Iolanthe Mae Phillips (she/her) has found plenty of roadblocks on her way to being someone willing to act for nature. But she is set on creating change on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land with ACF Canberra, and is bringing everyone along with her.

Recent climate and social justice protests have shown young people are ready and willing to act. But it’s not always as simple as painting a banner and taking to the streets.

“As someone who has always struggled with academia, I’ve definitely felt alienated from the environment movement,” says Iolanthe.

“For a long time, I felt there was nothing I could do. I felt I wasn’t smart or powerful enough to make a difference.”

"As someone who struggled with academia, I’ve definitely felt alienated from the environment movement."

Many of us at times feel like we are not capable enough, or the right person, to create change. But for young people who are not university students, this anxiety can be far worse.

“Our society puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of university education. Young people who aren’t studying may not be seen as smart or as valuable,” says Iolanthe.

“This is especially a problem for disadvantaged youth who don’t have the same access to good education as their wealthier peers, this could include young people [with varied abilities] or health conditions that impact their learning, and those who have insecure housing, difficult home lives or a caring role”.

Iolanthe believes we must do better to create more inclusive spaces for anyone who wants to participate in the environment movement.

Iolanthe poses with some chooksPhoto: courtesy of Iolanthe 

It was her strong sense of justice and equity that drew her to becoming a member of ACF Canberra, and the mentoring Iolanthe receives from her group leader, Sarah Reid, has helped her find place and purpose at ACF, and in the wider environment movement.

“Sarah always makes sure everyone has a voice. She has always believed in me and my ideas and talks me up to others. The fact I am young, inexperienced and not university educated was never an issue.”

Sarah, who is also an ACF Councillor, thinks that community groups are effective places for people from all backgrounds to come together.

“I love the people power that community groups enable. Together we are stronger than the sum of our parts, and let me tell you, our parts are strong! We bring different skills, connections, approaches and experience and it is all valuable,” says Sarah.

One of Iolanthe’s ideas, as part of ACF Canberra, has been amplifying First Nations knowledge of land management.

“After seeing Dhani Gilbert speak at the Women’s Climate Congress networking breakfast, I realised the best way for our group to learn is to hear from Indigenous people themselves,” says Iolanthe.

“For a long time, Indigenous people and people of colour in general have been left out of the environmental movement … acknowledging this is a big step in improving environmental racism. This means educating ourselves and others on the environmental movement’s past — and constantly looking for ways to improve.”

“All environmental movements must learn from First Nations people and include their knowledge, while giving credit, being respectful and including them in all that we do.”

"We must create inclusive spaces for anyone who wants to participate in the environment movement."

A sense of place

Iolanthe’s personal experience of feeling alienated by the environmental movement in the past, drives her to listen and act with empathy, while her nurturing spirit extends to advocating for nature itself.

Spending time in her local environment is deeply personal, and Mount Ainslie is a particularly meaningful place.

I lived below the mountain for many years, next to my neighbour who eventually became my first boyfriend. Our first dates involved walking my dog there. Recently, his mother and I spread some of his ashes among the gum trees there,” she says.

The soft scent of gum-tree bark that encompasses Mount Ainslie, and the guttural croaks and splashing of ducks in wetlands, provide a sense of serenity and opportunity for reflection.

These places, and an urgent desire to care for them, led Iolanthe on her path to becoming an environmental activist — not only for the sake of the ecosystems, endangered animals, and her connection to them, but to help ease the emotional turmoil that the climate crisis can generate. 

“I grew up adoring animals and getting along with them better than humans, and as soon as I learned animals and their habitats were in danger, I felt we as humans owed it to earth to fix our mistakes.”

Equity, diversity, justice and inclusion are not external to the environmental movement. ACF is working towards creating safer spaces for all who love nature. Community group members can now take part in new training modules that urge us all to challenge our assumptions through open discussions.

Iolanthe has recently moved up to Yugambeh land (Gold Coast). She continues to support ACF Canberra and other groups.

Iolanthe and her group leader Sarah Reid Iolanthe and her group leader Sarah Reid. Photo: courtesy of Iolanthe.

Read more stories about the people who make ACF Community powerful.

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Header photo: Bette Devine

Bridget Gibbs

ACF Story Coach Fellow