How I Made It

Emma Jackson, Environmental Activist & Organizer

Emma Jackson is an Edmonton-based climate justice activist and organizer, and a co-founder of Climate Justice Edmonton. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

(Photo: Simon Gorsak)

Emma Jackson; @EmmaJackson57

 How do you describe your job to your family?

I’m an activist and organizer, and a co-founder of Climate Justice Edmonton—a grassroots collective organizing for social and environmental justice on Treaty 6 territory. I’m also a student and a researcher. As an organizer, my job is to raise people’s expectations of the world we deserve. With climate justice organizing, specifically, the goal is to make people realize that it’s not radical to demand a habitable future on this planet, and to draw attention to the forces holding us back from achieving it. It’s also about following the leadership of those on the frontlines of climate change and extractivism— Indigenous peoples and people of colour.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I have an honours bachelor of arts in human geography from Mount Allison University and I’m close to finishing my master’s degree in sociology at the University of Alberta. I’ve spent the past two years studying migrant caregivers’ experiences of the Fort McMurray wildfire.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

After graduating from Mount Allison, I moved back home to Ottawa to work in the federal NDP call centre for the 2015 election. At the time, I believed the NDP were our best shot for defeating Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Of course, I was wrong and while I learned a lot, I haven’t worked directly in electoral politics since.

What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever done solely for money?

After the election, I was hired as the sole paid employee of a community land trust in rural New Brunswick. We placed easements [property use restrictions] on farm and forest lands throughout the province to prevent them from being bought up and clear-cut by corporate forestry companies like the Irvings. I definitely didn’t do it solely for the money (believe me) but it was still pretty weird.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it? 

My BIG break was when Naomi Klein followed me on Twitter! Just kidding. The fact that I’ve had a BIG break is news to me. As an organizer, the goal is never really to be individually recognized for your work but I suppose I’ve gotten a lot more attention for my climate activism since moving to Alberta. For myself personally, a recent big break was being part of a team that scaled the Ironworkers Memorial bridge in Vancouver, B.C to stage an aerial blockade in protest of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. After spending 36 hours on a bridge surrounded by dead birds and RCMP boats, you truly feel like you can do anything.

What would you say has been your most significant setback, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

I think organizing is rarely about having one big setback and more about riding a rollercoaster of constant ups and downs—for every victory, there’s always a new obstacle to overcome or a new fight to move onto. This is particularly the case with organizing around climate justice in a place like Alberta that is so intricately tied to the same industry the climate crisis demands we phase out. The most recent victory (the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to quash building permits for the Trans Mountain expansion project) only fueled the most recent setback: Rachel Notley’s decision to pull Alberta from the federal climate plan (and the rollercoaster continues). I bounce back by leaning on my fellow organizers and reminding myself that as long as those on the frontlines aren’t giving up, than neither can I.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

I don’t have much career advice, but one piece of life advice I always give is to never stop believing that a better world is possible.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Probably that I need a career at all—at least in the conventional sense of a paid occupation that you dedicate most of your life to.

I’m 25. I was born into the climate crisis and have spent my entire life watching the systemic failure of climate action. Because of this, I think it can be difficult for my generation to see the value in grinding ourselves to the ground working for the same system that’s responsible for destroying our futures. Capitalism won’t pay us to tear it down, so in a lot of ways, I think one of the most detrimental narratives (and we here it so often) is that we need to “do what we love.” If you can get paid to do what you love, that’s great. But we need to do what pays the bills and allows us to do the real (and often unpaid work) of building a better world.

Also, a few months ago, my mom told me to “work within the system” and run against Jason Kenney in his Calgary riding. That was also pretty bad career advice.

When you’re feeling low about your work, what’s the one thing you always do/watch/read/listen to bring yourself back up again?

As one can imagine, organizing around climate change can get bleak af. I’d say never underestimate the power of a really great dog video. That, and spending time with young people. Kids these days are so incredibly rad and give me so much hope for the future.

Who is your favourite person to follow on social media from your industry? What do you love about their social feeds?

I don’t know if I’d say any of them are in my “industry” but on Twitter: Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia), Chelsea Vowel (@apihtawikosisan) and Kanahus Manuel (@KanahusFreedom). Both Harsha and Chelsea’s feeds offer critical perspectives on issues like migration, decolonization, and anti-racism. Honestly, most days, I learn more from their feeds than I do from grad school. Kanahus is an Indigenous land defender on unceded Secwepemc territory and a leader of the Tiny House Warriors. She provides constant updates from the frontlines and is a huge source of inspiration for me when I feel like giving up.

I also listen to both the Sandy and Nora podcast and the Alberta Advantage podcast. They offer critical commentary and organizing advice on political issues from migration to city planning, and the Alberta Advantage provides incredibly educational analysis on Alberta politics from a leftist perspective.

How would you describe your industry in terms of representation and inclusivity?

The environmental movement has a long problematic history of centering the voices, experiences, and demands of white people and unfortunately, a lot of this is still true today. But the climate justice movement is about recognizing that forces like colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy are at the root of climate change and so the issue can’t be addressed without dismantling these same structures. Because of this, the climate justice movement is about more than just representation and inclusivity for Indigenous peoples and POCs, it’s about following their leadership entirely. I guess all I can say is that it’s a constant work in progress and we still have a lot of work to do.

 What’s the most pressing issue facing women in your industry right now? What would fix it?

Definitely depends what industry we’re talking about. Quite frankly, academia is still a cesspool of men taking credit for women’s ideas, work, and labour. The problem is particularly pronounced for young women and, especially, young women of colour. What would fix it is greater job security for all. Young and precariously-employed academics can rarely push back against the system out of fear of losing their already tenuous positions.

As for the climate movement, I’d say the most pressing issue we face on account of our gender identity (particularly in Alberta) is a lot of misogynistic and often violent backlash from various pro-industry groups and individuals. Similarly, this issue won’t be resolved without greater economic justice. While it’s hard to have empathy for people who say you deserve to die, I try to remember that this type of vitriolic hate stems from people being terrified of losing their jobs and their ability to support their families. This outrage won’t be fixed without creating a just transition for all workers—one that provides job security, redistributes wealth, and casts a generous social safety net.

 Do you think you earn a similar wage as your male counterparts in your industry?

I don’t earn a wage for organizing but I do earn a similar wage to my male counterparts for academic work.

Have you ever disclosed your salary to a colleague in the name of transparency? Why or why not

Yes I have. I think it’s so important to push back against the idea that it’s rude or inappropriate to disclose income. The secrecy around wages is intended to keep all us workers down.

Looking to the future, what excites you the most about your career?

I get to spend every day fighting alongside people who believe that a better world is possible and are willing to do whatever it takes to build it. There’s nothing more energizing or exciting than that.

What worries you the most about your career?

When organizers fail to channel people’s rage towards the collective good, it can manifest in the worst of ways. We’re already seeing this in the rise of neo-Nazi groups, anti-immigration sentiment, and far-right protectionism both across Canada and around the world. I’m worried every day of the direction we’re heading in and how these divisions will be magnified by climate change. But at the end of the day, I’m not worried about people’s ability to rise up and resist, and that’s what matters.

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