Brigid Dowsett

Photo from The Weekly Times Online

Brigid was born in Bromley, Kent in early 1944, during a serious air-raid towards the end of World War 2.    Her father was in the diplomatic service, and her parents’ marriage was not always stable, so Brigid moved school 12 times during her childhood and teens. Her parents experimented and practiced both Catholicism and Sufism via Oupensky and Gurdjieff – but much of Brigid’s schooling was at Catholic boarding schools.

It sounds like the youthful Brigid was something of a handful, rebelling against her middle class English background where she couldn’t easily express herself, and becoming, as she describes it “rebellious and slightly subversive”.  But Brigid says “the nuns were a big influence on me.”  Listen to more below:

Brigid’s last year of schooling was in New York (1960-1961) where she became involved with left wing causes, going on May Day rallies, opposing American activities in South and Central America and she once, admiringly, watched President Kennedy drive by in an open motorcade.

Brigid then went to art school back in the UK, got secretarial qualifications, worked for a while, and then came to Australia in 1965.  She met Lenonard, her Australian husband-to-be, returned to England and married him, and then the couple settled back in Australia in 1970, and “got on with having a family”.  She has three children, and now a number of young grandchildren.

Brigid describes her “lightbulb” environmental moment coming when she heard about the Franklin campaign.  She describes her first environmental experiences in the early and mid 1980s in the extract below.  Brigid was involved in supporting Milo Dunphy’s election campaign for the federal seat of Bennelong in 1983, standing against John Howard, and then for the NSW Upper House in 1988.

After her involvement in these election campaigns, Brigid then became a volunteer with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) then housed in The Rocks, and was given what she describes as “a certain amount of leeway” to do work on waste issues and forest campaigns.  Brigid eventually got a paid position as part of a team that John Cameron and I coordinated writing Recovering Ground  – Brigid described it as “an excellent collaboration, the volunteers were empowered to a certain extent, and people’s strengths were drawn upon.”  There was further work opportunity after that as a paid campaigner in the Natural Resources team area.

Like many other women I’ve interviewed so far, Brigid tended to enter into leadership positions by seeing that there was a gap that needed to be filled, or important work that wasn’t being done.  She says:

There are different ways that people define leadership.  For me it was never assuming a leadership mantle, it was more being ready and willing to take on responsibility at a certain level and make some decisions about the way I felt things should be managed, or volunteer to do something that no one else was available to do.  There was no sense of it being a burden, just beavering away.

After her paid position at ACF finished, Brigid worked on a project funded by Sydney Water that involved coordination between different environment groups (1991-93), and then moved into Lane Cove Bush Regenerators Cooperative (the first not-for-profit bush regeneration group) as a professional bush regenerator.  From her initial trainee position, she became a supervisor and then eventually a Director of the Cooperative – responsible for tendering, financing and governance.  This sort of leadership involves more management– which Brigid describes as “separating yourself from her normal cohort”, taking on more responsibility, and therefore attracting criticism at times.  One of the downsides of management for Brigid has been the way that it has led to changed relationships with her friends and colleagues in the Cooperative and elsewhere.

In 1993 Brigid became an ACF Councillor, replacing Jack Mundey,  a position she held for seven years. She was encouraged to do this by a range of people including Milo Dunphy.  Brigid saw her role on Council as being to advocate for the NSW members, and for the “browner” (waste management etc) issues.  Towards the end of her time on Council this became somewhat frustrating.

Up to [the point of going on Council] I’d been working with teams of people who were all on the same page.  What was interesting about being on Council was realising that you had to compete with everyone else’s interests – and some of the others were very good advocates.  It was very challenging.

Brigid describes some of her experiences on ACF Council, how she approached the 3 day Council meetings, and how she worked behind the scenes to promote issues.

At the same time Brigid was also active at the local level.  She was  President of the Ryde Hunters Hill Flora and Fauna Preservation Society (which originally won the fight to protect the Field of Mars) from 1990 – 1996 (and remains Vice President).  She took the position on rather reluctantly but found that she worked well with the group which was achieving outcomes at a very local level.

Brigid has represented ACF on Landcare Australia Ltd (LAL) since 1994.   LAL is the corporate sponsorship and awareness side of the funded Landcare movement.  She was elected to the governing Council of Nature Conservation Council of NSW for a number of years.  She has also represented the NSW peak environment non government organisations on the Sydney Water Corporate Customer Council  since the early 1990s.  This position in particular has had its challenges:

You have to be aware of not becoming captured by the corporate bodies, but it is fascinating when you’re on something like this for long enough.  It gives you insight into the corporate culture and enables you to give feedback about environmental concerns and steer the Council to a more honest view of what is happening.

There have been impacts on Brigid’s family as a result of her environmental activism.  She says:

There’s no doubt that when someone who is fairly pivotal and central to a group gets drawn into something with such a level of involvement and passion as the environmental cause, there is a sense that other people can feel neglected or abandoned even, and that they’re less important in your life and all of that has to be worked through.  That’s part of the price you pay – not just having insults hurled at you at public meetings!

Brigid admires Christine Milne as someone who is always “on message”, and well informed.  I asked her about how she saw the opportunities for women leaders in the environment movement today.

Women who set out to become leaders in the environment movement have to be very determined to do it.  There is a sense that it is harder to break in – possibly not so much now for the younger women.

I’m grateful to the environment movement because it gave me opportunities to come in as a paid worker, and develop campaign skills. But women of my generation have had to find certain ways of working that aren’t confrontational, that allow us to be heard, and take on certain roles – there’s not any particular encouragement.  I think men are perfectly happy to run the world, without recognising that it is women who are actually making it happen!

In the past I suppose it was the structure of the environment movement that  was the men that were  “doing” and the women that were “enabling”.  I don’t think it’s all that different now – most of the voices in the environment movement are still male (though not so much in the Greens party.)

What the reason for that is I’m not sure.  Women came in hoping and believing that the environment movement was going to be different – less hierarchical – but in the end it’s really no different from the way the rest of society functions.

Brigid describes leaving Europe and her family as a huge rift in her life.  But finding her place in the Australian environment movement  – in which she describes her working and volunteering as “overall a really happy experience”  – has been an important part of feeling at home, settled and contributing.

Brigid’s profile is that of a woman moving into active leadership roles at local, state and national levels, after some years of focusing on home-making and parenthood.  This is another profile showing the changes in leadership focus as life unwinds, which seems very different from the conventional expectation that leadership will have a clear and predictable trajectory. 

Comments please!


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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