More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
Ellen Dorsey is the Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund, a private foundation focused on progressive social change in the fields of environment, democracy, human rights and corporate accountability. It was set up by Henry A. Wallace, a former visionary vice President of the United States who championed what he called the ‘common man’ in the struggle to prevent financial elites attempts to control politics and the planet’s resources.
Wallace once said the following words: “I am committed and do renounce the support of those who practice hate and preach prejudice; of those who would limit the civil rights of others; of those who would restrict the use of the ballot.”
The world needs this type of leadership more than ever and as you’ll hear now, Ellen is a worthy torchbearer of Wallace’s legacy. A former political science professor, she is a leading campaigner in the movement for divestment from fossil fuels and has helped steer over 155 foundations to divest from coal, oil and gas. She previously worked for Amnesty International and at one stage was Chairperson of Amnesty International USA. She also served on the board of Greenpeace USA and various other leading progressive organisations. Based in Washington DC, Ellen is a powerful voice of hope and justice and I found her take on politics, philanthropy and people power to be refreshing and uplifting. I hope you enjoy this interview with Ellen Dorsey.
More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:00:04] RM: Ellen, you’re very welcome to the podcast. I feel like we’ve already done our interview, because we had a lovely breakfast and put the world to rights. We’ve it all figured out, isn’t that correct?
[00:00:12] ED: Absolutely.
[00:00:14] RM: How’s your trip to Ireland been, the last few days?
[00:00:16] ED: Oh, fantastic. It’s…I’ve had the pleasure of coming to Ireland several times before, and my family…my ancestors hail from Wicklow. So, spent some time over the weekend going through Wicklow and Glendalough, and enjoying the beautiful country.
[00:00:34] RM: Great. And how much do you know about those ancestors?
[00:00)38] ED: A little. Truthfully, just a little. And we’re learning more – actually, this is the summer of ancestry for my family. We’re going to do as much digging as we can, through the history of our family - but we’re Darcys and Cavanaghs from Wicklow.
[00:00:56] RM: Excellent. And you have your daughter with you, as well, so that’s obviously an important thing, to kind of look at that family connection together. I’m always interested in Irish America: I suppose I would have, in one sense, liked to think that Irish Americans remembered their history, and joined the union, and supported the oppressed. And now, with the era of Trump, I’ve realized: “Oh, there’s a much darker side, there.” I mean, I was aware of it before, but there is no singular Irish America – and certainly not a progressive one.
[00:01:34] ED: No, there’s not, although of course, Irish Americans have played a very important role in progressive politics. But yes, there’s no monolithic ideology. I think a lot of the Irish-American history is very working class – and working class politics are not monolithic.
[00:01:58] RM: That’s true. And what about your own background growing up – how aware were you, or your family, or your parents, of their heritage or background, ancestry? Was that a factor? What influences came to bear in your family?
[00:02:12] ED: You know, it’s a good question. We have…I’m one of four girls, four daughters. My great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland. We had a very strong Irish-American identity, culturally. Not so much historically or politically. In fact, my family was pretty conservative politically, and I came to my politics through my own personal journey, not through the politics of my family. Although, ironically, I have an uncle who’s a Catholic priest, and he was very active politically – more than I knew, growing up. And it was only when I became more of an adult activist that I came to learn about my uncle’s own activism, even though he was in our house, probably, every weekend. I think he very much respected my father, his older brother, and maybe didn’t share as much about what he was doing, and engaging politically…the issues he was engaging politically on.
[00:03:25] RM: What type of issues would they have been?
[00:03:27] ED: He was working with…his parish was… I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is a community that had been built around the natural resources – fossil fuels, and then the development of the steel industry. Until, when I was growing up, the steel industry was collapsing. And my uncle’s parish was absolutely a parish of steel workers. And so, he was involved in helping the steel workers buy some of the plant – so, employee-owned plants. And my father also worked in the steel industry, but as a plant engineer. Management, but spent the years that I was in high school laying off his entire staff, and then he was also laid off, and the company went under. So, I lived through the real dislocation of the city, economically and socially. And it’s now a very different city – but at the time it was just devastating.
[00:04:31] RM: What age were you, around the time that was happening?
[00:04:33] ED: Like high school, you know?
[00:04:36] RM: So, do you remember having that in atmosphere of the household?
[00:04:39] ED: Oh, dramatically. I mean, every day somebody in my school’s father lost their job, or brother lost their job. It was a daily, weekly, monthly occurrence – and we saw the stress my father was under. He was a good man, and he had to let people go, and he knew his own demise was coming. So yes, that was a tremendous stress.
[00:05:03] RM: And what about your mother, what kind of a person was she?
[00:05:05] ED: Oh, my gosh – my mother was a big-hearted human being who treated every single person she came into contact with with dignity and assumed equality. Just a tremendously good person. Loving and fun and just joyful to be around. And in many ways, I think my mom inspired my commitment to human rights. Not so much because they were advocates, my parents were advocates – not at all – but I just saw her live it. She treated everybody as equals, in every interaction, every single day. And that was, just, very inspiring to me.
[00:05:48] RM: And, obviously, she acted out her values – but did she articulate her values? Was there any religious element, or any philosophy? Did they try and disseminate that type of thinking?
[00:06:00] ED: Oh, well, I went all through Catholic school. We were raised as traditional Catholics. And my mother was an activist for…she was an anti-abortion activist. Not radical, not…she would never support radical tactics like going to abortion clinics or whatever. But she was deeply committed to her Catholicism. And, in some ways, I think that inspired me to question Catholicism and our values, and chart my own.
[00:06:40] RM: And what kind of teenager were you, then? Say, as a 15-year-old – what was young Ellen up to in the community?
[00:06:50] ED: Awkward [laughter]. Deeply awkward, I think – I’m the youngest of the four girls, and my sisters were all good students and well-respected in our school. And I was a little bit of a rebel. And the rebellion probably just took awkward forms, at that age, as I was sorting myself out. And it really wasn’t until I was a little bit later in my teens that I came into my own political consciousness, and started to chart my own course. And then I was doing things that, probably, were hard for my parents to grapple with. I always warned them, before I would get arrested, that it was coming, and they might see me on the news.
[00:07:37] RM: And were those particular causes, campaigns or issues?
[00:07:39] ED: Yes, I mean, I first got politically active around US foreign policy. During my years – I’m old [laughter] – and during my years…
[00:07:52] RM: Old is relative.
[00:07:54] ED: [Laughter] It is, it is. I was…I think I first got involved around US policy towards central America, and the kind of Cold War colonialism that we were engaged in, where we were supporting very repressive regimes around the world and pouring military aid into places like El Salvador, which were tiny countries that were massively militarized. So I got very involved, initially, in American foreign policy, from Central America to South Africa. And, then, it was only through that that I began to have a lens – a more progressive lens – to look at our own society, and how our economy required those kind of interventions. How the economy produced an inequality that just…had our own domestic human rights issues. So, I started out as a human rights activist thinking human rights was an international issue, and then came to understand how it’s a global issue, and had real implications in the United States.
[00:09:11] RM: And did that inform decisions that you then made to, perhaps, study, or career choices as you went into your twenties?
[00:09:17] ED: Yes, absolutely. I studied political science – surprise. And international politics, and always thought – because I didn’t know anything better – that maybe I should be a lawyer. And quickly realized that probably wasn’t for me. And I went on to get a PhD in political science, and, maybe as a cover for my own activism, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the global anti-apartheid movement. And when I do any kind of writing, I write about social movements and strategies of social movements, and the relationship of social movements to non-profit organizations. So, that may have been my academic…the way that I would use my academics as a way to work out activist issues, and how to be effective as an activist.
[00:10:10] RM: And you mentioned anti-apartheid struggles, there. South Africa was a big part of your formative years and your career. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
[00:10:22] ED: Again, I came at it, initially, as a…through the filter of US policy. And I didn’t learn that through my classes. I didn’t learn that, even, in my academic studies, although I think, probably, the thing that opened the world up to me the most is: I was a debater. And we did research. And the research just… The more research I did, it didn’t conform with what I had been taught, the value system I had been raised with - and it forced me to interrogate it. There’s a lot to be said for facts [laughter] – something very contested in my country today. A lot to be said for facts, opening your mind, and research really compelling you to think about your own life, and your own values. My time in South Africa – interestingly, I worked on human rights issues – but my time in South Africa started to open the door to understanding environmental issues. And increasingly, over time, I’ve worked, really, at the nexus of human rights and the environment. And I think that’s probably defined the last 25 years of my life, is that kind of nexus. So, fascinating journey – I think, typical middle class kid who has their eyes opened up by being thrown out in the world, and then coming back and looking at those issues domestically.
[00:11:50] RM: When you say the nexus of human rights and environmental issues, I think of Mary Robinson. And I’m just curious: how much of a role she has been in your work? Because Irish people, we maybe don’t fully understand her role on an international level, and how influential she’s been.
[00:12:11] ED: I have tremendous respect for Mary Robinson and the work that she’s done. She has always been ahead of the curve – always looking with absolute moral clarity at the issues facing the world, what’s driving some of the biggest problems in the world, and standing up and offering a clarion call for justice for the most oppressed. For those that are most impacted by decisions that they have no control over. And so, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Mary, working with her on issues of climate justice, and recently working on issues of energy justice. The world’s in the middle of an energy transition – how fast we make that transition away from fossil fuels into clean, renewable energy will determine the fates of literally millions of people. So, the faster we make this transition – it’s urgent, it’s crucial. But one of the issues that I am fortunate to interact with Mary on is the question of the billion-plus people in the world that don’t have access to electricity at all, today. And, if we make an energy transition, will we make sure that we leave no-one behind? That we ensure that the billion-plus have renewable energy - safe, clean, affordable energy - as the world makes this transition? So, we’re actually working on a campaign called “Shine,” to bring and support local communities in adopting decentralized, off-grid, renewable, affordable energy. In the parts of the world – Africa, India, etcetera – that access is a huge issue. And Mary has seen this, right from the start, as an issue of justice. And, again, her moral clarity is just something I admire tremendously.
[00:14:22] RM: I suppose, when it comes to moral clarity, she’s been very outspoken recently about your new President.
[00:14:31] ED: Ah, I knew you were going to ask about this.
[00:14:33] RM: Well, it would be hard not to. And, rest assured, it has come up many times on this podcast already. But it did strike me that, obviously she’s no longer in elected office, so maybe you could argue that she has more freedom to speak. But then, the question arises: why do those in elected office in Ireland not feel they have the freedom to speak? So, she’s been quite forthright in condemning the actions… And I think, I don’t know if she’s used the word “fascism,” but she’s certainly talked about the real threat, and risk - and used the word “bully,” which is probably one of the least dramatic terms you could use about President Trump. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on the President.
[00:15:26] ED: So, on the issue of fascism: I work at a foundation, and our donor was Henry Wallace, who was the Vice President under Franklin Delano Roosevelt - the third Vice President. And 73 years ago, he published a piece in the New York Times talking about the dangers of American fascism. And I’d urge whoever’s listening to look that up – actually, just last week the chair of my board, his grandson, published a piece contextualizing the Trump presidency in the prescient warnings that his grandfather had published. And it talked about this as being an American form of fascism. But let’s talk about what that really means. When economic interests take over the, or merge with, the arms of government…take over the democracy and use the institutions of the government to concentrate power, and privilege, and wealth. And I think that’s been happening, actually, for decades, in the United States. We have an enormous problem of money in the political system which, I think, has really weakened, if not reached a point of virtually destroying, our democracy. And, maybe, this moment in our history will compel us to look at the systemic problems that are weakening our democracy. Maybe the Trump moment will help us to say: “Let’s look at what’s failing with our economy, what’s failing with our government.” And there were people that voted for Donald Trump who feel that the system hasn’t worked for them – and the system hasn’t worked for them. We could argue that there was manipulation, and his kind of nationalist, populist rhetoric - and it’s truly rhetoric, because his policies are not consistent with his rhetoric – resonated with people that are frustrated by a system that’s broken.
If you think about this last election, the two insurgent candidates were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. And, with very different policy prescriptions, they both tapped into the frustration that our economic system and our political system are broken and they’re not serving society in the way that…the majority of the society, in the way that they should. So, yes, I think we’re in a very scary moment, when government officials that are responsible for protecting our democracy are investigating Donald Trump, and are fired because of their investigations; when you see the attacks on the media… It’s a frightening moment – but it’s also a test of American democracy. You know, will the democratic institutions survive, and will the people reject this kind of hate-filled demagogic and fascistic move to the right? I’m optimistic. I’m a little frightened, but I’m optimistic. The thing that I think worries me the most, though, is the hate-filled rhetoric. Because once you uncork that bottle of hate, and the noxious fumes come out and it’s OK to say absolutely anything hate-filled against social groups, it’s hard to put that cork back in. So we’re going to have a lot of rebuilding and repairing to do, irrespective of what happens with the Trump presidency.
[00:19:33] RM: You obviously put a lot of value on the importance of social movements – but how important is philanthropy? Obviously, you work for a foundation. What is the role for funders in helping us seize this moment for positive change?
[00:19:53] ED: Well, it’s such an interesting time, because I think philanthropy’s tried and true methods of operating – certainly philanthropy in the US, even progressive philanthropy…everyone’s asking the question: how do we actually respond to this moment appropriately and at scale? Even the operations of philanthropy are threatened – there’s a…you know, the Trump administration is pushing for lifting the restrictions on advocacy groups and religious groups, for political advocacy. And that would affect philanthropy, as well. Basically saying that religious groups can become advocates, can support candidates – something that’s been a no-go zone. So there’s changes that will affect philanthropy. But, more importantly, how does philanthropy protect the institutions of democracy? How does philanthropy operate to push back against the kind of racism and xenophobia that’s been unleashed? It’s struggling, our sector is struggling. As are our grantees, the non-profits, who are trying to figure out how to respond rapidly, and at scale, and appropriately. So it’s a time of turmoil in our sector – and my sector, philanthropy, doesn’t have a history, I think, of being bold and collaborative. And that’s probably what’s required, at this moment.
[00:21:40] RM: So let’s imagine all these millionaires and billionaires that are listening in on the podcast – I’m trying to imagine this progressive Irish millionaire or billionaire that’s going to appear. And I do believe they’re out there, because there’s vast wealth in our country here, as well, and it is time for progressive philanthropy to step forward. What are some of the issues or approaches that you think are worth considering, for that millionaire or billionaire who might be listening? Where do you think they might consider putting their money, and how should they spend it?
[00:22:13] ED: Well, I can only share the experiences of what we’re trying to do, but I think there are a couple of questions that I’d be asking. Do you want to support social change work? If you want to support social change, social justice work, you have to look at the systemic drivers leading to the injustices and inequality in your society. And how do you support strategies and movements of people that are pushing back on the system itself, and working against the injustices? Sometimes, supporting the movements – movements at a very grassroots level…it’s difficult to do directly. It’s easier to fund a big non-profit. And sometimes those non-profits are supporting social movements, and sometimes they’re oblivious to them. So, looking at how to get resources to the social change agents in communities would be one of the first things that I would recommend. Second thing I would recommend is that, sort of, systemic analysis: you know, how does the work of X movement or group relate to system change? And I think that becomes…roll all the way back, it then raises questions about the money itself. Where did the money come from? How do you invest your money? Often, in philanthropy, we…philanthropic institutions invest over here, and then they make grants and support organizations over there, rarely looking at whether what they’re invested in and how they’re investing is actually driving the problems that they’re expecting the organizations and grantees to solve. And nowhere is that more obvious and clear than in the case of climate change, and the effects of climate change on virtually every social justice issue. Many investors, many philanthropists, philanthropic institutions, invest their money in the fossil fuels sector. Literally investing in the drivers of the problem that they’re asking their grantees to respond to. Drivers of the problem, the industry that’s also funded denial of the science – a huge problem in the United States, where we still have a section of the population that doesn’t believe climate change is real, because they’ve been very much influenced by the disinformation. And then, industries that have lobbied against real and meaningful action on climate change. So, I would say walking the walk with your investments, using your investments for the common good, putting your investments into community banks, putting your investments into social impact investing that can provide capital for communities, that can solve problems - like investing in renewable energy, or energy access. We can do things differently with our money, just like we can do things differently with our grants.
[00:25:35] RM: For those of us that don’t have millions or billions: what do you think are some of the practical, day-to-day behaviors and efforts that we can make to effect this change? Because, sometimes, the problem can seem so abstract – and we can, maybe, encourage governments or philanthropists to come to the rescue, whereas as what social movements are, essentially, are collections of people that come together and organize. But as an individual, as somebody maybe listening to this interview and they feel compelled to take action but, once they’ve finished the interview, what are some of the steps that they might be able to take, or the range of steps?
[00:26:18] ED: Well, there’s the personal to the political. Clearly, we all consume. And we consume products that…the whole value chain of the development of that product can be done in a way that’s sustainable and respecting of human rights, or can be totally unsustainable and exploitative. So, knowing what you buy, and consuming less, is crucially important. Then, I would say, engaging in more sustainable and just practices and investments. You may not be – I’m not – you may not be a millionaire or a billionaire, but you are part of institutions that invest money. So, your university invests money. Maybe not a lot – European universities compared to US universities. You are part of, maybe, a parish, or a diocese, or a church, that invests money. You have a retirement account – it invests money. Engaging with those institutions that invest the money to say: “Put the money to do good, not to do harm.” It’s not hard to do. It’s not hard to organize, and build that kind of political pressure. And then, of course, you have government. And government and the economy are social institutions, right? We structure government, we structure the economic system to serve society. If they’re not working, we have to advocate to change them. Because, ultimately, they’re supposed to serve the majority of the population. So, being a political activist is not a hard thing to do. It can start very, very small. And if you can connect up with others in your community, or your parish, your place of work, and make changes with an eye… They may be small changes, but they’re part of moving a bigger system. Great things can happen.
[00:28:28] RM: I want to rewind a wee bit, Ellen, back to the South Africa period – because I’m quite interested in how, or rather, what were the steps in your personal journey that led you into this role that you’re in now? So, South Africa period – would you have been in your mid-to-late twenties?
[00:28:50] ED: Late twenties.
[00:28:51] RM: OK, late twenties. So, we had… I’m picking up an awkward, possibly introverted, Ellen in her…
[00:29:00] ED: Not introverted, no. Never introverted. Awkward.
[00:29:01] RM: At fifteen, no? OK, never introverted. But awkward. And then she got kind of radicalized, politicized, then she kind of got into academia. She ended up in South Africa. And what else is going on in your life, at that stage?
[00:29:17] ED: You know, aren’t most people’s journeys rather random?
[00:29:20] RM: Oh, absolutely.
[00:29:22] ED: One experience leads you to the next. A door opens, you walk through it. Sometimes it slams right on your face, and you turn around and go in another direction. Often, young activists or students say to me: “I want to do what you’re doing – how do I get there?” And I’m like: “Well, I never would have thought, at your age, I’d be doing what I’m doing now.” Just live a life where you’re…you try and be true to yourself, and your values, and it’ll evolve maybe in ways it’s supposed to, who knows.
[00:29:59] RM: Talk to me about some of that randomness, then.
[00:30:01] ED: So, I got a PhD, wasn’t sure I wanted to be a professor – I loved teaching, I loved research. But academia seemed a little too stultifying for me. I came back from South Africa and I did…I was a professor at a university in Atlanta.
[00:30:21] RM: I’m guessing you were still relatively young to be a professor.
[00:30:32] ED: I was about 30, at that point. Yes. And yes, it was great, actually. I loved my students. They were great, and a lot of my graduate students were actually older than I was. And they kind of forced me to be really relevant to their lives, in a way that was great. And I taught human rights and international politics. But I got recruited to work with a foundation that worked with the UN, and I had a big debate: do I leave academia? I’ve got this tenure track – you know, the highly-prized tenure thing that you have a lifetime of protection. So, I left [laughter], and went to work for the foundation, because I thought: I have to learn more about the world. And I didn’t think I should learn it just through academia. That was an interesting experience, but didn’t really feed my activist soul. So, I went and I worked for Amnesty International. And I was national field director for Amnesty USA – and then I started the first human rights and environment program in the late 90s, at Amnesty US. And I loved that – it was really meaningful, because it kind of cracked open the connections between civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, which at that time… Amnesty was in a global debate, if not fight, about whether it would stay focused only on civil and political rights, or work on all human rights. And it also raised questions about corporate actors: are we only focused on governments and their accountability for human rights violations? Or also corporations? So, I really welcomed helping to blow those debates open [laughter]. And they did – they were kind of raging.
[00:32:14] RM: Have you always been someone that has sought to blow debates wide open, or has that just happened? Is that in your personality? Are you someone that likes to shake it up?
[00:32:23] ED: Now we’re veering into questions of therapy [laughter]. I think, if you’re a curious activist, and you really want to figure out how to be most efficacious, and you’re struggling to think about how to go upstream to the most systemic drivers of the problems you’re working on, you almost inevitably come up against deep questions, but more importantly, the sort of bureaucratic, technocratic responses of institutions – even the most progressive organizations have their own institutionalized ways of operating that an instrument of change has to change to respond to change. So, inevitably, you’re going to have to blow up some assumptions, underlying assumptions about why you work the way you do and how you work the way you do. So, the question is not whether or not you’re blowing it up for the sake of having a fight, but whether you’re blowing it up respectfully, to figure out how to be most effective in your fundamental mission. I’d like to think that I’m on the side of blowing it up strategically, and respectfully, rather than just for the sake of having the fight. But sometimes a good fight is not a bad thing. Again, hopefully it’s a respectful one.
[00:34:03] RM: So, it sounds like you’ve never been afraid to challenge the status quo, to challenge authority where necessary – that’s inevitably going to lead you into some sort of conflict scenario. So, I met you at the [inaudible 00:34:15] conference on Friday, and we talked a little bit about the need for positive confrontation. And I was wondering, at the time: is there an issue in Ireland where we, sometimes, can be passive-aggressive and not take on the fight head-to-head and eyeball someone, and really go at it. But I think, no matter who you are, it does take an element of courage to go at someone that has a lot of power. Would you agree with that?
[00:34:49] ED: Yes, I think that is true. It’s easier not to be in a…confrontational doesn’t imply anger. It doesn’t have to imply anger. But if you want to bring about change, you are going to have to confront individuals that represent institutions that are barriers to change. And you have to be somewhat courageous to be willing to stand up and speak to an individual that has institutionalized power. And that can be scary. On the other hand, if you’re committed to the urgency of social change – in a world where we have the twinned crises of tremendous inequality and climate change, climate change which is an existential threat to humanity – we’re going to have to have some hard discussions. We have to change the fundamental nature of our economy to address these two issues. And that’s going to come right up against those that have the greatest amount of power and wealth. And how to have those discussions in a respectful but unrelenting way is, really, what our challenge is, as activists today.
[00:36:16] RM: What about, in terms of developing your own career, I’m curious about that kind of aspect – some people refer to it as work-life balance, but let’s just call it “life balance” [laughter]. That’s a lot of activity, that’s a lot of work, a lot of career progression in your life. How have you managed to stay grounded, connected to the issues, but also hopeful, as well? Because quite often, in that level of activity, and in the push, the fight, the struggle, quite often burn-out comes. Have you had challenges with that, in the past? Or have you found a secret sauce to keep it all going?
[00:36:57] ED: Yes – you know, I can laugh and say: “Ah, we’re all committed to this work, and I get energy from the work.” But burn-out is a very real thing, and it’s burn-out on two levels: it’s the burn-out of just the pace of the work. And I believe, particularly on this issue of climate change: we’re the first generation to fully understand what’s happening – and we’re the last generation to be able to do something in time. That imposes, on me, a pressure – every single day – to do everything I can. And that’s a heavy weight, right? So, it drives you to work, and maximize every possible opportunity to move the issue. So, of course, I’m not working a 35-hour week.
So there’s the physical, just driving element. But then there’s that existential element – if you have that knowledge, and you have a privileged position to do something about it, what’s your obligation? And sometimes, you’re dealing with issues every single day – whether it’s the human rights dimension of climate change, or the actual climate change itself – that’s so heavy, when you think about people’s lives, that it takes an emotional toll.
On the other hand, when you’re working with people in movements, in advocacy organizations, I think you see the best of humanity. And you do get energy from that. And most importantly, I have my family, that helps me, sustains me, and tells me to not take myself so seriously, and makes me laugh, and dance in the hall. If you don’t have that, you’re going to be self-righteous and burned out. They keep me honest – I’m not so important.
[00:38:38] RM: And aside from family, and dancing in the hall, what type of other interests do you do? What feeds the soul? Obviously, work is feeding it.
[00:39:08] ED: Yes, work feeds it, music, and art. I’m not a musician – I have musicians all around me, so I get to partake in their gifts. And I have a real hunger to start painting again. I used to be a bit of an artist – I don’t know if I am anymore. But art is really important – consuming it, supporting it, maybe, more and more, engaging in it myself.
[00:39:39] RM: What do you think might be next, for you? Or is it another series of random adventures and encounters? Are you prepared to surrender yourself to what may be, as long as you’re devoted and conscious of the work that’s going on?
[00:39:55] ED: I laugh all the time when people talk about ‘your career,’ or ‘my career.’ I never had a career – I still don’t have a career. I just go through the doors as they open, if they seem to make sense. I do think I would like – as I reach the later part of my life – I would like to support, maybe teach, maybe spend more time with, younger activists. And just younger people. Because my experience…mostly in all my activist work, I’ve still taught. I’ll teach a class, here or there, at a university. Not because I want to teach, per se, but because I learn so much from the students, and it makes me so much more – I think – aware and relevant, not just of different perspectives, but of things that are happening that I’m too old to have figured out on my own, that they teach me about.
So, I think, maybe teach. And we talked about this earlier – the difference between justice and charity. The older I get, after spending most of my life working on the justice side of the equation, is that I realize that there still is always an essential role for service. And I feel like I haven’t done that enough, in my life. And volunteering at our local food pantry, that bags food for the homeless, and the poorest in our community, is absolutely essential, while you also do the systemic change work. So, I think I’m going to find more time for that in my life.
[00:41:48] RM: Any final words of wisdom, advice? Any personal mottoes, anything you want to leave listeners with?
[00:41:55] ED: No wisdom, no advice – I don’t think I’m that important. I’m honored to be here. I really enjoy, always, connecting with the great activists and organizations that are in Ireland. Kumi Naidoo, at the conference the other day, said: “Ireland punches above its belt-weight.” And I think that’s really true, on so many levels. And it’s just exciting to be here, even if I’m one of those clichéd Irish-Americans coming back to connect with my ancestral roots. It’s still inspiring to be here – so thank you.
[00:42:30] RM: Well, it’s great to have you here. Thanks so much for your time, Ellen, it was great chatting to you.
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