How a brave, rebellious, yoghurt-knitting lawyer came to jump in to eco-activism

Natalie Barbosa (@charity_lawyer) is an active member of Extinction Rebellion, a non-violent direct action environmental group. She is also an animal rights campaigner and work on the board of trustees for Animal Free Research, a charity that works to end scientific testing on animals. She also works for the only social purpose law firm in the UK, Anthony Collins Solicitors as a charity specialist lawyer, having moved from her role at Barnardo’s Head of Legal

She is affiliated to the Manchester chapter of Extinction Rebellion and works on actions, logistics, media and legal with many other Manchester Rebels. She has recently returned from a week of direct action for the “International Rebellion”, which took place in London and has received widespread media coverage. 1100 arrests and counting. She spent the week camping on the streets throughout the night at Parliament Square as part of a human blockade, protecting arrestees on Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square and co-ordinating the kitchens to help feed hundreds of hungry activists.

Have you always been an activist for environmental issues?

No. I have been a vegetarian for 15 years and a vegan for 3 (with a guilty break back to veggie-ness!) and have worked for environmental or animal-based charities for years, but I have never done work which I personally would describe as ‘activism’

Extinction Rebellion was my first jump into eco-activism.

What led you to this decision at this stage in your life?

I went through two and a half years of counselling and learned to embrace my ‘rebellious’ side, instead of trying to hide it. My therapist helped realise it was not ‘unprofessional’ if I was an activist, I wouldn’t lose my job and, in fact, people (clients) like authentic lawyers. It is a good thing the ‘real me’ and something to be embraced and celebrated. Especially in the sector I work in, I think my clients like that I don’t just support causes as a 9-5 thing to earn a living. It’s what I believe in my heart and what I am passionate about.

I think even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would carry on doing exactly what I am doing now. I love where I am now. I feel at home and truly me.

So when I found Extinction Rebellion, it was a joy. Everything about them feels right for me. From the love-bombing tactics, to the way they have studied protest tactics academically, to their focus of grief and the emotional consequences of thoroughly understanding climate change, to the number of vegan and fellow animal lovers. 

Do you see yourself as a Brave Rebel as the Extinction Rebellion group is referring to themselves as?

There was and still is definitely a risk of arrest (as we will be continuing with our actions until the job is done ), and the risk of how that might affect my job. But I  have tried to mitigate it. I spoke to my regulatory authority before-hand (the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority) who gave me a little reassurance. I also informed my employer and they have been amazingly supportive – but given they are social purpose law firm it is full of socially-aware and passionate people.

Extinction Rebellion has what it calls a ‘regenerative culture’ though, which means we put in place systems to support the well-being of our rebels, not just physically (for instance post-arrest support) but emotionally (well-being people who check on emotional health, do check ins to see how we feel etc). The culture amongst the group was so loving and uplifting, it helps carry you along the risk as best you can.

That first step into the road in Parliament Square to begin our blockade for the week was a heart in mouth moment. Lots of us looking wide-eyed and gulping. Not knowing at that point whether the police stood in front of us would arrest me and the other straight away. Then not answering the police questions, I’m not used to blanking police officers. As I lawyer I’m used to upholding the rule of law!

What does Bravery mean to you?

The classic of ‘doing something that scares you but you do it anyway’.

The Manchester Chapter of Extinction Rebellion holding Waterloo Bridge

The Manchester Chapter of Extinction Rebellion holding Waterloo Bridge

I think also as a Brit, risking embarrassment you know. There has a lot of mockery of XR – being called ‘tree huggers’ ‘yoghurt knitters’ ‘the great unwashed’ and millions of others. Though actually for us being a tree-hugger isn’t an insult! And ‘yoghurt knitter’ is just hilarious so we co-opted that as a group name! But so much more importantly was the  massive outflowing of support and kindness during International rebellion week.

What bold brave changes do you want to see the Government taking to improve the environment future for the planet?

Tell the truth (about just how bad things are going to get)

Banners at Parliament Square

Banners at Parliament Square

Commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025

Hold a citizen’s assembly (to decide what elements of life we sacrifice to achieve net zero and to oversee the government keeping to their commitments)

What limiting beliefs do you think people are carrying around that are holding back the progress, speed and urgency of change that ER are calling for?

Undoubtedly fear – the truth is really harrowing. So I get why people prefer to believe conspiracy theories or deny the science because the real facts are so profound and awful, better to not believe.

The truth is really harrowing

The media bear a massive responsibility also, for helping the general population continue in ignorance. I think a lot of the people who have had a ‘light-bulb’ moment as a result of XR’s actions, have had that moment as they have learnt for the first time the facts. We shouldn’t have to be doing this though, it is the government and our media who should be telling the truth and informing people where we are at.

How is resilience going to play a part in the future for ER?

Before International Rebellion, we were unknown to the public, though we had done a ’practice’ run in November and closed seven bridges in London. Blocking traffic and bringing London to a standstill (though the media didn’t report it mostly). Now more people know us, and we are facing a barrage of criticism.

We now have to face that and carry on with our aims, and not let the cacophony of voices and criticism make us wobble or fall out.  It’s important to keep the public with us as we move forward though, so even though we are not a commercial enterprise or have money or staff behind us, we have to try and address some of the criticisms as best we can.

As a Pankhurst I am of course going to ask about the suffragette movements influence on how it inspired the tactics and approach of ER?

Hugely. The success of suffragettes tactics have been utterly central to XR’s decision that non-violent direct action was the most effective way to try to effect change. For forty years countless charities and NGOs have been doing great work and thousands upon thousands of petitions have been signed. It has got us nowhere near were we need to be if we are to avert catastrophe.

Roger, one of XR’s founders, spent years studying what made successful activist movements in the past work. XR is the combination of his studies, and the learnings form the suffragettes, the American Civil rights movement and Ghandi’s Indian independence movement.

Given we have established you have been brave on the frontline of the Extinction Rebellion campaign, what lies ahead for you that will require you to be braver?

Arrest and possible prosecution and a criminal record still as I managed to escape in International Rebellion. I spent many days in the street holding Parliament Square and the police broke my group’s blockade while I was 1000 yards away prepping food for all the groups in parliament Square. So that is still to come.

 Also, keeping a calm head in the face of criticism and the fact that now everyone has an opinion on what we do. And to keep our Manchester chapter working well now our numbers have expended so much.

How would you encourage other women to be braver?

By finding the thing that makes you want to be brave. When you are passionate about something, you will do anything for it.

Do you have a mantra you would like to share?

I like the mantra you told me ‘Find your tribe’. I also love XR’s mantra on being in the organisation ‘If you see a job that needs doing, it’s your job’

At Be Braver, we are all about lifting up other women, so that we all all Rise Up – are there any women you would like to give a shout out to who might not ordinarily receive the recognition they deserve?


Clare Stocks

Lizzy Houghton

Liz McKelvey

All women in the Manchester chapter who I was in London with.

Who would you love to see included in our Brave Voices interviews that you think could share stories that would inspire courage in other women?

Farhana Yamin the international environmental lawyer who glued her hands to Shell’s Head Office in London during International Rebellion. She helped write the Paris Climate Agreement and is highly well-respected professional. Her actions with XR demonstrate her courage, and also how bad things are if even an environmental lawyer at the top tables thinks things aren’t happening with the existing power structures and channels.