Growing the Future: A Conversation with Lille Madden

The climate emergency is a nubilous, cloaking form that is both background and foreground, present and future. It is ungraspable and unfathomable, and sometimes when the sun shines brightly and the warm breeze streaks along bare skin, it feels invisible. Life is fine. And then the fires, the floods, the ‘extreme’ and ‘unprecedented’ nature of what we’ve done returns to remind us where we don’t want to go.

We know what we don’t want – a world that is 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 2, 3, 4 degrees warmer than this one – but, perhaps because of the complexity of the issue, we seem to have trouble deciding what we do want, and how to get there.

Groundswell, an Australian giving platform for climate action founded in 2020 by Anna Rose, Arielle Gamble and Clare Ainsworth Herschell, empowers people to contribute meaningfully to taking action on the issue. The premise is simple. Members join Groundswell by making weekly, quarterly or annual donations. This money is pooled, and four times a year, it delivers grants to people and organisations tackling the climate crisis.

The organisation focuses its grant-making on funding climate advocacy. ‘We started Groundswell to tackle the first and most urgent action scientists are telling us we must take to solve the climate crisis: cutting our fossil fuel use hard and fast, and accelerating a just transition to a decarbonised world,’ Arielle Gamble says. ‘For decades, the fossil fuel lobby has spent millions blocking climate action in Australia. In contrast, environmental philanthropy has been receiving less than 0.5 per cent of all charitable giving.’

In just over a year, Groundswell has raised over $700,000 and delivered grants to seventeen climate advocacy organisations across Australia including Farmers for Climate Action, Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network and Climate and Health Alliance.

It is well known that the solutions to the climate crisis exist. That what is lacking is political will to enact and support them. Time is running out, we know this too. We have a decade, at most, to transition to a zero-carbon world. But the decisions themselves are less often spoken about. Who gets to make them, who they affect, whose voices get heard. Whose don’t.

Climate justice means that the communities of privilege that have benefited the most from fossil fuel extraction take on the bulk of the responsibility to reduce emissions and fund solutions. It also demands that the voices of those most affected by the climate crisis are listened to, acknowledged and centred in climate change policy decisions, mitigation and adaptation. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already experiencing the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel extraction on community, culture and country.

‘First Nations voices need to be heard,’ says Lille Madden, an Arrernte, Bundjalung and Kalkadoon woman and First Nations director at Groundswell. ‘The answers are there. It’s about listening to First Nations voices and supporting them, first and foremost. So much has already been taken.’

I caught up to talk with Lille, a bird nerd and plant-o-holic, about the connections between climate justice and Country, the importance of love in activism, and the absolute necessity of foregrounding First Nations voices in climate advocacy.

Lille Madden. Photo: Daniel Shipp

Georgina Reid: Lille, let’s talk about your transition from child golfer to bird woman to climate activist via plants?

Lille Madden: I’ve always had a fascination for nature. Randomly, I was into golf when I was young. What I realised I loved the most about it wasn’t the competition but being out in nature. After school, I began an Indigenous traineeship at Taronga Conservation Society. I got put in the bird department. Initially, I was like, birds, great. Um. Okay … I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe tigers or koalas. Something a bit spicier. But I was just blown away. When I was growing up, I was uncertain, not sure what my footing would be, and I found it there with the birds.

GR: And now you’re working with plants [at Jiwah, an Indigenous company specialising in cultural landscape and design] as well as at Groundswell. You’re going to be a serious nature all-rounder soon!

LM: I hope so, yeah. Working with birds made me realise how important it is to protect natural areas by looking after Country … There are relationships that are so important. For example, glossy black cockatoos are very specific about what they eat [only some species of allocasuarina]. It’s a fine, fine balance.

What I’m passionate about, and what I think is a direction we need to be shifting towards, is working with the knowledge systems of First Nations people. This is what we do at Jiwah, by supporting threatened and endangered ecosystems like Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub. It’s really special to be able to continue these practices of healing Country.

GR: I wonder if you can speak a little about what Country means to you?

LM: The older I get, the definition of Country shifts and changes, but it also stays the same. When I went home to Alice Springs, to Arrernte country where my grandfather was from, I learnt from one of our knowledge holders up there, Aunty MK Turner, who told me ‘We are the land, the land is us and that is how we hold the land.’

Aunty MK says, ‘We’re related to the birds, we’re related to the plants, we’ve all come from the earth itself. We’re all one.’ Living in an urban setting, it’s quite hard to remember this. The carpet feels like it’s been pulled out from under you. We’ve become so separated, and this has led to the situation we’re in, which is the climate crisis.

The mentality that we are all one, and all connected in every sense, is how I think about Country. That it’s what defines us. Birds, plants, water, sky. Even, as Uncle Bruce Pascoe says, ‘the space between stars’. It’s all encapsulating.

GR: As a young First Nations person, I imagine there’s a lot of weight to carry. The weight of what has been lost, and the responsibility for bringing whatever you can forward. It’s a big load.

LM: It definitely is, and I think it gets heavier as you get older. Working in the climate sector and hearing how precious time is, it’s alarming. One of the things that really got me fired up was realising that even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait people have done the least to cause climate change, we will be the first and most affected by it. We are on the frontline – not only of climate change – but of resistance and protection of Country, and have been for millennia. The thought of having to be displaced again off Country, due to fossil fuel extraction and the climate crisis, is so scary. It is a lot to take in.

What interests me is seeing what young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are doing around the country, how they’re continuing on their knowledges and cultural practices.

I’m quite different to my grandfather [civil rights activist Charles Perkins], who was quite a big political figure. I’m a bit quieter. My strength is storytelling. It’s political, but not overtly so. I think that’s how we can get people to change their minds.

GR: You’re First Nations director at Groundswell. What does that mean?

LM: It’s really about supporting the First Nations organisations that we either reach out to or who get in touch with us. Getting them ready to apply for grants, and helping them build on their movements. We have the knowledge in these communities, they just need to be resourced. For mob, we don’t have the time, we’re still dealing with the effects of colonisation. Trying to meet people more than half way is what I’m hoping to do. So we can see the changes we need.

GR: It’s important work. And so pressing. As someone working in the climate space, with First Nations communities in particular, how do you hold it together?

LM: It’s important to think about how much we have, not how much we’ve lost. My mother says knowledge is never lost, it is just asleep, it returns to Country. Like language that is no longer spoken – it is still in the land, because that’s where it came from. The climate crisis is overwhelming, but I feel I need to combat anxiety with action. If things don’t change, we’ll hit a tipping point in less than a decade. There’s so much we can do, there’s so much worth saving. We need to fight for what we love and what we care about. That’s what fuels me. We have to build on that love.

We have an opportunity, right now, to take action on the climate crisis. First Nations voices need to be at the forefront. Leading the way. Because we’ve done so for millennia.

This interview was first published in Wonderground Issue Two.

In each issue of Wonderground we partner with a not-for-profit organisation in order to support and raise awareness of their work. Groundswell Giving is the Wonderground Issue Two Community Partner.

Find out more about Groundswell and the incredible work they’re doing in supporting climate advocacy and action on their website and Instagram.

Buy Wonderground Issue Two here.