Interview - Issue #15
Ella Roberta Adoo-Kissi-Debrah loved art, swimming, and reading, and one day dreamed of becoming an air ambulance doctor. She was just nine years old when she died in 2013, following two years of living with a severe form of asthma. In the decade that has passed since, her mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lives in London, UK, has become an internationally renowned activist and educator on the public health impacts of air pollution. In 2020, she made history after winning a seven-year legal campaign to have air pollution named as the cause of death on her daughter’s death certificate. Here, Rosamund speaks to Tej Adeleye about navigating grief, using art as a tool for healing and revealing the invisible, and her radical vision for public health and wellbeing.
Tej: Adeleye How are you reflecting on the last 10 years of campaigning?
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah: There have been moments of complete exhilaration: like, when we finally got air pollution [as a cause of death] on Ella’s death certificate. There have been moments of complete frustration. It has been incredibly tiring and taxing, both physically and mentally. Because on top of that, you’re dealing with the grief of [the death of] your child. I think believing in something as a cause, [rather than] because something has impacted your life directly, is different.
There are lots of people campaigning - I have helped raise awareness about the impact of air pollution on health: my daughter’s case has brought that to the forefront as well. And, despite racist comments I get, I think there is an acceptance [in] academia and [public] health that we don’t all breathe the same air. When I first started, clean air wasn’t as political as it is now - that has changed. What is difficult is people start bashing you, or making racist comments. I have to take deep breaths - I try not to allow it to affect me long term. Campaigning for clean air, you’re campaigning, technically, for everybody, so you’re also campaigning for those who are even against you.
Tej: How would you say it’s increased?
Rosamund: When the Mayor of London last went for re-election, clean air was the number three priority for Londoners. Now, looking at the pushback from ULEZ (the Ultra Low Emission Zone, where a fee is charged for the most polluting vehicles coming into the city), it’s difficult. Because what that tells me is London is divided - though we never hear about those that support it in outer London. I think the number one issue will always be housing, but that campaign taught me that air pollution means a lot to people, and they are becoming more aware. Do people want clean air? Yes. But I don’t think people want to be charged. I think without health, you have nothing. That is the number one thing I worry about the most now because of where I live. I can exercise, work on my diet, but with air, I have no choice.
Tej: How would you like to see the link that you’ve been making between public health and air pollution strengthened?
Rosamund: I presented at [an international] conference earlier this year and the feedback from doctors was: “I never thought air pollution could cause so many medical issues: the impact of air pollution on organs, and on morbidity.” These are doctors! Some told me the conversations hadn’t started in their countries yet - I am very proud that [I could raise awareness in this way].
Tej: Do you want doctors to be speaking to patients in the future about air pollution?
Rosamund: 100%. Let’s see if other hospitals and GPs (general practitioners) take that on board. But prevention is better than cure: I would love emissions to be lower. If someone dies on what we all know is a high air pollution day - or let’s say it’s a red alert and lots of people end up in hospital, I would like those connections to be made. On high pollution days, in the same way that they do with pollen, I would like the news and the weather to warn the general population. I would love to see councils all over the UK monitoring air pollution, letting residents know what they are breathing in.
The reason why people tend to live near main roads and places like that is often because they are poor. Oprah and Richard Branson would not be living by the South Circular (the busy London ring road next to Rosamund’s home). When it comes to social justice now and health outcomes, it’s not just a race issue, it is a class issue. People will ask, are you saying air pollution is racist now? What I have to say is that your money only stretches so far: food, shelter and housing. Your job and how much you get paid will determine where you live.
— Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah
Tej: With all your campaigning work, especially when you’re dealing with pushback, have you had enough space to attend to your own grief?
Rosamund One: of the things I can tell you that has changed - I’m not saying people still don’t sympathise with me having lost my daughter, but I am more likely to be attacked online. I don’t cry as much. Time has helped. I don’t think I’m settled in my mind. I was in my office the other day - a picture of all three of my children together caught my eye. I just got really, really sad. It’s been there for ages. I try not to think about it, but it’s really hard. You have to learn to live with grief. Part of my heart is literally gone. There are going to be days that are not going to be great and days that are more bearable. I don’t go to the grave as much. I think the “until we die and we meet again”, is now hitting me more. My twins are going through milestones that she never had. Her cohort are now in university - it’s something I have to adjust to. It’s really hard.
Tej: I was wondering about the things you do for yourself, away from campaigning.
Rosamund: I like going for walks a few times a week. I was walking through Charing Cross yesterday and there were buses everywhere. I start thinking: “Oh my God, everyone is breathing these things in!” What can you do to let the people know that the pollution they can’t see is really impacting on their health? I prefer walking in my local park. Everything looks green, and I can convince myself everything is OK. I haven’t taken a holiday for a while, but I love Brighton. When I’m walking on the beach, I’m not having to think about all these things.
Tej: You’ve been working to build a statue of Ella as part of your work to raise awareness - can you tell me about it?
Rosamund: It’s being made by Amanda Ward, who made the statue of the peace campaigner [Brian Haw] outside parliament to protest the Iraq War. We were [originally] working with [the artist] Jasmine Pradissitto, who was going to build a bust of Ella using material that could absorb nitrogen from the air, but the firm supplying the materials ran into issues. Amanda is going to create a body-sized model of Ella. She’s going to use bronze, so Ella will end up looking more like her skin tone. I also now know how tall Ella was when she died, so she’s going to be exactly the height she was when she passed away.
It’s going to be weird for me. I’m going to have a different emotion as her mother compared to the public. It’s going to be along the local path I use. I might continue to use it, or it might throw me off completely.
Tej: You’ve had a growing interest in art as a tool for healing and campaigning - what does art offer you?
Rosamund: I love it. It’s about not limiting myself. I have always been passionate about art. I’d love to do more art to raise awareness. Ella loved art, my kids love it. It will bring people into this space more. I think data can be quite hard. When academics speak, they talk to themselves [and] not everyone engages. I think art can change so much: it should be provoking and asking questions. Art educates differently, and it’s open to interpretation. You might not agree with it, but it’s there. I want to use art to talk about the invisibility that people can’t see. I think there’s some mystery to art. It’s healing. It’s calm. It’s whatever you want to make it. You can use different methods: like spoken word and poetry. I used to write years ago, but I can only do so many things now. I do appreciate younger people talking about this in poetry.
Tej: You also mentioned wanting to speak more to Black communities about air pollution and the work you are doing.
Rosamund: In my local community, Black people come up to me more to tell me to keep going, and that they notice what I am doing. I do want to engage in our communities more, I do not think I have engaged enough. I need to get people to realise that it’s not in 10 or 15 years’ time: air pollution is impacting their health now. We all care about our health, and we all know what the health outcomes during Covid were for Black people. Health outcomes are worse for Black people. There are many factors, but air pollution is one of them: I just don’t know how far reaching that information is.
Tej: When you when you think about the future, where do you see your campaign going from here?
Rosamund: Air pollution doesn’t just stay in one country. I would love all countries to adopt the World Health Organization’s 2021 guidelines. That would help children everywhere. Children dying is not acceptable. I hope people put pressure on the government. There’s too much focus on individuals, when individuals cannot do as much as people think they can. Governments have to prioritise this. I look at the waitlist getting longer for the UK’s National Health Service, and how much air pollution is impacting the economy. I just want someone to acknowledge that and say we’re going to do something about clean air and clean water so that not as many people get ill. As much as I believe it is our human right to breathe clean air, I also think it is our human right to drink clean water. They are all connected.
Tej: And what about you, personally?
Rosamund: I’d like to be both physically and mentally well. Because my kids are getting older now, I would like to meet someone and have a relationship. I’d like more of a balance as a human being in my day-to-day existence, and to see my friends more. I love going to the cinema. I want to take some more breaks to recuperate because it’s very hard work. I would like to have a life away from campaigning - if I have achieved everything I need to achieve for Ella, then campaigning won’t just become a job, it will be more personal. I think I will probably need to level the intensity but, because it’s Ella it just drives me - because she’s my child, and I’m always going to be her mother, aren’t I?
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah: Art, Grief and Radical Visions