Many say that being a campaigner and activist helps us through dark times: that we are no longer powerless and isolated. An example of this, a recent activity using a peaceful demonstration outside a Leeds conference, demonstrated this to me in spades. Hopefully, our experiences might help lighten any load you are feeling right now and may encourage you to be more active too!
Who are we and what do we want?
South Yorkshire Fossil Free! (SYFF!) campaign for South Yorkshire Pension Authority – the local authority pension fund – to move its investments in fossil fuel companies to companies which will help get us out of this climate mess. These investments come to about £230 million, some of which could be spent in South Yorkshire too. Despite 30 years of engagement with the fossil fuel industry, even in 2020/21 less than 5% of their capital expenditure was spent on renewables, the remainder on pipelines and rigs which we will have no use for soon.
As well as our own campaign in South Yorkshire, we’ve teamed up with campaigners from 10 other divestment groups from across the country. Along with South Yorkshire, all 10 pension funds have their assets (about £55bn) managed by one company, the Border to Coast Pension Partnership.
We’d already been meeting and learning from each other on Zoom for a year or so when one person noticed that the Pension Partnership had its annual conference coming up. We realised this was a great opportunity to reach out with our campaign messages to all the councillors sitting on the pension boards. And it meant that those of us participating on the day could meet each other face to face at last.
What did we do?
We needed to create a simple short action which would be attractive to the press and enable as many people to take part as possible. Four people volunteered to plan the event and, not majoring in creative skills, brought in expertise from 2 XR members. Dividing the roles, we produced a flyer with 4 questions to ask at the conference and emailed the 177 pension board members in advance with the same questions, explaining we would be there on the first morning and would love to chat. We also designed themed placards with the messages we wanted to use. We sent out a press release to the contacts of all the campaign groups, promising photos by 5pm on the day of the event using flickr and bit.ly.
About 20 of us met up at Leeds station, a mix of divestment campaigners and other activists. I felt excited seeing so many people turn out. Someone had driven for 2 hours from the north-east. A refugee from Syria joined us on the spur of the moment. We were targeting councillors rather than the public but received lots of interest and support from the drivers passing by on the 4 lane circular.
What did we achieve?
We got a real buzz from meeting each other. It really enhanced spirits across the campaign groups and makes working together even easier. From a personal point of view this was the most important win.
We talked with the ‘Chief Stakeholder Officer’. Although we weren’t able to convince him that we should speak to the conference this too was a positive. We had been trying to meet with him for months and he now knows that we are peaceful and reasonable protesters (most of the time!) making a future meeting much more likely.
We wanted to get press coverage and one campaigner volunteered to be official photographer. In the turmoil of the mini – budget we didn’t get any coverage but we have lots of excellent photos for future use.
What did we learn?
We learnt that even a simple protest can have a big impact on how we feel and lift our spirits.
Our placards were home-made, cardboard with lining paper to make them a white background. We made them together, which was fun, and the red writing on the white background really stood out. These simple, themed placards looked really impressive.
We’d advertised this action amongst the wider campaign community. Talking to 2 people who just turned up for the day we realised that making actions available to people who maybe don’t have the time to commit to a campaign but are concerned about the climate crisis is really important.
On the day, there were activists from 2 campaigns present. The logistics of this particular venue meant we had to stand together but it may be more effective to keep messaging separate at future events, even though we are broadly asking for the same thing.
The pension authority has created an Investment Impact Working Group and we intend our continued presence, whether in person or via their inboxes, will keep the pressure up on introducing real change. Time will tell but it is running out.
Want to get involved?
New people are always welcome, however small you think your contribution would be. Knowing people who can write to councillors (using a template letter) is a great help, as is just re-posting our social media.
Being a member of the South Yorkshire Pension Fund is an added bonus as the Pension Authority will particularly value your views.
We are actively looking for someone who loves social media to help us build our followers and develop an online campaign too.
If any of this interests you, please get in touch. You can contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org or like us on Facebook at @southyorkshirefossilfree or on Twitter @Syff20774416. We meet every fortnight on a Wednesday, currently at Haggler’s Corner.