When you’re interested in particular issues and engaged in associated networks, there are people who are on your radar but that you never get to know too well. @michael_dunn is one of those people. He’s been at events and workshops I’ve attended, … and he’s usually engaged in issues I’d not yet thought about too much. One of the last times I’d spoken to him he was organising around precarious workers issues. The next I came across Michael was through Edgeryders. His post raised some thought provoking points - what might be gained by seeing the migrant crisis as a training ground for other crisis? We met for a chat at a cafe so I could write up this intro and it was the first real opportunity I’d had to find out a bit more about Michael’s background.
So I asked him how he came to get involved in migrant solidarity and the other issues I knew he’d worked on. Michael was studying economics at university when he first got involved in environment justice campaigns. He started to see the way in which many of these issues linked up at a structural level. The budgets to fund nuclear submarines and missiles such as those based just outside Glasgow could be diverted to tackle necessary climate measures.
Michael was involved in founding Plane Stupid Scotland - a campaign airport extension as the fastest growing cause of climate change. While there were successes that came from the campaign; the targeted airport expansions didn’t go ahead - the campaign didn’t achieve the growth of a movement that it had hoped might come about. Towards the end of the campaign people were left pretty exhausted - that topic of burnout that seems a pretty familiar theme on the Edgeryders platform. Michael experienced these tough times when you had to rest up from exhaustion as not all bad but as an opportunity to reflect, to learn and adapt. His resilience is rooted in gratitude even when things are hard going.
From there Michael got involved in the Climate camps; Heathrow, Kent, Blackheath, Edinburgh and Mains Hill at the tail end of the anti-globalisation movements. The camps involved a lot of collective learning and opportunities to do things on a bigger scale. They were places to get exposed to new ideas and feel connected to other people in throughout the UK & EU. Michael understands their importance more as being a means to give people a taste of large scale communal protest experiences. He acknowledges they had less impact on climate issues but sees the camps as an empowerment process that fed in to other ventures and movements.
Then he saw the wave of hope and optimism that was Copenhagen 2009 rise and fall. His memories of the experience were pretty bleak. This confirmed a change of direction that was away from protest politics towards more direct means to deliver change. He deliberately sought out issues that he’d researched as likely to become increasingly problematic in future years.
These two factors led him in to migrant solidarity. He got involved with the Unity Centre in Glasgow. This involved lots on legal case work, anti-deportation, and people in detention and housing rights. There Michael helped out with Unity’s newly formed charity, which distributed clothes and other necessary items to those in need and with founding the Unity Cafe - a soup kitchen and food bank. Michael was involved with helping to house migrants before there were any night shelters in Glasgow. It was another period where he saw too few people doing too much. But he has warm memories - describing times when there were always people round for dinner. When they got by ‘on their wits’ by ‘skipping’ for food (rescuing food waste from the dump) and the sense of companionship and agency that came from finding a way to solve problems as they arose, finding another plate of food or another bed on the floor - at a time before these kind of actions became more popular.
A logical progression from this work came in the form of the Golden Trailer. A few friends watched Storming Sarajevo - and hatched an idea. It took two years between idea and implementation. They put useful skills like engineering, mechanics, nursing together with an abandoned trailer they’d come across. They kitted the trailer out to offer basic medical aid, music, respite and a cinema to migrants in Italy and Serbia. You can read more about this on Michael’s post here [link]. Some of the challenges were staying motivated while the idea got off the ground and started to take shape and pulling in untied funding. Funding that wasn’t conditional enabled the trailer to respond to needs as they came across them - they weren’t tied to a specific place and they could identify areas where other aid wasn’t getting through and target these.
The experiences Michael had with the trailer were an opportunity to observe events first hand but he told me he’d started researching related issues prior to setting off. His research covered areas such as disaster sociology which suggests there is no such thing as a 'natural disaster’ - rather there are always social factors that contribute to crisis. Other themes that drew Michael’s interest included the influence that crisis can have on people’s behaviours and responses - the well known tendency for people to take responsibility and demonstrate more solidarity during disasters. How could this tendency be cultivated beyond times of catastrophe?
These are the kind of topics Michael hopes to explore as part of the Emergency Mutual Aid session on Day 2 of the Open Village. What are the barriers to this form of direct response and how do we overcome these? How might we turn hard-won personal experience in to collective expertise to up-scale a collective response? He has some ideas and has started to develop some resources; podcasts and zines and he’s keen to create space for collaboration with others with similar experiences to explore what else can be done.