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Home  >  Features  >  Making Change


Making Change

Making Change

Tuesday August 20 2019

Thomas Baldwin meets Fiona Buchanan of Christian Aid, a lifelong campaigner for climate and gender justice

It all started in church, says Fiona Buchanan.

“We did campaigns training recently where we identified where our passion or commitment comes from,” says Christian Aid Scotland’s Campaigns and Advocacy Coordinator. “And I have a sense it came from church – I can’t pin it down but I think hearing the stories of mission partners and different organisations that work for justice and equality, that is probably where it comes from – as well as from my parents, who were very much committed to it as well.”

The church in question is Carrick Knowe in Edinburgh, to which Fiona has belonged all her 37 years, and where she is an elder. She has also been organist and choir director and has run the Girlguiding unit all her adult life.

“It has always been part of my life,” she says. “It was very much the sense of growing up in a community, and still being part of that community.

“It’s also linked to family. My dad’s the session clerk, my mum was the Sunday School superintendent for years, and my sisters are both involved as well.

“But also having the sense of the church family as well, is something I’ve always really appreciated.”

Perhaps inevitably, Fiona was encouraged to engage with the national church, and over the years has been involved with the National Youth Assembly, served on the World Mission Council and Ecumenical Relations Committee, and had a stint working at ‘121’ for the Church and Society Council.

Fiona says that she always knew she wanted to work in the voluntary sector and ‘making change in some way’: “The extent to which inequality is so pervasive has always been obvious to me, and when I was younger I was shocked that people could just carry on and I remember thinking ‘why are you not doing something about this, it’s all around us’.”

She studied at Edinburgh University and worked for Women’s Aid, Young Scot and the Church and Society Council before starting her current position in 2017.

Day-to-day, the job involves working with London-based colleagues to give a Scottish input to the design of Christian Aid’s campaigns, making sure that they are relevant to churches and communities in Scotland.

She also spends time travelling round Scotland speaking in churches and meeting local campaigners. “I love the face-to-face element and feel energised by the people I meet. We often hear negative stories about the Church and numbers declining, but whenever I go to places I’m always really encouraged by the conversations I have with people and the commitment they have to supporting Christian Aid and challenging inequality and injustice.”

She says that she sees the Church as ‘thoughtful and reflective on issues of social justice’, but is disappointed by the decisions of the last two General Assemblies to continue investing in fossil fuels: “As much as I understand the system of decision-making of the General Assembly, when it isn’t or can’t be a way for taking into account more oppressed or marginalised voices, I find that uncomfortable.”

The other part of the job she loves is coalition and partnership working, including chairing the public campaigns group of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition.

“It functions really well as a coalition. We had great success with the first Scottish Climate Change Act 10 years ago, when we managed to achieve strong targets. This time we’ve been campaigning for two years on the Scottish Climate Bill making its way through Parliament and are hoping that together we can push for similarly strong legislation.”

Another key aspect to Christian Aid’s programme is gender justice, which is an area Fiona has been actively engaged in most of her life. She is one of the co-presidents of the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women, which supports women of faith, campaigns on women’s rights and awards grants to projects working in faith and gender justice.

She says: “The Forum is a great example of a place where they’re really nurturing younger women in leadership.

“It allows women to share their theology ecumenically and understand each others’ traditions, but also very much supporting women from the east of Europe and working on issues of peace, justice and reconciliation as they affect women in the churches.

“It’s been a really interesting space, trying to maintain that tension of it being a diverse forum – it had to be called a forum because many of the Orthodox and Catholic churches wouldn’t have allowed women to attend if it had a different name.

“One of the concerns we have at the moment is around the regression of women’s rights in some European countries and in particular the role churches are playing in that. In Latvia they’ve revoked the ordination of women, and there are concerns in other parts of Europe that similar things could happen. And in some other countries conservative churches are lobbying governments to not enact legislation on violence against women.”

In the bigger picture, she says that there’s a sense that there hasn’t been a great deal of progress on gender justice in 20 years, but that a lot of her hope is through younger people and new movements emerging. “Things like campaigning on period poverty, or #metoo, or No More Page Three – there are so many examples where women have said ‘enough, we’ve put up with this for years’, and built really creative and inspirational campaigns around it. I find that really encouraging and positive.

“The sense of movements and mobilising people, and what people can achieve when they’re working together for a purpose, has always been where I find my energy.”

And that is also reflected in another of the strands of her life, Girlguiding, which she joined as a Brownie, progressed through the Guides and has been running the unit at Carrick Knowe since the previous leader left when Fiona was 19. “It’s one of the few ways in which there are a lot of young people involved in the church now – maybe 150 young women coming through my church each week.

“It’s a girl-only space, girl-led, and I think it’s really important for young women to have the chance to have that space. A lot of it is about gaining skills – leadership, communication, team-building, that kind of thing – but it’s also about having fun, having that experience together and also about being able to relax. A lot of them say ‘we can’t really do this at school’, so they really value that space.”

She adds that organisations like Girlguiding are as important as they have ever been, particularly with the pressures on teenagers (especially girls) these days. “I think Girlguiding has really recognised and reflected this, and what they’re doing with their new campaigns and initiatives is really amazing.”

In her spare time from all that, Fiona runs – when we meet she is just back from Skye, where she ran the half marathon, and she has previously completed both London and Edinburgh marathons for Christian Aid.

She says: “Running the marathons was a great personal challenge, but also very much felt like a team effort. We did the Edinburgh Marathon last year for the Church of Scotland Youth Moderator’s Challenge, and it was really good fun working with Robin [Downie, last year’s Youth Moderator] and Callum [Scott] to not only fundraise for Christian Aid but to inspire each other with training tips and motivation. If running isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to get involved!”

This interview first appeared in August's Life and Work. Subscribe or download