Interview: Francesca Willow, performer, blogger

09 March 2018

‘There’s a danger in abstaining from everything all at once. That’s setting yourself up to fail’

I trained in dance, but I do physical-theatre performance, and I write a blog, Ethical Unicorn, and sometimes write for other people.
 

When I perform, it’s mainly work with the One Thousand Project, which is a collaboration between myself and Madison Mae Parker, a US-based poet.
 

I trained at Dance City in Newcastle; then I did a BA in contemporary dance at Trinity Laban [Conservatoire of Music and Dance, in London], and an MA in theatre and performance studies at King’s College, London. At BA level, my training was very dance-focused. MA level was very different, because I moved out of a conservatoire and into a university. I took only one practical class — though that was amazing — but I was studying cultural and critical theory and how that related to performance.
 

I looked a lot at topics like race and gender theory, and wrote about how they related to technology and the idea of performing your identity online.
 

It makes me very aware of what I’m doing with my blog. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with displaying yourself online, but the audience don’t necessarily recognise that it’s edited, especially with videos. It can lead them to desire a life that doesn’t exist. I think of my blog as op-ed journalism, not a confessional diary, and I take my responsibilities to readers seriously.
 

Most of the social-justice stuff I write doesn’t make money, but certain posts will be sponsored by brands and companies which pay you for reviewing products. I’m strict about who I work with. Mainstream bloggers will review any brand that comes their way, but I’ll give an honest review of strictly defined ethical products.
 

The blog mainly pays the bills at the moment. The performance stuff ebbs and flows. With Madi being in a different country, we tend to tour together for a few months each year. We toured Europe last summer, and now I’m just being a writer, while still keeping my technique up till I get back in the studio and start making again.
 

In 2016, some of my friends decided to go waste-free. They created a Facebook group for people to follow, and I ended up in it. I’d never heard of zero-waste living, but I was inspired to get started. I also had a friend working in PR for a few cruelty-free and ethical brands; so I started thinking about how all these issues link together — but I couldn’t find anyone in the UK talking about them all in one place. I decided to be that person, and started Ethical Unicorn three days later.
 

I skyped Madi, my poet, for advice about a name people would remember. You’re a little bit different if you’re making an effort to live ethically right now; so I wanted a name which would stand out against the grain. This is why everyone needs a poet in their life.
 

I work with International Justice Mission [IJM], too, which is a global organisation that works to protect the poor from violence, trafficking, exploitation, and abuse. It does incredible work rescuing and caring for survivors, prosecuting criminals, and tackling the roots of these problems. IJM works globally, and its teams are made up of lawyers, investigators, social workers, and community activists.
 

Throughout Lent, IJM is highlighting modern slavery in supply chains by asking people to give up coffee, chocolate, or make-up; so on my blog I’ve been writing posts that give more information on how slavery and exploitation enters these supply chains, as well as what we can do about it. Hopefully, in future, we’ll be able to collaborate on other things.
 

A blog spreads awareness and education, and suggests ways we can change. My goal is never just to highlight the bad, but also to provide solutions and practical actions that can equip people. A blog’s great, because it’s easily accessible and pretty democratic; so lots of people can read it and hopefully find something that they can learn or apply to themselves.
 

I don’t think of it as a Christian venture, but I think of myself as a Christian who started this venture. It’s not specific to one faith or type of reader. The majority of my readers are female, and from Western countries, but that’s a wider trend that we’re seeing across the whole sustainable world. I post on the blog every two or three days, and on social media every day. It’s a lot of content to put out, but I try to make it engaging, helpful, and worthwhile to look at.
 

I’ve always been interested in social justice from a young age. I was incredibly privileged to have parents who educated me and talked through complex issues, even when I was quite young. We travelled a lot, and I was always reading and being taken to museums; so I learned and saw quite a lot of things that instilled an interest in justice and looking after the planet.
 

Christianity calls us to be stewards of the earth, and to love each other. I think that looks like living sustainably and ethically, and caring for and giving back to our communities and our environments, instead of taking everything for ourselves. Working towards an ethical lifestyle is dying to self, because it’s about putting our neighbours before ourselves, and working together for a world that’s fair for everyone.
 

Everything that God has created carries inherent value, and so is worthy of our respect and love, be it people or the natural environment around us. It’s up to us to make sure that we’re treating our neighbours, near and far, in this way. Sometimes that’s really direct, by being kind or showing love, and sometimes that looks like working for justice for people we’ll never see, because their lives have value. Ultimately, caring for the environment is also a social-justice issue, because it’s the poor and vulnerable who have to deal with the worst effects of climate change. It all ties into the really simple goal of loving our neighbour — it’s just a more expanded understanding of it.
 

I don’t think the ascetic mindset has longevity for most people. There’s a danger in trying to completely overhaul your life and abstaining from everything all at once. That’s basically setting yourself up to fail, and why people can end up giving up altogether as soon as they make the tiniest mistake, because it seems overwhelming, and we end up beating ourselves up so much.
 

The best way to change is to go little by little towards making larger changes. Like your toothbrush. If everyone makes a small switch from a plastic toothbrush to a bamboo one, which can be composted, that would be millions of toothbrushes that we’ll keep out of landfill.
 

It’s also about a journey, because we’re all still learning. I wrote a beginner’s guide here which has a tonne of switches, depending on what people prioritise. There are so many interconnecting issues out there; so it’s about doing what we can, where we are, as everyone has different capacities and available options.
 

Some of this is about transforming our perspective to think more holistically. To talk of making do with cheaper high-street brands and giving more money away isn’t a well-rounded way to look at it. That may help some people, but it also perpetuates hidden oppression and slavery. We all want to see poverty and injustice end, but if we’re only dealing with one side of it, by giving money away while actively investing our money in high-street brands that use forced labour and slavery in their supply chains, we won’t bring these things to an end.
 

And while the high street may be cheaper, it’s actually a bigger con. Sustainable fashion is more expensive, but that’s only because everyone in the system is being paid and treated fairly, whereas a cheap item often has a much higher mark-up because it’s made for so little; so the brand is actually fleecing you more, especially seeing as it’s unlikely to last compared with the more expensive item.
 

But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to go out and buy really expensive items all the time. Shopping second-hand is a great place to start, whether it be charity shops, eBay, or just hosting clothes-swaps with friends. Not everyone can shop sustainably, but those of us who can, can find a way that works for us.
 

Eventually, I’d like the blog to grow into more of a media organisation, taking on other writers, photographers, and creatives, widening the scope of things that we can talk about. I’m keen to get to a point where I can employ a diverse writing team, so that my platform can give a voice to people who perhaps don’t get to talk in mainstream media all that much.
 

I wasn’t raised Christian, but I can’t think of a time that I wouldn’t identify as Christian. I went to a Catholic school, and I always believed in God and Jesus, but in a distant, historical sense. I actually became a Christian properly when I was 15 and a friend invited me to their church.
 

As a teenager and baby Christian I unknowingly latched on to a lot of beliefs of older people who I looked up to. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gone through a bit of a deconstruction journey: studying what I actually believe. Through it all, I’ve never really felt strong doubts. Maybe God felt further away at certain times, but I’ve always felt that God’s been consistently present in my life, and patient, despite whatever questions or messiness I bring to the table.
 

Christians seem unaware of unethical-trading issues for the same reasons that the rest of the world is. The problems they cause are often hidden out of sight, rarely talked about, or in places that are far away from us. Trafficking is an example of this: there’s a lot of focus on fighting sex trafficking — which is really important — but lots of people don’t realise that their chocolate or clothes are being made by trafficked people, too.
 

Also, people can take the hope that we have from God, which is obviously an important and beautiful thing, and abdicate themselves from the responsibility of doing things themselves. Hope is important, because it keeps us away from nihilism in the face of such large problems; but I think we need to use that hope to spur us on to do something with the belief that we’re the tools to enact change. God will partner with us, and has chosen us, but God won’t fix it for us.
 

Feeling guilty can paralyse us. I don’t think guilt comes from God. Once you find out about the “ethical world”, you discover that there are other options. But until you find out about them, how would you know? Nine times out of ten, people do want to be more eco-friendly, but they don’t realise what choices they have. A Christian photographer I worked with last week told me he’d never thought about it before, but he’s going to buy ethical clothes from now on.
 

I grew up in a small town between Newcastle and Durham, and I’m an only child; so I was pretty connected to the countryside and adults when I was a kid. My parents always used to make sure that I was learning and experiencing new things, although sometimes this would annoy me. My dad likes to play devil’s advocate and have a debate for the sake of learning, sometimes. My parents wouldn’t call themselves Christians, and they separated when I was a teenager. I live in London now, but I visit them a lot, and my friends absolutely love it when my parents come down to see me.
 

I really like swimming, although I’m not the fastest. I try and swim two kilometres at least once a week, and it’s really nice because you literally can’t take anything into the pool with you: no distractions. I do a lot of things on my own; so I often go to the cinema, theatre, or to gigs. I also love reading and cooking: they’re the two biggest things I inherited from my dad.
 

My favourite music? Any Sufjan Stevens song.
 

I’m not a very angry person, but I do get frustrated. Mainly at injustice, and more so when people deny it’s happening: like climate-change denial; when people are adamant that privilege doesn’t exist; when people think that institutional racism or sexism isn’t real; companies that say they aren’t doing any harm when they clearly are. . . Writing about it all the time can give you tunnel vision; so I’m trying to learn to have grace, to grow in more compassion for people, while still challenging them effectively and usefully.
 

I’m happiest being with people I love — when you’re laughing to the point of tears and feeling warm inside because of how lucky you are to know such splendid people.
 

I’m bringing the creative side and the writing side together a little more, experimenting with storytelling and different types of photography and illustration. I also have ideas for choreographing something this year, and hope to tour some more with Madi, and do some more podcasts.
 

Podcasts are so varied, and I learn so much from them when I’m commuting. I enjoy interacting with other people, and it gives me more space in words to connect to people and talk things through with others, though I love writing.
 

I’m only 24, but the teenagers coming after me are amazing. They’re so smart, aware, and educated. Just look at how kids in Florida are pushing for gun reform. They give me hope for our world.
 

And hope is a large part of my relationship with God. I just don’t let that hope make me complacent. It’s still our responsibility to look after this planet and its people.
 

I pray that people will expand ideas of what love can be. Loving our neighbour also looks like caring for the earth, investing our money in the right ways, and standing for the rights of others. I pray that people will be slow to speak and quick to listen, and they’ll value human life over profits. And that God will give me more grace.
 

I’d choose Martin Luther King Junior to be my companion if I was locked in a church. People forget just how radical he was, and how young, and that he was a complex person, not just a symbol or set of ideas. I don’t think I’d say much: I’d just want to listen.

ethicalunicorn.com


Francesca Willow was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Forthcoming Events

7 March 2019
Theology Slam Final
New engaging voices thinking theologically about the contemporary world. Read more and enter the competition.

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read twelve articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)