Amy Campbell, a Laidlaw Scholar at Durham University, on illiberal democracy, the climate crisis, and thanking female leaders who are changing the fabric of tackling inequality.
I research illiberal democracy: when the democratic process no longer protects our freedoms. Using the political threshold concept, I assess the points at which our social power is lost. Fareed Zakaria conceptualised democracy as a ‘process for choosing leaders; it’s about popular participation. To say that a state is democratic is to say little about how it is actually governed’. In my paper, I examine democratic processes to ask how social power is undermined.
I use Israel as a case study of an ethnocracy (where one ethnic group has power): their Nation-State law breached human rights and permanently changed the Israeli legal balance to prioritise Zionism. The law parallels other ethnonationalist ‘democratic’ states such as India; my article examines the political thresholds which allowed this law to pass. In 2019, I travelled to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to interview politicians, human-rights lawyers, activists, and NGO directors; this confirmed my passion for politics and interest in legal geographies (which I wrote my dissertation on!)
Beyond my article, I aim to apply my research to the climate crisis. National governments are not doing nearly enough to reach net-zero emissions. When Georgia Elliot-Smith took BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) to court, on the basis that the UK Emissions Trading Scheme is omitting major polluters, BEIS argued that the Climate Change Act only requires them to “limit”, rather than “reduce” emissions. I’d be eager to highlight how the law has been manipulated to justify this. Averting the climate crisis means holding national governments accountable when they use excuses like the above to avoid the structural changes needed to reach net-zero emissions.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
I was obsessed with dystopian literature during my English A-Level, and connecting my interest in dystopia to Geopolitics in my first year at university led me to illiberal democracy. I also had a phenomenal guide when visiting Palestine/Israel in 2018, who highlighted the effects of the Nation-State law.
Conducting fieldwork in Palestine/Israel in 2019 was a really transformative experience, and I met some incredible people. It also meant I built my passion for this research on a very personal level. Towards the end of my fieldwork, I was held at gunpoint in Jerusalem by an Israeli soldier & narrowly escaped from rape (I thank years of Cornish martial arts for that!). This gave me a personal reason to publish my work, continue advocating against the occupation of Palestine while at university, and speak to sexual assault survivors.
Two years later, I’m incredibly grateful to my close friends for helping me to reframe the incident into one of strength - fellow Laidlaw Scholar Alice and I attempted to articulate the discourse we’d like to see around sexual assault to potentially help other survivors.
Founding the Durham Environment and Sustainability Association
At the beginning of my final year, three friends and I founded ‘DESA’ (Durham Environment and Sustainability Association) out of our collective frustration at the lack of emphasis on entry-level routes into the sustainability field and our university neglecting to promote ethical careers.
DESA is a hub for students interested in pursuing a career in sustainability - we connect students to alumni working in sustainability, post relevant job opportunities, coordinate with other student societies and offer mentorship and application support.
Highlights have included our launch event with James Close (formerly Director for Climate Change at the World Bank, now Head of Climate Change at Natwest), and meeting Richenda Van Leeuwen, the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute. Both are Durham graduates! I highly recommend checking out Richenda’s talk - she’s had an insanely fascinating and rewarding life.
In my experience, leadership stems from believing something must be addressed and cannot be pushed aside - be it a humanitarian crisis or elevating a group of people. I don’t think leadership is necessarily about competency or experience. It’s the belief that something requires urgency, commitment and supporting people. As long as leadership begins from a position of genuine passion and energy, there can only be a positive outcome.
My top leadership tips
⚡️ Lead with energy: lead with vivacity, enthusiasm, and remember that there is always more to be done.
⚡️ Lead with vulnerability: understand and reflect lived experience, listen with care and put aside the façade of professionalism.
⚡️ Lead with evidence and commitment: always take the critical approach, choose the long-term sustainable option.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Everyone I’ve met through Laidlaw has been full of energy, enthusiasm and has an incredible vision to make the world more equal in some way. Tilen Kolar’s immense passion and dedication to researching queer spaces within Human Geography just landed him a funded PhD (legend!), Gautham is changing the landscape of edtech, and James continues to shed light on left-wing student activism. Seeing their research and life evolve over the last three years has been a genuine honour.
I am incredibly grateful to the interview panel for giving me a shot when I applied for the Laidlaw Scholarship in my first year. Post A-Levels, I really felt the weight of imposter syndrome, knowing that many students at Durham had the confidence needed to succeed at such an elite institution. Laidlaw was the very first affirmation that I had a voice that matters.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
Alex Veitch has demonstrated how being fiercely passionate about one's political views, life journey, and educational background should be celebrated, not covered with a facade of professionalism. I am in awe of the countless young people’s lives she has changed and continues to change for the better. She will always be my inspiration. Alex - you've selflessly changed the life trajectory of so many, and I look up to your resilience every day; we are all so grateful.
Alice Lassman is a groundbreaking economist & partner in crime. Alice solves innumerable problems with boundless empathy. She will undoubtedly go on to universally overthrow GDP as a metric and lift the confidence and spirits of every human in her path.
Suhasini Vira is an incredible friend, future colleague, and one of the most intelligent female powerhouses I know. Her NGO Clean Hands Initiative, started during lockdown, is a testament to her limitless abilities to transform India’s informal sector.
Joshua Amponsem - founder of Green Africa Youth Organisation. I met Josh during my time at the SDG2 Hub and I am incredibly inspired by his commitment to community development and grassroots sustainability. I cannot wait to begin a research project with him this summer.
Describe a scene from the future you strive to create:
Seeing politicians and leaders in parliament, advisory boards and head offices who lead from lived experience, with honesty, prioritising equity and sustainability. It would be fantastic to one day not feel intense anger whenever I tune in to the news. I know my friends are all fighting to make the above happen.
📺 Currently binging: The Thick of It
🎵 My quarantine anthem: A Little Less Conversation by Elvis Presley (JXL Radio Edit)
📚 My top book recommendation: Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
🎧 Podcast obsession: Force of Nature with Clover Hogan
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Peter Stefanovic’s video explicitly highlighting lies in parliament reaching 13 million views
❤️ A cause I care about: upReach changed my life - their ‘Close the Covid Gap’ campaign will enable intensive employability support to additional disadvantaged 600 students - please donate if you can.
Amy is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at the University of Durham. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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