“That’s the Flight Attendant!”

So, I was flying home this past week and noticed that the flight attendant working my section of the plane looked familiar. I had been moved to a seat at the front of the plane and so she had just a dozen of us to tend to which meant I saw a lot of her. I also heard a lot from her once she got to talking with a White man in his late 50’s (a doctor) seated in the row in front of me. As they chatted I heard her first make a critical comment about the Affordable Care Act (“I would never be a doctor today given what Obamacare has done to our health system”), and then I heard her say that she is very involved in politics and would like Ted Cruz to win but if Trump gets the nomination she’ll vote for him because of his immigration stance.

Mind you, I was sitting there working on an upcoming race, racism and whiteness training and so this did not jive well with the mind-space I was in. Immediately I started judging her and her politics and could feel the gravitational pull of my own politics want to say something. I did not speak up, but if I’m honest I did shoot a half-hearted glare in her direction as she continued her very loud political commentary. I also heard her say that she has been working at the airline for 36 years and has so much seniority that she flies internationally for only a handful of months out of the year and then takes long periods of time “off”. This exacerbated my frustration (and judgement) because the reason she can do that is completely based on the fact that she is in a union. If there were no union supporting her, the airline would have fired her long ago in favor of newer workers with less seniority whom they could pay less. And yet, given her politics, I imagine she hates her union for its “lefty, liberal-ness”.

Her politics are not the reason for this reflection. Those ideas are a dime a dozen these days. What I want to focus on is my reaction. The more she talked, the more disturbed I became inside. After about 10 minutes I finally noticed the tumult of my internal landscape and paused to take some slow, deep breaths while I said something to the effect of “the love in me sees the love in you”, a phrase I heard a colleague say a few days prior, so it was in my head. I wanted to feel compassion for her. I wanted to be okay with her, despite how starkly divergent her views are from mine, and how dangerous I find them to be. I wanted to be able to meet her energetically with calmness, generosity, and a love for her as a person while still strongly disagreeing with her. I wanted all of that because it is wildly hypocritical of me to advocate for social justice but then only extend the core characteristics of it to those who agree with me. There can be no peace when kindness and care are selectively allocated, and in this case, when my self-righteous view of the world is used to determine how I afford various folks their humanity (or not). I was in a workshop two years ago (as a participant) and the topic was the importance of compassion in our social justice work, and one woman said, “I just can’t and won’t do it, and I don’t think I have to”. On one level I got where she was coming from – various forms of oppression have been dogging her throughout her entire life and so to extend compassion in moments connected to them was a heavy lift. But on another level, I felt myself wonder how we can afford to not be compassionate? The delusion, it seems, is that we actually have a choice in the matter.

Thus I wanted to ground into kindness and compassion toward her, and at one point was able to actually manifest some of it…that is, until I remembered that she was the flight attendant I got into a verbal altercation with on a flight in late September of 2014. I was flying home from the New York City climate march with my friend Karen and this flight attendant started bashing the march, loudly proclaiming to two other passengers that there is no such thing as climate change because she has read the research and it doesn’t exist (she explains the warming by the “natural solar cycle theory”…a theory that has been thoroughly debunked), and that those people in NYC are just losers, trouble makers and “idiots”. Yep, I lost it. I thought for sure that I was going to get put on the no fly list, but I didn’t care because that was an absurd thing to say. Thankfully it was a short interaction because we were arguing as the plane was starting to land. I was fuming as we disembarked but didn’t say anything else to her.

And here she was again, right in front of me, talking to the doctor for over 25 minutes or so about the Republican party, health care, how much they hate President Obama, foreign policy (those Syrians are wrecking their country), and the like. Though I was now even more triggered, the grounding in paved the way for no verbal altercations, no raising my voice, and not even the passive-aggressive shaking of my head and judgmental chuckling that I unfortunately do sometimes to show disagreement. I just returned to my mantra with a little more zeal – “the love in me sees the love in you”. I had to because I genuinely wanted to be different with this woman this time around. There is always a choice in moments like these and to be honest I choose to “react” more than I care to admit. Driven largely by my fear that we will not change in time and a heavy sadness I sometimes feel about how we treat each other, I often jump too quickly into the mix. Stepping out and strongly speaking up is not wrong of course, but when it is driven by fear, sadness and self-righteousness the result is usually the spreading of more the same. And so I wanted to meet her from a wiser and more grounded space knowing that it would not change her politics nor make her even stop talking so loudly, but it would change me, and that was what I was going for. If I cannot express love and care and a desire to hold those I so strongly disagree with in positive regard, I am not really that much different than the afraid and angry folks at those Trump rallies. Sure there are stark differences on the surface, but under it all, I’m coming from the same place.

Espousing peace and social justice needs to be a more deeply lived experience for me and this was a chance to try and meet this flight attendant with compassion, extend grace to her just as surely as doing so extends it to myself, and see what the power of love can really do in moments that feel intractable. The result was that I genuinely and with an honest curiosity began to wonder where her beliefs stemmed from and what kind of safety they gave her. I was reading some Marshall Rosenberg just before this flight and I started to wonder what needs her beliefs were meeting and if there was a way that I could join her in that space while not having to sow hate and fear. Said differently, is there a way I can help her feel deeply “okay” while simultaneously questioning her specious claims rooted in ideologies that are historically and currently connected to systems of oppression?

I’ll end this blog with that question – one that seems to resonate in all moments of addressing these issues. I’m not talking about pacifism; I’m talking about not reproducing the violence that has led us to so many painful places individually and collectively, and instead trying to find some grace and wisdom born out of our collective desire for safety and peace. Too often I hear social justice advocates reduce this conversation to either a) having a strong social justice critique and seeing compassion as “too soft”, or b) being rooted in compassion but letting go of some of the strength and clarity of a critique. I believe that the challenges of our time as they relate to social justice require a deep understanding of both – a fierce social justice lens and the capacity to never lose sight of the humanity of those we’re confronting. I don’t claim to have a handle on this, but I did want to share this moment with “that” flight attendant where I was able to catch a glimpse of it and its efficacy in this work. And as this election year ramps up I have a feeling the ever-louder levels of vitriol and attack will give me lots of chances to practice this process. Despite the tendency to try and justify it, human history has repeatedly shown that we cannot effectively fight violence with violence. That does not mean we sit back and let oppression happen. There is a third option of addressing violence and moving through moments of great conflict, and it is through the lens of kindness, compassion, fierce commitment to justice, and love. Not easy, but necessary. The delusion, again, is that we think we have a choice.

 

 

An Inside Job

This morning, as I sat down for a few minutes of contemplation and quiet, I began reading the forward of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step, written by H.H. the Dalai Lama. I didn’t get very far because the first line of the forward read, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” Only? Only. Intellectually, this was not new information. Physically and spiritually, however, I was a bit overwhelmed. Given all of the suffering and layers of personal pain each of the 7.5 billion of us might have to work through to get there, how can we possibly achieve peace if this is the “only” way. Almost immediately, I felt myself start to shut down.

Structural change is critical, of course, but from the above point of view it is a necessary triage but not the solution. Not for its lack of efficacy in creating some form of change, but for its inability to get to the heart of the problem – the internal disposition that we each take regarding issues of oppression. By disposition I mean the ideas, stereotypes, narratives, ways of being, norms, rules, expectations, mental frameworks, or whatever you want to call the constructs that oppression is built on. And, it has to change. Case in point, while I laud Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to no longer use grand juries in determining whether police should be prosecuted in cases of use of force, if I am reading the research correctly (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, The Guardian’s reporting on numbers of shooting deaths by police in 2015, etc.) there is something happening in the U.S. criminal justice system that no amount of structural change can fully address. There was something internal going on for the White people who shot Tamir Rice, who decided it was a just use of force and any “reasonable” person would have made the same decision, who decided not to prosecute based on the preceding “expert” testimonial, and who therefore decided that while it was “sad” there was truly nothing that could have been done differently. Yes, of course, there is something that could have and can be done, but it is the very thing that everyday White folks simply cannot even conceive of let alone do as a group – profoundly and completely change internally.

And by this I do not mean simply gain new information, I mean exploring a deep and fundamental change to the way White folks (and dominant group members in general) live in this world. It is one thing to have an “open” mind where I am willing to take in new information about race or gender or class, but that does not guarantee that the previously established mis-information will be uprooted and discarded. In trainings I often refer to this as akin to building a house on a Superfund site – you can have the best architects and builders for that new house, but if the soil in the foundation is contaminated with nuclear radiation and chemical toxins, they will inevitably seep into the foundation and eventually kill you. That is why superficial diversity trainings on “race” will never, ever change the nature of a police department’s long-standing approach to racial realities in this society. The centuries-old and toxic ideologies of race, racism and Whiteness will consistently seep in and literally kill unarmed Black men. The solution, therefore, is for White folks to completely displace these ideologies and the concomitant views that White people act on in every areas of our lives. This is incredibly deep work and it means that the ways of being for White U.S.-ers must transform. Importantly, this work cannot be a side project, or an “I’ll get to it later”. Rather the amount of energy, time and commitment that White folks have toward this must match the level of the problem.

As His Holiness indicated, this is no easy lift. So much of White peoples’ world view is attached to Whiteness – so much we cannot even perceive as being connected – family structures, owning property, what is considered social etiquette, the communication styles that are valued, the dress code, the ways of interacting with others regarding personal space, etc. So much of U.S. White lives are connected to Whiteness that it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. And yet, if Whites in this country do not undergo this kind of deep internal change, we simply cannot escape this racial nightmare. Every structural change will be undermined by the constancy of our socialization in and loyalty to the system of Whiteness. It will seem almost atavistic in how we keep reverting back to the ways of Whiteness. Again, I’m not knocking structural changes – we must change policing with body cameras, changes in prosecutorial power, changes in the ways police are trained, the demilitarization of our police departments, and so on. All that, however, does not undo the deeper currents of racial ideology that have so thoroughly saturated the minds of even the best White police officers.

The prosecutor’s decision regarding the Tamir Rice case was duly representative of how the systems of laws in the U.S. have responded to the racism directed to People of Color and Native peoples for over four centuries. This is not new. All of the absurd “decisions” by structures of power regarding race over the last two years are not new. What might be new is the recognition on the part of some White people in this country (the more the better) that the typical White liberal approach of supporting a few new laws and having taxpayer dollars go toward a new “training series” for police officers is not and never will be enough. Instead, White people (all White people) in this country need to undergo deep and profound internal changes, we need to reorient our moral, ethical, spiritual and social compasses, we need to upend the world as we know it and ultimately change if we have any hope of Tamir Rice being the very last unarmed Black male to be publicly murdered in this modern form of lynching.

It is time for White people to surrender our allegiance to Whiteness and be willing to admit that the corrosive thread of White privilege and White supremacy lives in each and every one of us. The source of this problem is the colonized elements of US White minds, bodies and spirits. This is not the problem of POC/N although it lands on their bodies and in their communities constantly. This is me, it is my issue, and it is squarely my responsibility to address it.

If you are White, please do not slip into White guilt and shame and trundle off feeling bad about your Whiteness. Also, please do not read this with an “amen” but then not act – I do not want to be your source of intellectual absolution but effectual inaction. Nor is this the time to deepen the centrality of Whiteness through a narcissistic reframe and endless navel gazing. This is a time to simply surrender and change.

And so what does this look like? Well, if I had that answer (or if anyone did) in some trite and “easy to read and do” format, we’d be out of this mess by now. I do, however, have a few thoughts to share on it and thus over the course of this year will be writing occasional installments of a series entitled “Surrendering Whiteness”. I frame it that way because it is really just that – I must let go of this thing that I perceive to give me safety and comfort (because on the surface it does, but in the long run it will destroy all of us). The change we seek has not come about because too many White folks simultaneously want racial oppression to end AND want the comfort of their lives to stay the same. I have felt that too at points in my life, and yet that is simply not possible given that the very comforts I crave and seek to protect have arisen off the backs of POC/N and at the lived expense of POC/N communities. As such, I must surrender my hold. Surrender – to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed; to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.

In closing, I want to be very clear that I do not pretend to have answers – the hubris of that is thankfully apparent even to me and my White self. But, I am in this struggle and so will share what happens with respect to my desire to surrender this Whiteness and what gets in the way. I am an average White person and have an average education about these issues, a lifetime of socialization into my role as a White person, a long history of dutifully playing that role, and find that the ways in which I enact my Whiteness are still largely invisible to me. Parallel to that, however, I am someone whose heart wants that internal peace, whose colonized body wants justice, and who can feel in my soul that this system is killing all of us and will surely be this society’s undoing. My values and beliefs are set against this system and yet my actions do not always manifest as such. And so I am a deeply flawed, wildly imperfect White person who will simply be sharing the struggle for the kind of internal change the Dalai Lama speaks of.

 

“Unintended Lessons from Kim Davis”

I was in an airport waiting to board a flight when my eye caught a visual of Kim Davis on CNN as she was released from jail. Arms aloft, posing “victorious,” flanked by her husband, she approached the microphones to recount her heroism. Mike Huckabbee’s presence only served to underscore the absurdity of this moment – here is a woman who blatantly denied her fellow residents of Kentucky their basic civil rights because, as she stated, God has imbued her with an entitlement to do so. Instead of emerging remorseful, contrite or even just slightly less righteous, she stepped out of jail and into the limelight as a “hero” of religious liberty and a protector of the sanctity of the institution of marriage.

To be sure, Kim Davis is not merely taking a position against queer folks gaining access to state-sanctioned marriage, she is manifesting a more deeply held version of homophobia and queer oppression rooted currently and historically in a deeply entrenched pattern of gender oppression, the religious supremacy of Christian hegemony, and political and social control endemic of White supremacy. These four systems of oppression are not new to each other. They have a long history of enforcing, guarding, and asserting each other’s dominance, and thus the actions of Kim Davis are merely the latest iteration of the nexus of these enduring systems in our society. And in the current racial climate, a discussion about the intersectionality of these four systems of oppression is not only critical to racial justice, queer justice, gender justice, or religious justice work, but more importantly, it speaks to the ever-present need for solidarity and coalition building in our nation’s larger movement for social justice. Thus the good news is that an analysis of Kim Davis’ actions can not only show us what the intersection of these oppressions looks like on the ground, it can also can give us insight on what an inter-liberatory movement can look like from the ground up.

So, as I watched the coverage of her initial refusal, incarceration, subsequent release, and meeting with the Pope, I felt an all-too-familiar ache regarding a lack of intersectional analysis resulting in a missed opportunity for deep and broad organizing. Obviously queer people have an investment in organizing around Davis’ actions, but those seeking religious freedom and in particular an end to Islamaphobia at the hands of Christian hegemony also had a stake in the fight here. In a country with local municipalities passing ordinances “outlawing sharia law”, it is noteworthy that she (and many Christian evangelicals like her) see her God and her religion as a viable reason to violate the law – the same law that they want other religions to have no influence over whatsoever. This hypocrisy is not new, it is rooted in 500 years of Christian hegemony driving elements of this nation’s de jure and de facto laws. And so, it is unfortunate that those who have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored religious oppression did not step up and speak out in greater numbers here.

Similarly, those seeking racial justice missed a chance to connect her actions to the privilege and supremacy that Whiteness affords with respect to the laws and “norms” of this society, and the ways that access to structural power is determined by racial categories ruthlessly policed by the White Imperial Gaze. In case you’re not clear on this, if Kim Davis was a woman of color, how do you think the “media” (read mainstream, corporate media) would have responded? How would Mike Huckabee have responded? Still unsure of the connection? If Kim Davis had been a woman of color, and her partner a man of color, they would not have fit the “American family” image so deeply dictated by Whiteness. Kim Davis is not just fighting for the preservation of “family values”, she is fighting for the preservation of White family values because what it means to be a real “American” family is currently inextricably linked to Whiteness. Surely, if she were a woman of color it would have gotten some media attention, but what I saw on that airport television would never have been reported as it was and she would not at all have been seen as the vanguard and great protector of the core values of this nation’s families because Whiteness does not cast People of Color as truly “American”. Ask any seventh-generation Chinese American how many times they have heard, “Wow, you speak great English! How long have you been in the U.S.?” and it will become clear that “American” equals White. Organizing around Kim Davis’ actions through a racial justice lens could have afforded those of us committed to RJ an opportunity for deeper and more effective coalition building and intersectional work. Instead, it was written off as a “gay issue” and our chance disappeared.

And finally, as Planned Parenthood faces intense scrutiny and is fighting for its life in order to help women and trans* folks fight for their physical and reproductive lives, it is surprising to me that gender justice advocates all over the country were not more vocally opposed to Kim Davis’ actions. The same mindset that she employs to justify her homophobia is the same mindset that seeks to control women’s bodies and deny access to basic civil rights for trans* folks. The maintenance of a gender binary cannot be understated in the roots of homophobia. Suzanne Pharr’s classic testament to homophobia as a weapon of sexism is as true today as it was when she wrote it 30 years ago. Sadly, mainstream feminists did not seize the chance to connect these issues and thereby engage more queer folks in the gender justice movement.

And so as I watched this coverage, I looked for my colleagues fighting for religious freedom, racial justice, and gender justice to call Kim Davis out, but the only activists I saw were those working for queer rights and I grieved, once again. Mainstream social justice movements of this country are still stuck in siloed (and in the end, fractured) politics whereby we are individually weakened by dominant power structures. We are so much stronger together, but we are not constructing an analysis and a mode of intersectional conversation in our daily lives that affords the kind of deep and broad movement necessary for real change in this society. Certainly there are groups who are, in fact, doing this work. Take for example the queer and trans* POC/N folks that took over the stage at this year’s Creating Change conference. While that was a beautiful moment, it was just that – a moment. Not for lack of trying on the part of the queer and trans* folks, to be sure, but for lack of change on the part of larger LBGT organizers (and perhaps the movement as a whole) driving that conference. Just as I have not seen enough connections forged in response to Kim Davis, I also see the queer community miss countless moments regarding racial justice. No one is immune from this critique.

In a political moment where Donald Trump is leading the Republican race (and his peers respond with increasingly aggressive and often outright hateful language trying to keep up with him) I am left to wonder if we who seek social justice will come together in time to deny power to his platform (or any like it). I’m not hating on Trump but I’m deeply concerned about the tenor of his message and even more troubled it has a place to land in this country. A united front can rebuff hateful politics. A range of isolated movements, however, cannot. Perhaps Kim Davis and the missed opportunity there can serve as a bit of a reminder that we must come together, in relationship and in solidarity, if we want this society to embrace a more just future.

 

Educating AND organizing

Lately I have had the chance to do a bit more reading and research than I usually do and in the process I have been reminded of the importance of the balance between education and organizing. I say “organizing” instead of “action” because dominant group members have a penchant to learn about oppression and then want to run out and “do something”. Often they are doing it by themselves, often it is wrong-headed, and often it is coming from a place of condescension and the idea that subordinate group members “need saving.” Of course, the intention of these folks is usually good, but the execution and the thought put into it are almost always lacking in awareness and skill. Organizing, however, is a different thing altogether – organizing implies that one is not going solo. Organizing is about drawing people together, building relationships, taking the time to understand interconnections, intersections, and points of departure. Organizing is often coming from a place of love, of vision, of commitment to the whole, and from a belief that together we are stronger. At its best, organizing is lead by those the oppression is targeting while dominant group members are there side-by-side, but not running the show.

My work, however, is very education heavy, and thus this piece is directed toward educators. The 24 years that I have been working around social justice issues has overwhelmingly been in an educational way. I have also done some level of organizing, but it has paled in comparison to the amount of work I have done in various educational areas. And yet, of late I have been reminded in various ways that education without action / organizing can lead to intense cynicism, intellectualization of issues that are literally killing people daily, and a means to remove oneself from the struggle, pain and “mess” of trying to end systems of oppression. It doesn’t help that much of my work has been in higher education where the additional layer of that structure serves to exacerbate systems of oppression even as it so often claims to be dismantling them.

To address this it seems wise as educators to not only ask how students or workshop participants can use the information in their daily work to make change, but to ask how can we use it collectively to make even greater change? I was speaking to a group of high school teachers just yesterday about this very dynamic and suggested that in my view education is not meant to “better a person” or to “help a student actualize their fullest potential and achieve the greatest success.” Rather, it is about helping each and every person learn what they need to learn to best serve society as a whole.

Yep, it’s a bit utopian, but what is wrong with that? I will not be told that because the idea is too big it cannot be dreamed, particularly if the alternative is a neo-liberal, racist educational system. That structure has had its day, and as a result of its misguided approach to education we are living in a society that for the last 35 years, has seen the gaps between the have’s and have-not’s grow and grow.

And so I want education, in all its sundry forms, to forever be in the service of the greater good, helping people connect, organize, and learn to live together in ways that are not exploitative, hyper-individualistic, and caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of neo-liberal, prison / military industrial complexes that serve to only propagate systems of oppression, colonization and ultimately inhumanity.

This is not to say that organizing is the end all be all, because without education and the critical, complex frame of analysis it can provide, organizing can at times reproduce the very systems of oppression we are trying to eradicate, just in a less obvious form. This often happens across social justice issues like the fatal mistake made by the white, largely middle-class gay men who were “leaders” of the LBGT movement when they stated that “Gay is the new Black”. Horrible. Harmful. And, simply ignorant. As those men were trying to rally folks to their cause, their utter lack of critical race analysis, of historical knowledge, and of intersectional understanding had their statements work to opposite purposes and serve to push People of Color/Native organizers away.

Neither education nor organizing is more important than the other, nor are they discreet entities where you do one and then go to the other, and they are certainly not developmental where you have to start in one place and only once completed can you then go to the other. In a more animated and realistic way they are subtly, beautifully and sometimes imperceptibly symbiotic, and they can manifest in incredibly simple moments like a young person I know, when hearing of the Ferguson decision saying, “That’s totally messed up (analytical lens). We should do something (organizing lens).” That is one of the best pair of sentences an educator can ever hear. There it is, both sides of what Paulo Freire charged education to be – the practice of freedom.

And so if you are an educator or trainer, lean more in the “what should WE do about these issues?” direction as you teach and train. In a training setting this means giving more space for concrete organizing not at the end of the session, but throughout the session – let folks use each element of the training as a template for attempted organizing. Remember that the litmus test of whether they are organizing or not does not have to be some concrete action. Let steps like effective dialogue, deeper understandings of other positions, careful consideration of the range of steps to be taken and implications of each and an interrogation of social and political power be measures of organizing. Ultimately, let the rising of the notion of “we” in the training or classroom space be a sign of organizing. Certainly, if more comes of it that would be great. But be careful about the “fix it” tendency and instead use that classroom or training space to cultivate an understanding of shared responsibility and collective action. This will annoy White folks, cis-gender men, professional middle-class folks, and the like to no end, but simply see that annoyance and impatience as a sign that you are doing a good job and that the process of collective work and shared responsibility is in that very moment working to dismantle structures of oppression one dominant consciousness at a time.

Some resources for teaching and training for both education and organizing can be found at web sites such as Teaching Tolerance (www.teachingtolerance.org), Rethinking Schools (www.rethinkingschools.org), New York Collective of Radical Educators (www.nycore.org), and the Zinn Education project (www.zinnedproject.org).

Much Ado About Cecil

My good friend Karen and her partner Jamie just returned from three weeks in Africa where they went to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, whose mission is to rescue elephants. Mostly they rescue babies who are orphaned because their parents are hunted for their ivory and then left to die with the babies also left there, witnessing the whole thing. And, if you know anything about the recent research regarding elephant intelligence and social bonding, you know what this means for these babies. Upon her return, she shared the details about the situation regarding elephants throughout Africa and beyond – one is killed every 15 minutes somewhere in the world (see www.iworry.org for more information).

Shortly after her return Cecil the Lion was killed by Dr. Walter Palmer, a Twin Cities dentist and big game hunter. Two days after the news broke Karen joined 250 other people protesting at his office, effectively shutting it down for two weeks. As the furor over Cecil was shared globally and nationally some interesting dynamics arose, the most common of which was a critique that went something like this: “With all of the incredibly important and substantial issues both globally and locally, isn’t it odd that we are caring this much for one lion? How many people starve every day on this planet? Or, how many men of color are killed by the police every year in the U.S.? Aren’t those more important issues?” Another friend’s priest offered up this exact critique from the pulpit just a few Sundays ago.

To be sure the range of pressing needs domestically and globally are substantial. And, in comparison to the horrors many folks trying to migrate to Europe face, the ongoing systematic murder of Black and Brown folks by structures of power in the U.S., the concerns regarding climate change, and the economic reality that by 2016 1% of the world’s population will hold more wealth than the rest of the entire world (see Oxfam International’s report “Wealth: Having it All and Wanting More“), Cecil’s death as an isolated incident can seem almost trivial. And yet, while we hold in balance the magnitude of need for our human community, it seems problematic to dismiss out of hand the concern regarding Cecil. I say this because for me the issues surrounding Cecil connect to so many of these other issues demanding our attention, and thus his death (as well as the inevitable death of his six pups that the new alpha male will kill to establish his dominance, meaning that Dr. Palmer actually killed seven lions that day) can serve as a vehicle for a more deeply and broadly interconnected conversation and analysis of our global reality. After all, this is fundamental to our work as social justice educators – unpacking siloed content to make connections to the many intersections and interdependencies found with systems of oppression. And in that spirit I’d like to share a few thoughts about Cecil.

First, let’s interrogate the thinking behind the death of Cecil. It should not be lost on anyone that Walter Palmer is a White, U.S. male with substantial economic access. Thus the meaning of a man with these social identities and resources, heading to Africa and knowingly poaching in order to obtain his sporting desire is one of countless examples of the hubris and disregard fostered by White, Western, imperialist hegemonic ideologies. I say Walter Palmer knowingly poached, because he cannot simultaneously assert that he is “an expert big game hunter and always hunts within the bounds of the law” and suggest that he did not know they were poaching or breaking the law. And so, in reality this is one small example of the broader scope of 500 years of Western countries running roughshod over the lives, laws and lands of Africa and people of African descent. I’m not saying Dr. Palmer was intentionally coming from this space. What I am saying is that the arrogance that made him think he could do it and get away with it, and the very notion that the laws of Zimbabwe or of nature do not apply to him, make him one of endless manifestations of the ethos of Western colonialism and imperialism. This is the conversation I would like to be having with respect to Cecil the Lion’s murder. Why not talk about the fact that Western, market-driven, neo-liberal and neo-colonial forces are in play with the extermination of Cecil and countless species on this planet and that human actions are fundamentally threatening this planet’s ecological balance? Why are we not talking about the ideologies of dominance that support Dr. Palmer’s actions and make his worldview normative to so many in the West? This, I think, would make the death of Cecil and his cubs at least not be in vain.

Second, to suggest that the conversation about Cecil is somehow separate from other social issues belies the deep and complicated interconnectivity of so many of today’s major social concerns. For example, part of the reason those two guides were knowingly breaking the law was that they were facing difficult economic times and needed Dr. Palmer’s money – money they would get if he in turn got what he wanted. You just have to take one step back to then connect issues of poverty and the way the wealthy West (and increasingly in recent pan-African history, China) has used its economic, political and social resources to maintain an economic hold on so many parts of the continent and thereby brazenly absconded with so many of its resources. It takes only one more step back to see how this poverty has arisen in part from the IMF and World Bank, and the neo-liberal economic systems they represent, which have forced countless nations in Africa, Central America (and more recently in Europe) to cleave to consumptive, “developed”, and tiered economic policies and programs which inevitably lead to systems of “have’s” and “have not’s”. One more step back will then locate how these long-standing economic realities impact women and children, inform the AIDS epidemic throughout the continent, shaped the world’s lethargic response to the Ebola crisis, informed Europe’s reaction to the massive waves of migrants attempting to enter, and shaped an overall paternalistic and dehumanizing approach by the West to Africa for the last 500 years. In this way, the death of Cecil could have helped us all go more deeply into a conversation about the profound interconnectivity of various issues as opposed to placing them in competition with each other. Pope Francis demonstrated the former disposition in his recent encyclical when he made direct connections between climate change and poverty, the trafficking of women and children, and mass migration (thereby demanding a deep reevaluation of immigration law). All social justice issues are related and we would do well as educators and activists to remember that and work harder to make those connections. There is room for everyone and every movement, and we will be most effective when we stay connected.

Third, Cecil’s death can help us all consider our relationship to the natural world. His being hunted as trophy and “sport” is emblematic of Westerners’ view of the natural world as a whole – that nature is meant to be dominated, controlled, and is there simply for the use of humanity. This idea is not new, but Dr. Palmer’s approach to big game hunting as a whole echoes this brazen arrogance toward the natural world. Shortly after the story broke he mentioned that he does not talk about his big game hunting with his dental patients because it is often a controversial and emotionally charged issue. Unfortunately, that realization did not give Dr. Palmer reason to consider whether what he was doing was right, it just made him do it less overtly. Similarly, the carbon industry has known for decades that the climate scientists are completely correct in their assessment of what increased CO2 will do to this planet, and yet instead of ceasing or reworking their industry, they simply become less and less public about the destruction they are wreaking. Short-term financial gains (and the subsequent destruction of the planet) strongly outweigh the long-term consequences. Similarly, the short-term desires of Dr. Palmer hugely outweighed any chance at conscience, humility or accountability that might have helped him see the absurdity of what he was doing.

There are still other points to be gleaned from this case but I do not want to belabor the point. Simply put, Cecil the Lion’s death could have served as a touch-point not only for animal conservation but an incredible range of other topics and issues, all of which demand our attention and resources. Unfortunately, mainstream corporate media chose not to address these connections and instead kept his death as a siloed issue, replete with drama and sensationalism, but devoid of depth and complexity. The onus, therefore, is on all of us to not let any incident such as this be reduced to its barest of meaning and instead seek out complexity and connections so that we can strengthen all of our social justice work.

Why Not D & I

by Heather Hackman

I was on the phone with a client the other day explaining the difference between Diversity and Inclusion (D & I) and Equity / Social Justice (E/SJ) work and was reminded yet again of how important it is to be clear on our language and the conceptual frameworks we are employing as we engage in E/SJ work in our various organizational settings. D & I phrasing is used extensively in a range of contexts and yet rarely is the efficacy of such an approach questioned. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs and newsletter postings, “diversity” work is focused on developing an “awareness and appreciation of difference” with the presumption that this will translate into substantial organizational change. Unfortunately, this is inaccurate as there is no direct link between becoming more “aware” or “appreciative” of a difference and the dismantling of systems of power, privilege and access to resources. Presuming that building relationships across lines of difference through activities that engender awareness and appreciation is the solution serves to reduce structures of oppression to mere “misunderstandings of each other” or in educational vernacular, prejudice. And while these are indeed elements of how oppression operates, they do not even begin to touch on the complex and yet nuanced history, systemic realities, and structural functioning of systems of oppression. Nothing in a diversity approach implies or guarantees that issues of power, access and privileges held by the dominant group get addressed. In fact, many organizations spend years and years on diversity work and never get to systemic oppression because diversity work simply cannot get to there – it’s the wrong tool for the job.

Similarly, “inclusion” is problematic in that by its very nature it implies assimilation and the reification of the dominant group’s framework. Put simply, who is doing the including? What are folks being included in? A superficial example would be two friends who make plans and then say to each other, “we should include Chris and Pat”. By default it is understood that these plans are not going to be a co-creation among the four of them, nor will much feedback from Chris and Pat be welcome by the two instigators. Instead, the first two are open to include Chris and Pat into plans that are already established, into an idea that is already laid out, and into ways of being that are already prescribed e.g. “come with us to a show we have already chosen / plans we’ve already made.” Thus, when an organization seeks to be “more inclusive” it is really saying that we want to find ways to get more People of Color, more women and trans* folks, more LBTQI folks, more People with Disabilities, etc. into our workplace or organizational structure. There is no real intention of having those groups of people help craft and shape the core elements of how the organization operates, nor is there any intention of yielding power to those relative “newcomers”. Instead, the organization is looking to find people from those groups who are willing to go along with plans that are already prescribed and behave in ways that are already expected (often called “organizational culture”). On occasion this is not wholly terrible given that some organizations might be so wonderful that the costs of doing this for these “included” folks are not too high. However, to presume that this effort at inclusion is Equity and Social Justice work is a huge misstep because not only are systems of power and privilege not examined, but they are actually reified but the unwritten rules of the inclusion process.

Taken together a mere awareness of and appreciation for “diversity” and an effort to “include” marginalized groups into an organization is a far cry from what is called for when addressing deep and long-standing issues of inequity. Moreover, these approaches can often lead to higher levels of assimilation pressure for members of marginalized groups while keeping the very systems that are responsible for that marginalization intact within the organization.

Take for example, LBGTQ rights and specifically the issue of marriage. Research from a range of LBGTQ political groups demonstrated that when heterosexual folks got to know LBGTQ folks, they were more likely to support marriage equality (depending on where their opinions originally resided). Reading these studies, one would think that D & I work actually is the solution to issues of LBGTQ oppression. And that would be true if the goal were mere “inclusion” into the dominant group’s paradigm. What I mean is, so long as LBGTQ people didn’t do anything to change the fundamental processes of marriage or impact its meaning in any real way, the heterosexual allies in these studies were in favor of LGBTQ people “having the same rights as I have”. What these allies did not attend to was the fact that many queer people (as evidenced in research done by progressive queer organizations) did not want to simply be “included” in a system that they believe actually limits the ability of LGBTQ people to define and express their relationships and families outside of something that is modeled on traditional heterosexual relationships. In this way we can see how a D & I approach to LGBTQ liberation might actually get in the way of broader LGBTQ equity and justice goals. Additionally, an inclusion lens does not require heterosexuals to identify what systems and structures lead to the oppression of LBGTQ folks in the first place or dig deeply into the question of what needs to change with respect to heterosexual privilege and notions of heteronormativity. A focus on these deeper issues, issues not addressed in D & I work, is necessary for true systemic change regarding oppression to take place and is why a D & I approach is insufficient when working for social justice.

Despite the substantial limitations, a D & I approach (to what are really E/SJ issues) is the current preferred pathway in many organizations for a range of reasons. First, D & I is easy. Most D & I activities, trainings, and implementation schemas do not take much time, do not require extensive learning on the part of participants, and have a low level of emotional risk. I have attended countless D & I trainings over the years and they have never elicited much resistance, anger or frustration on the part of those in power within organizations precisely because they do not challenge those systems of power, and instead often make those in power feel comfortable. However, for whichever marginalized group is the topic of the D & I training, limitless frustration and discomfort arises because it is painfully obvious that the small steps outlined in D & I trainings are insufficient in addressing the deep and important issues affecting them daily.

Additionally, as mentioned above, D & I work does not deeply and critically address systems of power or access to resources, and therefore requires no change on the part of the dominant group. A while back I was conversing with a district superintendent who was more committed to “letting everyone on the leadership team grow in their learning” than honestly addressing issues of whiteness and their impacts on the overall staff’s efficacy. Implicit in this leader’s comments was the deference given to softer diversity-based approaches that did not require any change on the part of the White leadership. The effect of this focus on “team building” was to make it an easy place for White folks regardless of how the People of Color / Native people felt about the “equity” direction of the district, what was happening on the team, or their levels of feeling safe and supported. D & I approaches have the tendency to cater to the patterns and processes of the dominant group often at the lived expense of the marginalized group.

And finally, leaders often choose D & I over E/SJ based on an inaccurate understanding of the developmental processes involved in learning about E/SJ issues. To be sure, leaning into E/SJ work is a developmental process no matter what the issue or one’s identity. For people who identify as women and trans*, addressing internalized sexism and gender oppression is as developmentally important as it is for those who identify as men to examine their own privilege, power and sexist beliefs and actions. Unfortunately, too many people believe that D & I is the initial developmental step in this process when in reality it is a sidestep. In trainings I often give the analogy of fruit when talking about D & I and E/SJ with the former being oranges and the latter being apples. If an organization wants to address its apple concerns (equity issues) and make all kinds of apple products (take equity and social justice actions), it simply makes no sense to put oranges into the recipe. In fact, you could truck in every orange in the state of Florida and no amount of them would produce apple pies, sauces and ciders. The point being that yes, learning about E/SJ issues does have a developmental component to it, but the steps of that reside within the E/SJ framework and are not facilitated by a D & I framework.

In sum, I want to be clear that D & I work can have its uses, but that it must be engaged in with a clear eye toward this framework’s actual capacities. D & I cannot and will not ever be a sufficient substitute for E/SJ work, and for reasons mentioned above it is often consciously or unconsciously used as a way to deflect E/SJ work from happening well or at all.

Living a Tradition

By Heather Hackman

I had the incredible privilege of being able to travel to Bodh Gaya in late December and it was amazing. If you are not familiar with this place, it is the home of the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was constructed by Emperor Asoka 2,250 years ago (the current temple is from the 5th -6th c. CE). It is said to be the most important, most reverent place in the world for Buddhists and the reasons for that were evident as soon as I walked in. The Mahabodhi Temple itself is not terribly remarkable as structures go – roughly 55 meters high, a basic stepped design, and a range of tiers surrounding it that have trees, grass and ample area for practitioners to gather. Overall, it seemed to me like so many parks, public squares or communal gathering spaces all over the world save for one thing – the intention and earnestness with which people were practicing their devotion to Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. The vibe coming off of the countless monks and nuns practicing there made this temple utterly compelling, energetic, enlivening, and full of hope.

I do not identify as “a Buddhist”, because that has the air of Western “try this cool thing out”-ness to me and so I simply say that I have a deep love and reverence for Buddhist philosophy and find great personal and professional value in so many of its tenets. Despite my attempts at being reserved and cautious, I completely and unabashedly fell in love with the Mahabodhi Temple and the practitioners around it. I could feel myself long to be among them. In fact, I visited a total of four times in the very brief time we were in Bodh Gaya. I wanted to better understand this place, but more so I wanted to soak up what felt like its unbounded hope, possibility and peace. In trying to comprehend what the essence of this feeling was I realized that it emanated from the fact that I was among folks who had completely surrendered to their “faith” and were not “practicing” anything but instead were truly living their tradition with their full selves. Their bodies, their minds, their hearts and their daily activities were completely bent toward following the Eight-fold Noble Path, thereby making their contribution to peace in the world. Buddhism suggests there is an end to suffering but it requires facing the depths of fear (aversion), greed (attachment) and delusion (false perception). I’m sure you can see the parallels between these and other traditions where they are labeled differently, perhaps, but speak to the same core elements of what makes us suffer within ourselves and certainly what makes us create suffering for others.

This living the tradition is the basis of the Dalai Lama’s invocation for peace, his tireless work for the freedom of Tibet from the oppressive and violent rule by China, his support for LBGTQI equal rights, his deep and increasingly pronounced call for environmental justice, and his work within his own tradition around gender liberation and equity. Buddhism, when lived, gives him no other option than to commit his life energies toward the end of suffering, and more specifically the end of oppression. Buddhism suggests that in oppression not only those targeted are hurt but those who are doing the oppression are also fundamentally dehumanized and thus liberation for some liberates all. Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, Cornell West and Gloria Anzaldua also put forth that base notion that everyone caught in systems of oppression are diminished and dehumanized by the very existence of oppression. This is not a new idea, bumper stickers abound with the slogan “no one is free when others are oppressed”. But, there is a profound difference between the tokenizing and weakly offered way that dominant group members often say this versus the way that people who are truly living their tradition actually commit their whole selves to this.

And in fact, that is what social justice is going to take. In racial justice trainings I often offer up the very simple point that if racial oppression is happening “this much” (and I fully raise my left hand into the air), but White people are responding only “this much” (and I hold my right hand at shoulder level) then a simple bar graph analysis should help us see that if the solution is not proportionate to the problem, the problem will persist. And so, what does it then take for White folks to move their part of the bar graph up? I suggest that it is the move from “doing racial justice work” to “living racially just lives” and that is where “living one’s tradition” can (not always, of course, depending on the tradition) be of assistance.

Case in point – I have been working with a group of Unitarian Universalists over the last two years and I have to say that this is a pretty earnest group. Historically, White Liberalism has abounded at this overwhelmingly White church, and so there was no dearth of projects and activities they have been doing to address issues of Race and help communities of color fight Racism. Importantly, however, that is not at all the same as doing racial justice work (which rigorously looks at White Privilege and White Supremacy as much as it does Racism), nor is it a pathway to living a racially just life. But, this is right where living their UU tradition of love, love and more love comes into play – many of them have come to a place of realizing that if they do not do RJ work, they cannot fully experience their faith. Conversely, by leaning more deeply into their faith, they will find the support and motivation to dig more deeply into their own Whiteness and work to dismantle it. In short, they will move to being White people who are living their tradition because they are actively seeking to live in racially just ways.

Similarly, I have been doing work for almost a year now with a Catholic University and it is through their commitment to Catholic social teachings and the guidance of their commitment to the tenets of Christianity that they have been able, as a roughly 90% White campus, to lean more honestly into racial justice work and move away from the seduction and safety of tepid and easy “diversity” work. They, too, see this movement as a way to live their tradition and in turn have their tradition support their work.

I am not naïve enough to think that these assertions are not fraught because of the historical use of “faith” as the simultaneous tool of and cover for racial oppression on the part of White people (as well as almost every other form of oppression globally – the Burning Times in Europe, Christian hegemony and colonization, and the denial of rights to LBGTQI folks to name a few). The work of Paul Kivel on Christian hegemony and its role in systems of oppression is well worth exploring on this point. Alongside these hugely problematic uses of various systems of faith and religion we can see the ways that these belief systems have the capacity to provide strength and hope and guidance in the quest for human rights and peace among living beings on this planet. Thus, I am not talking about doctrine or scripture, nor am I talking about the distortions of any belief system to serve the needs of dominant power structures. Having said this, I have seen in my own life and in my work with communities of faith that there is great power in the reciprocal nature of one’s tradition reinforcing one’s commitment to living a racially (socially) just life, and then the realities of living that life breathing substance and grace into one’s tradition. In fact, I think it would be quite refreshing if those who identified as Christian and “anti-racist” worked a little harder to reclaim the territory some in their faith have colonized in the name of Racism (and other forms of oppression) over the years. Not being a Christian this is an outside opinion, but I cannot imagine Jesus would agree with any of the marginalizing, oppressive and violent talk espoused in the name of being a good Christian, nor would he have been cool with “liberal” Christians’ tolerance of such claims.

Put simply, I have had the privilege of working with more and more communities of faith over the last few years and I can see that these traditions are indeed powerful sources of change, hope, and ultimately peace when they are lived in accordance with values of justice, equity and the lauding of core human dignity over all else. This is what I was able to experience at the Mahabodhi Temple as my friend Michael and I took half an hour to “sit” alongside the monks and nuns who were so deeply engaged in their practice. The shared commitment to growing and changing, the shared struggle embedded in that process, and the wisdom and compassion at the heart of it all was so inspiring I was crying tears of gratitude on more than one occasion while there. I want to connect to that power and source of strength within myself more, and so being in the presence of such wise and committed practitioners gave me increased hope and energy to suit up and show up in an effort to live a racially just life.

Pushing Back on the System of Fear

By Stephen Nelson

Since the New Year and my writing about my fears of people of color, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. As I re-read my blog post about my upbringing and the instillation of fear of people of color, especially black people, it strikes me as somewhat hopeless. Especially the part where I say:

“This fear is ingrained. It is automated. It is immediate. It is engaged even if we are not conscious of it. We don’t have to do anything to make it happen. It just does. Just like my car doors locking; my stereotyping, bias, and fears play out automatically. Sometimes I’m aware of this, and sometimes I’m not.”

This feels like maybe we can’t do anything about it. This is absolutely not the case. This is not the case because the patterns I’ve identified within myself are the product of intensive socialization on the part of a White-dominant system. This system miseducated me by creating false narratives about people of color through mainstream media and by segregating me from people of color to decrease the chances that these narratives would be disproven through my own relationships with people of color. This is not just “happenstance”, but rather a calculated and intentional move on the part of the White dominant structure in order to make sure that White people go along with the system and keep it in place. So, my fear only SEEMS ingrained because it is meant to feel that way. Thus it will also feel unchangeable in the minds of Whites.

This past November I was presenting at the Overcoming Racism Conference in St. Paul. We had a lively group in our workshop with approximately 20 participants. I presented on the social determinants of health as well as institutionalized racism and how it affects health care delivery. I focused quite a bit on stereotyping and unconscious biases of all of us, specifically health care providers. Here is one of the slides I showed during that presentation:

Nelson Blog Image 1

 

After the workshop was completed and I was leaving the building to trudge through the snowy cold streets of St. Paul to get to my car, one of the participants of my workshop flagged me down. She was a person of color. We talked for quite a long time and she was very complimentary about the workshop. She did give me one piece of advice. She suggested that I change but one-word in the entire presentation. As I pondered her recommendation, and I continue to do so, she is absolutely right. Since then, I have changed the above slide. This is how the slide reads now when I present on the topic of health care provider bias. See if you can see the subtle but so important and impactful change.

Nelson Blog Image 2

A single word can have such profound meaning. One single word. Saying that unconscious biases are normal lets White people off the hook in a sense. White people cannot help it. It is just the way it is. There is nothing Whites can do about it. My use of the word normal essentializes unconscious racial biases.

One single word. Using the word common helps to illustrate the frequency with which White health care providers rely on stereotyping during work with patients and families. I do feel that it is important to stress the important role of health care provider bias in the persistence of racial health inequity. Using the word common does this without essentializing biases for the listener and for myself.

I am so very thankful for the advice I received. One simple word.

My fear and biases are not normal. These are not an essential part of my being. They are not permanently ingrained. As I stated in January: “So, if I am honest with you I will say that I still have some fear of black people.” But what might be more accurate would have been to say, ‘if I am honest with myself, I am still plagued by the socialized fear of black people I was given throughout my youth and into early adulthood’ because this is really what I am struggling with in my daily interactions with patients, friends, family and everyday folks I encounter throughout my day. I did not ask for the messages I received, no White person ever does. And they have taken root and it is a slow and arduous process of noticing the fear, confusion and misunderstanding they produce in me on a regular basis.

And, I work daily to undo this and push against this fear and unconscious bias. Before entering the room to see a patient, I take just a few seconds to check my bias and potential discomfort if the patient is a different race than my own. I focus on our shared humanity. I can find something in common with a person of color as easily as I can with a white upper middle-class suburban family. I find that I spend just as much time with families of color as I do with white families. This helps to break down some of the fear and mistrust of the healthcare system that affects so many patients of color. It has also translated into my offering specific therapies to all appropriate patients without my preconceived notions of their ability to adhere to our treatment plans.

But, I also know that this kind of individual “self-check”, while important, is not enough. For this reason I also try to see how the system of racial oppression is situated at work and do my best to challenge those structures and the ways they deny resources, in some cases life-sustaining resources, to families of color. Working on my own unconscious bias and stereotyping is critical, but I must also work to dismantle racism at the institutional level.

I want to share a specific example of how working on our unconscious biases improves patient trust and outcomes. My hospital has been part of a multicenter NIH study of sickle cell disease, a disease that in North America predominantly affects people of African descent. Participation in clinical trials by people of color has historically been very low. There are many reasons for this that include mistrust on the part of the patient as well as bias on the part of the provider. Because of fear and unconscious bias patients of color are often not approached (by the majority white providers) to participate in clinical trials. Unfortunately, this translates into most evidence-based protocols being developed using outcomes of white patients. This only perpetuates healthcare disparities for people of color.

I am proud to say that the sickle cell trial met its accrual goals one year ahead of schedule. Compliance with the study requirements was greater than 98%. The study was completed ahead of schedule. All of the 121 participants on this trial are of African descent. This was one of the most successful in NIH- sponsored clinical trials in history, and not a single patient was White.

We can improve care for patients of color. We can undo our fear and unconscious bias. We have to push back against the systems of fear that are in place. We can do this.

Adjusting Our Climate Justice Lens

By Heather Hackman

Heather Hackman is the founder and president of Hackman Consulting Group. With a doctorate in Social Justice Education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and 12 years of experience as a professor in Human Relations & Multicultural Education, Heather trains and consults nationally on issues of deep diversity, equity and social justice, and her most recent research and conference presentations have focused on climate change and its intersections with issues of race, class and gender.

Below is the text of a sermon that Heather offered on April 19, 2015 at the annual Earth Day Service at the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN.

Thank you Justin and thank all of you. It’s good to be with you again. I’m humbled and honored to be here as part of this day, the 45th Earth Day, and participating in this conversation with you.

And what a difficult conversation it is…this is not a topic that will garner friends at parties, nor make dinner conversation light and easy, nor get you invited to speak (most) places. And yet, it is a conversation that is well overdue in far too many circles in this country and so I am grateful that you all are having it and that you will continue to do so.

And yes, the situation is… grim. I’m not getting all Hunger Games-y here, and this is not a post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max moment. However, it is worth noting the enormity of the statistical, empirical, and natural trends we are seeing. The numbers about heat and melt and sea level rise and CO2 are daunting. The strangeness of the weather in North America over the last decade has been disconcerting to say the least. And the state of affairs in our most populous state with a drought the likes of which has not been seen for 1200 years, with sea lion pups washing ashore in droves, with sea bird deaths in huge numbers, and with star fish suffering and dying – all of that is overwhelming. The planet is speaking, louder and louder every day and if we are truly listening, then we will have this conversation.

The typical U.S. response to the topic of climate change is to either stick one’s head in the sand or rush out and “do” something. I get that – particularly the desire to “do” something. And yet that is often a mistake if we have not thought as deeply as necessary and have not learned what we need to learn in order to make the right choices.

And so there’s a danger in “taking action” without the necessary information and perspective in hand. Now, in 15 minutes I’m not going to be able to convey any earth shattering information or give you a deep and complex analysis, but what I do want to do is just shift the lens on the conversation a little bit in hopes of illuminating a path forward in our climate work.

In line with this, I have found that before trying to figure out “what do I do”, it is useful to ask “how did we get here?” – because the path that has brought us here is one we must avoid from here on out. Let me say that again: the path that has brought us here is one we must avoid from here on out. And if we do not know how we got here, it is very likely that in our effort to rush out and “do something” we will inadvertently keep doing the very things that led to this moment. And so I am here to offer some thoughts on this question – “how did we get here?” in the service of better answering the question, “what do we do?”

And so how did we get here?

Some argue it’s just human nature and that we are just predisposed to greed, consumption and competition. And yet, the last few decades of neuroscience in the West, and millennia of tradition and wisdom in indigenous communities globally, have agreed that as mammals we “tend and befriend” and that the notion that we are inherently competitive and “survive only if we are the fittest” is a fiction. To be sure it is a useful fiction if you are engaging in colonization and systems of oppression and need everyone to go along with it; it’s a useful fiction if you are trying to convince the masses that extractivist economic systems and ways of being in the world are the only plausible ones; and it’s a useful fiction if you want the majority to believe that any other way of being in the world is economic, social and political suicide. If those are your goals, then casting humans as inherently greedy, competitive, and aggressive is the perfect story. Importantly, however, it’s just not true. Thanks to mirror neurons, the vagus nerve, limbic resonance and countless other aspects of our biology, it is evident that we as mammals are wired for empathy and meant to connect – to each other, to the planet, to all of life. It’s the gift of our biology.

And so how DID we get here?

Quite simply, we lost our way. Profoundly and deeply, we have lost our way.

And so here are four missteps which I think are key factors in us losing our way and leading us to this climate moment. I’m not saying these are the only factors, but they are very powerful ones and so I want to take a moment here to identify them before I talk about the path ahead.

Starting in the Age of Reason (or if you read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael then 12,000 years ago, :)) we watched European thinkers begin to deeply codify the separation of mind from body, followed by the objectification and diminution of the body. So, misstep one – we disconnected from our bodies and thus from the Natural world. We began to see ourselves as fundamentally separate from our natural environment.

Misstep two (still in this general time frame) is the Western framing of Nature in the feminine form within a society steeped in gender oppression. Now please do not misunderstand – the problem is not viewing or relating to Nature in the feminine form. The problem is that when it is done in a society that is so violent against women, the inevitable result is extreme violence against Nature. How could it not? From this Western worldview Nature, like women, is an object to be conquered, mastered, and even violated without conscience. The recent panel at the Women’s Club featuring Winona LaDuke, Eve Ensler, Patina Park, and Louise Erdrich made this connection all too well when they talked about the extreme extraction happening in the Bakken oil fields and the astonishing uptick in violence against women and the trafficking of women in those very same oil fields. As the speakers so clearly put it – as goes the treatment of women and trans* folks, so goes the treatment of this planet. So misstep number two was seeing Nature as something to be dominated, objectified and controlled.

Misstep Three –When you conjoin the two previous points with Europe’s absolutely insatiable appetite for resources via colonization and imperialism and you have the additional element of endless, linear extraction of resources. Thus we saw Europe embark on the colonization of Africa, Asia and the “Americas” and take every possible resource there was in their quest for power and dominance. Today we call this process “globalization”, “neoliberalism”, “free trade” and the like. But when unmasked, as Naomi Klein indicates in her excellent work This Changes Everything, these are nothing more than the endless desire for economic power via the constant extraction of resources – no matter what the cost. The behavior of the fossil fuel industry fits this process to a “T”. They are some of the wealthiest corporations in the world and it is their mission to extract every last drop of oil and gas from this planet no matter what. And so misstep number three is the notion that we can engage in the linear, endless extraction of resources (in the name of economic power) with no concern for the consequences.

So, how do you get away with separating oneself from the natural world, treating Nature in such violent and domineering ways, and engaging in seemingly endless extraction in the name of progress? You explain it away via the vehicle of Race – in particular you create “White” and through it propagate the notion that White people are superior. As a result, what predominantly White societies of people do cannot possibly be questioned because “we” are the superior (racial) group on this planet – we created civilization, we created democracy, we are the great thinkers and inventors, we are moving all of the world ahead. Thus the creation of White four centuries ago and all of its concomitant notions of supremacy and entitlement, has served as the perfect justification for the behaviors that have led us here. And so, misstep number four was the creation of White and its use in explaining away each of the three previous missteps. As we have seen in the UN climate negotiations, the notion of White as superior has allowed those nations largely responsible for this climate crisis to neatly avoid any accountability for it.

Big points, right? I’m sure I’m making you feel even worse than you did before you sat down. But never fear – with an accurate and honest diagnosis there then becomes hope for an effective and truly healing solution. And so this is what got us here, now what do we do?

Step one: Reconnect with the natural world. There is so much information about this and so many ways to do this that I am not going to comment on it here. But, I do encourage you to lean into this reconnection, while realizing that this in itself is not enough. Right? And so though this connection is vital, we cannot pretend that more camping is going to do the trick.

Step two: Replace the worldview of these missteps with a socially just view of the world. And you all are well on your way to doing that by developing a Critical Race Lens through your RJ ministry.

Step three: Take new and different actions regarding climate issues by using this Critical Race Lens as the frame through which climate justice work is done. And this is very important – Climate Justice and Racial Justice do not sit side by side, nor do they “intersect”. Rather, CJ work must be done through a RJ lens if it is to be effective.

Here’s what I’m suggesting:

An example of what it means to be White in this country is rugged individualism. Let me use myself as an example. Because of rugged individualism, I as a White person am socialized to consume for my individual well-being and therefore often consume way too much. I am encouraged to live in a house that is more room than I need, but it’s my marker of success and safety so I won’t give it up. I have possessions that often sit idle but do not share because they are “mine”. I will buy a Prius to save gas, but don’t ask me to consider taking public transportation because I like my independence too much. And so on. In short, the scourge of rugged individualism wants me to organize my life in self-centered, isolated, disconnected, and non-communal ways that are simply not sustainable for 7.5 billion people. Even my activism and climate work is often done in isolation.

The hard work of climate change is not figuring out how to release the choke-hold of the carbon energy sector on my life, the hard work is to realize what got me in that relationship in the first place. What about me as a White person has led me down the path of disconnection from nature, or better yet not even notice that I am? What about Whiteness has led me to believe I “deserve” certain things because I have “earned” them, even if the possession of those things takes an incredible toll on the planet and its life (like flying to distant lands for a vacation)? Whiteness has me live the life of a rugged individual who confuses charity for justice and says I will share resources with others only after I already have “mine”. Whiteness wants me to believe, regardless of my current economic reality, that the accumulation of material goods is truly the pinnacle of success – that it is imperative that I SHOW others I have made it, that I have done it on my own, and that therefore I am “somebody”. In truth, Whiteness is a disassociated, disconnected state – how else could White families go to church in the morning and a lynching in the afternoon? How else can we continually turn away from racial injustice and our climate realities? What else would lead to Black people having to repeatedly tell White folks that Black lives matter? If I was in touch with my own humanity and living in connection with others, that message would never need to be said. But I am not. At the hands of Whiteness I am just a bubble off plumb with respect to my humanity. Whiteness is like a meme seeking to survive and it will do anything to get me to believe that my disconnected, my extractivist life is the only normal one.

Painful? Yes. Hopeless? No!

Enter racial justice. Not merely racial justice work, but instead the promise of a racially just life. Enter the deep knowing that I am interconnected – a knowing that always comes from solid and deep racial justice work. Enter the sense of groundedness that stems from RJ work and that reminds me how much I love this planet, how gorgeous it is, and how desperately I want it to thrive. Enter the reclamation of my humanity because of racial justice, which of course ushers in grief and sadness and regret. But, also brings hope. Not naïve hope, but a hope stemming from the deeper knowledge that people can change, that racial oppression is not an intractable situation, and that as a community of people gathered here, your RJ ministry and bringing that ministry into your hearts and lives just as surely as you breathe the air around you means that we have a chance. Nature knows this, because we are Nature… and our best selves and greatest capacity are not gone, we have simply lost our way. So RJ is a pathway back to ourselves, to an awakened human connection, and ultimately to a strong, effective and expeditious path to climate justice. I cannot hang on to all my “individual stuff” and all my “White consuming ways” and hope for a different climate future. But through the lens of RJ I as a White person stand a chance of being just different enough in the world such that true climate justice also has a chance.

And so in challenging what it means to be White (in challenging Race, Racism and Whiteness) we disrupt the core ideologies that got us here. More specifically, we dismantle the lens that makes this consumptive, extractivist reality “seem normal” and we replace it with one that can lead to just and sustainable mitigation and adaptation.

And so I’ll touch on it again – RJ is not a parallel issue to CJ, nor is it an intersectional one. Rather RJ is the lens through which CJ must be done. For if racial oppression is the lens that makes all of this climate crud seem okay, then RJ must be the new lens by which we work our way out of this mess. I’m not saying you have to be “done” with RJ work before you do CJ – I’m saying that you do your RJ work with diligence and constantly apply this lens to your CJ (and other) work in the church.

Now what about the other two “isms” you ask? Right? What about gender oppression and class oppression? The truth is that if you do exceptional RJ work, meaning if you lean in hard to White privilege, White supremacy and Racism, you will inevitably end up addressing class and gender. At their roots they are so profoundly intertwined that you cannot help but hit the other two if you dig deeply enough with RJ. And so, do not be deterred, nor distracted. If you stay this course of RJ you will find liberation on many, many fronts.

I know that was a lot and so let me close where I began – I am grateful to be in the company of so many people who are passionate about ending racial oppression, and who care so deeply about living racially just lives. And I know for sure that as you embrace the compass heading of RJ you will find a brilliant and effective path for your climate and environmental justice work. I was at a climate change conference in Iceland last June trying to convince a group of climate scientists of this very thing. And instead of hearing me, they almost unanimously said “we do not have time to solve social justice issues before we solve the climate problem”. And this broke my heart for a number of reasons, one because that’s not what I was saying – we do not have to finish one before the other…but more so because of the reality that we don’t have time NOT to do climate justice work through a social justice lens. We have such a small window of opportunity to make significant change regarding climate issues that we really need to get it right. And so I thank you for your courage, your love, and your commitment to doing CJ work through a RJ lens. It is the path out of this mess and I’m honored to be in this work with such noble, kind and courageous people. Thank you.

Renewing Attention

By Kate Eubank

In addition to supporting infrastructure and operations at Hackman Consulting Group and providing expertise on organizational change and development, Kate Eubank has worked as a youth worker, nonprofit development director and community foundation executive director. Kate’s activism, organizing and training work focuses on issues of racial and social justice, resource redistribution, and gender and sexuality.

I’m a January baby. The solstice and the gregorian new year and my birthday arrive one right after the other, asking me every year to make peace with the year that has been, turn my face toward the light, and set my intentions for the year to come. Asking me to do this in between the longest, darkest nights in our hemisphere. Calling me to renew my courage and commitment to justice, connection and change, often in the face of uncertainty, fear and grief. Inviting me to step forward, carrying gains and growth but also the deep losses of the year before.

Ferguson. Eric Garner. #BlackLivesMatter. The turning of this year, even more than many, found me feeling my way through a mix of grief and hope, trying to work my way through my own weariness and fear to action, trying to re-find the combined sense of vision and anger that fed and sustained my work in past years. Fearing for the people I love and the survival of the planet we share, thankful for their courage and vision but feeling at a loss for finding my own.

And spending much too much time wandering Facebook, losing myself in overwhelming amounts of information about ongoing catastrophes (both human and planetary) and up-to-the-minute news and analysis of demonstrations and actions that others were organizing and attending.

And as I was wandering Facebook a few days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, paging through tragic details and ignorant-to-hateful anti-Muslim comments, a post from my wise and thoughtful friend Claire popped into my timeline:

“As the mainstream media and a majority of this country continues to pay disproportionate attention to certain world happenings, while ignoring Nigeria, and on-going systemic threats to our own nation’s security (i.e. institutional racism, health disparities) I keep thinking of what Marge Piercy said, Attention is love. Attention is love……bless whatever you can, if you can’t bless it, then get ready to make it new. …”

Something shifted and clicked. Claire’s reflection was an unexpected gift – it got me thinking not only about what I want to pay attention to going forward, but also how I pay attention – to both the things that give me hope for justice and joy, and to the things that challenge and scare and sadden me. I loaded the full text of the quote she was citing:

“Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”

Marge PiercyThe Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme

There are many things from big to small that I am still not very good at – constructively interrupting racist comments, finding my words in the middle of conflict, cooking anything other than chili without burning it. But I think, I hope, that one of the things that I am good at (most of the time) is loving. Loving in a way that is active, that is both sustained and fierce, realistic and hopeful. Almost fifteen years ago, I stumbled on bell hooks’ brilliant and accessible All About Love. Her (re)definition of love not as a passive emotional stance but as an active act, an ethic of justice, freedom and responsibility, a constant practice that was a necessary and powerful force for liberation and growth gave me a vision and words for what felt intuitively right.

I’m not talking about the squishy definition of love – the one that prioritizes “feeling the love” and the uncritical satisfaction of wants and desires. The privatized love that exists only in individual lives or romantic couples to the exclusion of larger communities of responsibility and accountability, challenge and action. Quite the opposite. The kind of love that hooks is talking about – the kind of love I want to practice – is the kind of love that translates directly into action, that is a collective practice against domination, that precipitates daily transformation.

Fierce love. Patient love. Brave love. The kind of love that reminds us “your heart is the size of your fist – keep on loving, keep on fighting,” that pushes us to take a hard look at our own privilege and dysfunction and strive to transform and heal them, that calls us to listen and speak and write and demonstrate and organize, the kind of love that helps us speak and act even when we are tired and afraid (thank you, Audre Lorde.)

So if attention is love – and love is an ethic, an action, a liberatory practice, a way for me to move beyond the fear of getting hurt, of not getting it right, of my contribution not being enough, of failing – then I want to commit to use the resources of my attention and my love well in 2015. I want to throw my attention and my love and my action toward our shared survival, toward justice, transformation, healing and compassion, toward my own humanity and liberation. I commit to (re)turning my attention, my love and my action this year to the world that I’m dreaming of.

And so, for my own accountability and sustenance, here is the list that I have started of what and who I am attending to this year – both things I want to bless and the place I want to pick up a tool and help make change – with space at the end for some more additions. Because – as the best birthday card I received this year reminded me – another year is coming, and another world is possible.

Where will you be focusing your attention this year?

Kate’s Renewed Attention List:

  • Queer & trans* youth & elders of color and indigenous communities, and all those who stand in solidarity with them, organizing and healing for a different world. I’m going to be attend to campaigns and groups like undocuqueers and the Youth Empowerment Performance Project and Fierce, the leaders from the Trans Youth Support Network who are closing forward with such integrity and others I haven’t had the gift of encountering yet.
  • Other folks with privilege who are working to shift systems, share power, give over and give up resources. I’m going to keep attending to pulling apart my whiteness and class privilege and finding/learning ways to shift, leverage, heal, talk about and/or deconstruct them. I’m going to be learning from organizations like Resource Generation and the Catalyst Project and at places like the White Privilege Conference.
  • People and organizations doing the messy, honest, hard and true work of organizing and building community across difference to create change and transform all of us. I’m looking forward to paying attention to and learning from organizations like Southerners On New Ground, Minneapolis’ new People’s Movement Center, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and Freedom Inc.
  • Alternatives to policing and punitive models of “justice” and social control. I’ll be paying attention to organizers and practitioners in healing justice, prison abolition, transformative justice and community organizing, people like Angela Y Davis and Dean Spade, Cara Page and Susan Raffo, Critical Resistance and the TGI Justice Project.
  • Responses to our climate change and environmental destruction that advance environmental justice, shift our basic understanding of our relationships to each other and the planet, and are envisioned and led by those who already are and will be most impacted – and the ways that my own behavior and consumption can and must shift. I’m going to start by attending to the work of the Center for Earth Energy & Democracy, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and reading more Naomi Klein.
  • Organizing happening in small towns and rural spaces where resources and relationships and liberation look different – and take different skills and capacities – than the more urban organizing that is more familiar to me. I’m going to be attending to the work of some of the awesome Upper Midwest folks I had the privilege of working with at PFund Foundation and paying more attention to the organizing going on in central Maine where I’m living now.
  • The people in my life who call me in and call me up – the people who teach me, who remind me what I believe in and who I want to be, who challenge and support me to continue growing into the person that I believe in being, who help me move to action when it feels hard. I’m not going to name all of you here, but I promise to pay attention.
  • Finally, I’ll be attending to me – my role, my power, my courage, and where I can be of most use. I’ll be attending to the places and moments where I need to change and shift, where I need to be brave and take risks, where I can do more, let go, give up, give more, and where I need to pull back. I’ll be attending to what sustains me and calls me to be better, and how I can live out love in action to help make another world possible this year.

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