Mairi is a social activist working with politicians of all hues to bring about radical change. By day, she works as Parliamentary Engagement officer for Quakers in Scotland; in her free time she blogs about life as a single parent in Edinburgh. Mairi has been involved in several feminist organisations and recently published a book of poetry.
I was amazed at the number of women in Breaking the Mould, from just Edinburgh and the Lothians. It made me think wow, what if you extended this further – across Scotland or the UK? I also thought it was sad that so many of these stories are silent. All the time I’m learning about women from history that have done amazing things but you just don’t hear them talked about in the media. It’s still very much focussed on men making change happen; as the innovators, the inventors and the people who push things forward. That’s not to say men’s contributions aren’t as exciting or as good, but often women, while making their contributions, are also fighting against stereotypes and bias.
I would describe myself as a social activist because I pick and choose what I want to work on, depending on what my personal issue is. When I first got involved in politics I wasn’t a mum so issues surrounding lone parenting weren’t things I worked on. Now I can see that there’s a need for all parents to have a voice in activism and for activism to open up a space for them. Of course in my work my priorities are set by others, but in my personal life I can decided to try for change when I come across the need.
My work as the Quaker’s Parliamentary Engagement Officer at the moment is centred around a public petition that we have in the Parliament on the increasing number of armed forces visits to schools. The petitions committee has not seen it yet, but that should happen in Autumn and we’re reasonably hopeful that we can start a debate about it. We really want to get this talked about and discussed within Scotland; among parents and among kids, just get a bit more awareness of what’s going on. So, it’s still to come to fruition but fingers crossed, it’s quite an exciting piece of work.
The role has two sides, on the one hand it’s speaking to politicians about matters of concern to Quakers and on the other hand it’s speaking to the Quakers about how to effectively engage with parliamentarians in Scotland. Quakers are very socially active people and peace has always been a large part of what they do so when I started the job I was pleased one of my priorities was raising awareness about the creeping militarism in schools. We didn’t know where it was going to go but another organisation working on the same issue – Forces Watch – asked me if I wanted to put a petition into Parliament and I thought, let’s go for it. The public petition system in the Scottish Parliament is particularly strong and is a really good way for non-politicians to engage in the political process, open issues up to public debate and get people talking about them. I started the process last January and after almost a year’s worth of getting together FOI’s, doing research and formulating the wording, we launched it in November.
Asking for transparency so that people can know what’s happening is a big thing. We tend to have three reactions to the petition, one is ‘absolutely, go for it, it’s awful that this is happening’ – those are people who already tend to know a lot about the peace movement. There’s the more neutral, middle reaction of ‘I never knew this happened, I’m not sure how I feel about this’. Then we get the people who will not broker any criticism of the armed forces whatsoever and don’t want to listen at all. Through spreading the discussion, sharing the petition on social media and annoying as many people into signing it as I possibly could, we got 1,027 signatures before it closed. To be heard by the public petitions committee you just need one, but obviously we wanted more to show that people are genuinely concerned about this and want to have a closer look at this in Scotland.
We got some great media coverage, with The Herald and Common Space, that helped raise awareness outside the normal areas and expand the discussion outside the usual suspects. Quakers want to change the public discourse about militarism so Forces Watch also had talks across different cities which again engaged new groups, such as people from trade unions and teachers. The SNP Youth Wing also had a big discussion about it as well which was really great. It’s good to see young people talking about it because I’m quite aware that I’m no longer young so I can parachute in there and tell young people what should be happening with them, but ultimately, it’s great to hear their voice saying what they want.
One of the obstacles is that some people immediately mistake what we’re trying to do and assume we’re asking for a ban. Peace discussions tend to centre on either being pro-army or pro-peace and there hasn’t been a huge amount of meeting in the middle ground. I think people have a kneejerk reaction and assume we are really anti-army, which isn’t the case. That’s part of the reason why we want to open it up to debate, so we can explain the angle that we’re coming from, that we’re not asking for a ban but are asking for some really reasonable things.
I’ve had very different reactions being a lone parent and trying to be an activist as well. One feminist organisation I was working for made it very clear that they didn’t want to do anything to facilitate someone with childcare issues to be part of the organisation. Another feminist organisation I was involved with hadn’t thought about childcare provision at one of their big meetings, but they thanked me for raising the issue and made a huge effort to rectify it. So it wasn’t perfect, but they really listened and tried to change. These were totally different responses to childcare needs from feminist organisations. A lot of people seem to think children are a lifestyle choice and that can be a barrier to being an active parent. It also means that activism is less diverse, if you’re immediately excluding parents – and most of the time it will be the woman – from taking part.
Social media is a really helpful resource, both as a writer and an activist; you can connect in a way that you never could before and find like-minded people so you don’t feel so much like you’re out on a limb. For example I blogged about my recent correspondence with Picturehouse Cinemas [challenging their nuclear ‘family tickets’ and asking them to encompass all family realities]. I think the pressure of social media coverage encourages them to pay attention. For me social media and social connections are very important because I’m quite an extrovert and I get a lot of energy from interacting with people. I wilt a bit if I’m not interacting enough. I also have some great friends who are open-mined, curious and questioning people who you can sit down and have a really good chat with about stuff or just are very supportive and help me out.
Following from my social media work, particularly my idea to change the notion of ‘family tickets’, i.e. two adults, two children, One Parent Family Scotland asked me if I’d write a guest blog post for them, on being a single parent. Parenting can be quite hard and I think things like social media and blogging actually make it a hell of a lot easier now than it used to be, because you can easily reach out to other parents and get advice and support. There are also still a lot of myths about lone parenting, so I’m hoping that my blog will have an impact and help people see we’re not all 16-year-old mums on council estates, chain smoking, on benefits, which is what some people think a lone parent is. I have really good reactions when I blog about how I talk to my daughter about sex, from non-parents too. People who were brought up with more old fashioned ideas say it’s brilliant to see that kids are being brought up in a more open-minded, open way. I hope it does contribute to change but I think how much it does it yet to be seen.
I always wanted to be CJ Craig from The West Wing because the show inspired me in terms of politics, debate and argument, and I just thought CJ Craig was amazing. In real life, in Scotland, there were women like Kirsty Wark but there weren’t that many other really prominent women. Now it’s a bit different because we’ve got three female leaders in the Scottish Parliament. Things are obviously changing but growing up I wanted to be CJ Craig, I wanted to be a bit Kirsty Wark; I wanted to be these intelligent, powerful, together women.