‘Climate justice is racial justice’: Getting to know the Ethical Affairs campaign

‘There is lots to be done if we want to continually move towards a climate movement that has anti-racism at its core’


As discussions on the University of Cambridge’s various roles in the climate crisis spark requests for actionable change (including the launch of Cambridge Colleges Divest Now), the SU Ethical Affairs Campaign seeks to address increased societal and environmental justice concerns at the university.

Established to gain awareness of social and environmental concerns at Cambridge, Ethical Affairs has recently grown from a handful of members into a full, formalised committee. New members are constantly encouraged to contribute to the campaign through frequent open meetings.

One of the key dates in their calendar is Green Week, a 7-day combination of panels, workshops, and discussion groups on issues related to the climate crisis.  After Green Week 2021, The Tab Cambridge spoke with Ethical Affairs Chairs Zannah Lindley, Anjum Nahar, and Daisy Thomas about intersectional climate justice, the challenges of pandemic-tailored activism, and the importance of collective care. Here is what they had to say…

 

‘Show us something green’

For a campaign with such a serious focus, there was such a vibrant energy. The final event of Ethical Affair’s Green Week, Building an anti-racist climate movement in our University, began with a Zoom icebreaker… finding something green.

Rather than the usual stale air of online meetings, Green Week participants hustled around their Zoom displays (cameras on, audio off), looking for something to share with the rest of the group. Houseplants, vibrant mugs and a frog hat were brought into focus with energy and passion clearly derived from a week of non-stop, inclusive community engagement.

Creating a friendly atmosphere with activities such as this is central to the campaign: “This isn’t the type of work that you do because you want to get a management consultancy internship,” says Zannah Lindley, who is completing an MPhil in World History at Jesus College. “We really want to emphasize that this is something that people do because it’s fun.”

(Photo Credit: Ethical Affairs Campaign Facebook Page)

In order to increase transparency and hear students’ concerns and views on all things green, Ethical Affairs swears by open meetings, telling the Tab that they set a “good precedent because they keep the campaign accountable.” Instead of focusing on a large promotional turn-out, the campaign uses these meetings to allow students to actively engage with social and environmental activism.

This year, Ethical Affairs open meetings take place three times each term. (Photo Credit: Ethical Affairs Instagram Page)

‘Be uncomfortable. You’re here to learn and reflect’

Ethical Affairs prides itself on a horizontal, non-hierarchical committee structure with all members valued at the same level with the campaign working to avoid an unequal distribution of responsibility as members are actively aware of how some overpowering personalities may weaken systems of collaborative activism. Anjum said this was central to the campaign since “while a couple of people may have the knowledge and feel really valued in the space, ego becomes a problem when members self-appoint themselves as leaders.”

As Ethical Affairs adapts its work to the limits of the pandemic, the campaign stresses the importance of accessible organising spaces. Although Ethical Affairs runs events of their own, such as Green Week, the campaign also supports stand-alone initiatives, such as the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society.

Ethical Affairs supports different stand-alone initiatives, such as Cambridge Zero Carbon Society. (Photo Credit: Ethical Affairs Facebook Page)

Adapting to pandemic-safe activism

Sadly, because of Covid restrictions, many members haven’t spent much time with their fellow activists outside of the bounds of Zoom call screens. Zannah joked that whilst she’d become really good friends with her co-chairs “I don’t know you apart from being a floating head on Zoom”.

However, Anjum highlights the ease of attending virtual events, comparing event and meeting attendance to listening to podcasts: “I can be at my desk and know that I can just tune into a Zero Carbon meeting. That makes it easier than having to move into a physical space.”

Lockdown has also allowed Ethical Affairs to expand their networks beyond Cambridge: “We have been able to get a lot of cool speakers that we would have never been able to get before.”  Educator and activist Ayesha Khan, writer and activist Mayisha Begum and Black Lives Matter UK activist Joshua Virasami were among some of the featured presenters at this year’s Green Week.

Dr Ayesha Khan headlined Green Week’s “Humanity is not the virus: COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis” event. (Photo Credit: Ethical Affairs Facebook Page)

While Ethical Affairs sadly hasn’t been able to properly celebrate this year’s huge wins such as the university’s commitment to full divestment by 2030 and Trinity College’s recent commitment to divest from 95 per cent of fossil fuels by the end of the year, they have been able to maintain their social and organisational spaces with some adjustments.

“We’ve had to rethink how to do online meetings in order to make them accessible,” Anjum tells us. “That’s meant changing how we do introductions and how we think about access breaks. There’s still a long way to go but we have so many procedures in place. Almost so many more than the tutors and academics have in terms of conducting their seminars.”

They admitted that they were concerned that the pandemic has made connecting with first-year students more difficult. However, Zero Carbon has a buddy system in place that allows students to get to know each other before they even start working on the team.

‘This kind of work comes from a really passionate place’

The campaign stressed that for the most part involvement within the campaign comes from a place of genuine passion, rather than an attempt to “add to their CV”. However, this passion may become debilitating, with members of the committee constantly carrying the emotional weight of intersectional justice issues. Unfortunately, youth climate strikes often struggle with burn-out and many ultimately collapse due to a lack of active political education and engagement.

Ethical Affairs told the Tab they try to combat activism fatigue and burn-out through a prioritisation of collective care. Zannah said the campaign has “managed to get a good balance between everyone looking after each other but also knowing what they can do—a balance between Ethical Affairs being an organisation that works and one that allows people to take a break or opt-out”.

‘There is lots to be done if we want to continually move towards a climate movement that has anti-racism at its core’

In a further collaborative effort, Ethical Affairs organised this year’s Green Week in collaboration with the SU BME Campaign to adequately approach both climate justice and racial justice in an accessible way. Zannah told the Tab that the campaign was keen to work with the BME Campaign due to “the intersectional issues of climate justice and racial justice, especially while organising in white-dominated spaces”.

During Green Week’s final discussion call, student attendees shared their thoughts and reflections on the campaign and the future of the movement.

When asked to identify potential obstacles hindering anti-racist climate justice work, responses varied from combatting the vicious cycle of minimal racial representation in the Cambridge community, to the de-politicisation of issues at the College level (students being told that acts of climate justice are worthy to attempt but acts of decolonisation or racial justice may not fit into the bounds of College activism).

The short length of Cambridge’s academic terms arose as a further hurdle: a cause for low turnover rates in Campaign membership, resulting in the need for more sustained efforts at achieving long-term goals. Many were also concerned that the links between anti-racism and climate justice work may not be clear to those not directly involved in activism.

Within the next few weeks, Ethical Affairs will continue raising awareness and building a community of collaborators through different skill share events and discussion groups. The Campaign promises a prolonged effort at making meetings accessible, while also putting accountability procedures and welfare support systems in place for both new and old members.

As members move on, some continuing at Cambridge and others venturing into the professional world, they anticipate the difficulties of organising outside of a university space but look forward to joining external groups.

The Ethical Affairs Campaign reminds us that the environmental crisis has always been, and will always be, a social justice issue. As they reflected, “there is lots to be done if we want to continually move towards a climate movement that has anti-racism at its core”.

For those looking to get involved with the SU Ethical Affairs Campaign, campaign election nominations opened 8 March 2021 and close on 15 March 2021. More information is available on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Feature Image Credit: Cambridge Zero Carbon via Anjum Nahar

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