Several years ago now, I was listening to an interview on BBC Radio 4 with an elderly Quaker woman. She was the veteran of many protests, petitions, sit-ins etc – any activist cause she felt strongly about, she had been involved in. The interviewer asked her why, given how many of the campaigns had been unsuccessful, she had kept on getting involved. Her answer changed my life. She said:
“One must throw one’s pebble at the wall.”
I have lost count of the amount of times I have quoted her since. From that day, I became an activist. In my own way, I began to stand up for what I believed in and throw my own pebbles at those walls.
As many of you will know from reading this blog, I am a disabled woman. This makes it very difficult for me to get involved physically with campaigns, so for many years my desire to “throw my pebble” had to be just that, a desire. Then I discovered Facebook, and the world of online activism opened up.
Over the past few years, I have signed up to countless campaigns. I sign at least 10 petitions a week (always reading them first, so I know what I’m campaigning against), I’ve written to my local MP (even getting invited to speak to him face-to-face once), ministers, prime ministers, world leaders…the list goes on. I always try to personalise my letters, as most campaigning organisations do now give you the option to edit their form letter before you send it.
Then, over the years, I have rejoiced when campaigns I’ve put my voice to have won small victories. Each time that happens, all those individual pebbles have actually knocked over that wall, and that feels amazing! Even when the campaign is unsuccessful, at least I feel I might have pitted the wall a bit with my pebble. It’s certainly better than doing nothing and feeling helpless.
More importantly, over the last couple of weeks I’ve thrown a very personal pebble indeed. From the ages of 4 to 14, I was a pupil at a private school in London which was run by a sinister organisation, which the Church of England now classifies as a New Religious Movement. NRMs are religious (or semi-religious) groups which are outside the mainstream and can sometimes be referred to as “cults” or “sects”. In recent weeks, I’ve been discouraged from using the c-word in that last sentence, because it is guaranteed to put people’s backs up and can cause the people involved in the NRMs to retreat even further inside them. However, when I am talking to the average person, I will clearly state that I was brought up inside a cult. My parents and one set of grandparents were heavily involved in this organisation, so when it set up independent schools, to teach children its philosophies from an early age, it was natural that we were sent there. I wasn’t in the first intake, but I wasn’t far off, and we were very much guinea pigs in their sick experiment.
I’m not going to go into detail here about what happened to me, or name the organisation, but suffice it to say that I was severely physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis for ten miserable years. Because I thought it was normal to be treated this way and to be this unhappy at school, I didn’t tell anyone. There was no point in complaining to our parents either, they didn’t listen for a very long time, until well after we’d all left and could see the organisation for what it was.
Recently, whilst flicking through a local magazine about sustainable living and all things “mind, body and spirit”, I came across an advert for the local branch of this organisation. It was advertising the seemingly innocuous “philosophy courses” that they use to “hook” adult members. Whereas in the past I would have baulked, become upset, and never picked up the magazine again, this time I decided to do something. I heard that old Quaker lady’s words echoing in my ears.
Screwing up my courage, I wrote a letter for the letter’s page of the magazine, warning readers about the sinister nature of the organisation and advising them to do some thorough research before they went along and/or to go in with their eyes wide open and on their guard. At the end of the letter, I put a note to the editor, asking her not to print my name and address and also suggesting that the magazine might like to reconsider allowing this particular advertiser room in their magazine. I then went on the survivor’s forum (where we all talk to each other) and received overwhelming support for what I had done, coupled with a great deal of scepticism about whether anything would come of it. Other survivors hadn’t had much luck with similar things in the past.
Imagine my surprise, then, when about a week or so later I received a short email from the editor asking me to expect a longer reply once she’d looked into my claims! I immediately sent back some web links to get her started and crossed my fingers. A few days later, I received a long email back from the publisher of the magazine, showing clearly that he had read what I had sent and looked at the web links. He had also talked to the advertiser. Sadly, his decision was to continue to allow them to advertise, but his reasons for this were explicitly stated and entirely understandable. He also offered me the opportunity to continue arguing my point and said that, if I could provide him with more evidence, he would be prepared to reconsider his decision. I have done so and am waiting for his next reply now.
To the untrained eye, this may not look like much of a victory. After all, he hasn’t (yet) agreed to remove the advert from the magazine. However, for me this is huge. I threw my most personal pebble, one that it hurt me a great deal to throw, with so much riding on it, and it’s pitted that seemingly unshakeable wall, the one where my abusers sit jeering at me, just a bit. With each email, I’ve thrown another one and I’ll keep going. Who knows, one day I may knock a brick out.