Learning from Organizers – Nina Newington

Nina in Bell Tent at Last Hope, Dec 22 2022

[Originally published on The Media Co-op.]

Nina Newington is an organizer based in rural Nova Scotia. In recent years, her grassroots work has focused on protecting forests in the province. 

Newington says that her political consciousness “really emerged from being a queer kid in England in the 1970s” and not knowing that there was anyone else like her. Over the years, she got involved in the battered women’s shelter movement, gay rights, and feminism. Later, she lived downstream from a nuclear reactor in Massachusetts and was involved in anti-nuclear activism. She also, she says, took part in “various other sorts of struggles in a pretty ‘fellow traveller’ kind of way.” 

Her forest defence work in Nova Scotia since 2019 has been under the banner of Extinction Rebellion, and has included the use of direct action to prevent logging. She says that she understands this work “as part of fighting biodiversity loss and climate change, but I also see it as being part of the much larger struggle to move away from an incredibly destructive system.”

The Media Co-op: What are a couple of important things you’ve learned from struggles that you, yourself, are not directly involved in, and why are they important?

Nina Newington: One of the things that I was not directly involved in but was connected to was a whole movement of women of colour, often lesbians, who were really figuring out intersectionality. This is back in the early ’80s. What I learned from that was a really radical commitment to being true to themselves in the middle of all of these intersections of different struggles. I think particularly about Gloria Anzaldúa, who co-edited This Bridge Called My Back with Cherríe Moraga, from whom I took writing classes over a number of years. And through her, reading the works of Native American women like Beth Brant, and other Chicana women.

It’s hard to explain – I think I’ve gotten a lot more of my information from reading novels and poems in some ways than I have from reading more theoretical work. It’s left me with a very strong sense of how necessary that internal work is, if there are going to be alliances that work. And how much people’s lives are endangered by all the forces that pull people down and leave you vulnerable to addiction, vulnerable to self-hatred and suicide, to violence within the community. Those are things that I’ve seen within the queer community in my own life. But I’ve also witnessed how powerful those forces are and how necessary it is to take them into account in other struggles.

TMC: How has your engagement with novels and poems informed your work and your journey through the world?

NN: If you grow up as an isolated queer person, one of the first things you encounter is the sense that, ‘Oh, I’m unnatural.’ With luck, you come to understand that the idea of the natural is very coercive. As a teenager, novels and poems – oh, and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa – opened out to me the idea that, no, the way things are is not the way they have to be. There are alternatives – there are other ways of being and seeing and organizing the world. That’s a fundamental political understanding, that the way things are is not the way they have to be. Reading gave me that. 

One of the first queer books I came across was the French writer André Gide‘s Journals, at a point when nobody was talking about him being gay, we didn’t even use that word. Discovering both like and unlike in reading gave me a sense that there was a world I might be able to live in. That’s a powerful part of all the movements for change. To say, the world that we’re in isn’t working for this person, for this group, for me. Let’s pay attention to that, in people’s lived lives as well as in theory about it. So maybe one of the places where reading really has helped is teaching me to listen, to try and pay attention to what people are saying about their lives, not what I think about their lives.

TMC: What are a couple of other sources related to struggles that you aren’t involved in that you found to be particularly useful or important to you?

NN: This is still under the heading of books, but different books. There are certain books I’ve come across that are much more about the strategy for nonviolent movements. And those I’ve also found incredibly helpful. So there’s a book by George Lakey called How We Win. George Lakey was part of the early civil rights movement. He was a white gay man, and later part of gay rights movements. He has a really broad and thoughtful and intelligent way of looking at what might work and what might not work in a strategic sense. That kind of thinking, I think, is often there in books where somebody has had time to think things through.

I mean, I like listening to podcasts. I listen to CBC. I read lots of different newspapers. I like the National Observer. I read TheTyee. I read the Halifax Examiner. I also read mainstream papers like The Globe and Mail and The New York Times because I want to know what they’re saying. Those are more current sources. But I really value the places where people have taken a lot of time to think things through.

The flip side to that, though, is – for a while I’ve been a part of a Spirit of Treaty Zoom that’s put on by the District Chief of Kespukwitk, where I live. That’s district one of the seven traditional Mi’kma’ki districts. It’s very gracious of that Mi’kmaq core group to invite others of us in to participate – non-Indigenous folks. And that’s been in a way quite the opposite of what I’m talking about, about books. It’s a very raw, open, immediate sort of exploration of things that are coming up, issues that are happening, you know, where somebody lives. But also intersections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists. So there’s an opportunity for fairly direct communication that, I think, has been really helpful.

TMC: What are a couple of key things about struggles that you are involved in or about your approach to activism and organizing that you would like other people to know more about?

NN: It’s incredibly important not to fall for the divisions that are offered and may be exploited. For example, ‘Oh, if you care for nature, then you’re not caring for people, you don’t care about class struggles, you don’t care about racism, you don’t care about whatever. That must be a kind of middle-class struggle over there.’ I think that all of those efforts to divide need to be treated with a great deal of care.

“Care,” actually, is really an important word to me. If we’re going to link up the different campaigns in different areas of concern and become a much bigger movement that’s actually capable of making the changes that need to be made, if we’re even going to survive as a habitable planet, the basis needs to be a sense of care for each other, for nature. And that sounds, I don’t know, kind of mother’s milk, kind of obvious. But in practice, treating each other with care is something that needs to be done all the way through. Whether you’re doing, as we did, six months camping on a logging road through a cold winter, or whether it’s something much simpler – blocking a bridge for a day or for a few hours – the way in which we pay attention to what people need and how we can help makes an incredible difference to whether people can keep going in those kinds of struggles, whether we feel valued, whether the struggle is also something that improves your life. Which it should, if possible. Putting that care to the forefront is pretty critical to me. As we go along and feel ever more urgent and desperate in the face of inaction, it’s going to matter more and more that we treat each other with care.

The other side of that is respect – is, in the work for the environment, to look for guidance from Indigenous peoples of the land where we’re taking action. It’s different in every part of the country, I think. But the basic principle is still the same. The basic principle is to act with respect. And with understanding about what the settler history, the colonial history has done, or as much understanding as we can manage. That’s part of the care and the listening, to try to have a clear and emotionally accurate picture, as much as one can, of what has happened to the people that you’re dealing with. 

In my area of rural Nova Scotia, it’s also the working-class people who are afraid of losing the last of the forestry jobs, and might feel that we don’t really give a damn about them, those of us who are blocking a logging road. Those are also conversations to be had and care to be expressed.

TMC: What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you’re involved in or to your approach to activism and organizing that you would want other people to read or watch or listen to, or otherwise learn from?

NN: I would say that the National Observer does a very good job, in terms of climate and environment, of bringing together information. It’s not perfect, but nothing is. If somebody’s in Nova Scotia, the Halifax Examiner is a really excellent source. But it’s getting harder to find deep-digging journalism. I read the UK-based newspaper The Guardian a lot. I have questions about stuff – it’s not that it’s perfect. But it’s a source of information for a lot of what’s going on, especially for what’s going on internationally. 

I have to say that I use Facebook a fair amount. For a couple of our actions, I learned about imminent threats to areas that were important to species at risk from somebody posting in complete dismay on Facebook about how logging companies were about to come in and clear-cut moose habitat or whatever. So, with reservations, I do use Facebook, because it’s a place where you can pick up that information and it’s a place where you can tell people about the things that you’re doing, and learn what they’re doing. I also love the radio.

TMC: You spoke passionately about care as an important element in our movements. Are there any sources that you think provide important insight or guidance with respect to care, in the way that you understand it?

NN: I think that the book Braiding Sweetgrassby Potawotami scholar and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer is an extraordinary tutorial in widening one’s understanding of care, based on her nation’s traditional teachings. I could probably re-read that book every year – or you can just re-read a few of the essays from it – and learn new things every time. 

She has an essay in there about taking a bunch of mostly very Christian students through a Carolina silverbell grove in the Smokies. She starts out focused on what she wants to teach them and ends up learning from their joy in the grove. There’s a lot of nuance, if you’re really paying attention to the carer and the cared-for, to what the emotional experience is. It’s never going to be, “This is how to be a good carer.” Those two ideas flip around, carer and cared-for, back and forth.

Along the way, I was part of a group living and organizing downstream from a nuclear reactor. There was a woman who was sort of the leader of that group. She was this working-class Jewish social worker from New York City. This was in Massachusetts. She was incredibly funny and raunchy and tough and kind, and I remember thinking, ”Okay, I’ll do whatever I can so that I free her up to do the stuff that she’s brilliant at.” So, yeah, I’d go off and be the community representative on the nuclear reactor board where they’re gonna go blah, blah, blah. But now I’m in something closer to her role in relation to the organizing here. She’s an incredibly powerful mentor in my mind for how to do it, because she took on a lot but she didn’t take on more than she could take, than she was willing to do. And she was very able to just do what she could do, accept what other people could do, and, be like, ‘Okay, let’s do what we can.’ That ended up really being a model for me. 

I think also – not in a syrupy way – we did feel cared for by her. And she in turn was cared for by people within the group. I guess maybe that’s the other thing, learning from other people, learning from good examples.

I have been in recovery from alcoholism for 40 years, and I’ve learned a vast amount from recovery programs, both for substance abuse and for the families and children of substance abuse and alcoholism. That support network is life-saving. There’s a tremendous power in just listening and not trying to fix things, not trying to fix people, but being willing to be present and listen. 

It’s pretty easy as an activist to be focused on wanting to make change. But I think there’s an element of needing to first allow what is, both within oneself and in other people – to really look at it and see it before trying to jump into action. There’s a stage between awareness and action, there’s a stage of acceptance. I don’t mean accepting that things are all for the best and it’s all lovely and wonderful, and, you know, ‘God made the world this way, and it’s great.’ But just to accept, oh, this is the way it is, this is the way I feel, this is the way that person’s behaving, this is the way that the government is treating us, this is the way the forestry industry is acting – taking a moment and taking time to understand what’s happening, and not just running around trying to make it different.

Talking Radical: Resources is a collaboration betweenThe Media Co-op and theTalking Radical project. In these short interviews, activists and organizers from across so-called Canada will connect you with ideas and with tools for learning related to struggles for justice and collective liberation. They will talk about how they themselves have learned, and about ways that you can learn from the grassroots work that they are involved in.

Scott Neigh is a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author oftwo books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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