Disabled people can be champions for community and environmental change and active citizenship brings personal growth.
Author: Fran Halsall
Fran Halsall shares her own experience of environmental activism, lifting her out of depression; how she became active in the Sheffield Tree Campaign and the value of belonging to a wider community of people advocating for nature.
Fran Halsall spoke at the It's Our Community event organised by the Centre, in partnership with the Socialist Health Association and Opus Independents. The event is part of the Centre's work to outline a detailed progressive vision for social care in Sheffield alongside disability leaders in the city.
It is not an overstatement to say that my affinity with trees and plants has saved my mental health and helped me regain some of my fitness. I am affected by a collection of chronic illnesses that, in combination with multiple sclerosis, impacts on my energy levels and causes me varying levels of pain and brain fog.
When I first became involved in the Sheffield street tree campaign at the beginning of 2017 I was at a particularly low ebb. I had not worked for two years and I was profoundly depressed. I convinced myself that I no longer had anything to give and had become socially isolated. This was pre-diagnosis of MS and I had essentially given up on finding answers. Yet my outrage at the ecological vandalism on my door step – a whole street's worth of trees was felled within 2 minutes walking distance with no community consultation – had a profoundly motivating effect. It punched through the walls I had built around myself.
When you feel like you have little left to lose it is wonderfully liberating. At first I became a 'keyboard warrior', using my training as a landscape architect to help address some of the wilder claims and counterclaims made by both the Council and campaigners. It soon became apparent that this was not enough. In February 2017 I found myself on Chippinghouse Road, whilst in the middle of a relapse affecting my right side, trying to resist the efforts of the local Police Inspector to move me out of the tree felling zones. I was there 3 days out of 5 that week and in the chaos new alliances were formed.
For many months I continued to stand peacefully under trees and was politeness itself to the arbs asking me to move on. Because I talk the language of trees we shared common ground. My stubborn refusal to move, saved dozens of trees, most of which are still standing. No matter how small I had come to feel in previous years, I was now making a positive difference in the world and my horizons broadened.
The situation became more serious when felling tactics changed. Entering a 'work zone' would have meant being roughly handled by security before even getting near the tree. Had I had been successful it would have meant staying put for hours – not something I can do thanks to my bladder. If I had been arrested I feared for my health if locked up in a police cell for hours on end. Then there was the threat of being taken to court and having my assets taken away e.g. my home.
So I stayed well back from work zones and became a scout, watching for Amey trucks and prewarning those campaigners ready to scale barriers and put themselves in harm's way. This role was eventually brought to end by cold weather, because standing guard for hours at time brought on painful spasticity in my leg muscles. My activism once again became virtual; I became one of the many invisble, yet essential, behind the scenes coordinators.
As you know, the Sheffield street campaign is regarded as a highly successful community action. We may have lost upwards of 5,500 trees but we also forced the development of a Street Tree Partnership Working Strategy that will guide the management of the city's remaining street trees. A bittersweet success.
Because I took care to found my criticisms in fact and consistently refer back to national policy and best practice guidelines, I have built a useful legacy. I may be an uncompromising activist but one who is still considered reasonable enough to work with the Local Authority on various projects. This position has been cemented by the work I have done through Sheffield Woodland Connections, the Tree Charter Branch that I co-created to support the Launch of the Tree Charter in autumn 2017.
The personal and professional relationships built through caring for Sheffield's natural assets has launched a new chapter of my life. My days are still challenging but my focus is clear. Now that I am consistently engaged in landscape improvement efforts and growing projects I have a sense of perspective in regard to my health circumstances that had gone missing during my period of social isolation.
Being absolutely honest about my health needs means that I receive so much support from colleagues and fellow activists who want me to continue doing what I can do. Despite the difficulties I experienced getting here, I now think I'm exactly where I need to be to best support both Sheffield's natural environment and other citizens' efforts to be involved. In my nature-focused activities I strive to create a safe space for discussing mental health and other concerns – sharing my own vulnerabilities has often been the catalyst for important conversations.
Find out more about Fran's work in Sheffield at:
The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.
Disability Activism for the Environment © Fran Halsall 2021.
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