Jenny was born in Wollongong NSW on 6 April 1978, and she has 2 older brothers. Jenny’s family was strongly Catholic – they went to Mass every week, and all of Jenny’s schooling was at Catholic schools in Wollongong. Jenny says she now has no allegiance to any religion, although she says she carries a lot of the Catholic values into her life today.
Her father moved out to Australia from Germany and met her mother in Western NSW, and they moved to the South Coast to raise their family. Both her parents were teachers. Jenny says:
It was a beautiful family. I had a great upbringing. My parents made me feel confident, proud in what I do, and gave me the freedom to choose to become a volunteer in the environment movement for the last 13 years of my life.
Jenny studied sociology at the University of Wollongong, completing a Bachelor of Arts (one of her lecturers and tutors was earlier interviewee Sharon Beder who Jenny says had a big influence on her thinking).
The Wollongong Youth Centre, and its youth worker Dave Curley, empowered Jenny and her friends to start thinking and acting in protection of the environment whilst in their teens. Then at University, Jenny became involved with The Wilderness Society, particularly in the Hinchinbrook campaign, the Jabiluka campaign and the protection of the South East forests of NSW
In the extract below Jenny describes these early days of her environmental activism.
Jenny has been in a long-term relationship with Adam Burling since she was 17, and both are actively involved in the environment movement. Adam is currently a staffer for Greens Senator Bob Brown.
Adam and Jenny moved to Tasmania when Jenny was 20. In Tasmania Jenny’s concern for the environment became even stronger, particularly when she visited the old forests and saw the threats to their integrity.
All the way through my University degree, I thought I’d be a youth worker. But I started to make the connections between Indigenous and environment issues, especially through the Jabiluka campaign, and I realised how people’s lives are connected with the environment, and that it’s a really important thing to be able to defend. In conversations with others from The Wilderness Society, especially Kevin Parker, I realised that this was a way forward.
In Tasmania, Jenny started working as an education officer for The Wilderness Society. She could see the need for environmental education materials, and began a teacher’s degree. But she was living in the Huon Valley, and could see the constant threats to the forests in her local area. She founded an Environment Centre in Huonville ten years ago, which has been the centre of her activism since then.
The Huon Valley Environment Centre has become a great campaigning and activist centre, and Jenny has stayed as its Treasurer and media spokesperson all that time. Their first blockade came about a year after the establishment of the Centre, and the Centre has grown to include a small shop and gallery.
Jenny was 24 when she had her first child Ruby (now 8 years old) and she also now has 3 year old Finn. Jenny and her family live and work within a closely-knit community of people who support the work of the Environment Centre through actions, fund-raising, and art exhibitions.
There is a core group of about 10 people but Jenny is the only person working for the Centre every day. The Huon Valley group is also associated with the Still Wild Still Threatened group, the members of which live in, and focus their environmental actions on the protection of the neighbouring Derwent Valley.
I asked Jenny whether she was considered to be a young mother. Her answers were really interesting, as she talked about herself and other young women activists and their approaches to parenthood. Jenny went on to talk about how she combines her activism with motherhood.
Jenny describes Adam as providing “hard core support” to her activism. She describes her home and family as “blessed”, the family own a property in a nature reserve and have a straw bale house. Jenny says of Adam:
We definitely came to activism together. He was someone who taught me so much about activism in the beginning and inspired what I was doing, and then coming to Tasmania together and working together to set up the Environment Centre and the forest campaign … He’s an enormous support. He’s great.
Jenny and Adam have not felt comfortable about sending their children to the local school. Huonville is a timber town, and other “alternative” families who sent their children to the school felt that the children were bullied. Jenny and Adam are very happy with the Steiner school in a nearby town, but the fees that are required for private education may mean that Jenny has to take on paid work at some stage in the future.
Jenny’s family has given her huge support for her forest campaign role, although some members have concerns about her lack of paid employment.
But I feel like I work 30 hour weeks. I just don’t get paid. I think ‘well, if I was a nun, you probably wouldn’t be saying that to me.’ It’s probably because I’m working for the earth and not Jesus.
Until recently Jenny had a very small paid job acting as a courier for an advertising company, but now has no independent source of income. She feels frustrated that she can’t get paid work locally in the environment movement.
Sometimes I ask myself why am I holding on to this unpaid position in the Huon, but for me, when it comes to the crux of it, it’s because of the forests. I spend so much time in the forests, and if I walked away from the Environment Centre, I’m not confident that someone would step into my role.
Jenny also talked about the benefits of living in a rural area, with organic food options, a supportive environmental community and with beautiful forests at the doorstep, versus the isolation that she sometimes feels in Huonville.
“Despair and empowerment” workshops with John Seed and Starhawke from the United States have reinforced Jenny’s connection with the forests. Although she’s not sure how she would function within a structured work environment Jenny is preparing herself for when the children are both at school when her employment options might expand.
Jenny says she’s had no training in leadership, but has worked hard to learn from other more experienced activists, including John Seed from the Rainforest Information Centre, Geoff Law (when he was with The Wilderness Society in Tasmania), Greens Senators Christine and Bob Brown, Pegg Putt and Kim Booth, (local Greens MPs). She admires their knowledge and will power and their ability to communicate.
The on-ground activists that Jenny interacts with in the forests also inspire her, and regular skills sharing sessions are organised during which Jenny runs media workshops. Jenny takes every opportunity to learn from visitors to the area – 3 activists from the Sea Shepherd ship stayed with the family for 6 weeks which she found a very valuable learning experience.
I asked Jenny about her experiences of being a leader – particularly in the unusual circumstances of often needing to work with radical groups and individuals who don’t necessarily respect authority, or even experienced organisations. In the extract below Jenny talks about her leadership style, and how it works for her.
There’s a lot more men in leadership roles. We do find that activists come in from Melbourne and Sydney and say how male dominated the activist movement is here in Tasmania. But we don’t see that as much. At our grass roots level we find the women and men treat each other quite respectfully.
It’s disappointing when strong women leaders leave their roles, and their replacements are not such strong advocates. I see the current forest negotiations as pretty much a boys club. When I said this to them, it became clear that the men involved hadn’t actually realised that there were no women in the negotiations. It would have been good to have had a woman in the negotiations at the beginning, particularly a woman with a lot of environmental movement experience.
Jenny herself has mentored Ula Majewski who became a media spokesperson for the Still Wild Still Threatened group. The mentoring focused on building Ulla’s skills and confidence in working with the media, and it was very satisfying for Jenny to see Ulla take on this role. She comments that women might not want to become involved in the environment movement because they find the media intimidating and the conflict with industry and government off putting.
Jenny also commented that some of the women activists that she is in contact with have become very depressed by all the emerging information about climate change, and this illness prevents them from taking a more active role in the movement. Jenny herself feels that the lack of clear cut “wins” resulting from her group’s work can be dispiriting.
But Jenny’s family is a very strong support for her, and she chooses to celebrate a different type of success.
“We are standing up and saying ‘no’. I go back to the inspirational movements of history, women, black people in America; now we have to fight for the earth. All of us doing something together, that’s what pushes me through.”
Jenny has such a fascinating and challenging life, working within the forests, but with her activism directed to the very different worlds of industry and government. The ways that Jenny and her partner have chosen to share their child-rearing and activism is also interesting to examine along with the paths chosen by other interviewees raising families and working as leaders in the environment movement.