refusing to be in a film with Holly Branson- why:
The other day we got invited last minute to an event by Big Change, a group we got connected to through our funders. The event was a filmed ‘Big Education Conversation’ with George the Poet and Holly Branson. We said yes without giving it much thought because we didn’t read the email properly :p we went along to the day to see what was going down. We had some cool conversations but refused to be in the video. Everyone at Big Change wanted to engage in conversation and listened to our concerns about being in the video although they were keen on persuading us. We said we would talk to the team and work out a plan.
Many things were important in our decision to not take part- from youth co-option to the impossibility of radical change within capitalism and the evils of wealth inequality- you can read some of our thoughts on these in the email copied below!
If we're being fancy we'd say we didn't wanna work with them because we want to challenge the NGO industrial complex (good explainer of this here) - because in the words of Ella Baker:
“I’m very much afraid of this ‘Foundation Complex.’ We’re getting praise from places that worry me.”
If we're being dramatic we'd say we didn't want to work with them because we refuse to be complicit in out our dehumanisation.
If we're being angry we'd say we didn't wanna work with them because fuck Virgin and big business.
We wanted to explain why we refused- because these conversations are really important, because we need to actively challenge these issues and because all the people we met were really willing to engage in conversation and that's really cool and important opportunity to maybe shift some people's views.
This is the email we sent over to them with our thoughts:
“Hi Caireen and the others at Big Change,
Was great to meet you all yesterday. We appreciate the time that was put into organising the day :0) Thought we should catch you up on our feelings about the video as promised.
Radical Restart met as a team yesterday to discuss the video and our thoughts on consent for it- and unanimously came to the decision to say no to being in the video. But we wanted to explain more clearly why to you all, because we recognise that this makes your lives more tricky, because we feel like it's important to any Big Education Conversation, and because we want to continue to talk across these differences of opinion rather than just pull out and disappear. We hope you take the time to read this and that it
provides some insight into our feelings. Feel free to forward to anyone in the team/from the
day who would like to read :0)
We don’t feel comfortable being in this video because we feel the way Big Change approaches change doesn’t align with what we are trying to put out into the world. For sure we all have some similar ideas, and should keep talking- but the way you guys are comfortable with big business for example is too much of a difference in ideology for us to want to appear in a promotion video for the BEC campaign. We come to the conversations about school from the starting point that we live in a violent system that is heading in a suicidal direction- thinking about global inequality, patriarchy, racism etc , and the climate crisis as a huge deadline which is going to massively exacerbate all inequality and violence. We talk about schooling because we see it as a key cog in the machine that allows things to continue as they are/ reduces the chance of change - stopping young people from challenging how things are and working together with their communities to bring the transformative changes that we so desperately need. So in conversations about school we are wanting to bring this understanding - the need for radical and urgent action.
From this position you can see why it feels a bit hypocritical to be in a promotion video for a campaign launched by an organisation that affiliates so closely with the Virgin conglomerate. Just since the pandemic, Richard Branson has been accused of multiple outrageous practises and abuses of power. For example, in March 2020, thousands of Virgin Atlantic staff were told to take 8 weeks unpaid leave, while the multibillionaire demanded a £8.5 billion bailout from the government, saving on losses to his personal shares. Virgin money giving was also accused of taking a cut of donations to the NHS made during the 5 for 5k challenge, while Virgin Healthcare was labelled ‘parasitic’, accused of fragmenting the NHS for private profit. Living on his private island, Branson has paid no personal income tax for 14 years, despite being the 312th richest person in the world, and continues to sue small businesses and charities, including a non-profit, volunteer run education charity Las Virgines, for use of the name ‘virgin’. We feel that any organisation which claims to stand for positive societal change, but fails to see the systemic underpinnings of global injustices upheld by families such as the Bransons are not only disingenuous, but part of the problem. This isn't to say we don't want to be in conversation with y’all, just that we don't want to actively support pieces of work that seem to ignore something that we see as so fundamental to how the world needs to change. It's important to note that this isn't just a theoretical conversation - people around the world are dying and many more continue to do so every day that we don't hold those at the top to account, and come together to challenge these oppressive systems.
We hear the frustration you guys must be feeling, as we agreed to the event but then pulled out- but we feel that the real conversations we had yesterday were valuable. The success of the day should not be judged in capitalistic terms, valuing ‘productivity’ of the time and the output of video content, but rather exchange of ideas and human connection. Our overriding concern is the hours of conversation that happen amongst people with good intentions that never lead to actual change because the biggest questions aren’t asked of each other, and people don’t want to get uncomfortable. I realise that we didn’t say all of this on the day- but it is hard when you are invited to an event you don’t understand at the start, to then show up and derail the good conversations they are trying to have, especially because none of this is about attacking individual people.
If you are wondering why we came along to the session when we knew that for example Holly was going to be there, and that we’re skeptical of the ways Big Change is working, then the answer is that we were just a bit unorganised and confused. I (meg) saw the email asking us urgently whether we could come to an event to have a BEC with George and some young people and Holly (who’s name I didn’t immediately connect with who she is). I said yes without thinking too much because it was urgent and sounded cool, and then was extremely busy over the next 3 days and the only headspace I had for it was to confirm who was coming because you guys needed to know! We sat down on Sunday evening as a team to discuss how we wanted to approach the day and decided we wanted to come along to meet other young activists, and have co-creative discussions though we were hesitant on consenting to the promotional video because we didn't really know what our voices would be edited into saying, the purpose of the film or the format of the event. Rather than cancel last minute we thought we should show up and have a chat. It might have been considerate to share our concerns with you before the day but also we felt that we had some important things we wanted to say, and if you guys really want BECs then you would want our thoughts! But we realised through the day that this wasn't really what the event was about and that we felt really uncomfortable with how things stood- and you know the rest! So, apologies for our lack of clarity, but also we think this was a pretty human response of us and that us being unorganised isn't the biggest conversation to be having- arguably it is a lot more annoying that Virgin owns an airline (when the U.N. climate report and subsequent reports have warned us that global carbon pollution must be cut in half in the next 10 years for us to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to our planet, and the International Organisation on Migration estimates that up to 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050) than that we all spent a morning discussing whether or not me and Joe wanted to be in this video! Not trying to say that we shouldn’t have made different choices, but that to us it doesn't feel like the greatest issue in the situation.
A last point we wanted to make is about the idea of consent and youth co-option. We’ve been talking about consent a lot recently in our work and how it is a radical concept outside of just sexual relationships. In school for example, the idea that consent could be used for young people having more autonomy over their learning. We don’t see consent as a laying out of specific options and asking for a yes/no answer- we see consent as an active negotiation, on equal terms, fully informed and free of pressures or threat of consequence. We understand the fact you guys were all busy and rushing for the event to happen- but it would have been much cooler for us to have been involved in conversations around the consent forms and to be fully informed around the situation rather than handed a page of writing and asked to sign! It feels like it was just a formality so you guys could use us for your video, rather than an opportunity to dialogue about what we all needed and wanted from the event- if me and Joe hadn’t kicked up a bit of a fuss you would have just gotten us to sign and in our books that isn’t really consent. This comes as part of a bigger conversation around coercion where young people are included in events for their voices and ideas without being on equal footing as the other adult attendees- for example not being paid or included in decision making. Final point- I wonder how many times George or Holly got congratulated on being articulate after the conversation- I know we heard it from almost every adult in the room.
I hope this made sense or resonated with some of you, and if you have any questions, comments or thoughts please get back to us- an invitation to get a bit uncomfortable and challenge all our ideas :0) We didn’t intend to be annoying, and actually it feels really important for us to address this situation- how can you be talking about young people’s futures if you work alongside massive polluting corporations that are driving us towards global collapse? I think that’s what we feel the need to say for now!
Thanks, and here’s to some big change,
Meg, Joe and the RR team”
So far they replied saying thanks and that they want more time to get back to us - will update when they say more!!