Gemma Tillack

Gemma Tillack

Gemma was born in Melbourne in 1981.  When she was 5, her family moved to Townsville where she lived until she was 21.  Gemma is the youngest of five children, and comes from a strong Irish Catholic family.  The family attended Mass every Sunday and all the children attended Catholic Schools throughout primary and high school.

Gemma describes herself today as having spiritual values which are based on the connectedness of everything, although she says she is still influenced by Catholic values – “My parents are very giving, very community based, they welcome newcomers into the community and we were all taught the basic rules of the church and how to be a good person.”

Gemma’s mother is a professional potter, with a successful business based from home.  Her mother was probably the greater influence on her, as her father travelled a lot for his business.   The family lived on a river, where Gemma spent a lot of her time, and the family took annual holidays exploring different parts of Australia

Gemma’s undergraduate degree in Environmental Science was undertaken at James Cook University, where she describes herself as a “herpetology nut”, particularly enjoying the field trips examining snakes and reptiles.

At 21 Gemma moved to Kuranda, staying there six months, working at cafés within wildlife parks.  Then she started travelling around Australia where she started to become involved in environmental campaigning.   The extract below explains how Gemma became involved in the Wilderness Society in Tasmania.

Gemma developed real expertise and skill in street selling of TWS memberships.  She then travelled on to Western Australia over a number of months supporting herself on the commissions from street selling.  Her experiences in this area are fascinating, as is her courage in fronting up to complete strangers in unfamiliar streets.   I asked whether it was unusual for young environmentalists to enter the movement through fundraising and street selling.

In 2004, Gemma went on to set up fund raising teams in Cairns and in Townsville, as her first paid (ie non-commission) job in the environment movement.  She put up posters and recruited friends and others to promote TWS   This was the training ground for Gemma’s subsequent work in building campaigning teams.

Gemma was then asked to open a Launceston TWS election campaign centre for the 2004 election and then after another few months was asked to apply for the Community Campaigner position for TWS in Tasmania.  This was grass roots campaign work – doing stalls and festivals to build community opposition to the Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.  She was part of a trailer that travelled around Tasmania giving information about the pulp mill and other forestry related issues.

Her first leadership role was opening and developing the anti pulp mill campaign centre in Launceston, pulling people together to participate in rallies against the pulp mill.  I asked Gemma about her particular skills  in community campaigning.

I’m a good organiser,  I can multitask.  I have good relationships with people.  People see me as a friend, someone they can talk to as well as someone who is working for a campaign.  The work is protecting the environment, but you need to also find ways to make it enjoyable and develop actions that people can get behind.

I asked Gemma whether she sees her roles and skills as being different from the those of men in the environment movement.

I think that male domination is real and it’s there – but it’s because the men have been there for so long, there hasn’t really been the transition to the next generation.   I think the environment movement would benefit from more women in those senior executive roles, just to help them work together better.  There’s definite benefits to getting women into those Director roles.

I don’t know if it is an ego thing, but there seem to be decisions being made [in the environment movement] on the basis of ego.  The male leaders don’t realise that if they all worked together it would be much better.  There are opportunities coming for women to be more in the senior positions – with social media, Get Up and other organisations – there is a new, more dynamic space that women can work effectively in.

I asked Gemma why women wouldn’t become involved in leadership roles.

One thing I’ve noticed is that you do need to be tough, make serious decisions, and unless you know how to deal with that stress and pressure, it can really change you and it can make you harsh.  When I’ve had a leadership position, and I’ve been managing people higher than me, you do need to take a harsh line, you need to take up some of the qualities that aren’t as enjoyable.  I’m still learning, noticing the different styles I take on different days.  I know the moments when I need to do that, and the moments when people need to be emotionally intelligent.  It’s not for every woman – you need to be comfortable in that space.

But I think it’s great and good fun and more women should do it. 

Listen to the extract below for more from Gemma about women and leadership in the international arena.

Gemma went on to work with Peg Putt as a Forests and Climate Campaigner in the lead up to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009,  attending UN meetings with Peg, Sean Cadman and Virginia Young.   Gemma was the link between the more senior campaigners and the  grass roots campaigners – Indigenous and young people for example.  Gemma would organise for on the spot campaigns to support changes being promoted by environmentalists in the UN negotiations.

Later in 2009, Gemma finished her work with TWS and went to Indonesia on holiday. Gemma has a great ability to make friends and find and participate in environmental campaigns wherever she goes, and she did this in Indonesia– also using the NGO networks she had developed through her UN work.

In 2010, Gemma worked for 5 months for Greenpeace in Canberra, then was offered an opportunity to work in support of the NGO environment movements contribution to the Tasmanian negotiations on an intergovernmental agreement on forests.  Since then her work has involved supporting TWS, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Environment Tasmania as Forest Process Coordinator, and this position will continue until there is legislative protection for the forests in Tasmania through an agreement.

It was difficult to come back, it seemed a bit like I wasn’t moving forward.  But people had been working really, really hard, and were near burn out, and said that if I could come back that would be really helpful.  I’d been here [in Tasmania] for a long time, I knew the people and organisations, I felt like I did have a lot more experience that I could put into effect in the negotiations.  I don’t regret it at all, but it was a very hard decision to make.

I asked Gemma about why she tended to gravitate towards leadership roles.  In her answer Gemma describes her leadership in terms of “shaping” campaigns, rather than directing or managing.

Sean Cadman has been a formal mentor for Gemma – “ he has put a lot of personal effort into my development.  Made sure I was involved in key training programs, and supported me for jobs.” Virginia Young and Alex Marr have also helped, supported and taught Gemma about environmental campaigning.

Other important role models for Gemma include Louise Crossley, Peg Putt, Geoff Law and Margaret Blakers and she admires fellow young Tasmanian campaigner Hannah Aulby (see profile in this blog). Christine Milne is the person Gemma respects the most in the Australian political system – her strength and perseverance, and the fact that she works from the Tasmanian to the international level.     Gemma has also worked with young women across the world, and admires many of the African and Latin American women she has met.

Gemma would like to continue to be a shaper, to be active in the environment movement – she sees herself as perhaps doing more with developing countries and climate change.  She would also like to end up having a Tasmania bush block in her life, although not necessarily as a permanent home.  I asked Gemma whether she saw having children as being an important part of her future.

I haven’t seen myself as a mum, or a young mum to date.  I would find it hard to make that decision, because I wouldn’t be able to reach my potential in other ways.

I see myself being an active campaigner or someone who is working on creating change across the planet, as opposed to someone who is settled and putting energy into kids and family and I know that if I were to have kids, I’d want to put all my energy into them.

I know now that if I wake up and find something restricts me from doing what I need to be doing, I find that challenging.  If something comes up in South America that I want to do, I want to go there and do that.  I also don’t have confidence that my child would be happy in the world we’re living in.  I have a lot of nieces and nephews and godchildren in my life.

I’m at a stage where children are not a priority for me, and I’m happy to run the risk that it won’t happen, because I love what I do now.

I want to keep contributing.

Gemma’s story shows how she has learned to lead by working alongside and emulating some very experienced environmentalists, both in Australia and overseas.  Gemma is also the first interviewee who has a background in street selling for an environment organisation and I was fascinated by the courage it takes to “sell” the environment to uninvolved and generally disinterested passers-by.  These experiences have clearly been a very useful base for Gemma’s subsequent community campaigning.  

Comments very welcome.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
This entry was posted in Tillack, Gemma, Women leaders in the environment movement. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Gemma Tillack

  1. Jacinta says:

    Hi, I am one of Gem’s big sisters…. Gemma is so passionate about environment and community partnership. She is a great example of somebody who lives her life according to her value system. Even as a child Gemma had a very strong ability to go her own way. I am tremendously proud that Gemma is an advocate for women in leadership roles and thank you Jane for shining a light on this special soul in your blog.
    Jacinta Tillack, Vic.

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