Activist-turned educator empowering concerned communities

Aidan speaking to a Lock the Gate Alliance blockade in the northern rivers region. Source: David Lowe via aidanricketts.com

Aidan speaking to a Lock the Gate Alliance blockade in the northern rivers region. Source: David Lowe via aidanricketts.com

GAVIN COOTE

He’s helped organise some of the country’s most significant social movements in one capacity or another over the last three decades.

Aidan Ricketts lives at Lismore in the northern rivers region of New South Wales, itself being a hub of social activism, environmental contention and progressive education.

Most recently, the region’s been an epicentre of division on the issue of coal seam gas exploration and whether or not it poses a threat on the local agricultural landscape.

Aidan operates very much at the centre of this activism heartland – as a long-time activist and educator, Aidan has a passion for empowering groups, communities and causes with the tools they need to make change and reach a common goal.

A lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice, Aidan says he equips activism groups with all the essentials

to non-violent direct action. He has released an internationally recognised book on the topic, The activist’s handbook: a step-by-step guide to participatory democracy, and even runs a university-accredited course on activism every second year at Byron Bay.

“With the training, there’s two parts to what I do,” he says.

“I teach people about the nature of social movements, it’s a kind of background understanding that really helps people know what they’re involved in and how social movements work.

“Then we go into the specifics of activism and non-violent direct action, police liaison and media training.

“So there’s the big picture and there’s the specifics.”

Media and police liaison training with non-violent direct action can be a key force in gaining relevance as an activism group. Source: Gavin Coote

Media and police liaison training with non-violent direct action can be a key force in gaining relevance as an activism group. Source: Gavin Coote

For Aidan, the issue or cause at heart could be anything.

“I’ve often not been concerned about how passionate I am about an issue as long as the community’s passionate and I can go and help them,” he remarks.

Aidan’s engagement with activism and organising community groups spans nearly 30 years, all the way back to the Draintree Rainforest protests in the 1980s.

Having worked quite close to the centre of campaigns, he says, he was working out how best to channel his experience in strategy.

“I sort of reflected personally on what I should do with this knowledge and experience going about activism,” he remembers.

“Do I just wait until another campaign and throw myself into it?”

Around this time, Aidan had already been working as an academic at the university.

“The answer that came to me was to combine my teaching with activism and teach activism in a sense,” he says.

“The theory behind that is the idea that if I just went into one campaign, that’d be one more person on one campaign, but if you can train these skills of participatory democracy to a thousand people, then you’ve got a thousand people more usefully contributing.”

Following that logic, Aidan’s taken up requests for training and strategy support from as far as Newcastle, to East Gippsland in Victoria, and even England.

“There’s certainly been a lot more demand for that training than what I’ve been able to get around and do,” he says.

“People might be interested to know that the approaches to coal seam gas and unconventional gas mining in the northern rivers are certainly being picked up and applied in Sussex at the moment.”

Training up anti-CSG activists


To many, Aidan’s work with the Lock the Gate Alliance and other anti-coal seam gas movements encapsulates his ability to train up masses of unlikely activists, including teachers and farmers, and help organise a highly significant and relevant social movement.

He says the rise of anti-CSG campaigning in his area happened to occur in a timely manner.

“My engagement with coal seam gas was sort of irresistible in the sense that I’d just finished writing the activists handbook, which is my kind of opus after years of coming up with activist training courses and materials,” he says.

This was around March last year.

“Certainly the lock the gate movement has led to this massive spontaneous explosion of people feeling the need to engage in activism and that’s right across the country,” he remarks.

“We were experiencing this massive demand from particularly rural communities saying: ‘we feel we’ve got no choice but to defend our properties and communities from this industry but we’ve got no experience in this. We haven’t been activists before so we want some training’.”

Aidan speaking with Prime7's Christine Tondorf about his book, 'The Activist's Handbook'. Source: aidanricketts.com

Aidan speaking with Prime7’s Christine Tondorf about his book, ‘The Activist’s Handbook’. Source: aidanricketts.com

And, of course, this is where Aidan’s expertise comes in.

Aidan says he likes to focus on the practicable side to activism when working with community groups, however he’s also got some big-picture PhD research happening in the background.

“I’m looking at social movements as organic complex systems and one of the things we realised is that social movements are a part of society’s immune system,” he says.

“When society becomes dysfunctional, unjust or is practicing unacceptable environmental destruction, social movements occur spontaneously from the values of people in society.

“That’s something a lot of people don’t really understand, they don’t realise that activists don’t just make a decision to be an activist.

“They don’t realise that there’s not just some organisation that takes action, that social movements really arise quite spontaneously because of a whole lot of individuals looking at a problem and saying: ‘this is unacceptable, I’m not going to take it anymore’.”

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