A People’s Climate March

I was at the People’s Climate March this past weekend in NYC and it was an amazing experience. I have had the privilege of attending many marches over the years but this one was different in some very important ways and for those reasons, in addition to the fact that there were 400,000 people there, it felt historic.

The foremost reason it stood out to me was that it was the first march I have ever been to where there were no “allies” to the issue or group being focused on (e.g. heterosexual allies working for marriage equality without a clear sense of how they will benefit from it as heterosexuals). Instead, it was crystal clear that everyone there felt deep ownership regarding climate justice and could see the connections of our current climate crisis to their own work. Labor unions were clearly articulating the relationship between classism, exploitation, and economic inequality and the conditions that have led to climate change. Students and youth were clearly making the connections between the situation we are in and the reality of their future. Various Communities of Color and Native Communities (along with Whites committed to racial justice) were identifying the explicit ties of racial oppression, colonization and endless exploitation to what got us into this dire planetary situation. Feminist groups were connecting the dots between gender oppression, misogyny and the violent assault on the earth. In every way, deep and complex links were being made between health and climate disruption, education and climate change, food justice and climate justice, and so on. And I think this is what gave me a sense of hope I did not expect – 400,000 people all understood (granted to varying degrees) that we truly are all in this together, that standing on the sidelines is nowhere near an option, and that the stakes have never been higher for our species. Moreover, there was substantial consensus on what the solutions are: the need for a zero-carbon economy and an immediate switch to renewables, a restructuring of our economic systems such that human needs trump corporate, neo-liberal capitalist needs, and that we must think as a whole planet and not national fiefdoms some of which are privileged while others suffer.

The second aspect of the march that was noticeably different than any environmental work I had seen before was that it was led (both physically the day of as well as in the months of planning) but Native Peoples and People of Color. One of the most pernicious problems with mainstream environmental groups over the last five decades (I’m marking this from the time of publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to today) is the predictable whiteness, middle-classness, and all-too-often maleness of “the movement”. To directly challenge this history, and to give prominence to the voices that have been ringing so loudly and clearly for so long, the first major contingent of the march included Native Peoples, People of Color, Island State (OASIS in the COP configuration) representatives, and migrants from all over the globe. This contingent stretched from 59th to 65th streets and its centrality to the overall message of the march signaled a sea change in the leadership and organizing around climate justice nationally and internationally. My hope is that the largest climate justice march ever being led by Native Communities and Communities of Color will mark a permanent shift in future organizing and activism from U.S. and international environmental justice organizations. Specifically I am hoping that historically white-led EJ groups will deeply and consistently rethink tired “business as usual” ideas such as political expediency and move to a racial justice, class justice, and gender justice lens for their work.

The third and final aspect of the march that stood out for me was that this gathering and how we all engaged with each other felt like not only the blueprint for how we are going to organize for climate justice, but also a hint at how we could all live on this small, blue dot together. There is no question that the clock is ticking and this can have the tendency to exacerbate fears that lead to separation. On this day, however, the sheer gravitational force of our commitment to push back on the carbon lobby and to jar the political leaders from their torpor was so substantial that it held us all together despite the wide variation in who we were, where we came from and what our stories were. At the end of the day (and throughout the day) we were just this one family, fighting like hell to end this utter madness. And that is exactly what it is – to destroy one’s source of life in the name of short term profit is such a profound departure from reality that it cannot be described as anything else. And there we all were – shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see demanding with our bodies that we be heard.

Given the anti-corporate, anti-war, critical race/class/gender analysis of the event, I am not at all surprised by the paltry coverage in mainstream media. I often hope that slightly left-leaning folks like Rachel Maddow will give at least a cursory nod to climate change issues but she spent her entire Monday show covering the bombing of Syria with not even a minute of coverage of the march. The other networks were not much better. NPR did an abysmal job covering the march and spent much more time this week on what they must think is “legitimate” climate content – the U.N. conference. Democracy Now, however, did pre-march stories and interviews, ran 3 hours of live coverage on Sunday, and then followed up with numerous additional interviews and coverage Monday and Tuesday. For this reason I want to thank Amy Goodman and the folks at DN and ask that readers who care about climate justice make a small donation to DN via their web site.

There is a reason that a massive number of U.S.-ers don’t “believe in” climate change (as was the case with a flight attendant on a recent flight) and much of it has to do with the cowardice of mainstream media. In lieu of media doing its job, we must take it upon ourselves to fill in the information gaps and educate our peers. For my part, over the next two months I am hosting two workshops at my house to help educate friends and colleagues and I invite others to do the same. Just start with those you know, begin wherever each person is at, and work to deepen the discussion around climate change and climate justice. If we make it part of our everyday conversations then it will move from margin to center in our political landscape and we stand a chance of making larger, structural changes that will match the scale of the problem. I know it seems overwhelming and “what can one person possibly do” with respect to a problem that is planetary in size, and yet what else is there for us to do but try? I hold no delusions that if we all just come together we can “save the planet”. I know too much of the climate science data to hold out for that. But, I also know that morally, spiritually, ethically, and professionally there is no other option for me but to turn toward the fear and pain and grief, be with it, and do everything I can (as one among many) to address this crisis. This weekend I was reminded what large groups of people can do when we come together. The energy from the march is still with me, a low-grade hum whose power is palpable and whose signature is pushing me onward. I know you all have busy lives, but in a time such as this please make space to lean in and take up this shared charge with your words, with your actions, with your donations, with your vote and with all your heart. As cliché as it sounds, all of our futures depend on it like never before.

* Note: To watch the pre-march video (52 minutes) go to www.watchdisruption.com.

The Need For An Amend

I was on the phone the other day with someone with whom I was trying to work through some tough dynamics and at one point I shared something she said that was hurtful and she responded with, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. It made my skin crawl. I was then at a gathering of friends and acquaintances yesterday and in casual conversation someone offered up that same line as a good way to respond to another person in tense moments. Again, my teeth were set on edge. Why is this an acceptable response to potential harms done in interpersonal relationships, or even worse in moments of greater social impact and import (I have a patchy recall of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying something to this effect when challenged on a racial slur he made toward a Latina)? What makes this condescending and dismissive response pass for a response at all when it is clear someone is in the wrong? There is no solution in it, there is no place for deep understanding, in practical terms there is nowhere to go as it effectively stops the conversation, and most importantly there is no healing in it. None. In fact, “I’m sorry you feel that way” subtly places the responsibility on the one who was harmed and not on the “harmer” because it focuses on “feeling hurt” rather than the action / person that caused the harm in the first place. The net result is an opaque (and apparently socially acceptable if the frequency of its usage is any indicator) mechanism by which the affected person gets blamed and the initiator of the action takes no responsibility.


Why am I raising this issue? Ferguson.


There has been a substantial amount of coverage, commentary, and other sorts of input regarding the painful events that have taken place in Ferguson, MO and so I won’t rehash or chime in and add my two cents about the racial dynamics playing out there. I do, however, have one small element I would like to add to the conversation with respect to healing, change and moving forward – the need for an amend.


Amends are different than a vapid “I’m sorry you feel that way” or even a slightly more sincere apology (for example, if officer Wilson or Chief Jackson had shared how truly sorry they were for the incident). These two responses reside in the emotional top soil of the moment and do nothing to address the deep roots that underlie not only the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, but also the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding man in St Louis days later, the fatal choke hold of the “gentle giant” in New York City last month, and innumerable other examples of People of Color dying at the hands of those in power. Amends, however, hold the potential of getting underneath superficiality and reaching the tap-roots of racial oppression in this country. This is because they are designed not to focus so much on the person harmed but rather on the person who intentionally or unintentionally did the harm. The first cousin to “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the oft repeated phrase from members of dominant groups, “I didn’t mean to hurt you with my (racist, classist, sexist, etc.) remark” with the implication being that if it wasn’t meant, it didn’t hurt. Amends take away the possibility of intention being the arbiter of harms done and focus on the impact, regardless of intentionality. Through the lens of “impact”, of what actually happened, we stand the chance of having more honest dialogue and productive action regarding racial issues in this society. By making amends, the majority White city council of Ferguson, the majority White police department of Ferguson, and to a larger extent the majority White power structures in this country could go a long way in healing this nation’s racial divide by offering a humble willingness to take responsibility for harms done and to set them right in any way possible.


Here’s what that could look like: First, Whites in this country would identify the many ways we have been selfish / self-seeking, dishonest and afraid in our actions toward Communities of Color and Native Communities. For example, we would finally acknowledge the outright theft of Native lands, the true costs and debt yet to be paid for Japanese Internment, the rights due to the Chicano/a community after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the need for reparations for the institution of slavery. White society (regardless of social class, although social class does mediate the degree) has leveraged racial oppression to consistently and profoundly benefit Whites economically, socially, politically, and psychologically and this selfish utilization of a violent and oppressive system for those ends must be openly and honestly accounted for.


Similarly, White U.S.-ers would speak truth to the countless ways we have distorted history, lied in the public sphere, and intentionally misled this nation into thinking that Whites have earned all the benefits and privileges we have accrued and that our superior status justifies the maintenance of that system of privilege. Race is a lie. White Supremacy is a lie. The Racal Narratives of People of Color and Native Communities are a lie (told in so many ways for so long that they seem real) and the story must be re-written with unflinching honesty. And finally, the ways White society has reacted out of fear and aversion toward Communities of Color and Native Communities must be accounted for and set right.


Second, we would make these face-to-face amends to People of Color and Native Communities. It could sound something like this.


To Native Peoples and People of Color in this society,


I have a pattern of wrongly using people, places and things for my own selfish gain with complete disregard for how that has historically and currently impacted you. I wrongly did this by (fill in the blank here with any number of countless examples of systemic racism over the last 400 years).


I also have a pattern of lying about my actions and instead blaming you for the racial divisions and racial disparities in this society. I have wrongly done this by teaching a distorted history in U.S. P-12 education, presenting biased mainstream media coverage, and by using my power to control the social narrative of race in this country so it consistently favors me and my demands (again, add any other examples of dishonesty).


I also have a pattern of acting out of my own fear and fostering fear in other White people so as to create a false notion of “People of Color are a threat” thereby justifying my creation of systems like the prison industrial complex as a way of “creating safety” in our society and “keeping our streets safe”. Another such example has been the militarization of our local police forces… (again, continue to clearly identify what has happened).


Please know that none of these actions had anything to do with you as I have treated all communities of color in this same, selfish, dishonest and fear-based way. Also please know that I deeply regret my actions and the harm I have caused and am coming to you to own my part in this long and painful experience and do whatever I can to set it right.


Are there any additional harms that I have not mentioned and that you care to tell me about?


How can I set right these wrongs?


Obviously this is not a superficial apology. Importantly, it is also not White Liberal groveling as a result of self-induced guilt or shame. Instead it is freedom. It is the liberation that comes when you stop defending, denying, obfuscating, and manipulating in order to not speak the truth. It is the lightness and wholeness that comes from leaning toward our fellow humans in a desire to heal and feel whole again. It is the gift of honesty coupled with the salve of accountability that opens the door to true and lasting release from the specter of racial oppression that has yoked this country for centuries. And while the body of such an amend could span pages and pages, the make-or-break part is the very last sentence – this is where I place my deepest concern and my greatest hopes for Whites in this country. Can we move past blaming People of Color / Native People, past denial, past fear and distance, and even past White Liberalism to the uncharted terrain of being willing to do whatever it takes to heal? If not yet, what will it take to get us there? If you are White and reading this through the lens of a zero-sum-game, I know for certain that it is not. While making amends would go a long way toward supporting Communities of Color and Native Communities to heal from racism, the process is vital to the healing of White folks as well.


I wish my friend had offered an amend on the phone the other day. Had she done so, she would have found me ready and waiting for her in that middle space of reconciliation. I wish the folks at that social gathering had seen the value of amends. And, each and every time I hear a report from Ferguson, this is what my heart most wants from White people there, in Missouri, in the Midwest and in this country as a whole – an amend. There is no way out but through. There is no way through without healing. There is no healing absent of love. White people making racial amends would humbly and respectfully open a door to authentic dialogue and action with Communities of Color and Native Communities – a door through which there is love for all of us, healing for all of us, and the way out for all of us.

Losing a Little Hope, Gaining a Little Faith

I was in Iceland this past week presenting a workshop at a conference addressing climate change and its impacts and causes. I attended this conference once before in Seattle in 2012 and found it to be an engaging group of people and a lot of fascinating information about the science side of climate change. I noticed, however, that while the conference title was “Impacts and Causes” there was only one 15-minute paper that mentioned issues of race and the role it played in getting us here (cause), the role it plays in who is disproportionately impacted, and the role it will potentially play in terms of what solutions are adopted, how they are implemented, and ultimately who those solutions are designed to benefit. Startled by this, I decided to present something regarding climate justice and the role that race, class and gender oppression have played in getting us to this current climate emergency and how a gender, class and race-justice lens will prove to be essential if we are to “get out of this” with any sense of equity and integrity as a planet. So I headed to Reykjavík and from the off it seemed the gods were conspiring against me in terms of travel problems, housing problems, and general exhaustion (I had been up for 27 hours by the time I presented), but I persevered. And here is what I encountered…


In a morning “discussion” session around human impacts, I was listening intently to various folks sharing about the sundry challenges in getting “people” (read “Western people”) to understand and adequately respond to this current climate moment. Finally I spoke up and suggested that underneath the variables of scientific ignorance, fear, resistance to what is going on, etc. was the pernicious problem of race, class and gender oppression and the seduction of their privileges, the normativity of their ideologies and rationalizations, and the sheer power of their systems to sustain the status quo. Thus, in my estimation, if we are to both properly understand the full magnitude of “peoples’” resistance and know how to help folks through that resistance, we need to craft and utilize a social justice lens in our work. Several heads nodded and then a white, professional-middle class (University faculty member), male said that “we simply do not have time to end race, class and gender oppression before we begin to do work on climate change” and that I was being unrealistic. A few minutes later the session ended and I did not have a chance to respond. As we left the room, he came up to me (first, letting me know he started a feminist group in college) and reiterated that we simply had no chance of addressing the current climate issues if we waited for everyone to change their minds about oppression. I suggested to him that I was in no way saying we had to “solve” those issues before we do climate work, but rather aswe do our climate work. He argued again, and then we parted ways as we both headed into different sessions. Shortly thereafter a white woman approached me and thanked me for my comments, then two men of color did the same and I was struck by the fact that every time I share this perspective it is never people of color, poor folks, etc. who tell me we do not “have time” to do social justice work as we do climate justice work. It is always those who have privilege who see these issues as somehow separable, as if one is not inextricably linked to the other.


These exchanges gave me some fuel, tired as I was, to do my workshop and try to show that these are not discrete entities at all, but rather that it is precisely the oppressive ideologies of racism, classism and sexism that have brought us to this climate crisis as a planet. Sometimes folks say “No, Industrialization did it”, but that system is merely a tool – in the hands of people who deeply revere nature, it is possible that Industrialization would not have been such a vehicle for our destruction. But, in the hands of a society with an intensely sexist worldview and that frames nature in the feminine, we know what will inevitably happen to nature (see Francis Bacon and his statement that one has to rape nature to understand her secrets). Combine that with a rapacious appetite for material resources fueled by a classist ideology that equates your class status with your humanity and value in the world, and it makes sense that Europe went on its imperialist rampage of colonization. Top that off with a racial ideology that shamelessly purports White supremacy and White society’s (first read “European” and later as “White, U.S.-er”) right to rule the world, and you get a worldview that almost has no other choice than to use Industrialization in such a way that has lead our species to this unbelievable climate crisis.


And so, I got ready for my workshop in hopes of some solid discussion and engagement…and then a whopping 8 people showed up. Yep, 8. Mind you, they were an enthusiastic group, but nevertheless I was disappointed. There were only two other places for folks to go at that time and so the paltry showing was not just “too many workshops to choose from” but more likely a statement that this content was simply not important in the minds of the attendees. So, I did my best but could not shake the feeling at the time or in the days that followed, that I wasted my time because scientists have no interest in thinking about ideological mindsets that lead us into and out of holes. And so, I lost some hope. Not all of my hope, but a good chunk of it. How would we ever be able to address these issues if we ignored social justice issues and used the same “pair of glasses” that got us into this mess to get us out of it? More importantly, how would we possibly be able to respond to the needs of this world’s most vulnerable with respect to climate change (people who also happen to be the targets of race, class and gender oppression) if we cannot even acknowledge the core relationship between gender, class and racial oppressions and climate change? I felt frustrated, chagrined, and even a titch lost.


Fortunately for me, I am currently reading Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith: Trusting your own deepest experience (thus the title of this blog post). In it she has a chapter where she talks about doing work out in the world and feeling as if we’re not making a difference. Very gently she then identifies the difference between hope and faith. Hope, she suggests, is tied to an outcome, to a need, or even a demand. As I read this, I had to admit that I indeed had “hoped” that folks at the conference would see things my way, would incorporate this into their work, and we would all work for climate justice and not just technocratic climate solutions. In a broader sense, however, I also had to admit that I have this type of “hope” in almost all aspects of the work I do. I do want a particular outcome, I’m often not surrendered, and I do not always accept the possibility of a greater truth in the grand scheme of things. Does this mean I stop working for justice? No, absolutely not. But it does mean that I don’t know what the end of the road, or even the path along the road, looks like, and in lieu of humbly admitting this, I tend to squeeze more tightly to what I think “should” happen and invariably constrict the ability of life to unfold as is necessary. Salzberg is not suggesting, nor am I, that we adopt a “whatever, dude” approach to social justice work. But she is, I think, offering a wise distinction between a demand disguised as hope and a deeper faith that trusts in the bigger reality around us.


Faith, in Salzberg’s description (and she described it many times in subtly different ways) is about life on life’s terms, about trusting in the deep and profound interconnection of all things, about realizing that though an action may not seem to have any impact, everything we do has some form of impact on the greater whole, and about the fact that while outcome cannot be controlled, two key things can: intention and skillfulness. Intention matters because it is the energy that serves as the ground from which the action grows. An intention rooted in judgement, demand, or a sense of “my way or the highway” does not serve as a wholesome foundation for social justice work, and is in fact often antithetical to it. An intention rooted in love, in care for others, in a desire to see good things come to all, or in a deep sense of connection gives social justice work a much better chance of being useful and well received. Likewise, a lack of skillfulness in how this work is done (negative tone, an inability to listen, a narrow mind) makes it difficult to receive the message and less likely that folks will be drawn to it. Doing this work with patience, joy, an open heart, and an expansive worldview makes it more attractive and easily palatable even to those who might disagree.


And so, if I imbue my work around social justice and climate justice with a deep intent to love and serve the world (rather than craft it to what I think it should be), and if I do that work skillfully by keeping in mind my impacts and the needs of the greater whole, I just might find that I will have greater faith (presently and over the long haul) in the efficacy of the work I am doing even when there’s only 8 people there. Though I did not realize it at the time, my workshop in Iceland left me feeling hopeless precisely because my fear of the impacts of climate change, my deep concern for this planet, and my desire for social justice left me demanding a certain outcome. Recognizing, albeit late, that what really matters is that I show up, do my best, and try to work from a place of love, care and skillfulness, has replaced some of that hopelessness with faith. I still feel quite clear about the connections between the oppressive worldview that got us here and the need for a social justice worldview in getting us out. But, I can perhaps wear it more loosely in hopes that I can learn more about what that can look like and thereby be more effective in the work I do. Being a consultant / trainer is a tough bit of business because I rarely see any fruits of what I come in to a group or organization to do. And yet, in reading Salzberg I was reminded that I don’t need to see some form of “result” in order to know that my work, all of our work for social justice, matters and has an impact. In this light, perhaps having 8 folks in the room was exactly how it needed to be. Hope would say maybe, faith would say yes.

Close Cousins, But Definitely Not The Same

Recently I have had two conversations in very different settings where people with whom I have done Racial Justice (RJ) work were talking about their overall organization’s decision to move toward Cultural Competency (CC) work now that they have “done” RJ work. Before I go on, I want to say quite clearly that there is great value in true Cultural Competency training, but that it is a mistake to use that as a substitute, or even a pathway to Racial Justice work. What I mean by “true” CC training is one where cross-cultural skills are being presented and developed, rather than some woefully anemic “cultural diversity” or “cultural awareness” conversation. Honest and effective cross-cultural skill development is incredibly necessary in a society that is as culturally diverse as the United States, and even more so in a state like mine, Minnesota, which has historically been fairly monocultural, but which over the last two decades has become ever increasingly culturally diverse. However, to presume that Cultural Competency training is a sufficient substitute or even the equivalent of Racial Justice training is not only incorrect, but in fact feeds White Privilege and allows multigenerational white US-ers an “out” with respect to their own accountability regarding their privilege.

Some of the facilitators I know who make their bank on Cultural Competency training would perhaps be offended by this assessment. But if they are honest they have to acknowledge the two key elements of Cultural Competency work that allow White people the above “out”. First, CC does not sufficiently (if at all, depending on the facilitator) attend to the deep and insidious aspects of structural, institutional power in this society and therefore there is rarely a conversation about the historical and systemic aspects of oppression in the United States. This, then, precludes any possibility of entering into conversation about White privilege, Racism, or even the social construction of Race and its corresponding Racial Narratives. What a relief this is for White participants, and what a vastly different experience they have – none of the discomfort that comes with honestly talking about privilege, no chance of being identified as the “dominant” group who gained their privilege through slavery, genocide, colonization, internment, broken treaties and overall exploitation, and no reason to make systemic changes or amends because there is nothing really to make amends for. The profound absence of a deep analysis of the “system” in Cultural Competency conversations allows the “Wizard” of Whiteness to stay safely behind the curtain, and thus any possibility of identifying the tap roots of centuries of racial oppression (and any chance to change them) are gone. It is for this reason that organizations with which I have conducted RJ work consistently turn to Cultural Competency training precisely when we begin to get more serious about systemic change at the level of White privilege and White Supremacy. It is one of the most consistent means by which White dominant organizations avoid the deepest work regarding Racial Justice and it is unfortunate that more Cultural Competency trainers do not see this and call those organizations on that behavior.

Compounding this dynamic is the fact that even though most multigenerational, White U.S.-er’s families have, at some point, made the trade of “Culture” for “Race” (in this case, for White) and have thereby gained access to all of the corresponding opportunity structures open to Whites in the U.S., in a Cultural Competency training these same White folks can still claim some attachment to their “culture” and thereby assume a parallel position to people and communities for whom the U.S. is not their first nation and standard U.S. dialect is not their first language. This brash form of equalizing in the form of these multigenerational White folks claiming “they have culture too” does not create true cross-cultural awareness, but instead offers white CC participants a profound amount of cover for their Whiteness. For example, while I do not speak German and none of my family holds a British passport anymore, the mere fact that a Cultural Competency training allows me to harken back to those days and use that as a means to equate my family’s experience with Hmong, Somali, or Chicano/a communities in Minnesota derails any attempt to identify me as a privileged person in this state. Again, this is why so many White folks from the U.S. like this conversation – it’s not a matter of power and privilege in most CC trainings, it’s a matter of understanding each other’s “story” or “location in the world” or that “we all have culture” and then finding ways to appreciate that about each other and thus more effectively relate across these cultural lines. Perhaps this would be the optimal approach to solving intense divisions of access and equity in this society except for the pesky fact that Black folks in this country do not get pulled over for “driving while Haitian” or Brown folks for “driving while Peruvian”. No, for both of these racial groups in the U.S. they are pulled over for their Race not their culture. These divisions along racial lines reach to the heart of the “disparities” in our society, not culture. I am not dismissing the critical issues of access regarding some cultural dimensions such as language. But I can say that while living in Western Massachusetts, I never heard New Englanders complain about the English and French on their potato chip bags nearly the way I hear White people complain about English and Spanish on the forms at the DMV. Why the difference? Could it be the ways that cultural issues such as language get heavily racialized in this country and that French is seen quite differently than Spanish because of the Racial Narrative attached to the skin color of the majority of folks who speak each language in North America? Of course it is.

In sum, I want to say again that I am not disparaging good Cultural Competency training because I feel it is a powerful and necessary component of a highly culturally diverse society such as ours here in the U.S. What I am asserting is my frustration with White dominant organizations who “prefer” Cultural Competency work to Racial Justice work, or who switch to CC training just as we’re getting down to the real deal with Whiteness in our RJ work, because it provides cover for their Whiteness and ultimately does not demand that they change anything about the core of their practices, policies or procedures. It is my hope that organizational leaders will see the dangers of this and choose to stay the course with Racial Justice work, and even more so that Cultural Competency trainers will take the time to find out if they and their work are being used as a means to not lean into RJ work and perhaps approach those organizations quite differently.

Reflections On The WPC 15

The White Privilege Conference (WPC) is such an incredible experience that I want to first thank Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. and the national team for their tireless work and commitment to the vision of this conference and the rare and beautiful space that it is. This year was the largest gathering in the WPC’s history with over 2400 people converging on Madison, WI for several days of deep thought, hard work, laughter and good juju, and a shared goal of ending systems of racial oppression. As per usual, the keynotes were excellent, the workshop offerings superb, and the overall climate of the conference was one of connection and collaboration. Certainly there were times and places where tension arose, in fact I would be suspicious of the veracity of peoples’ commitment if it did not, but it was consistently handled with astonishing aplomb and often ended up being a learning experience for everyone involved.

And yet, on the last day I was wondering what the real take-away of the conference was for folks. What draws so many people to such a challenging conference and then stays with them as they leave? In conversation with some connections here in the Twin Cities it seems to be a range of things that take people to the WPC. What surprised me, however, was that the most pronounced reason was not the expected “an end to systems of racial oppression” but rather the possibility for deep and necessary healing. The WPC is a very emotional experience for almost everyone because it’s not only “present-time” pain that comes through in the tough moments, it is also what feels like (and is) the pain of generations, the story of lives long passed, the cellular memory of trauma never released, and the hold this all still has on our hearts and minds. I think that’s what makes the caucuses so fraught, some of the workshops so intense, and the keynotes so jarring and moving – the reality that as we sat in Madison listening to speakers, there were not just 2400 people in the room, but rather there were 2400 lineages in the room with varying degrees of relationship to the U.S. system of racial oppression. This year and in years past this dynamic has been palpable in some very intense moments. For example, a few years ago keynoter Dr. Joy DeGruy presented her work on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and there were times when it felt like the entire room was holding its breath lest the whole world crack open from the pain. This year, the opening keynote, Jackie Battalora, gave an extremely clear framing of the creation of “white” and the insidious ways it (and other racial categories) were shaped and reshaped throughout early U.S. history, always in the service of the White dominant racial structure and its perpetuation of Racism, White Privilege and White Supremacy. As she talked, you could literally feel the energy in the room shift – it was as if the curtain had been pulled back just a little more on The Wizard thus exposing more clearly his source of “power”. Understanding what that shift was is important because it wasn’t a reaction to “present-time” Racism or Whiteness, but rather a deeper, multi-generational understanding of the history and systems that have gotten us here. Some in the room felt despair at how intractable, powerful and unstoppable this system seems due to the way it has been so speciously constructed and then violently enforced and reinforced. Conversely, others felt a slight lift because it exposed the system for what it is, a complete facsimile and a toxic element of this society. Whatever the response, it was a generational one from a place of deep knowing and recognition. It exposed Whiteness as a system that is not “natural” or “just the way it has always been”, but rather one with a name, a history, and whose foundation is built on lies. The room knew this and thus Jackie’s presentation was really just helping us to remember that this is a lie, it is not “natural” or how we are meant to be, and that this can change. And that’s the healing, right? The release of the story and its hold on us, and the coming back to our true selves as connected, collective beings rooted in love (hooks), wired for empathy (Rifkin), and ready to mend and befriend (Neff).

The reality of the historical trauma of racial oppression was not new content to most people at this conference, but simply knowing about this history versus really feeling its impact and knowing how to heal it are two vastly different things. And I think the possibility of bridging that divide is what keeps so many people coming back to this conference year after year. It is a place that at least acknowledges that healing needs to happen, that it is possible, and that it will take all of us coming together in new and connected ways to make it happen. That’s what makes the WPC so different than NCORE, for example, with its academic framing of racial issues, or NAME where there is not enough critical examination of Race, Racism and Whiteness to even get to a conversation about generational trauma and racial oppression in meaningful ways. As such, I am grateful once again to the founder, Dr. Moore, the national team, the local team, and each and every participant for making the WPC 15 an experience of movement, both inside and out. I encourage everyone to peruse the WPC web site and put the dates for next year’s conference on your calendar now as we continue to support this deeply important experience and the learning community that grows out of it.

“Discovering Mindfulness”

A few months back I received a mass email from someone in my general professional circle asking for information or stories regarding the use of mindfulness in our social justice education, activism and research. More specifically, the person said they were interested in compiling this information as a foundation for their “cutting edge research on mindfulness in social justice work”. And that last bit is what really made my stomach turn: there is nothing “cutting edge” about examining mindfulness in social justice education, activism, or research. The “edge” is only in this White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor’s mind simply because he has not seen it before. And sadly, the mindset that makes him think that he is “discovering” mindfulness as it pertains to social justice work is the very same mindset that will make it extremely difficult for him to actually develop or attain mindfulness. Much like the mythical Columbus narrative, this academic professional believes that because it is new to him, it must therefore be new to the field; “if I have not seen it referenced in all these years, it must not exist”. Never mind that all over the globe these traditions have formed the pillars of social structures geared toward what we call “social justice” for millennia. Or, more recently that Thich Nhat Hanh has been espousing engaged Buddhism for decades, or that the Dalai Lama has long supported extensive research on the important role meditation can play in education, or even that the traditions of non-violence and non-harming in U.S. social justice activism in large part arise from deeply rooted, and decidedly pre-Western traditions globally and in North America.

Thus, “mindfulness” is not a new concept in social justice work. What is “new” is the ubiquitous framing of millennia-old practices from all over the world as one, uniform “mindfulness” package. And that framing has not come about because it is the next step in a natural evolution of these bodies of work, information, practice, or tradition. No, this framing has come about, particularly in the U.S., because it is fast enough, easy enough, and basic enough for U.S.ers to understand and engage in. In many of its U.S. iterations, “mindfulness” could be described as the McDonald’s of deep insight practice. It is quippy enough for CNN to do a short report on it, it is easy enough for a magazine to feature it on its cover and run a 2000 word essay presumably explaining it all, and it is marketable enough for volumes of books to be written by U.S.ers for U.S.ers and that fit within the U.S. frame. Take for example the mass marketing of yoga. I have a friend who has been a “hot yoga” instructor for a handful of years but if you were to ask her what deep tradition that yogic style comes from, she would have no idea. Not because she is not intelligent enough to know, but because her teacher training did not emphasize it. That yogic practice does not need you to know the deep spiritual significance of what they do, they just want you to feel like you got a good work out and that “something happened in there”. Now, this is not at all to dismiss those studios, teachers, and practitioners who have been quietly, respectfully and thoughtfully cultivating a practice in this country – those people have taken great pains to be ever-conscious from whence they came and are a strong model for how this work can effectively be brought to the U.S. However, it should be noted that these same people would never say that they have “discovered” yoga or that they are doing “cutting edge” yoga instruction. Similarly, the Vipassana center I occasionally study at is constantly framing its teaching within the core instruction the Buddha laid down 2500 years ago.

To return to my initial example, I am not at all saying that a White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor should not talk about, read about, speak about, think about, or practice mindfulness in his social justice work. What I am saying is that there must be a measure of humility and introspection and self-analysis that goes along with that practice in order to have any credibility and thus to have any real contribution to the overall social justice environment. It would be refreshing if this person had instead said something to the effect, “The U.S. education system (social justice education and activism included) has been woefully late in recognizing the huge range of millennia-old practices that encourage students, teachers and administrators alike to be mindful of the work we do and the impacts we have. As such, I and my colleagues are conducting a small body of research to identify what it is that we have been missing and what other societies around the world, as well as indigenous societies here in North America, have known for thousands of years. We broach this topic with deep humility and a full recognition that the limitations of our social histories and long-standing frames of reference allow us to understand only a small portion of what we will uncover. Nevertheless, we are interested in adding one more voice to the many already there regarding the topic of mindfulness in social justice work and welcome your thoughts and contributions.” An unlikely missive from anyone who has as much privilege as most U.S. academics do, but in my opinion a necessary approach if we are to grasp the complexity and full application of these traditions we are lumping together as “mindfulness”.

And so what leads a White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor to claim that his research on mindfulness in social justice work is “cutting edge”? In a phrase, roughly five centuries of colonization – colonization as it impacts the minds, bodies and spirits of our society’s people, and colonization as it constructs large-scale ideologies, systems, and identities that are rooted in power, privilege and access for some at the direct expense of others. It is this colonial mindset (substantially honed in higher education) that hides these systems of power and privilege behind the notion of “discovery” or “research” and then ties them to one’s value and identity as an academic. Unfortunately, academics such as these will perhaps be seen by their peers as having actually “discovered” mindfulness in social justice education and activism. Their publications on the matter will likely be lauded as the very “cutting edge work” they claim it to be, and they will be asked to speak and train and teach on such matters. I say “unfortunately” not because I do not like this colleague or others like him, but because if this work is viewed as the foundation or starting point for mindfulness in social justice education it dismisses the centuries upon centuries of work already done in this regard and sets our overall social justice work back by significant degrees. Rather, I would like U.S. work on mindfulness in social justice education and activism to start squarely from a place of humility, rather than discovery, such that we open ourselves to the voluminous bodies of work that can light our way and support us in our desire for justice, hope, and peace in our world.

Homophobia As Nationalism

This is quick post given that its relevance is waning a bit already, but I wanted to comment for a moment of the voracity of Russia’s homophobia and simply note its connection with that country’s ongoing nation-building. Through vehicles like the expansion of its hydrocarbon holdings and the role of that on the world stage (economic and energy nation-building), the ever-increasing power of Russia in the UN, and Vladimir Putin’s desire to form a parallel “union” of Western Asian / Eastern European states that would rival the EU in its reach and power, Russia is continually attempting to position itself as a major 21st century power.


While I do not know Mr. Putin personally, I am not convinced that he cares any more or less about LBGTQI folks than did Karl Rove, and instead sees homophobia as an ideological pathway to support his nationalist ideas and particularly his expansionist nation-building in that region of the world. To be sure, Karl Rove is no longer spending his time “fighting the good fight” against “the gays”. But during the GWB years he viewed homophobic legislation as a way to drive conservatives to the polls at a time when the 2000 and 2004 elections were sure to be close. What Rove knew was that he had to spin the ballot initiatives not as “hate the gays” legislation, but rather as “protect the family” legislation. In this way, Rove was playing on one of the most long-standing rationales for colonization, “Westward Expansion”, and increased militarism and U.S. imperialism throughout the world: “the ever-increasing needs of the growing American family”. In this line of thinking the “American family” (read heterosexual, white, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, etc.) is the vessel into which all ideas of what it means to be an “American” are poured (in a Norman Rockwell-esque fashion), whereby the protection of this heteronormative, etc. nuclear family is equated with the protection of “America” itself. The end result is that anything perceived as a “threat” to this family must go and conversely anything that aids the growth of this family must be supported. Rove astutely saw this and played this card beautifully to the benefit of the Republican Party in 2000 and 2004.


And this ideology is so deeply rooted that many of the voters themselves had no idea what was happening – the Human Rights Campaign did exit polling in 2004 and 2006 (mid-terms) and found that in some states where there were anti-LBGTQI ballot initiatives, voters demonstrated some peculiar contradictions. First, they were asked how they voted on the initiative. Those who voted to “protect marriage”, were then asked something to the effect of “do you think gay and lesbian Americans should have equal rights under the U.S. constitution” and just over 75% of those same “protect marriage” people said “yes” to equal rights. Bizarre, right? They just voted to deny equal rights and enshrine that in their state’s constitution, but also feel LBGTQI folks should basically be equal. And that’s partially because Rove played to their homophobia, partially because those ballots were worded in a way of “defending” marriage, but also partially because the “American family” (aka the “American Dream”, the “American Promise”) is decidedly heteronormative and so the identity of this ever-expanding nation and the family that we are “safeguarding” through our expansion (think Iraq war and Condoleezza Rice’s mushroom cloud warnings) is a heterosexual one. So, any change in the heteronormative nuclear family marks a potential weakening of the justification for U.S. expansion economically, politically, and ideologically.


And so as we turn our attention these two weeks to Russia and the Olympic games, we can see the same tired old process just under the skin of Putin’s vernacular and “protection of Russia”. The same three flavors of the homophobic argument are there (being gay is a “crime against God, a crime against nature, and a crime against society”), the same police state reaction to LBGTQI people is there, and the same economic and political moment is there – in short Putin is shoring up his ideological power base in order to enact his larger vision of mother Russia precisely as the global landscape of economic and political power shifts from West to East. Unfortunately, U.S. mainstream media has been so anemic in its analysis of this (and is perhaps still sloshing around in “Rovism”) that it cannot offer anything more than a cursory glance to this issue while some have simply chosen not to cover it at all. And, those non-mainstream outlets that are covering it are sticking to the “end homophobia” line of thinking. What I would like to see is the cover drawn back on this and a more cogent and comprehensive analysis offered so that we can stop using homophobia as the tool for nation-building whether it be in Russia, the United States, Uganda, Senegal, Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and the like*. Importantly, I am not talking about generalized societal homophobia that can be found anywhere rigid gender roles are constructed, codified and enforced. I’m talking about the ways homophobia is being enshrined in policy and used as a political tool. For example, many countries in Central and South America have horrific statistics when it comes to societal violence against LBGTQI people, but have also enacted some legislative protections for LBGTQI folks in places like Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. So, I’m not talking about individual homophobia, what I am talking about is state-sanctioned homophobia and the deeper, colonial purpose it serves. And in this sense, Putin is playing right along with his global contemporaries who are using it to the same effect.


The solution to this weaponizing of homophobia manifests on several fronts: grassroots organizing in Russia itself (already happening with courage and clarity), support from international organizations for those grassroots organizers (already happening but with more presence needed), economic penalties for countries who engage in such homophobic legislating (weak at best via international relief funds), and political pressure from the international community (not happening enough from the U.S. Secretary of State, UN, EU, and the like) to expose the true motives of those countries and to marginalize them if they do not change their tactics. To be sure, the reduction of this to a “gay rights” issue not only minimizes what is really happening, but in fact miscasts what the role of the international community needs to be in response. Yes, we must immediately stop the homophobia and violence toward queer folks in Russia and elsewhere. But in a deeper sense, we need to stop the centralizing of heteronormativity and the subsequent use of homophobia (and concomitantly the queer community in general) as the weapon by which leaders justify their colonial, expansionist policies. In this way the effort for queer rights is indeed a struggle for global, human rights.

*Note: It should be noted that many of these countries, for instance some of the examples I offer from Africa, are putting forth their homophobic legislation at the behest of White, Western, evangelicals (of a very particular variety) and therefore the nuanced yet corrosive nature of colonialism can still be found in these countries’ legislation despite their strong self-identification as post-colonial nations.

Community-Based Leadership for Social Change – By Sonia Keiner…Community Educator, Artist, and HCG Consultant

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” –June Jordan

I have never been moved by my formal study of leadership theory but have always been intrigued by global stories of resilience, restorative justice, and cooperation.  Stories that connect our common humanity and convey our interdependence and desire to belong to healthy, thriving communities.  Stories of healing and authentic change within self and within community. In my not-too-distant past, I began questioning my own strength and resilience when life became too overwhelming.  These are commonplace experiences many of us can identify with; death, confusion, feelings of worthlessness and disconnectedness. I had a master’s degree, a great job, owned a home, started a business, was surrounded by supportive friends and family, yet I felt powerless and hopeless and a desire to retreat rather than connect.  Unfortunately and fortunately, I found I was not alone.  My friend who grows organic food on a farm in New Hampshire gave me a prayer for the new millennium written by the Elders of the Arizona Hopi Nation.  It spoke to me by posing a series of questions, “Where are you living? What are your relationships?” “It is time to speak your Truth…do not look outside yourself for the leader…we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

That line continues to find me.  Obama, a community organizer himself, used it in his Super Tuesday speech in Chicago, Will.I.Am sampled it in his ‘Yes We Can’ video which has reached 5 million views, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghSJsEVf0pU, and one of my favorite scholar activists’ who writes of citizen agency in democracy, Harry C. Boyte, references it in his book, The Citizen Solution.  John Legend even manages to make it sexy in his song, “Cross the Line.”  This quote has deep roots though.  It was expressed in song by SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. King) activist Dorothy Cotton, composed by Bernice Reagan, and was inspired by a line in Jamaican-American activist June Jordan’s 1980 “Poem for South African Women.”

“And who will join this standing up

and the ones who stood without sweet company

will sing and sing

back into the mountains and

if necessary

even under the sea:

we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

(Listen to the poem and acapella rendition by Sweet Honey in the Rock at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/audio/JJ/JJ%20reads%20unknown%20poem.mp3)


Having taught leadership courses and facilitated community development projects as a scholar-practitioner the last 13 years in both university and community settings, my goal has always been to engage communities in collaborative, mutually beneficial work.  To teach leadership, I feel compelled to move beyond models and theories of leadership, which, although illuminating, often left me uninspired and students inexperienced. One must engage in practical experiences to build capacities and to even recognize personal and communal strengths and weaknesses.  Like my favorite education theorists, John Dewey and Paulo Friere believed, the authoritarian factory-model approach to education leaves little room for understanding students’ lived experiences or for practical application of knowledge and skills.

For the same reason I use the term community-based learning instead of service-learning, I use the term community organizer instead of leader because, for me, the words service and leader insinuate an underlying power structure that deserves unpacking.  How do we acknowledge and come to terms with past and current hegemonic practices which elevate some to dominant decision-making roles while others are relegated to subordinate “consumer” roles, whether it’s in our schools, our communities, our institutions, or even in our homes? Whom exactly are we leading or serving and for what and who’s purpose? What is wanted and/or needed in communities and who decides?

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” embodies a teaching approach which moves away from what Harry Boyte calls technocracy, control by experts who see themselves outside a common public civic life, to the politics of empowerment which put people at the center as co-creators of democracy and enables people to build their own communities from the inside out through self-reliant, cooperative, bold action.

At the root of community organizing is a seemingly simple concept, talking with others and building relationships. Sounds easier than it is.  Thelma Craig, civil rights leader in south Alabama whose organization, the Civic League, elected more blacks to local office than anywhere else in the south, believed that citizens must claim a sense of responsibility as well as power. “You have to begin with people who are dissatisfied with their position in life, find people who are willing to commit themselves, and are willing to confront the obstacles.  If you get a strong group, you can get recognition. Good organizing like this has to have the good will of the community, the support of most everybody.  Everybody will come together when there is a fire.”

In my work now directing the activities of a community center located in a low to middle income community, I continue to struggle and strive within the spaces of what ancient Greek philosophers termed “praxis,” the practical application of a theory. As academics we understand the implications of climate change; do we know how to teach our young students actions to adapt to and improve their own environment?  We know it’s going to take a savvy generation to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies; do we challenge ourselves to remove fossil fuels form our own lives to set an example? We know what foods are damaging the earth and our health; do we have the skills and resources to teach our students how to grow their own?  We understand NAFTA and what cheap labor has done to our jobs and our economy in this country; do we have the courage to become more conscious consumers and to pass on that value system to our next generation?

We have learned from academicians, practitioners, and our own experiences that learning and action require consistent feedback loops.  We move from theory and idea to implementation, to introspection, to evaluation, to dialogic exchange and back around.  It’s not linear, it’s not static, and if we’re honest we’re always confronted with some tough but illuminating truths, about ourselves, about our communities, about the world as it is and how we think it should be.  It is in these truths, stemming from connectedness to our community, that we can create the communities and the world that we want and find hope again.  At least, that’s what has worked for me.


When I was in graduate school, the field of social justice education was largely stuck in the minefield of siloed social identity politics and did not often talk about the deep and complex interconnections of various issues of oppression and their corresponding pathways to liberation. In fact, to do so was often viewed as a way to take refuge in one’s subordinate identities instead of attending to the privilege and access one had due to their dominant identities.

In truth, however, all forms of oppression are interrelated, not just in how they intersect, but in deeper ways that speak to their interdependence and how they actually need each other to persist. For example, race needs a socially constructed and ruthlessly enforced gender binary in order to justify and make “normal” its own socially constructed categories. Because of this, racial oppression does not just intersect with gender oppression, but goes even further by policing gender, enforcing gender binaries, and connecting its own whiteness to gender oppressive ideologies such as “ideal female beauty”. Underneath this interdependence, however, lies an even deeper common element of all oppressions – their interconnection. At its worst, this represents the profoundly toxic impact that any form of oppression has on the entire web of life and its disruption to the ways our human family is connected. At its best, however, this deep interconnection can provide clarity and hope regarding social justice work– if all oppressions are connected to each other and to the greater web of life, then social change can begin anywhere at any time by any one. Thus, while it is possible to view the interconnection of oppressions as evidence of their intractability, I prefer to see it as testimony to their vulnerability and the power each and every one of us has to overcome them. Seen at its fullest, this web of connection is the ultimate threat to oppressive structures that rely so heavily on xenophobic responses to centuries (or millennia) of created “others”. Perhaps this is the reason it is so often poo-pooed by those in power: if we all truly understood that what we do to each other ultimately will always come back to us, as is the case in deeply interconnected systems, we would be highly motivated to care for each other instead of oppress each other. As Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg state in their book Love your enemies, “if my enemy is safe and happy, they have little reason to stay my enemy.”

And while all of this is true, it feels too utilitarian of a way of understanding the import of interconnectedness. Viewed in its full complexity “interconnection” is more than just a means to end oppression – it speaks truth to the profound biological, spiritual, social, and ideological “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hanh) that we all share not only as a species but as a small part of this planet’s incredibly dynamic fabric of life. When I was growing up my aunt Marta used to talk like this and I would hear other members of my family chuckle and label it “hippie talk”. Fortunately today there is “evidence” (so essential to the Western mind) from all directions (neuro science, social science, educational theory, botany, climate science, cosmology, etc.) that points to what our bodies already know – we are a small part of this larger natural world, so deeply connected to its beautiful and troubling perturbations that every single step we take has consequences…so tread mindfully.

Which brings me to my hope for this coming year (not much different form my hope last January): that I more deeply awaken to, or perhaps just re-member, all that I am connected to and in so doing tread ever so carefully as I do my part in working for social justice, addressing climate change, participating more fully in my community, and learning to actually live within life on this glorious planet. I’ve written a few blog posts on climate change and climate justice and as so many others have noted, it’s our profound separation from each other and the severing of our connection to the wider, natural world that has set the table for climate change and all of its ramifications. It makes sense, right? Wide-spread industrialization and “endless” consumption combined with ruthlessly hierarchical structures of power all held in the hands of such a disconnected group of folks has obvious consequences not the least of which are the steep and relatively quick changes to our climate. Conversely and just as powerfully, however, the deep internalization of how each and every one of us is connected to all life is not only capable of dismantling the various systems of oppression we have created, but also provides a viable pathway for navigating climate change (and the future of our species on this planet) with dignity, grace, and peace.

This teaches me that the space I perceive between “me” and “you” is really just a fiction. It’s not empty “space” at all. It’s actually energetic, electromagnetic interstitial tissue connecting my life to yours and to every other life. When I ground into this, I feel it, I know it in my bones. And when I do not, I can feel that too – lost, alone in a crowd, “busy”, frustrated with the world and my place in it, and an inexplicable emptiness that I am encouraged to fill with “stuff”. And so my commitment for this year is to be ever more mindful of that connection – THE connection of all things to all things – and tread lightly. By honoring it, nurturing it, and letting it feed me, it will in turn improve the efficacy of my work, feed and support my relationships and bit-by-bit help heal the greater whole. Isn’t this what social justice work is ultimately about?

What a Load of COP (19)

This blog is about three weeks late, but the end of the year has put me a bit behind. Nevertheless, the commentary about what we can do as everyday citizens regarding this global scale problem is still relevant.


Much has already been written about the happenings at the Conference of the Parties’ 19th annual conference (aka COP 19 – this is the conference sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC], 11-22 November) and so I will not go into detail about the fact that the Polish government hosted a major coal industry conference the same time the COP was in Warsaw, nor will I comment on the dragging-of-the-feet by developed nations in the negotiations. Likewise, I will not comment on the unprecedented walk out by hundreds of NGO and Civil Society organizers, or the anemic last-minute agreements made regarding Loss and Damage and other international funding. And finally, I will not join in the almost universal critique of Japan, Australia and Canada for their jaw-dropping CO2 limit retractions, and in particular the occasionally sophomoric behavior of the Australians. There are volumes of information on all of those issues and I encourage you to check it all out if you are interested.


Instead, I would like to comment here on what was most disheartening, but what can possibly still be redeemed – the response of the world’s citizens to our leaders’ actions / inactions. Whether Australia’s government thinks climate change is an immediate threat or not, Australia’s citizens have suffered at the hands of incredibly hot and dangerous weather for years now, and as a result its citizens are not in overall agreement with its government. Importantly, however, its citizens have not made their voices as clear as necessary on that score. Similarly, while the Canadian government has backpedaled in its CO2 commitments at the hands of a conservative government in league with the tar sands industry (among others) Canadian citizens are quite clear that the changes in climate are already having severe impacts on their water, moose and other animal populations, and forests. And while Canadian oil interests are wringing their hands at the prospect of an ice-free Arctic, the average Canadian citizen will not find that to be such a profitable proposition. Unfortunately, Canadian citizens have yet to raise the tenor of their voices to a level proportionate to their concerns. Even in the Untied States, news outlets, weather outlets, and government agencies are more and more frequently using the language of climate change as a way to describe some of the factors driving our current whiplash weather. And yet, as our government dithered in our commitments during these talks (see any of the United States’ press conferences from COP and Todd Stern’s oblique commentary), the average U.S. citizen seemed to be more concerned about the impending “Black Friday” sales.


My point being, that the COP has proven to be a turtle in a race where we actually do need a hare. The clock is literally ticking with regard to climate change and we as a global citizenry need to put pressure on our elected officials as never before. If they will not lead, then we will vote them out. If they will not protect the coming generations as best as possible, then we will put folks in power who will. If they cannot think past the next election (and its funders) or their next lobbying job, then we will do the thinking for them.


So what is it that we need our leaders to do?

First and foremost we need to let the science regarding climate change guide all decisions regarding mitigation and adaptation. This means that we adjust our “willingness” to coincide with the timelines put forth by science, not those put forth by the carbon industry or others whose primary concern are their economic interests over the global good. For example, according to the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) latest report, we have a remaining carbon “budget” of roughly 560 gigatons before we enter a climate cycle that has the most serious consequences (less than this if you consider feedbacks, or if you look at GHGs cumulatively, and not just CO2, as many in the EU do in their calculations). The oil companies around the globe have roughly 5 times that in their possession (still in the ground, in their reserves, or in the market right now) and so something must be done to insure that we do not surpass our carbon “budget” and this means we have to regulate carbon, plain and simple. Another example is to debunk the myths of “clean coal” and CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration / Storage) – there is no such thing as “clean coal” and the CCS technology is many years off with the investment in this research declining. Instead, we need to move quickly and completely to renewables. If we all demanded this, our leaders would either follow us or they would eventually be replaced with those who would.


To be clear, the science does not lie nor does it negotiate. There is no debate whatsoever about whether or not climate change is happening, and each day more and more research shows that we have a very limited period of time to make steep changes if we are to stay below 2 degrees Centigrade (a level the science says will be dangerous but still tolerable for most of the planet). And if our leaders are not clear on this and feel they cannot move because we have not stated our concerns emphatically enough, we then need to speak more clearly and powerfully to them.


Second, we need our leaders to build trust internationally and this can happen quickly and clearly by “making amends”. There are nations and peoples around the world whose lives are literally under water, or will be soon, and we need to respond globally with the resources and support necessary to either shore them up, relocate them, or search for “third options” for their continued survival. Similarly, there are countries and people suffering under the mantle of drought, famine, fires, deforestation (all either due to or exacerbated by climate change) and we as a global community, particularly those of us in nations who have the greatest historic responsibility for the mess we are in (responsibility measured by CO2 and other GHGs outputs per capita and the corresponding consequences) clearly have a responsibility to do what is right and what is necessary. As such, I fully expect that U.S. leaderhsip come to the UNFCCC and COP tables ready and willing to truly, and without hesitation, do our part. As a citizen, I will be communicating my desire to support the international agreements about Loss and Damage / Green Climate Fund to the Secretary of State’s office, POTUS, my three Congressional members, and my Governor. I am only one of many, and yet it is my responsibility to speak out loudly and clearly to those in power.


Third we need our leaders to proceed globally with Kyoto, UNFCCC, and a real “Road to Paris”. The days of unilateralism are gone. This does not mean that we become the “one-world” government that many extreme right-wing folks worry about. However, when Chernobyl went up, the radiation spread all over the planet regardless of lines drawn on maps and borders separating “us” from “them”. This applies not only to our polluting and how nations are contributing to the problem, but also can serve as a “stopper” against any one nation taking drastic solutions into their own hands, such as climate engineering by spraying sulfides into the atmosphere. We can keep our lines, our identities, our cultures, but we simply cannot act as if any one nation exists outside the reality of our biosphere and thus outside of our interdependence as a global community. To some, unilateralism may seem courageous or good leadership or even innovative, to others it is more of the same with regard to imperialism and the perennial excuse for the exploitation of developing nations by developed ones. Whatever your opinion of it, the days of unilateralism must end if we are to respond to climate change with dignity, humanity, and our best selves in tact.


And finally, we need our local, state, regional and national leadership to be in sync with this global direction. Many of our peer countries in Europe are streets ahead of the U.S. in this regard. Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have a much more unified national framework regarding climate issues and as a result have been able to expeditiously move their entire nations toward the 21st century realities regarding climate change. In the U.S., however, we have pockets of cities such as Seattle / King County, NYC, and the like enacting city and county legislation that is then being challenged at the state and national level. We do not stand a chance to marshal the necessary resources if we do not have our governmental structures on the same page with respect to climate issues. And this is where we all come in – identify your city leadership and begin to work on them. Educate them, inspire them, make clear demands of them and then ask them to reach across the city or county line and connect with their neighboring jurisdictions. When townships connect, counties are more likely to take notice and when that happens state government radar begins to ping. Only as states do we have the chance to a) elect officials who are forward thinking and strong enough to lead regarding climate issues, and b) undermine the chokehold the carbon lobby has on our congressional leaders. Sadly, many of these congressional folks will be the last to respond and so we cannot wait for them. In Josh Fox’s Gasland one of the final scenes is of some natural gas corporate heads at a congressional hearing on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and one U.S. Representative says he’s proud to support and defend the gas industry because they “provide jobs to many of his citizens” while disregarding the science behind the toxic effects of fracking on many of his other citizens. Apologies for the cliché, but this truly is a “Think Globally, Act Locally” moment – see the types of laws, community agreements, infrastructure changes, and forward-thinking development that needs to happen globally and then demand that local leaders get on board. Washington has perhaps lost its way, and so we must help it get back on the road and work for realistic solutions via our local actions. Time is running out on this issue and thus we need to get as active and vocal and engaged as we possibly can so that our voices as citizens matches our concerns as parents, friends, family, and community members.


Do not despair

We are a profoundly resilient species and I still hold out tremendous hope that we will find a way through all of this. Last month I read Mary Pipher’s The Green Boat as recommended by my friend Erin who does a great deal of climate activism. In it Dr. Pipher sheds light on how “everyday” U.S.ers (in this book meaning mostly white, lower to middle class folks) tend to get stuck in the overwhelm of this work, and in response offers a range of insights and practical suggestions about how to avoid these pitfalls. Importantly for me, however, she also shares her personal story of Keystone XL organizing in Nebraska and it is in those stories that I find such hope, resilience, and a light on the path forward. There is much to be done, but thankfully there is much we can each do.