort of these mentions of this good little industry that was going to come to the Northern Rivers. It was going to give a nice little power station and provide the area with natural gas. Wow, sounds great!

HOST: But right from the start, the gas company’s story kept changing.

PETER: The company that promoted it here, was trying to promote it as conventional.

INTERVIEWER: So how did you feel when you found out that it wasn’t what they told you it was?

PETER: I felt, I I felt that, that’s not…That’s ridiculous. I think the politicians will stop this. That’s what I thought. I thought they were going to bat for us. Because, you know, you have faith in your politicians.

HOST: So that was Meg and Peter’s plan at first. To trust the politicians. Yeah, we’ll see how that pans out.

HOST: But at the same time, Ian’s approach seemed equally futile. Signs and placards and rallies was not going to stop a mining company. If Ian was going to get them out of his valley, the Keerong Gas Squad needed to broaden its alliance. Enter Annie Kia.

INTERVIEWER: How long have you lived in the Northern Rivers?

ANNIE: My partner and I moved here in the beginning of 1985, from Adelaide.

INTERVIEWER: So why did you get involved?

ANNIE: Went to see Gas Lands, participated in a couple of rallies that they organized in Lismore and then, thought it up, this is, this is…This is a terrible, terrible industry. We have to throw everything we have at this to stop it from getting started. And so I thought, yup, I’m in.

HOST: Like Ian, Annie was also a veteran of social campaigning, having been heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement in Adelaide. And nowadays she was an expert in…

ANNIE: the dynamics of large human systems and how networks and complexity dynamics play out in those systems.

HOST: In other words — how to build a social movement.

HOST: Before we go on, I’d just like to pause here so we can reflect on the sheer firepower that was starting to line up against these unfortunate gas companies. If you’re looking for the perfect example of picking the wrong opponent, this, might very well be it. Anyway, back to Annie.

ANNIE: We gathered together at that time a bunch of other people, a few other people that we knew had a background in social movements. And met in Ian’s place.

HOST: One of the other people at that meeting was Simon Clough, a local councillor.

SIMON: Well, there was over 300 years of political activist experience in the room. And it showed.

ANNIE: I think there were about nine of us around the table and we got some sticky notes and said, okay, what’s our vision, you know. What’s our vision for what we want? And I wrote them up and mapped out what we wanted to see. Which was mass movement dynamics.

HOST: Instead of placards and signs, or even relying on the local politicians, this group was a tiny bit more ambitious.

ANNIE: We wanted to see the whole population involved. Broad, broad support from every political affiliation.

HOST: So they started building not just a campaign, but an alliance.

ANNIE: We put on a public meeting, showed a film, and asked everyone that was there: You can raise your hands for do you want your roads and lands to be Gasfield Free. You can raise your hands for yes, for no, or for not sure. And, much to our amazement, all the hands shot up bar one in a room with a hundred and twenty people.

HOST: But this wasn’t just democracy as voting. This was democracy as action.

ANNIE: I think this tendency of people to receive bad news in their Facebook feed and click on petitions is really debilitating. Yes petitions can be valuable at times but the real juice is in face to face groups.… It’s not only where the engines of campaigns are, it’s where creativity is liberated, where collective intelligence is liberated. But it’s also where well-being is liberated.

HOST: And so they took the meeting literally into their streets.

ANNIE: We said: Look, not everyone’s here at this meeting. How about we give everyone a chance to have a say, get into survey teams and visit every household? And that means visiting people from every political affiliation.

HOST: The strategy worked across political affiliations because the issue was about something they all shared. It was about the ground beneath them. Literally – the ground was their common ground.

IAN: The strategy then compiled all the results and the first successful Gasfield Free community that was formed was here on The Channon. This is a very important point. We did not petition our  politicians or our government. We told them here and now, we will protect our community from gas fields. …this area is declared, self-declared Gasfield Free. Which of course doesn’t have any legal standing but it has powerful community and energetic and moral standing

ANNIE: By that time, the process was going viral. Neighbouring Duneden and places around here, they were picking it up and it was obvious that it was going to be something big. That we were launching, in effect, a strategy.

SIMON: The strategy was very simple. That was building relationships between everyone in the community.

HOST: But wait — wasn’t that exactly the mistake that the Remain campaign made during Brexit, which made it impossible to come up with a message?

INTERVIEWER: What was it about this issue that made, do you think, that helped them connect and agree with each other?

SIMON: The land. It’s just one thing. The land.

HOST: The difference was the common ground that all these disparate people shared, and from which their message stemmed. When it was about the land, they could see their own fate tied up in the message of this alliance. On top of that – these were neighbours fighting together – many knew each other. Trust was easier to forge because they all lived there.

SIMON: Well, because we had tried, initially, to talk about fracking. You know, the horrors of fracking in terms of the destruction of water tables, underground systems and so forth. And we came to the point where we realized that there were incredible limitations to that. And those limitations were around that it did not express the whole problem. And the whole problem was the destruction of rural economy, destruction of these extraordinarily beautiful rural environments, and the loss of water. And when we started talking about that, it clicked.

INTERVIEWER: Did you think you could win in those early days?

ANNIE: I did. Yeah. Coz I believed if we grew a social movement of sufficient strength that we would win. … if you build a social movement of sufficient power, the power resides in the people. It doesn’t reside in the government. Deciding to declare ourselves Gasfield Free, is a spunky kind of thing to do, it’s a feisty thing to do. It’s, it’s saying that we, the people of this place, have a right to self-determination.

HOST: Suddenly in late 2012, the Minister in charge of issuing gas licences Brad Hazzard announced that he was coming to Lismore in three days time, to the centre of the fight, to hold a community “consultation”.

ANNIE I think people had seen Mr. Hazzard in previous meetings and he’s really masterful.

HOST: Based on previous experience, the group feared the meeting would be a whitewash.

ANNIE: Basically, people here decided it wasn’t going to go the way he had planned.

SIMON: I was at the front. It was deafening, you know. To have a thousand people chanting “no CSG!” before the meeting even starts. And essentially what we decided was, we were going to have our voice heard.

ANNIE: The community decided to get hold of the microphone which they did non-violently, through chanting: Let him speak! And pointing to Ian Galliard.

ANNIE: And they persisted in that for a very long time. the community was just saying:  No, we’re not going to play this by your rules your going to play this by our rules.

IAN: And we got hold of the microphone it was given to me. … And then I gave it immediately to Kevin Budda, from the Githambul people because … that’s the protocol of indigenous Australia, you know, you give it to your elders to speak. And he spoke. And then I spoke. And then we started handing it around our PhDs and experts.

SIMON: I mean, we had a PhD in biology who talked about, what benchmark studies had learnt. We had a public servant who said, well, of course we all know that surface water is not related to ground water. I mean the whole thousand people in the hall just started braying with laughter. And then of course there was Mariann Lloyd-Smith who had just come back from the UN meeting on unconventional gas and I mean she just put them in a corner and boxed their ears.

SIMON: And rather than walking out disempowered and cowed, the community walked out of that meeting absolutely triumphant.

HOST: According to the normal story about protesting, this is usually where the story would end.  Sure, if you talk to anyone who was there that night, they’ll all tell you they left feeling utterly empowered. But that’s not uncommon for mass action. Most people have been to a rally at some point in their lives, feeling that they’d made a difference. That’s certainly how I felt after the march against the war in Iraq back in 2003.

And then we were ignored. That’s how these stories turn out, right?

Well this story isn’t over. It’s just warming up.

HOST: Up until this point, the group had tried four times to stop the mining companies setting up exploration sites around the region using non-violent direct action. Each time they’d failed.

IAN: We got smashed by the riot squad at Glenmoogee and Doubtful Creek, you know. They marched in there, at Glenmoogee the first time and started throwing people around, you know. All the people. They didn’t recognize where they were, these gum chewing hyped up young men and women from Sydney.

HOST: Each time, the companies would call for help from the police, and each time, the number of police would grow.

IAN: Bradley came in with an arm that had a pick jammed into it … It was…was bloody, as bloody as anything you’ll see in Australia

HOST: Remember, all these actions were non-violent. As each battle was fought and lost, the campaigners forged strong bonds of trust and respect between each other.

IAN: Our strength became determination and our strength was organization because by this time we had attracted a very strong core group of people who knew how to organize.

HOST: In early 2013, one of the key organisers, Boudicca Cerese was browsing the web and noticed that one of the gas companies, Metgasco, was planning to start drilling on a farm near the town of Bentley.

BOUDICCA: They’d lost a lot of money with the delays from the previous two blockades.

HOST: Frustrated by the delays, the company had changed tactics.

BOUDICCA: The Bentley Well was actually a well that they thought they could bring to commercial production quite quickly

HOST: If that happened, then the company would at last have a viable foothold in the Northern Rivers. It was clear that the community would need to mount another blockade.

ANNIE: I think everybody entering the conflict at Bentley was very nervous … about it because… Non-violent conflict is difficult, it’s non-violent but also conflict.

HOST: Luckily, the campaign already had a head start.

ANNIE: We had built a campaign iceberg, you know… and we had engaged across the political spectrum, the whole community.

HOST:Up until now, the blockades had been on the side of the road, but this time, a local farmer offered the use of his land.

SIMON: He was hardly a red raging radical I can tell you.

HOST: The whole community seemed to be swinging behind it, the campaign, even those who’d initially trusted their politicians.

PETER: The first time we went down and cleared the site, 20 odd people, 30 odd people..

HOST: Like many in the community, Peter Nielson had never been involved in a blockade before.

PETER: And I looked around, and not being involved before, I looked around – What are we going to do? Thirty people… how are we going to stop them coming in the gate?

ANNIE: Metgasco asked a fencing contractor, I think he was based around Byron, if he would do the job, put a fence around the site in preparation for the drilling. And he said no, You can keep your 12,000 dollars, I’m going to join, I’m going down to join the people there, you know.

HOST: The organisers suddenly found they had eyes and ears all over town.

SIMON: Our intelligence system was ridiculous. I mean, when the police would propose to come in, when there was only 200 of them, we knew they had ordered 250 breakfast rolls with egg and bacon. And we knew where they were going to get them from and who was providing them and where they were going to eat them. It was just a crazy degree of information we had.

HOST: And so, several hundred campaigners set up camp, blocking the ability for any trucks to enter.

SIMON: The mornings were really critical in that … Well it became known as the dawn service, we’d get together at about 5 in the morning, and we were usually very fortunate in having some fantastic musicians.

SIMON: We’d generally have a fire, and we would update people on what was going on in terms of the intelligence we had about what the mining was up to.

HOST: For months this went on. The number of police in town started increasing. From dozens, to scores, to hundreds. But as the numbers of police increased, so did the number of protesters.

IAN: Eventually, a camp manager was employed. And suddenly there were charging stations for all the 2-way radios… And there was a coffee machine. Every good protest camp needs a coffee machine. Cappuccinos there, you know.

HOST: As you can imagine, the company wasn’t happy. And so the state government decided to bring in 850 police from all over the state, to force the mining drills through.


IAN: As time built up it became very apparent that the police numbers built up as time went by until we were facing 850 to a thousand police, dogs, horses, riot squads, and all that. And that was pretty scary.

HOST: Meg and Peter were dispatched to Sydney, the state capital.

MEG: We were trying to persuade the premier not to allow the 850 riot police to be let loose on our community.

IAN: … They said get rid of the young people. And the old people. We said, we’ll get rid of the young people, we don’t want them exposed to trauma at this stage in their lives.

IAN: But we’re not getting rid of the old people, we know why we’re here, you know. We know exactly why we’re here.

IAN: This is our job.

HOST: That night, the lookouts were placed on high alert in case the police decided to come early. A showdown looked inevitable.

MEG: And the phone rang…about quarter to six in the morning

IAN: I was up at Gate A at the blockade site. I was there as I was in the mornings with the loudhailer at my hip ready to give the briefing.

PETER: …one of the TV crews. And they wanted to interview us under the Tree of Life out at the back of the Parliament  house.

HOST: It was not the news that anyone had expected.

PETER: They said: They pulled the pin. And we didn’t know. And this was quarter of six in the morning. Yeah, that real brought me unstuck.

HOST: They’d won.

MEG: we couldn’t believe it, we were laughing, and crying. It was just…We had been so – you talked earlier about fear? If we ever felt really frightened. It was just this extraordinary relief and…I’ve never felt anything like it.

IAN: I couldn’t quite believe it but…big smiles on my face. And on everyone else’s as well. And there was a feeling of sheer relief because if those 850 police had come, or more, with all their dogs and riot gear, there would have been fatalities. … these senior police that came actually put in a report to the government. And this report said there will be fatalities because there are lot of older people.

HOST: The blockade was over. The victory was comprehensive. Over the coming months and years, the government ended up buying back the licences they’d issued to the mining companies. Today, Northern Rivers remains Gasfield Free.

INTERVIEWER: So is the fight over?

SIMON: It’s never over. Never ever over.

HOST: It’s an extraordinary tale, really. It’s easy to mistake this sprawling, messy coalition of farmers, greenies, firies and business owners as being an unwieldy coalition, the opposite of what was effective during the Brexit campaign. But in fact, the common ground that these people shared was narrowly defined. Their land. Literally, their common ground.

No one was trying to convince someone else that “their way” was the only way. Farmers and environmentalists have a different way of loving their land – and in this space – where people spent years getting to know each other better – they let those differences be. They could set aside their differences and agree on their commonality – defend the land that they all lived together on.

ANNIE: I think there is a misunderstanding and a misuse of the word ‘movement’ in recent times. I’ve often heard the word ‘movement’ used for what seems to me a tight and focused campaign.… to me, movements are messy, they’re turbulent, they’re generative, they’re creative and, you know, if you’re not tearing your hair out in a movement, you ain’t got one, you know. All you’ve got is a campaign.

HOST: Unluckily for the mining companies, some of the key organisers of this campaign were veterans of social movements. They were die hard, highly skilled, baby boomers all living in a beautiful space – many of them knew each other already which made it easier for them to organise together.

And their experience taught them they couldn’t do this alone. They needed to spread the leadership for the campaign across the whole community. Their alliance included 18 Action Groups. The coalition actively distributed leadership in ways that enabled lots of people to be part of the action. It was complex, but not chaotic – there were high degrees of trust built over years of working together that held the relationships together even when it was tough. By the time of the Bentley Blockade they had built a huge movement. A real movement. A messy, creative movement that had the power to win.

SIMON: And you need to have an overall strategy, and that strategy needs to start from the very beginning…

HOST: Talking of which, remember the meeting that kicked things off, at Ian’s house? The plan they wrote down to build a movement?

ANNIE: It’s quite amazing. I looked back on it after the Bentley blockade, I found the document and had a look at it. Just one page. We virtually achieved nearly all of it.

HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. It is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley.  Our music is by Justin Shave. Our launch partner is Mobilisation Lab. They are a global learning and collaboration network powering the future of social change campaigns.

Our sponsoring organisations are Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising the 21st Century City project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.

Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes, like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and checkout for transcripts and updates on all our stories.

Episode 1 – Making the Impossible Possible

Episode 1 – Making the Impossible Possible

You might think it’d be easier to ask for something achievable in a campaign, rather than demand the impossible. But sometimes the opposite is true.

In the first episode of ChangeMakers podcast, we look at the famous Fight for 15 campaign in the United States, which is radically changing the way low-wage workers fight for better conditions. Then we look at the roots of the radical politics that is sweeping Barcelona – and examine their attempts to “empower the street”.

Click the play button above to stream it here. Or listen to this episode on PodcastOne or Stitcher, or Apple iTunes.

(Or use any Podcast app with our RSS Feed).

Full transcript of episode 1:

Episode 1 – “Making the Impossible Possible”


ROBERT WILSON JNR: We have this idea as long as we have a job and we’re not in the streets that we’re doing good. And that’s sometimes how we can get exploited

HOST: That’s Robert Wilson Jnr, who used to flip burgers for McDonald’s. For years he got paid.

ROBERT: 8.25

HOST: $8.25 an hour. And so did the rest of his family.

ROBERT: me, my mom, and my brother was working at that time living all in the same household, splitting the rent amongst each other

HOST: This is the story of how Robert decided that 8.25 wasn’t enough.

But instead of arguing for 9.25 or even 10.50, he and thousands of his co-workers decided to campaign for $15 an hour. Almost double his pay.

The movement’s called the Fight for 15. And it’s spreading across America, succeeding where literally hundreds of other campaigns have failed.


Hello. I’m Amanda Tattersall. Welcome to ChangeMakers – the podcast about people trying to change the world. Changemakers is supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab. Over the coming episodes, we’ll be visiting anti-Putin activists in Moscow, taking on powerful oligarchs

GRAB – Yaraslov

Meeting pro-democracy dissidents in Hong Kong, one of whom is facing 21 years in jail simply for organising a rally

GRAB – Kinman Chan

And talking to the brand new organisers who’ve been leading one of the most effective challenges to Donald Trump.

GRAB – Indivisible quote

HOST: All of them, Changemakers.


HOST: Before we get back to Robert and the Fight for 15, let me explain who I am.

Like Robert, my first job was flipping burgers for McDonald’s. Since that awful experience, I’ve done a lot of things to try and make the world a better place. I started out by attending more than my fair share of rallies, holding placards, knocking on doors and signing petitions. Remember the large rallies around the globe against the War Iraq in 2003? Yeah — I helped organise one of them.

When that didn’t work out so well, I tried to be more strategic. I co-founded GetUp, which pioneered digital campaigning in Australia and also set up a massive coalition called the Sydney Alliance, in my home town.

At one level it’s great. The other day, my name got put on a meme, linking me to a world-wide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. You know you must be doing something right when you’re on a meme?

But recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact my constant campaigning has had on myself, and those around me.

I have literally sent myself to the brink of madness trying to make the world a better place.

And for what? Look at the world in 2017. I’ve spent my adult life trying to improve the world, and this is the result?

The thing is, change is possible. Victories happen everyday. You just don’t hear about them. So I’ve decided to do this podcast and meet some of the more extraordinary Changemakers. I want to find out what they’re doing, but most of all, how they’re doing it.

Let’s go.


HOST: The way I remember it, Fight for 15 had a pretty modest beginning. It was 2006, and I’d travelled across the world to research how Americans campaign.

Madeline Talbott was one of America’s top organisers at the time. She and her husband Keith were organising a campaign against Wal-Mart – the largest retailer in the country.

INTERVIEWER: What was it called?

MADELINE: The big box living wage campaign

INTERVIEWER: “Would it be fair to describe your office as more functional than style?

MADELINE: Yes is would be fair to say. Keith actually has a good story of Michelle Obama coming to visit … she was discussing whether to place a volunteer with local 880. And as they were talking, a cockroach started its way up the wall. It wasn’t pretty.

HOST: Like Fight for 15, the Big Box campaign was about  improving the lives of low wage workers. But for the campaigners taking on Walmart, there was a catch.

MADELINE: (after muffle, what happened) They were hugely popular because of their discount pricing.

HOST: Walmart’s stuff was so cheap that the company had genuine support amongst the very low wage workers that Madeline was trying to mobilise against Walmart.

While this is annoyingly ironic, it was also a big problem for the campaign, and Walmart knew it. At every turn, the company tried to divide the community from the unions. Walmart presented itself as a friend to its customers – who were in many cases living below the poverty line, even while working full time for Walmart.

The unions and the community organisations found themselves locked out.

A new strategy was needed. So instead of focusing on Walmart they decided to take an industry-wide approach. They wanted all Big Box retailers to pay a wage that workers could live on, rather than just the minimum. And that would include Walmart.

MADELINE: After talking to our members we felt that Wal-Mart could come to the city but if it did they should pay a living wage.

HOST: A Living Wage. Instead of a saying “No Walmart” they developed a positive demand, complete with a social justice sting in its tale. Asking employers to pay a wage that workers could live on was a pretty reasonable demand, and had the added bonus of implying Walmart’s wages were so terrible, nobody could actually live on them.

The plan was to pass an ordinance at City Council. It was perfect timing. It placed pressure on the whole Council in the lead up to their election.

MADELINE: We ran a huge fight to win a standards ordinance and it was a huge coalition.

HOST: Even though the mayor opposed the measure, they had won.


HOST: and then… the Mayor vetoed it.


HOST: They lost. The veto meant that the measure was dead in the water. But the campaigners didn’t see it that way.

Madeline and her team had a hunch that the Mayor might veto the ordinance. That’s why they had timed the campaign ahead of the election. Their campaign had put the spotlight on the issue of low wages. For the Mayor to save face with voters, he now had no choice but to do something about the issue.

So they offered the Mayor a way out. Instead of turning him into an enemy, they said to him, “Okay, you don’t want to deal with this at a city level, but what if you supported a state-wide increase to the minimum wage, which includes Walmart workers.” Essentially they were offering him the opportunity to make it someone else’s problem.

MADELINE: To give you an idea of the impact of that, every dollar above the minimum that we could win is a $2bn transfer of wealth. That kind of increase was a transfer of $4bn wealth per year. It was amazing.

HOST: Remarkably, they won. Eight dollars twenty-five. State-wide. But the campaign had hardly been a worker uprising. It’d been a clever piece of politics – with some sturdy coalition building – that allowed Walmart to set up in Chicago, in return for slightly higher wages.

It showed the value of always thinking a few steps ahead. When the mayor vetoed the ordinance, they had a back-up plan, to leverage their position in the next battle.


HOST: The following year, I left the US and went back home to Sydney, Australia. But I kept in touch with Madeline. The big box campaign had been hailed as a triumph, but it wasn’t perfect, and I was keen to see where it went next. I went away, reflected on what I saw, and wrote a book about it. Well — it was one of the case studies.

MADELINE: What we learned from your book was enormously enlightening to us we had not really involved the members of each of the coalition participants in the decision making and in real ownership of the campaign …

HOST: So they decided to change tack.

MADELINE: This time we wanted to build the campaign from the right base, from the base of the workers themselves.

HOST: It was pretty cool. I’d written something, and they’d listened.

And let’s be clear what was happening here: a community organiser heard a critique of her organising and didn’t get defensive! Instead Madeline worked with her team to think about how they could shift their strategy to take the criticism on board.

Madeline quickly discovered that her Chicago team were not alone in wanting to organise differently.

Similar organisations in Washington DC and New York were all asking the question “how do you organise the low wage worker community?”

In 2011, this group of organisers came together and committed to changing the way they worked. Madeline was amazed to hear about what her colleague Jon Kest had been trying in New York.

MADELINE: they were starting to put together campaigns that had at the leadership of those campaigns the workers themselves (carwashes, retail stores, meeting with some success)

HOST: Putting the workers at the centre of the strategy. That was the key.


HOST: Instead of paid organisers alone deciding what to do and then telling the workers, here the organisers and the workers jointly figured out how to try and win.


HOST: Back in Chicago, Madeline decided to experiment with this model. One of the first things the workers decided was they wanted to hold a rally along Chicago’s Iconic Magnificent Mile.

MADELINE: Going in and out of stores talking to workers as we went.

HOST: That’s right. Instead of having a march and then listening to union staff make speeches, the rally that the workers planned went and talked to actual workers, as they were doing their jobs.

And they didn’t just talk to them. They signed them up. Not to a union, but to the cause.

HOST: It was a complete rejection of the normal union script. Hell, the workers, like Robert Wilson, even made up their own songs.

ROBERT: (singing) 8.25 just ain’t fair, we started from the bottom, now we’re here.

MADELINE: We had never done anything like that where we were recruiting workers as we went.


HOST: Meanwhile, in New York, Jon Kest started organising in migrant communities and found the workers were pretty good at negotiating better wages for themselves.

The powerful service workers union, called the SEIU, decided to back in these new organising efforts. It was the first time that a union had backed a campaign that wasn’t about signing people up to a union, but rather about building a social movement of low wage workers.

Over the next year, organisers in Chicago and New York built up lists of tens of thousands of workers, who all wanted radically better working conditions.

The next conversation was about identifying what their demand would be.


MADELINE: Over and over again, the amount we were fighting for was fine but it wasn’t enough. $6.50 was fine but it wasn’t enough. $8.25 was fine but it wasn’t enough.

HOST: So what would they aim for this time? An union staffer might have recommended that an extra $1 or $2 per hour was realistic. But it wasn’t up to union officials. It was going to be the workers together with the organisers who decided what to demand.

MADELINE: We talked in Chicago about what the focus would be and … we said we think we should list an amount that people are ready to fight for.

And somebody said, and it wasn’t me, what would you think of fight for 15?

And I said, that is exactly the right level.

I understood that working directly with the workers involved that 15 would be (both) aspirational (, something worth fighting for, ) it would not be something that we would win immediately but something that would be worth fighting for.

HOST: At first some workers, like Robert, didn’t think it was very realistic.

ROBERT: I was sceptical, and I was just like I’ll believe it when I see it.

HOST: The idea was that the increase would be spread over several years. That way, employers could plan for it, while workers were guaranteed rising prosperity along the way. The demand itself was its own education.

ROBERT WILSON: we’re working, and we’re working hard, but at the end of a day, we’re still not able to afford our basic needs. We still need food stamps.


MADELINE: So we took the fight for 15 demand to the workers at the next fight for 15 weekly meeting. It just took off.

ROBERT: so many people at times feel like where they’re at financially is based on their own individual failures. But when … you’re in a room with so many people who are going through your same struggle, it really shows how much this is a larger issue going on.

HOST: This is key. By talking to each other they escaped their isolation and they were able to realise that their poverty wasn’t their own fault. The systemic underpayment of workers was to blame.

INTERVIEWER: Did the $15 in particular mean anything to you in where you were at?

ROBERT: Yeah. I thought that it would really be a big change in my life.

HOST: So in Chicago they had another rally – this time on Black Friday – the busiest shopping day of the year.


ROBERT: An organiser I remember… was like, “It’s okay. You don’t have to go in there. We wouldn’t recommend anybody strike at their workplace if they don’t want to.” And I remember just saying, feeling like if I didn’t do this, I feel like I wouldn’t win. It was a key moment in my life where I had to define it.

I woke up early …the day after, shaved my face, got ready to get fired. I actually got promoted for a position that I’ve been doing for years but never getting the pay for. So to me, that really showed our working power,

HOST: And it wasn’t just in Chicago. Back in New York, a few weeks later there was a strike of low wage workers. Let me say that again. A strike of low wage workers: Workers who economists had been claiming for years couldn’t strike, because their labour was so readily replaceable.

MADELINE: Their one-day strike at the end of 2012 made national headlines.

HOST: So how did they do it? The first thing they did was they decided to ignore the law.

But don’t take our word for it. This is Collin O’Malley, an organiser at the time.

COLLIN: How did they stand up? Well one, they ignored the NLRB rules that meant to make unionising nearly impossible in this country.

HOST: It’s no secret that the rules are stacked against unions in the United States. Even getting into a union involves complicated workplace ballots.

But thanks to precisely those rules, this strike was not being organised by union members. These were just non-union workers who had signed up to support a campaign.

And thanks precisely to all the anti-union rules, they had very little to lose. After all, what were the authorities going to do to them? Take away their paltry pay? They couldn’t even threaten to deregister their union. Because. It. Didn’t. Exist.

And the brilliant thing is that the people who were going out on strike…

MADELINE: …they were mothers and fathers who had to pay bills. The concept that they were prepared to risk by going on strike was such a hugely resonant concept.

HOST: The law breakers: they weren’t just young, hopefuls. They were lifelong employees. Jonathan Westin was one of the New York organisers at the time.

JONATHAN WESTIN: We were literally thinking that every single one of these workers could get fired. And you know it was very likely that a lot of them were going to get fired.

HOST: This wasn’t a tale of the unions cutting deals to try and get an extra few bucks in return for more members and concessions. This was unleashing the talents and energies of everyone it touched.

And, remarkably, instead of being fired, they set in motion a national movement called Fight for 15.


MADELINE: The slogan came out of Chicago the tactic came out of New York and the backing for this came out of SEIU. …And the rest is history.


HOST: Seeing a winner, the SEIU ended up putting tens of millions of dollar into the campaign.

Within a year of that first strike, Fight for 15 won a commitment to a $15 minimum wage for all workers in New York, in California, in the city of Seattle and in more than a dozen other cities and counties.

And now the Fight for 15 team are going after the largest fast food employer in America – McDonalds – to get them to pay $15 an hour.

They have made the impossible possible – almost doubling the wages of millions of people across the country. How did they do it?

They put workers at the centre of the campaign.

It almost seems embarrassing having to say it out loud. Isn’t it obvious that workers have the most to win in a fight for their own conditions?

Sadly staff-controlled campaigns are all too common across unions and community groups. Paid professionals come in and write the strategy and then ask their army of members to turn out to moments of action. In fact, that’s the usual way of doing it.

The weakness in the original fight against Walmart was that the union was distant from the workers, allowing Walmart to play up that division.

By involving workers and experienced organisers in the development of strategy they built a much, much more powerful army. It took longer, and they had to convince people like Robert to overcome their initial skepticism. But the end result was worth it. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Indeed, with workers involved, the demands themselves became so much more inspiring. The workers didn’t have a technocratic bit-by-bit approach asking for one dollar here and a dollar twenty-five there. An extra dollar an hour wasn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. But a big bold demand like $15 was big. Change your life big. Make the impossible possible big.


ROBERT: We really opened people’s eyes to a $15 minimum wage at a time where people thought we were crazy to say things like that.

HOST: Back in a moment.


HOST: Welcome back. This next story is the housing equivalent of flipping burgers for 8.25 an hour.

HOST: Imagine, you’ve just been told that at any moment – day or night, you could be evicted from your home. No notice. How would that make you feel?

JAMES: One day, I was talking with my neighbours, and I said, you know, I’m, I’m not sleeping very well.

HOST: A few months ago, James apartment building was sold off.

JAMES: And they were like, no, no, neither us.

HOST: It was 3:30 in the morning. He texted around his building to see who was awake.

JAMES: All of us… So the whole building, you know, were awake…

HOST: It’s not a large building. 11 apartments in central Barcelona. All lying awake, thinking about what might happen.

JAMES: … it affects a lot to our healths. It starts with, you know, problems with…that you’re not hungry, and then problems with going to sleep too, of course.


HOST: Today I’m in Barcelona.

…This is a story about how a city’s citizens decided to stop worrying about the interests of those who owned it and instead pay attention to those who lived there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Only because we are in the door the eviction is stopped…

INTERVIEWER: And today we won.

UW: Yes today we won…

INTERVIEWER: Feels good?

UW: Yes feels so good… I want to cry you know, the emotion.

HOST: It’s pretty extraordinary story, and amazingly, it’s a movement that’s still growing.


(0:09 – 0:12)

HOST: May 15th, 2011. Thousands of protesters flood the Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona. That faint whacking sound you hear above the shouting.

(UPSOT – 0:10)

HOST: There? That’s the sound of a woman in her mid-twenties, with denim jeans and a green t-shirt sitting in the plaza, being beaten with a baton by a heavily armed police man in riot gear. Everyone around her looks on in shock as she clutches her leg in agony.

HOST: On the 15th May 2011, 130,000 indignados – or in English ‘the angry ones’ – took to the streets, camping out in town centres across the country.

HOST: Why were they so angry?

It all starts back in 2009. A few months after the American financial system had collapsed the world entered the so-called Global Financial Crisis.

Spain’s economy tanked, but instead of supporting the economy, the Spanish government supported by the Spanish opposition  slashed its own spending, driving a pretty bad recession into a full on economic depression.

The government called it ‘austerity’. Which sounds harmless enough, sensible even. But millions lost their jobs.

Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people who’d bought houses in the lead-up to the crash were unable to pay their mortgages. Before, if someone ran into financial trouble…

LUCIA: The people that could not pay, they just selled the apartment and that was over.

HOST: But now, millions of people couldn’t cover their mortgage, and nobody would buy their property. The economists in Brussels called it a housing crash. But that hardly begins to describe it. It was a catastrophe. Lucia Gonzalez lived in Barcelona, and had lots of friends who were affected.

LUCIA: no one knew what happened when you were not able to pay your mortgage.

… The law said that if you cannot sell, you were going to be evicted, …

HOST: One person who faced this nightmare was Mari-Carmen. Her troubles started when her daughter was struggling to pay her mortgage. So Mari-Carmen agreed to guarantee the loan.

MARI-CARMEN: They offered her a loan that was a hoax. Nothing but a hoax. But we didn’t know that.

HOST: Within six months, struggling to pay, the banks came in and took her daughter’s home. With nowhere to go, Mari-Carmen let her daughter and grandkids stay at her house. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end.

You see, with Mari-Carmen’s guarantee, the banks now started pursuing Mari-Carmen for her house too. They announced their intention to evict Mari-Carmen, and her daughter and grand-children.


HOST: By 2010, there were hundreds of evictions like this occurring across Spain every day. Seeing this, Lucia and her friends decided to hold a meeting about the issue. They put up some posters around the city. 50 people turned up.

LUCIA: all of them were like, …we’re here together but all of us has one problem so we want a solution for our problem.

HOST: They formed a group, called La PAH – the platform for people affected by mortgages. It struck Lucia in the first few meetings that all the people turning up seemed to feel ashamed.

LUCIA: All the public voices and this…were saying, this is your fault. I mean, if you have a mortgage, it’s because you decide to have it.

HOST: Carlos Macias  [PRON: Mathias] was one of the organisers at La PAH meetings, where people would share their stories.

CARLOS: People arrive feeling guilty. It was my failure. It was my fault.

…So we discovered that the first one that we have to do was generate…assemblies where there is a, an emotional empowerment. Where you take out this guilty, you…you understand that you are a victim of the bigger scam, the structural failure that is not your fault.

HOST: Just like in the Fight for 15, talking it through together made people realise the problem was systemic. The banks had scammed borrowers, and the law allowed it. It was the law that needed to change.


HOST: By now it was 2010. For a year, Lucia had been organising with La PAH. Every day, hundreds of people were being evicted across Spain. People were coming to the meetings, but Lucia and her friends felt like they were on a treadmill. They were helping people through their misery rather than doing anything to stop the pain in the first place.

LUCIA: Then this man came to our, to one of our meetings. … and said —I’m going to be evicted. And I’m not going to allow it. And if it’s necessary I’ll put fire in the house because I won’t let them take my house, and my kid from there. And we were like, wow, this man is crazy. …  I mean…we want to do whatever we can but not, not to put fire in the house. (laughter)

HOST: The group talked about it. It struck them that both major political parties – the Socialists and the conservatives – weren’t doing anything to stop the evictions. It was up to them to stop it instead.

LUCIA: We told them, talk to your neighbours. Tell them we are going to be there on this day. And tell them that they have to help you.

HOST: The day of the eviction came.

LUCIA: And then we took a… a camera to tape it. … and then 2 Mossos, which is the Catalan police, came there. And they saw all these people.


HOST: In the video, a representative from La PAH talks calmly to the police.

LUCIA: Yeah, we’re here. We’re going to stop this eviction.

…And you have to decide what to do because we are staying here…. and the police was like, hmm, we don’t know what to do now.

HOST: It was by no means a huge crowd. Perhaps 20 people with signs, and some neighbours. There are some old people milling around in support – locals.

LUCIA: And they were kind of, I don’t know, they didn’t know what to do and they just leave.

INTERVIEWER: Hooray! (laughs)

LUCIA: This was our first victory.

INTERVIEWER: Did they try again?

LUCIA: Yeah, they tried again and again. Because this is what the law allows but we…At the end, at the end, we stopped it. But….Our first, our first…victory was this and we put it on the internet. And it went viral.

HOST: The lesson was clear: To protect citizens from the system, bold direct action was required.

But that could only happen once people had talked it through with each other, and come to the conclusion that the whole system was rotten. After all, most people aren’t naturally inclined to disobey the law.

And those who participated weren’t just fighting on behalf of one deadbeat borrower. They were fighting for justice for everyone in this position.

Like with Fight for 15, the sheer ambition made it easier to organise. People could see how they could solve a real problem, not tinker at the edges.



But like all tactics, the direct action that La PAH was engaged in had a shelf life. When the bankers started knocking on her door, Mari-Carmen, who guaranteed her daughter house, enlisted La PAH’s help.

MARI-CARMEN: There were three attempts at eviction that were stopped by la PAH.

HOST: Every time the banks told Mari-Carmen they were going to evict her, La PAH would stand in the way, and physically prevent the eviction.

So the bank changed tactics. Under Spanish law, they weren’t required to name the date of the eviction. So they didn’t. They just told Mari-Carmen that they would evicting her at some point in the next three weeks. It was a despicable  kind of purgatory.

MARI-CARMEN: You can imagine. I was unable to sleep, I couldn’t do anything.

HOST: It worked.

CARLOS: Finally one morning at 8 in the morning 6 vans of anti riot police came

HOST: With no notice so La PAH wasn’t there.

MARI-CARMEN: I said that I wasn’t going to open the door. They told me, if you don’t open it, I will knock it down

…Then I decided to open the door because I had my 3 grandchildren sleeping and my daughter also. (Crying.) And so that they wouldn’t be more scared I opened the door.

HOST: Her grandchildren were 12, 9 and 6 at the time.

MARI-CARMEN: And the kids were screaming at the police, you are kicking me out of my house for the second time again

CARLOS: took the children from the bed and they give them 5 minutes to pick up their things.


HOST: There are so many ironies in this story, but the fact that the Spanish government refused to help victims in the housing crisis is one of the more galling.

And it’s one that was not lost on Carlos Macias, who became involved in La Pah around this time. You see, under Franco it was the government who first started encouraging everyone to buy their own house.

CARLOS: He said we must make Spain … a country of ownership… If you have a mortgage for 30 years, … you are not going to be able to make revolution or go to strike.

HOST: He wanted Spain to be a nation of owners, and that idea was supported by every subsequent government. It was a kind of unspoken guarantee underwritten by the entire political class.

CARLOS: They say … You never will lose with a, a mortgage, with a property.

HOST: So when that guarantee fell through, and people started losing their homes, and the mass evictions started happening – and I mean mass –

CARLOS: half million of families has been evicted in 7 years.

HOST: it undermined a key narrative the government had been telling everyone about itself.

But that’s not the only irony. In 2009, the government had quickly swooped in to help another group affected by the crash.

CARLOS: the banks

HOST: The banks. Who were now evicting people from their home at a rate of…

CARLOS: An average of 184 evictions per day.

HOST: Per day. Still wonder why they were called the Angry Ones?


SFX: Crowd sounds from b-roll

HOST: May 15, 2011. 15M – a day designed to unite the indignados from around the country. Inspired by the Arab Uprising, the idea was to fill plazas across Spain to protest against austerity policies that both sides of politics were supporting at upcoming elections. Essentially it was a protest march against all the major political parties.

PROFESSOR JOAN: 15M is not a movement. Because if you arrive here in Barcelona or Madrid and you try to connect with 15M, there is no one movement. There is no speaker. There is no address. There is no phone number.

HOST: That’s Joan Subirats, a professor of politics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

PROFESSOR JOAN: Is not, it was not a movement but an event.

HOST: An event organised almost entirely through online social networks. Its slogan: we are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.

PROF JOAN: No political party, no trade union was involved in the process. …there was no flags, no classical flags, no red flags, no Catalan flags, no flags on the square.

HOST: It was a complete rejection of the entire political class from conservatives through to socialists. There was even talk of revolution…

CARLOS: You need to go out and, and try to provoke a revolution or something.

HOST: Those in power were seriously rattled, to the point where in Barcelona, the government, after 12 days of occupation, ordered the protesters be removed from the square by force. 350 police in riot gear, backed by 100 so-called urban guards.


HOST: But every time the police moved protesters on, they kept coming back. Over the ensuing month, more than 70% of the city’s population participated in the protest. 70%.

Naturally, La PAH were there. But unlike almost everyone else, they turned up with a plan. And it was anything but timid.

LUCIA: For us it was like … the perfect storm.

HOST: Under Spanish law, if La PAH could get enough signatures, they could petition the national government to rewrite the laws in favour of citizens, rather than banks. It was an electric idea and it gave the Indignados something solid to try to achieve. They needed half a million signatures.

CARLOS: we achieved 1.5 million because thousands of people every day for 9 months, informing the people, to the people which was the problem, which were our proposals of our solutions.

INTERVIEWER: Can I ask, was that all done on the streets?

CARLOS: On the streets.

INTERVIEWER: So not, no, not using technology?

CARLOS: No. On the streets…. It was a mechanism to spread…what was happening

INTERVIEWER: Oh, sort of mass conversations.


HOST: I just want to take a moment to draw something out. While 15M was organised mainly online, La PAH was mainly offline. And it explains why the demand was so bold. It is hard to overestimate the value of talking face to face with other people to make you feel like you can achieve anything.

CARLOS: Because it is a collective problem so we must fight collectively.

HOST: So they went broad – their petition allowed them to talk to literally millions of people – to raise awareness about evictions and how this problem could be solved.

But they also went deep. With a smaller number of highly committed people, they proceeded to take increasingly risky direct action stopping evictions. This was another key to making La PAH’s members feel like anything was possible.

LUCIA: this empowerment feeling was there and then people that was going to be evicted could say it. Could fight it.


HOST: So Carlos and Lucia and their growing team of people took the petition to the government. 1.5 million signatures. A million more than they needed. And they said — here is the petition. And they pointed to polling which showed that 90% of Spanish voters supported the demands.

Then, one of the most prominent leaders of La PAH, Lucia’s good friend Ada Colau, got invited to address a parliamentary commission about their proposed changes to the law.

LUCIA: It was really famous because it was in the Spanish channel parliament at 8 o’clock Wednesday,

HOST: A man in a grey suit speaks before her. He tells the committee there is nothing wrong with the current system. He’s a banker. Then the camera turns to Ada Colau.



LUCIA: And this went viral.

CARLOS: That moment the opposition of the government was not the Socialist Party, was not another party, was LaPAH in that moment.

HOST: La Pah was the opposition alright. But they weren’t just the opposition party. They were in opposition to the entire political class. All the major parties opposed La Pah’s proposal, even the socialists. The government refused to debate it in parliament.


HOST: … then went one further, sending in the police to break up a protest La PAH had organised.

CARLOS: So they start to criminalize us. They say that we were terrorists.

HOST: It was a devastating blow. Political parties of all stripes had failed them.

LUCIA: So these kinds of organizations wasn’t the solution.

CARLOS: That, that moment you feel angry…


CARLOS: But we couldn’t stay a lot of sad or angry because next day we have an eviction.

HOST: Months passed. Perhaps the government was expecting La PAH to fade away, but the evictions continued, hundreds a day, and La PAH continued to get in their way. So Carlos and Lucia and all the people protesting against evictions decided to try the same idea – a petition to change the law – this time at a local level.

CARLOS: So we started to do the same process, Popular Initiative Legislative, here first in Catalonia, in the parliament.

HOST: They gathered the signatures. And this time they won. The law changed. In Catalonia, at least.


HOST: It was as transformative as the Fight for 15. The law said that anyone who is trying to make money out of housing is trying to make money out of a human need. And as a result, owners can’t just do what they like.

CARLOS: So you cannot be evicted, not mortgage, no rent, no…no squat. You are forced to…forgive the debt to the family. To the suppliers, say: You cannot cut water, electricity to family that cannot afford. And you must… carry with…with the cost of that.

HOST: Pretty radical stuff. Over the first nine months of the law, it had immediate impact.

CARLOS: it was more than 30,000 suppliers cuts were avoid. Thousands of evictions were stopped.

HOST: Across the city — people were at last able to sleep at night. They no longer lived in constant fear of eviction.


HOST: So what did the national government do next?

CARLOS: appealed to the constitutional court and they suspend our law.


HOST: I know. Amazing, right? The national government intervened to allow the banks to get on with evicting people. It was almost like the entire representative arm of Spanish politics had forgotten who they were supposed to represent.

They were now going out of their way to put their own citizens onto the streets – and make them homeless – all to protect the interests of global finance. As a changemaker, how do you work with that. It must have felt impossible, right?

HOST: For La PAH, it was a breaking point. Lucia, Ada Calou, Professor Subirats and a few others decided they had to rethink their strategy. Again.

LUCIA: We had this big power in the street but the institutions were kind of closed.

…So you need a new institution…

…the street had to be empowered

HOST: And they started to think about the one institution that had let them down at every turn: political parties.

LUCIA: I mean, I think Ada and…had, had….different offers before the present moment to be involved in different political parties, of course left parties, no. But…she always declined. Because…I mean, she did believe that it was not a solution, no

HOST: Many in La PAH believed that joining a party wouldn’t solve anything. And for good reason.

LUCIA: This was not a good solution.

HOST: They had long seen what happened when parties absorbed activists and turned them into sellouts.

LUCIA: A person couldn’t change… anything in an old structure.

HOST: But more than that, the parties who did agree with what La PAH were saying were, to put it bluntly,  losers. They were fringe parties, who never won elections.

And La PAH weren’t losers. They were playing to win.

So Lucia and Ada Colau decided that it was time to reconceive what a political party was. Their aim: to create a truly radical party, that would rewrite the fundamental relationship between property owners and residents – and actually win.



HOST: These people knew how to organise. They had friends on every street corner who had been through evictions and won. And they knew the issues that people cared about because they’d been living them – day and night – for the past six years. Now they turned that organising capacity to the task of mobilising votes.

Just ten months after deciding to set up their own political party, running for the first time ever, under the name Barcelona en Comu, Ada Colou won the mayoralty of Barcelona.

It was a stunning repudiation of the political class.

ANCHOR ON TAPE: A long time activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor… Ada Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage, force utilities to slash prices, and slash the mayoral salary.

(0:54 – 1:22)

ANCHOR ON TAPE: She’s been arrested repeatedly for her protests. I spoke to Ada Colau last week.

Were you surprised by your victory?

ADA COLAU: In a way, partly yes, partly no. It was a victory that was achieved in a very short period of time…

But partly it was not surprising because there is a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change.

HOST: Lucia was also elected to the National Spanish Parliament. But remember, Lucia had always thought political parties swallow activists and turn them into sell-outs. So what did she think now?

LUCIA: You are there the whole day, you eat there, you have the media there, and you have meetings and then the media meetings, it’s kind of disconnected … if you get into this routine without changing it you lost your connections with the world

HOST: To make sure they remained connected to the people who got them there, Ada Colau committed to a listening campaign.

LUCIA: Every 2 weeks… she went on Fridays to one of the neighbourhoods of the city with an open meeting. …maybe 2,3,4 hours were neighbours asking what happened with this … and she is like if I cannot do this, I’m lost.

HOST: And that commitment seems to have paid off. In keeping with her roots, Colau started off her term by taking on global financial capital, fining banks who refuse to rent out vacant properties.


HOST: It’s an inspiring story but not everyone in La PAH believes that a shift into party politics is a panacea.

CARLOS: if there is not social movements, there is not mobilisation, you can have the best congressman or politician or mayor that without mobilisation is not going to be able to change.

HOST: Carlos is underselling La PAH there. They don’t just mobilise people, they organise them into small groups with deep connections to go out and stop evictions regardless of what the law says. That’s something that’s very hard to do once you become a law-maker.

But representative politics with the power of organising and mobilising behind it — keeping it honest? That’s when anything becomes possible.

CARLOS: Because if you want to change the things… you can only do that if behind you there is people … demanding these changes.

HOST: Lucia and Ada Colau realised that without representation, all the organising and mobilisation in the world wasn’t enough. But conversely, Carlos believes that without people power behind them, representatives lose their way.

And who knows, Carlos might have a point. Ada Colau promised 80,000 new public homes when she came to power. As of October 2017, her efforts have stalled at just 3,000.

HOST: Remember La PAH’s petition that was supposed to change the law, to prevent evictions? It remains off the table, struck down by Spain’s highest court. But Carlos and his friends in La PAH who decided to stay outside of party politics remain undeterred.

INTERVIEWER: It surely shows the tension, the difficulty. You can win some stuff at a city level but you can’t win everything.

CARLOS: No, no, not now. Not today. After we approve our Popular Initiative Legislative in Catalonia, 17 parliaments in the state, in the regionals, has the PAH knocking the door with our texts saying okay, you must do it here. … At the end, you will have…17…regional parliaments that approved laws to, to protect the housing rights. …

INTERVIEWER: So you are organizing locally to change things nationally?


HOST: Either way, you get the sense that this story isn’t over.

The lesson, though, is already clear. Sometimes the first ingredient to achieving change is getting people to believe it’s possible.

In Barcelona, and in the Fight for 15 — that wasn’t an easy thing, because the change most worth doing seemed impossible.

Even the organisers of La PAH and Fight for 15 didn’t quite believe they could achieve what they were attempting.

They had audacious goals – which made the movements immediately appealing.

But we’ve all seen bold ideas that never go anywhere. Political parties are expert at that trade. Remember Obama? The audacity of hope?

What made La Pah and the Fight for 15 different, is that they had something no political party has. They had engaged people in direct collective actions that made people feel powerful. Impossible goals then started to feel plausible to those involved.

In Barcelona, the very act of preventing a man and his son from being evicted, allowed those involved to imagine possibilities they hadn’t even thought about. They started out as a support group and now they’re challenging the very idea of property ownership.

In the US, the Fight for 15 wasn’t a fight for higher pay. It was fight for social justice, that could only be achieved through higher wages. And they did it themselves, using their own tactics, without a formal union structure.

But they did have dancing…

ROBERT: People had their drums, we danced out in the streets. …

if you’re outside and it’s freezing zero below, you got to do something to keep people’s spirits up

HOST: We dedicate this episode to the memory of Jon Kest, the brains behind the Fight for 15 movement in New York. He sadly died of cancer only days after the 2012 strike.


HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. It is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley and our sponsoring organisations are Mobilisation Lab, Australia for UNHCR,, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising Cities project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.

Remember to subscribe to this podcast to catch all our episodes, like us on Facebook at changemakers podcast and checkout for transcripts and updates on all our stories.


Grow your movement by working with complexity: lessons from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers

Grow your movement by working with complexity: lessons from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers

By Annie Kia, Gasfield Free Northern Rivers

When it comes to winning campaigns, nothing beats getting an understanding of how social movements work…there are some great resources that people can dip into[1]. As episode 2 of ChangeMakers explains, in the Northern Rivers, a bunch of us were familiar with social movement theory, especially with Bill Moyer and his work[2], and had on-ground experience in campaigns. This was invaluable.

But there’s another type of knowledge that’s useful in growing social movements – and that’s an understanding of how human systems work. This knowledge is sometimes called complexity theory, but don’t get dismayed by that name! It’s a way of understanding practical steps to get things happening on a larger scale.

The basic concept is that natural and human systems are different from machines like your car.  A car is predictable…when you press down on the accelerator; you’ll gain speed in a linear fashion. Your car is not creative. Your alternator and drive shaft don’t suddenly get together and invent a whole new way of driving!

Fortunately, human systems are capable of sudden, non-linear change when social movements get going. Like any natural system, tipping points are reached and suddenly your social movement starts behaving in an entirely new way. In the Northern Rivers we went through several of these tipping points as our movement ramped up, with many thousands of people involved.  Our alliance maximised self-organisation. With 18 action groups and 147 self-declared Gasfield Free communities, creativity abounded. It was a wild ride.

When I threw myself into the Northern Rivers campaign I’d just spent 4 years exploring how complexity concepts can be applied to social change[3]. Here are some practical examples of how I found this knowledge useful in the hurly-burly of the Northern Rivers campaign.

I was part of a Capacity Building team that sought to scale up the movement. Amongst other things, we hatched an idea that grew into Gasfield Free Communities –a process of grassroots democracy whereby communities unilaterally declare themselves Gasfield Free. I pitched this concept to people in The Channon and Keerrong, and both communities did a pilot. In The Channon, we held a public meeting, watched a film, and asked people for a show of hands to the question: Do you want your roads and lands

Bentley Blockade, Photo credit Brendan Shoebridge

Gasfield Free? Hands shot up for YES. Then we asked if they’d like to give everyone in the community their say, by visiting every household, and they organised in survey teams. When the results came in, 99.3% of 432 respondents said YES, and we declared our district Gasfield Free in a defiant, joyful ceremony captured in this video.

Complexity theory helps explain how the Gasfield Free Community strategy spread like wildfire, engaging citizens across political affiliations, mobilised entire communities, and created a sense of entitlement to live Gasfield Free. This process took the defiance embodied in the individual Lock The Gate sign to the level of communal resistance. Victorian campaigners used this process as part of their strong campaign to get an onshore gas ban in that state. Around Australia, there are now 450 Gasfield Free, or Coal Free communities.

In the Northern Rivers, when this grass-roots process took off, I was able to use my knowledge of complexity concepts to help it develop and go to scale:

  • To replicate virally, it needed self-organisation. That won’t occur with tight constraints (many top-down rules). We shared the process in such a way as to empower communities to organise their own surveys and declaration ceremonies.
  • But the converse is also true. Self-organisation won’t occur with zero constraints. We provided some minimum guidelines for a comprehensive survey with reliable data, to give traction to the campaign. For instance, we learnt that the survey needed to be done face to face, not by people posting notes in letterboxes. We strongly nudged campaigners follow this template as it was an important element for engaging each community. If you’d like to understand this concept of constraints, check out the section on Minimum Specifications in Edgeware, a useful, accessible introduction to complexity concepts[4].
  • In my exploration of complexity concepts, one framework stands out. This is the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden and others. This is all about knowing your context and choosing actions to suit the situation. When in the complex zone, says Snowden, run a series of probes or experiments – amplify the stuff that works, and shut down elements that are not useful. This is exactly how we developed Gasfield Free Communities, through action learning. We started a working group that met one a fortnight in Lismore, a kind of social learning laboratory… an incubator. Through many iterations, we learnt what helps and what hinders this process in communities – this was the space that tested, tried and spread the survey process that so successfully built community support for Gasfield Free. If you’d like to get a taste of Cynefin, watch How to Organise a Children’s Party, or read an article on how we applied it in Health Promotion, prior to my involvement in the campaign[5].

Complexity concepts are applied wherever humans interact: organisations, corporations, and governance. There’s some very interesting writing on its relevance in Development Aid[6].

Throughout history, great campaigners have instinctively worked with the grain of complex systems. The good thing about this moment in time is that we now have a framework, a language. The 21st century is all about networks.. A new paradigm is emerging that understands human systems as adaptive and complex. If we want to grow a movement or get bang-for-buck in an organization, understanding these dynamics is very, very helpful. Above all, we need to understand self-organisation, the special sauce that liberates collective intelligence.

I hope that what we did in the Northern Rivers can have resonance with your campaign. If you’re interested, check out my blog… Networked Agency.3


1 Centre for Nonviolent Conflict. Check out their amazing resources

2 Bill Moyer, Doing Democracy: the MAP model of organizing social movements

3 Why bother with how complex systems tick? One word: agency.[1]

Zimmerman et al, Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders,

4 Van Beurden et al, Making sense in a complex landscape: how the Cynefin Framework from Complex Adaptive Systems Theory can inform health promotion practice, Health Promotion International Nov 2011

5 Ramalingan et al, Exploring the science of complexity: ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts, ODI Working Paper 285 2008