Extinction Rebellion aims to promote mental wellbeing through regenerative culture. But despite this, many of the situations members find themselves in can be loud, stressful, and overwhelming. So, how does the movement provide space for neurodiversity? For Victor Smith, social anthropology student at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), it all started with samba. 

XR samba squads rally together at this year’s April Rebellion

I can’t always shout at XR actions. It’s a bit awkward at times, there’s this thing that the samba bands do that involves a short chant, and there I am banging away on my drum but not yelling with everyone else. It doesn’t bother me though, because I’m so proud of myself for just being there. There’s no way I’d have been confident enough to do this a few years, or even a few months, ago.

I am a transgender man with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. According to my mum, I started talking about feeling different as soon as I found my voice. But no one really listened to me, and for most of my childhood and early adulthood, I thought I was just a bad person. I still count myself as one of the lucky ones, because I’ve survived, my family’s continued to support me and I’ve been able to start building the life I want. I still suffer from anxiety and depression though, especially about dealing with uncertainty and people.

I came to London at the end of September to start my postgraduate degree at SOAS, a few weeks before the International Rebellion. As a social anthropology student, I know that climate damage is already harming marginalised people across the world and that our current governmental systems won’t protect our environment, so I felt like I needed to get involved. But how? Finding out ways to do it was relatively easy on the internet, but finding the confidence to actually start was hard when I didn’t know anyone in XR.


Rhythms of Resistance

As it turned out, my involvement happened in an indirect way. At about the same time, I joined Sambatage, SOAS’s samba band. There’s a tradition of samba-inspired protest drumming in London, started about twenty years ago by a movement called Rhythms of Resistance. Many bands use Rhythms of Resistance tunes, including Sambatage and the XR bands, although they’re not otherwise associated. Individuals can circulate between groups, which was what happened on 7th October, when me and a few friends joined an XR band in Trafalgar Square after meeting with them the day before.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. We’d travelled on the tube with our huge drums in very drum-shaped backpacks and spent the journey discussing what to do if we got arrested. I didn’t want to risk it; it’s an understatement to say that trans and disabled folk don’t usually have great experiences with the police. But I never felt pressured to do anything I didn’t want to, and when the band moved to block the road, everything just happened. I’d gone from not knowing how I could help to claiming space with the band as the Burning Earth site was built behind us.

In fact, my experiences in October and further XR actions have helped me challenge anxieties that were holding me back. No one called me stupid when I misread a conductor’s signal and started up the wrong rhythm, or called me clumsy for dropping a drumstick. No one’s questioned my gender identity or the way I look.

XR communication customs like meeting hand signs, the mic check, and debriefing took some of the stress out of teamwork with neurotypical people and let me start questioning my assumption that I had nothing of value to say. My previous experiences like going to university and having a weird hobby (more on that later) were helpful for my confidence, but nothing’s grown it like activism has. I’ve even overcame my anxiety about my voice long enough to speak publicly on a few occasions, but I don’t think I could make a habit of it! Learning to understand and accept my limits is important too.

Joining ‘communities of practice’

I’m facing my fears because the climate crisis scares me more. But I also think that there’s something special about drumming that empowered me to get involved. I’ve actually studied similar stuff during my undergraduate degree, when I did research on my weird hobby, medieval reenactment. Lots of people who’ve struggled with anxiety and other mental health problems have found acceptance in the medieval reenactment community when they haven’t been able to fit in elsewhere.

Reenactment and samba don’t seem to have much in common, but they both create accessible ‘communities of practice’ where we’re able to focus on doing hands-on activities together instead of on the uncertainty of meeting new people. Straight away, there’s something to do and someone to do it with, without the awkward stage of figuring it out.

Being part of a samba band also, believe it or not, reduces the awkwardness of being in the public eye for me. Okay, there’s people looking at us, but they’re looking at us, not just at me, I’m part of a team that takes care of each other, and I (kind of) know what I’m doing. During the time I’ve spent with XR, I’ve learned that there’s loads of roles like this, that allow folks like me to be activists on their own terms and control the amount of risk and stress involved. I think promoting these roles and ensuring that ‘silent activists’ are valued is essential to making XR more accessible to people with anxiety and mental health issues.

Self care: the new act of rebellion

To create a new culture of sustainability and support, to keep the rebellion thriving, and to make actions as powerful as they need to be, we need musicians, artists, writers, people who can make banners and costumes, people who can sort out food and shelter, people who can make websites and manage social media. Lots of these things make the perfect foundation for communities of practice, and I’d advise XR groups to hold arts and crafts meetups, provide space for bands, create gardening collectives, and encourage the shared practice of any other positive hands-on activity that fits with our values.

Finally, I want to tell everyone to listen to the silent activists. We know better than anyone else what our comfort levels are and what support we need to participate. Self care can be an act of rebellion in itself when the system’s against us, and it’s never okay to tell someone who’s struggling with their own problems that they’re not doing enough.

To find out more, contact your local XR chapter. XR York is taking a much needed Christmas break, but we’ll be back in the New Year. Merry Christmas!

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