Acting & Activism: How a millennial saver is using her pension for good

Leila Mimmack is an actor and a climate change campaigner, though never both at once. We spoke to her about why a warming planet gets her animated and how she is using the power of her pension to do something about it.

By George Hammond, Pension Power Organiser, ShareAction

20 December 2016

“By dealing with finance and dealing with pensions, it feels more legitimate with people who are cynical about the environmental movement. It’s working within a system, which has pros and cons. But it feels more effectual than sitting in a tent outside St Pauls.”

When I ask Leila if I can profile her, she responds “Sure. Sorry if I’m incredibly dull.” She needn’t have worried. Leila is impassioned, animated, and at times fierce in the hour we spend together.

“Manners,” she says “are my thing,” and she is, bar the odd punctuating expletive, impeccably polite. Beneath the graces though there is a restless, righteous energy. The Brexit vote made her feel “physically ill, I mean frigging sick” and it’s clear that she viscerally experiences the issues animating the lives of her and her peers: a failing, flailing political system; an economy she sees as structurally inequitable; and above all an unfolding climate catastrophe.

From the rainforest, a seed

Leila recalls her year 6 teacher describing the destruction of the rainforest: “10 football fields a minute” being cleared, “the lungs of the earth” wiped out. It had an effect on her. By the time she was 19, with contemporaries heading off for to university, Leila moved from Leamington Spa to The Hobbit, a narrowboat moored in Hackney marshes. She opted for a life on the water in part for environmental reasons, and found a community there who were “kind, inclusive, and pretty bohemian – there’s a definite vibe to it.”

In London, Leila attended rallies and marches with “whoever I could drag along” and spent spare time “reading, watching horrific documentaries and feeling unbelievably overwhelmed” about climate change. Those threads of activism knitted together when Leila came across Divest London, a citizens’ movement pushing financial institutions in the capital to divest fossil fuels, as part of the global Fossil Free movement.  “Divest London was what started me thinking about investments. Previously you just think ‘it will all be ok in 40, 50 years’ time’, but I realised there was such a vast pool of money and so much untapped activism.”


“The alternative is to understand pensions as untapped potential. As a means of promoting environmental concerns, taking action with your pension can be incredibly powerful.”


The power of pensions

That made Leila consider her own pension, and prompted a connection to ShareAction. “I totally forgot I’d been paying in for 6 years” she confesses. I suggest she’s not alone among twentysomethings in neglecting to check her pension pot regularly. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but a pension for me is such a 65-plus concern; when you think of pension you think of pensioner.” That feeling was strengthened when Leila attended her first pension fund meeting with Divest London, held on a weekday morning: “the only people who had time and interest to be actively involved on a Wednesday at 11am were pensioners.”

That, Leila thinks, reinforces the impression that pensions are a shut box for people her age – “regimented and closed.” The alternative is to understand pensions as untapped potential. As a means of promoting environmental concerns, taking action with your pension can be incredibly powerful. “By dealing with finance and dealing with pensions, it feels more legitimate with people who are cynical about the environmental movement. It’s working within a system, which has pros and cons. But it feels more effectual than sitting in a tent outside St Pauls.”

I ask Leila her thoughts on ShareAction’s approach, which encourages pension schemes to improve companies through engagement rather than outright divestment. “It can be dignified and calmer,” she responds, “and on many people’s levels. That inclusivity is important when you’re speaking to shareholders directly.”

A broader view

Leila is fresh from 3 months in back-to-back productions of The Winter’s Tale and To Kill a Mockingbird. She characterises her colleagues as a group inclined to support progressive causes. But when I put it to her that the theatricality of direct activism might be part of the appeal she scolds me, “no, I hate that rubbish.” She is no more inclined to dress up for a staged piece of activism than anyone else, and campaigning for the climate is not a role one can step in and out of.

Instead, it’s clear that campaigning is a full time preoccupation. For Leila, the battle against climate change is just one frontier in a much bigger war, the antagonist of which is neoliberalism, a policy model which transfers power from the public to private sector in a bid to optimise economic outcomes. Beyond its mundane definition, neoliberalism is used by its critics as a catch-all term for the overconsumption of resources by corporations. Leila makes clear that neoliberalism is causally linked to a worsening climate: its policies promote corporate gluttony, which contributes directly to global warming.

Membership of the climate movement and a belief in neoliberalism, then, seem incompatible. Given that critics of the theory largely reside on the left of the political spectrum, is there not a risk that such a view politicises the climate debate, and might threaten the inclusivity Leila spoke of? That’s a challenge, she acknowledges, “there’s a risk that if we become more adamant then we sound dogmatic. But, particularly when there’s been such a decline in the importance of facts, it’s necessary to be strong and clear in your convictions.”

In any case, Leila insists, there is room for inclusivity. Indeed the climate movement is at its most effective when it brings together as broader coalition as possible. She cites the swelling campaign against a third runway at Heathrow as an example – it’s a cause that has united everyone from the Richmond resident whose “grandad is buried on the proposed site” to the Mayor of London and local and national climate campaigners.


“In any case, Leila insists, there is room for inclusivity. Indeed the climate movement is at its most effective when it brings together as broader coalition as possible. She cites the swelling campaign against a third runway at Heathrow as an example.”


Clarity of purpose, variety of tactics

I get the impression that Leila would be just as happy brandishing a loudspeaker outside a company headquarters as she would adopting a conciliatory tone across that company’s board table. She is clear about her goal, and pragmatic and tireless in achieving it. Leila’s dream is that a range of tactics work in unison: that the climate movement is simultaneously “shutting down coal plants and having meetings with Mayors. It’s a dual effect – you chip away at the brick wall while others shout away with microphones outside it.”

After our conversation, I find a quiet corner in a cafe to jot down some notes. I leave after an hour, and my journey home takes me past the American Embassy. I overhear a clamour, chants lead through a megaphone: “I say climate, you say justice”. I pull up curious, and as the crowd disperses a voice calls out “have you been following me?”

Leila is part of a team of Aviva customers, from a range of employers, working to improve their pension scheme. Find out more here.

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Colette St-OngeActing & Activism: How a millennial saver is using her pension for good