Ieva Feldman-Walmsley: living to the fullest and changing Latvia for better

  • 2020-10-30
  • Philip Houseley

Ieva Feldman-Walmsley is a young political hopeful, working at the Latvian parliament, and already being tipped by some as a future Prime Minister, even before she wins a seat!  We met a few days after her debut in the Riga City Council elections. The Baltic Times sat with her for the profound interview.

You were born in Latvia?

I was born in 1989, in Riga, but spent my early childhood in a small town in North Kurzeme, called Valdemarpils. However, we moved to the capital when I was 5. My whole family is from Kurzeme and I am proud of my heritage.

Educated in Riga, and Europe!

Well, yes. In Riga, I went to the Catholic Secondary School (Rigas Katoju gimnazija) and a music school until 10th grade, but as a 15-year-old, I received a scholarship to study at the Theresian Academy in Vienna, for a year. This was because I loved the German language and had good grades at school overall. Also, the international environment was always something very tempting for me. Although I was away from home, I felt like I belonged there. The culture, people, international atmosphere at school felt great. 

Most high school graduates at this school can speak at least 5 languages and many choose diplomatic and international careers. After that I returned to Riga with much improved language skills, and went for two years to the Riga 49th Secondary school (Rigas 49.vidusskola), from where I graduated in 2008. The reason why I chose that school was because I wanted to pursue medicine, and specifically psychotherapy as my career at that time. I have always had the feeling of wanting to help people.

At some stage you decided you should get a University education abroad. How did that come about?

I always knew I would get a University education. It was never an option among my family, friends and others not to do it. Maybe it is a Latvian thing. There was no other option. Firstly, after school I changed what I wanted to study – it was something design related, I rebelled against all my plans in a way because during my school years I couldn’t join an arts school and explore that side of me. That was because I went to music school for eight years. So now I had the chance to do something visually arts related. So, I found an architecture degree in Erfurt, Germany.  However, soon after one semester I understood that this is not for me, just yet, although the course was good. During that time, I was also learning to become a photographer (something that grew out of a hobby I picked up in Vienna), and was a trainee graphic designer at an agency.   

And the UK… You ended up there and in fact went to two Universities there?

I travelled around Europe after quitting architecture studies, and was based in Luxembourg for a while. It was while I was there that I met Chris, who would later become my husband. It was at a gig that I attended, and he was playing the drums. He is English and he is one of the reasons I ended up in London. My other option was Berlin which I also love very much. After a year of working in a London City pub, I realised that I was ready to pursue studies again. I was brought back to thoughts about the medical field, for example nursing. When looking through possible courses I could take, I noticed Nutrition, and it clicked. I felt excited to learn the science of the human body, food, healthy policy, psychology, and about different research methods. So, I went to the University of Westminster, where I was studying for Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition. I was an excellent learning experience due to amazing lecturers and mentors, who not only taught us well, but also inspired.

I graduated from there with the first-class degree, and then we moved back to Latvia. I have very fond memories of that time, and I visit London regularly to meet my friends from back then. This is the first year that I had to skip.

So, Manchester came later – after Westminster?

I am studying remotely at Manchester Metropolitan University now, for a Masters in Business Administration, and have been since September 2019. By September 2021, I will have the MBA guaranteed. I was really craving more education after a five-year gap between the studies. The whole course is based online, and can be combined with work, activism, family time and social life. The best thing is that I don’t have to move any more, but still get the international study experience that I wanted from a reputable University.

When was it that your interest in politics was born?

I have been interested in politics since a young age, watching news, discussing history and political events with my family. Political debate was essential at every gathering. I knew from early on that voting is very important, and that you have to stand up for what is right. In the 9th grade, I dreamed of being a President, thanks to Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the first female President of Latvia, for inspiration, but my classmates predicted that I would become a lawyer or a psychologist. I think politics combines the two in a way.

Learning science and public health in London did help me to understand more deeply though, what great responsibility over human health that politicians have, and that evidence- based policy is very important.

And your involvement in more active politics started then?

Joining a party and becoming a candidate for parliamentary elections started because I am an activist at Skeptics Society, better known as SkeptiCafe.  We are promoting science and critical thinking. Often in our events, we would come to conclusions that there is a lack of political will for this and not enough politicians who support evidence-based policy for that. We observed a great lack of critical thinking among existing politicians, or perhaps they simply didn’t want to do the right thing.  This was one of the motivations for me to join a party and become a candidate for the elections. I was also encouraged to join politics by my friends who saw me as an active individual interested in politics – and that was the last little but needed push. I also felt that joining a political party would help me use my knowledge and passion for public health promotion productively.   

Of all your academic achievements, which will be the most important to you in the years ahead?

Definitely my science degree, and international experience in general. Before, I wasn’t so much aware of how to find and evaluate trustworthy information, what to believe and what not to. When you study science, where you have to reference proper scientific evidence to prove your point, then you have to read and understand which evidence is stronger and why. Critical, scientific thinking that I developed during those studies helps me in day to day life – starting with how to raise my child, to protecting my and my family’s health, and making various decisions in life generally as well as professionally.

And for politicians, especially, it is important for your views and your decisions to be evidence based, not just something read in a random post on Facebook, or your own experience, as you want to make the best possible decision for the society. International experience, however, gives you a different view on things that you thought you knew, challenges existing beliefs and certainly opens the eyes to the beauty of multiculturalism.

So, this SkeptiCafe is a real place?

No. It is originally the event name but we, the Skeptic Society call ourselves that way also more widely. The main goal is to promote science and critical thinking, which is also our society’s goal. We borrowed the event concept from Skeptics in a pub in the UK. We usually invite two experts in a field to talk. In the past, for example, about flu vaccine, alternative energy sources, global warming, psychology, COVID-19, and many other science related topics.  Experts present about the topic or subject, talk about the science behind it in a layman’s language and often with a touch of humour. The audience can ask questions, and get involved in a discussion. The themes of our events are usually linked to current events – questions that are being discussed in society. SkeptiCafe enables everyone to learn something new or build on their existing knowledge, and talk to actual experts about the topics in a relaxed atmosphere. We are active on social media, have a website where we have published different educational materials, articles translated in Latvian. In spring this year, when most people were at home, we hosted online events about disinformation, cybersecurity, critical thinking, practical scepticism, etc. The recordings, along with our other past events are all available to watch in our SkeptiCafe YouTube channel.

And you are one of the organisers?

Yes, I am. However, the events have been going on since 2011 – long before I joined in 2016.  We have a great team of people who have joined in at different points. For me, the skeptic journey began when I became a mom. I was getting frustrated from what I saw in popular online parenting forums – a lot of pseudo-science. I saw a lot of danger in this. I was fighting in comments, trying to convince people to, for example, to vaccinate. But then I founded my own forum – Skeptic Parents Facebook group, for similar minded people, where facts are valued more than opinions in order to help each other. Parents need some sort of support, and they seek it online which is fine. But it is a wild place. My group, now called ‘Evidence based Parenting Forum’ is a safe haven for people who are trying to raise kids respectfully, and with science in mind. Our opinions tend to differ too, but those discussions are on a completely different level – citing scientific evidence and data. I am also a co-founder of a similar International Facebook group: ‘Parents who actually science’. When I advertised my group to the SkeptiCafe people, they invited me to join their team of organisers.  I was very grateful for that, as it was a turning point in my life. I think everyone should try out voluntary, NGO work. It is an excellent way to grow your skills, knowledge, meet people outside of work, and simply to do something good for a cause you are passionate about.

You recently stood for election to the Riga City Council in the local elections. How did you get on?

I felt great when I was campaigning, and after the election. My party’s member, Martins Stakis is now the Mayor of Riga with a great team beside him from our Attistibai/Par/Progressivie(Development/For/Progressives) joint list of 4 modern, liberal and progressive parties. The restart of Riga is happening. I think it means we got on good! At the end of the day, it was a team work. I pushed myself and learned a lot. For example, I became more comfortable with being filmed, participating in public events, and met very nice people along the way. I am also now part of the ALDE,  European Women’s Academy, which will certainly help my campaigning skills and knowledge to evolve. The main thing is to learn and overcome fear, by doing what you fear.  

On what platforms were you standing?

I have been a member of ‘Kustiba Par!’ since Spring 2018, a socially liberal party. When this party was formed three years ago, I was very excited. Finally, I thought, there is a party I can vote for and get behind – one that respects individual freedoms, aims to protect those who require more help, and lead Latvia to a modern future, based on European values and evidence-based policy. With our allies we formed the party union for the 13th Saeima elections in 20008 ‘Development/For !’, and we gained 13 seats. I was a candidate also at those elections.

You work in Parliament as Head of the Deputy Secretary’s department. What does that involve?

Yes, I work with a wonderful politician – Marija Golubeva. She is fighting for Inclusive education, LGBTI+ rights, animal rights, better university education, etc. Our office in the Saeima’s (Parliament’s) Presidium has a variety of functions and the cooperation with other departments, committees, offices, is essential – therefore good communications & human skills are necessary. The ability to process a lot of new information is also something that comes in handy. It never gets boring in the Parliament’s political processes are dynamic and I learn something new every day. I love the chance to participate also in the work of the Development/For! parliamentary group and the law-making process as well as the opportunity to learn about different problems that people are faced with. Reading the letters addressed to the Parliament, as part of my job, never lets you forget the harsh realities that people face today –poverty, health, inequality, injustice, discrimination... I can go on.

You are also passionate about a new Partnership law that is being discussed?

Yes. In Latvian it is called the ‘Dzivesbiedru likums’ – or ‘Life-partners law’. It would be a law that would legalise people living together, but are not married. There are many couples and whole families who are bonded by love and care for each other, but are not protected by a law in case something happens to one of the people in the relationship. The only legal protection in Latvia is the institute of marriage, but this is not fair towards those who, according to rather recent changes in our constitution cannot marry – for example two men or two women. And, of course, there are many heterosexual families who also can’t or choose not to get married. But the law should still protect them if they are living together, having kids, taking joint care of the household, etc. This would also protect people who might want to get married, but haven’t has the chance to do it yet. The laws definitely need to be more inclusive for the realities of life. In the Maxima supermarket tragedy (in 2013), one woman’s soon-to-be-husband, with whom she already had a household together, died. But she was left without a compensation because legally she was ‘nothing’ to him. Very sad. This is why we need to improve our laws. The Dzivesbiedru likums, which is widely supported in the community would be the first step towards a better protection for all families living in Latvia.

How does Latvia compare with other EU countries on equal rights, equal pay, and LGBT?

We have one of the worst records in LGBTI+ rights in the whole of Europe. For example, people are protected against discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, and yet have little protection in Criminal Law. There is no regulation on partnerships, which itself is a broad area including inequality in social protection, inheritance, property rights, etc. Not only that – same sex marital unions that were made in, for example, Belgium or the UK where it is legal, are not even recognised in Latvia. A real life partner – wife or husband – is completely nothing in Latvia in the eyes of the law if they are a same sex couple. To me, this seems ridiculous.

There is a large social inequality here in Latvia too, according to OECD. It could be reduced by improving our tax and social security system. Those who suffer most are the elderly. I don’t yet see enough work being done to somehow change it. People in Latvia are hard working; we have a low unemployment rate, we work long hours, more than most other OECD countries, but we also have one of the highest poverty rates- 17%. We also have a low healthy life expectancy. This is not surprising – hard labour, low income and education level is a formula for early mortality. I am certainly not surprised when people leave Latvia to work elsewhere. They don’t move only because the wage is higher (although expenses can be higher too), however you get better social security, good education for children, pension and access to healthcare too. Sometimes politicians live in the illusions that, by creating a nice advert for Latvia about the homeland, giving a one-off support payment will be enough. It is not. You quickly lose patriotism if you feel like the state is not working in the interests of the society and its diverse people. This shows in the data too – Latvians distrust politicians a lot, as they feel betrayed and not heard. On the positive side – in the last 2018 Parliament elections, people voted for change- new parties, new members of parliament were elected, also for the first time us, the Liberals, and I think we are seeing improvements. For example, finally we have the Regional reform on the way after almost 30 years and this should reduce inequality in Latvia’s rural regions, by improving access to different services. I hope this Parliament will prove itself as one working in the interests of all who live and work here, or are abroad but belong to Latvia, and hopefully more people will return back.

Is the financial family support adequate, here in Latvia?

In short – no. Having a kid, especially more than one immediately puts a person in a financially disadvantaged situation, than someone without a kid in Latvia.  However, I disagree with those that say we need much bigger payments to families, as a main tool to improve our demographic situation. In the modern day, parents don’t simply plan their family around the financial support they will get, but factors like: good stable monthly income, healthcare access, good education availability, ability to afford housing, work-life balance, etc. Simply giving more money to families is nice, but sort of acts like a plaster on a broken leg.

So, these will be your main concerns now, and possibly a platform for your future campaigns?

Well, I think my main goal is to fight the different unfairnesses in all aspects of our society, essentially making people happier. This covers almost everything – from education, health, to public transport, environment and human rights. If I can do anything to help – I will be happy.

The people here appear to be healthier, fitter, slimmer than those in other European countries. Certainly when compared to the UK…

Actually, Latvia has a huge problem with obesity. We are again in a worse situation than the rest of Europe, additionally Latvians have the worst healthy life expectancy. Obesity and other lifestyle related factors, such as smoking, brings on many health-related problems and an extra burden on the health system, and at the end of the day- the economy. The result is increased risk of different non communicable diseases, for example, different cancers, cardiovascular disease, and many more.  Illness takes people of working age, out of work, forces them to rely on social support, and poses challenges for the country’s budget. Thus countries have to take prevention, health promotion more seriously. However, prevalence of factors that cause noncommunicable disease is linked to social inequality too. In short – investment in people’s health – both physical and mental – is an investment in the country’s future.

Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?

I’m in politics now, and I feel like I want to keep going – I like working to fix problems in society. There is a demand for young, science-literate people with international experience in the Latvian political landscape. Let’s see how that goes for me. Not everything can be planned in life. I couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago, that my life would be like it is today. It can always go in different ways. I will certainly keep learning, growing, be observant and decisive and will be taking care of my own wellbeing and relationships too– that’s for sure.

Your husband, Chris, is a big part of your life?

We have been together for 11 years now. We are best friends, a good team and have accomplished a lot together. His moral support has been very important for me. We have recently built a house here in Riga together. It had been my dream from childhood – to build my own house.  When we understood that we will have a child, we started looking for apartments and houses, but didn’t find anything appropriate for our needs. Therefore, we decided to build. We had strong ideas of design and knew what we wanted in terms of functionality. Our architects from GAISS brought their own unique perspective and made an excellent project. My job was managing the building process. It was certainly stressful, but now when we enjoy the result; we hear a lot of compliments about our house, it makes it worth it.