Real dilemmas, real solutions – from our real-life superheroes. This month the Irish writer, academic and advocate Sinéad Burke champions climate justice and dances to the Spice Girls. By Kathleen Baird-Murray
What makes you feel wild?
As trite and ridiculous as it sounds, being able to be wild is a privilege and a luxury. It’s a limitless experience and as such you either have to be confident enough to know that everything will be okay, or it has a much darker side where you just don’t care. For me, being bold or wild is something I can only do because I have a circle of people around me – family and friends who have enough belief and confidence in me. It’s this that gives me the permission to be wild.
What one thing are you currently doing to make the planet greener?
I am shopping less, and when I am buying clothes I’m trying to be as sustainable as possible. I travel a lot for work, and while I make lots of small everyday decisions like using plastic as little as possible, I am also really conscious that I fly a lot. I try to use public transport instead of driving and through transport find a way of being sustainable, but it’s a challenge.
Where does your soul most happily reside: city, countryside, or both?
Home is a small town in Ireland. When I am back, there is a magical silence where I don’t hear traffic or sirens. I’m away from home so much for work that being able to come to that solace is very precious. But I also find the real spectrum of experiences within a bigger city to be really stimulating for my curiosity. I need both. The countryside gives me the peace to cultivate the curiosity that comes in a city.
The DJ fails to show up. What’s your go-to track to get everyone dancing?
The Spice Girls, always. “Wannabe” – it has such a nostalgic side to it. I’m 28 and these five women at the helm of pop music made such a statement to me growing up. So yes, “Wannabe”, and of course the “Macarena”. I know the whole dance routine – you’ll find me up at the front at weddings teaching everyone else to do it.
Who is the hero or heroine you’d be tongue-tied to find yourself sitting next to at a dinner?
Currently I really admire Samantha Power who was previously the US ambassador to the UN. I was inspired by the TS Eliot lecture she gave in Dublin in which she spoke about empathy and creativity, and how she would change the hearts and minds of people in the UN through the arts. She talked about bringing all her UN counterparts across the world to see a show like Hamilton. And for me, this idea of creating empathy through the arts is really endearing. I would be completely tongue-tied to sit next to her.
The message to your younger self?
I would ask myself to turn off the voice in my head. We all experience this, that voice which continues to tell us that we’re not good enough or bright enough or beautiful enough. I am very lucky that I have amazing family and friends who have neutered that voice over time. There are so many people in the world who will critique you – when they know you and even when they don’t know you. And these are the last people we should be defending ourselves to.
Which world conflict would you like to see resolved first and how would you do it?
I think climate justice is an issue that needs to have greater importance attached to it right now. I am very conscious that I’m a white straight cisgender woman living in a part of the world where climate change deniers exist because they can. In Ireland we have a nicer summer now, our temperatures have increased to the point where our climate is almost tropical. But we are also living in the part of the world – the West – which creates the largest impact on floods, fires and environmental destruction. In order to create change we need to hear from the people who are most affected, otherwise we will continue in our ignorance. This is a problem and a challenge that won’t resolve itself, it needs immediate action – to ensure that oil spills can’t happen in the Mexican Gulf, or to ensure we are investing enough in sustainable energy. If we could put together a solution to ensure the retraction of climate injustices, we would be in a stronger position to solve the litany of other humanitarian crises that exist, like global poverty, like the lack of education for young women, or addressing what’s going on in Myanmar, Syria, Yemen. We are deliberately ignorant to what’s going on because in Western countries we sometimes profit from these situations; so we don’t ask the important questions because there is a currency to be had in not doing so.
You’re on a raft adrift in the ocean and the sharks are circling. Who is your companion to get you to shore safely - and who would you feed to the sharks?
On my raft I would like Ellie Simmonds, the Paralympic gold medallist swimmer. It would be an honour to join her and she could definitely get us out of a tricky situation. I would feed to the sharks anyone who… well, I’m so frustrated by so much of the status quo that continues to exist in industry and politics, and the people who are comfortable to remain in a position that deliberately exploits minority voices and refuses to use their platform to amplify marginalised experiences and create sustainable change. So I’d feed all of them to the sharks, and the upside would be that the sharks would then be very full, which would help Ellie and me get to the shore.
What do you look for in a deputy?
Kindness, curiosity, humour.
What’s the key requirement for a lifetime partner of the romantic kind?
What’s the retirement plan?
I don’t have one and that worries my mother tremendously.
What’s your favourite lazy-at-home dish to cook?
Spaghetti carbonara. I’m a terrible cook but I can just about manage carbonara.
Career advice for the Sinéad wannabes?
Always ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
What do you wish you had said to someone who has departed this earth?
I wish I’d told them I’d loved them a bit more. I wish I was invested fully in all our conversations and didn’t have my phone on in their company.
The last time you prayed, who did you pray to and were your prayers answered?
I prayed to Saint Anthony because I lost my sunglasses and I quickly found them.
Who do you currently have a crush on?
Rami Malek, Ezra Miller and Riz Ahmed.
What would your Tinder profile say?
I don’t think I’d be on it. Maybe Bumble could be a bit more sympathetic to a feminist lens? There’s a type of performance involved in a digital presentation which can be tricky if you’re disabled or more inter-sectional about diversity. I prefer real life contact.
What superhero power would you most like to have and why?
I’d love to speak all languages since I think communication is a catalyst for change. I speak Irish fluently and am taking lessons in French.
Where do you get your therapy from?
From my mother, she is my confidante in all things. When I’m at my most excited or my most stressed, she is the first person I call with news be it positive or negative.
Your book at bedtime?
I am currently reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography alongside Mary Robinson’s book Climate Justice.
I’d like to be known as somebody who made other people feel better about themselves and the world.
What did you learn from the toughest time in your life?
When I was 11, I had to make an important decision – about whether or not I would have limb-lengthening surgery. I realised the only reason I would have this surgery was to appease other people in accepting me. But I realised that if people would only like me if I transformed myself to something that I was not, then they were not the kind of people I wanted to be with. I was happy and proud to be me. My parents knew I had to make the decision myself and that’s what I decided.
And from the happiest?
To revel in it! That we live in a world where everything is momentary, we can pass through joyous moments so quickly and there is true importance in sitting in it and enjoying it.
You’re blowing out the candles on the birthday cake. What one thing do you wish for?
Happiness. And maybe learning how to do a blow-dry myself.