IT wasn’t only modesty that caused botany MA student and environmental activist Jessie Dolliver’s surprise on being told she had been nominated for the Irish Red Cross’ Young Humanitarian of the Year award recently.
It isn’t that the young Turner’s Cross woman hasn’t been a tireless activist throughout her student years, but that she says the Red Cross acknowledging environmental activism as a form of humanitarianism is something of a departure.
“I’ve never heard an established NGO like the Irish Red Cross say something like that before,” Jessie says.
“They told me that this year they’re acknowledging that the environmental crisis is a humanitarian crisis as well.”
At just 22, Jessie, who is months into her Masters at Trinity College, has an impressive track record in activism, mostly in environmental campaigns, but also in targeted campaigns against the multinational companies who profit from the Irish Direct Provision system.
She has co-founded campaigns and activist groups including the All-Ireland Student Activist Network, Fossil Free TCD, a campaign to get Trinity College to withdraw all investment in fossil fuels, and Aramark Off Our Campus, a boycott campaign against Aramark, the multinational company that provides catering services in Trinity but which also runs Direct Provision centres in Ireland.
The Aramark campaign, Jessie acknowledges, has not met with success; the company still runs the café in Trinity’s science building, two years after students began protesting its presence.
Aramark has defended its involvement in direct provision on previous occasions.
“Aramark is still operating freely on campus,” Jessie says.
“We tried to do a boycott so it wouldn’t be profitable for Aramark to operate, but all the people involved in that campaign were also involved in the Take Back Trinity campaign; our campaign became exhausted because we weren’t having any success.
“It’s easy to get disillusioned when a campaign is not successful. On the one hand, it’s very disheartening to see people struggle collectively for such a long time and not have wins, but there are wins along the way; it’s just hard to see them sometimes.”
Where did she get her strong sense of justice? From her mother, CIT Law Lecturer Moira Jenkins, she says unhesitatingly.
“Mum is a human rights lawyer and has a really strong sense of justice that she instilled in my sisters and me. Even more than me, she has a lot of energy for activism.
“When people meet my mum, they kind of go, ‘oh, ok, I see where you get it from.’”
Jessie and her twin sister, filmmaker Eli Dolliver, were born in Melbourne and arrived in Ireland at three, where their family based themselves in Cork and their father, Cliff Dolliver, co-founded Cork puppetry theatre company Dowtcha Puppets. They attended St Columbus National School in Douglas and went to secondary at Ashton School in Blackrock, where their younger sister Róisín is still a student.
Jessie’s humanitarian activity started in her teenage years when she began working in Cork Penny Dinners which serves up to 2,000 freshly-made meals for free every week.
Jessie’s move to Dublin after secondary school to take up her place in Trinity took quite a lot of getting used to.
“Cork is really important to me; it took me about three years to warm to Dublin,” she says.
“I think a lot of people move away from Cork in their twenties, but they always have it in their minds to come back there again and I definitely do.
“It’s awesome to know Cork is always there and that there’s so much great cultural stuff going on there; I’ll definitely be coming back at some stage.”
In the meantime, though, she hopes to complete her PhD when she has her Masters under her belt, and that may mean travelling further afield.
Given her strong interest in social justice, it might be tempting to ask Jessie why she didn’t opt to follow in her mother’s footprints into law, but she says even her choice of research topic is influenced by her activism. And that plants may hold solutions to climate change and its mounting ecological and social impacts.
“At the moment, I’m studying marine photosynthetic organisms that can act as a carbon sink,” she explains. “When they photosynthesise, they draw down carbon and so they could have an important role in climate change. A lot of my work in botany is still tied into social and environmental justice.
“Plants underpin everything useful, but it’s quite sad at times to be studying botany at the moment.
“People choose to study it because they love plants, but then you’re studying something that you’re watching fall apart. People keep reassuring you that ecosystems are really resilient and it’s really inspiring to see the ways that habitats and ecosystems are adapting themselves to climate change.”
On top of her activism and studies, Jessie has also found time to chair Trinity College’s Environmental and Botanical societies and edit her student newpaper’s Science and Technology section.
One project she’s particularly passionate about is the fledgling All-Ireland Student Activist Network she has helped to found; harnessing the power of the young is back on the cards, she says, and last week’s Youth Assembly on Climate Change at Leinster House was proof of this.
“Students are idealistic because of their age,” she says.
“We don’t have anything to lose and we have time to commit ourselves to ideas. But having said that, a lot of the school strikers feel genuinely guilty if they let a week go by where they haven’t done something to campaign.
“I think that should be a source of shame to the government, that it’s fallen to people who are 14 years old to push them to change.”