Lessons from the Boulevard

I was notified last week that my workshop on addressing climate change through a race, class and gender justice lens was accepted at a climate change conference next summer. Needless to say I am really excited about this because the conference is almost exclusively science, policy and NGO folks and so having me as a social justice educator in their midst should be an interesting experience for all of us. I went to this conference two years ago in Seattle and was deeply moved by the steadfast and optimistic commitment these scientists, international lawyers, and global relief workers showed in the face of the stark and terrifying reality that they, more than others, know in great detail – we are heading for disaster. In session after session, they inspired me to stay focused, buttress my commitment however I can, and forge ahead in an effort to educate others about what is happening regarding climate change, what we need to do, and how we need to do it (the “how” is where I and my presentation come in). And I hope that I have stayed true to the deepened commitment I made then and continue to make – I will do whatever I can to sound the alarm and educate.

 

As two tiny gestures toward that end, this spring I built a “Little Library” as a way to feed social justice / climate change books to my neighbors, and I dug up my front boulevard area in order to plant some “community gardens” for my neighbors to nibble from as they walked by. I envisioned avid readers flocking to the yard, swapping stories abut the social justice content they just read, while partaking in the beautiful food blooming perfectly and in great abundance. I imagined an evolving mix of neighbors being inspired to get into conversations about growing their own food and then somehow stumbling into amazing insights about social justice, climate change, transition towns, and sustainable communities. You see where this is going, right? Here’s what really happened.

 

The Library

The Little Library, as I suspected, did in fact attract a range of folks. I had not even finished mounting it on its stand before the two children across the street came running over saying, “Our mom wants to know if you want some kids’ books for you library.” I of course said yes since I have no children and thus my supply of kids’ books is severely limited. Within minutes they ran back over with armloads of books. It was pretty cool and lifted my spirits about the potential success of this venture. I am not the first to do this, of course, but I am the first on the block and I hope that every block in south Minneapolis will eventually be well stocked with books of all sorts. Of my personal array of books (and I hate to give away books) my first two contributions were extra copies of Black feminist thought (Patricia Hill Collins) and Come out fighting: A century of essential writing on gay and lesbian liberation. Seeing this and secretly fearing disaster, my friends contributed mysteries, classics, more kids books, and a range of lighter fare…and their books went first. In fact, I checked every day to see if my first two books were taken and it took an inordinately long time for them to disappear. I wondered aloud what this might mean and friends only proffered jokes about what I tend to read. I laughed as well, but inside I really did start to wonder what it would mean to have a Little Library solely dedicated to social justice-leaning books. Would they be taken? If not, why? Would people use their free time to read such things? If not, why? I live in a very White liberal, gender liberal, LBGTQI liberal neighborhood and I began to consider how much this might be a reflection of the troubling difference between what liberals tend to do in their free time and what they politically stand for publicly. Where is the line between liberal and progressive? I wonder about these things because I know like I know like I know that “liberalism” is no path to liberation, and so if this is where we are, then we are in some trouble when it comes to social justice issues, and by extension when it comes to climate change and climate justice.

 

I also wonder this out of a deeper concern for how we as a society are crafting our political and social lives and where the two shall meet. Liberal politics tend to be a politics of convenience and appeasement. They are a stretch for those who embody them only in the sense that their bearer might be inconvenienced and challenged here and there, but they require nothing in the way of the release of privilege and the “resorting” of one’s life from the ground up along the lines of justice. Liberal politics have an “add on” feel about them because they do not change or transform the edifice of power that creates and sustains systems of dominance and oppression, but merely seek ways to “add on” others’ rights and opportunities to the edifice itself. Case in point, I have been talking a lot lately with what I would describe as “hetero liberals” – heterosexuals who fought hard for, gave money toward, and lawn-signed endlessly for the rights of LBGT people to marry in Minnesota. Importantly, however, these heterosexual “allies” were not simultaneously examining their own privilege or the ways they themselves are hamstrung by heteronormativity and the tightness of gender norms and expectations that undergird their heterosexual lives. As such they did not make it a campaign for their freedom as well, but rather a campaign for “the freedom to marry” with nary a question about what marriage has been and currently is in this society. Now, when I would ask them about this they replied, “when LBGT people can marry, it will by default, change what marriage is.” Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it will simply mean that LBGT people are now an “add on” to the overall edifice of marriage in this society, and therefore parroting heterosexual definitions of marriage.

 

(At this point those of you who are married or who want to be married might be about to stop reading because you might think I am bashing marriage, but before you go, let me clarify: I think that there is nothing more sacred than the commitment one person makes to those they love. For some who choose not to marry, that commitment can come in the form of a deep and abiding life commitment to a community. For others who have children but are not married, that commitment can be seen in the beauty and power of parenting. Still others choose one person with whom they commit to spending the rest of their life with through turmoil and celebration. These are deeply profound and utterly gorgeous gestures that we make to others and are such beautiful aspects of who we are as humans. What I am asking the reader to lean into in the above paragraph is not the dismantling of this type of commitment, but rather a critique of the “institution of marriage”, its hugely complicated, profoundly gendered, and deeply power-based history, and how that plays out in contemporary U.S. society and its notions of marriage. Just that. So, please hang with me.)

 

All this came from watching how Oh, the places you’ll go, The poisonwood bible, and The help went whirling in and out of the library while my more political books stayed put (I added others after my first two). But that is often what liberalism does – it separates the political and personal, and in the end that simply doubles-back and serves the very same oppressive structures that liberals oppose. And so I will continue to ply my neighbors with political books in hopes that as we all place our political ideas in the community space (in this case, the sidewalk in front of my house) we can begin to see how deeply connected all of these issues are to the core of our lives and that we must live integrated and not a partitioned political lives such that we can steadily and consistently create the world we all so desperately want to live in. To be transparent, I am offering this critique to myself more than anyone else. One of the greatest gifts this Little Library has given me is the wake-up call I am alluding to – if my politics are not part of the community life here on my block, then what good are they? If they do not live and breathe and create “home” right here, then perhaps I am merely enacting liberal posturing and therefore need to take a closer look. As a step in pushing myself more, this fall and winter I plan on hosting “educational workshops” for my neighbors and friends about climate justice and what we can do with respect to it in hopes that I can create the lived politics (instead of political life) I am discussing here.

 

The Garden

As for the garden, that was an even more challenging experiment. The first and foremost problem was simply my lack of gardening skills. I placed too much in too small of spaces (I have three raised beds), the cherry tomato plant turned into perhaps the first ever sun gold cherry tomato tree, and the radishes did well at first and then there simply wasn’t enough sun for them. But, this is all fixable – I just need to become a better gardener. What accompanied the garden experiment and how to “fix” it is less clear to me. So, not only did those food justice, climate change conversations not happen (at least not to my knowledge), but my neighbors had no idea they could even take the food. Realizing this, I put small signs on the boxes saying “community gardens” but that did not seem to encourage everyone. Then I built a little box with the same sign on top and placed paper bags (like the ones you take a lunch to school in) inside it so folks would be prompted to fill one. Still, no takers. Then I went around personally to my neighbors and point blank invited (perhaps told) them to take the food. At this point, some did. And yet others, even after I helped them see what a radish looked like when it was ready to be picked, still did not partake despite their excitement and saying that they “definitely would”. Now, to be fair, my educational efforts were less than spectacular as I had also hoped to make a flyer with web sites and TED talks to view but ran out of time to make that happen. Nevertheless, it seemed like an unusual thing to tell people there’s free, fresh, organic food for the taking and to have no one really do it – to have neighbors not eat food from “my” yard. And that, I think, was the rub – property and the notion of “mine” and “yours”. As I paid closer attention to folks walking by and continued talking to neighbors about it, I began to pick up on peoples’ fear of crossing the line in terms of “property” and by extension “propriety”. After all, part of the American Dream is the possession of my house, my yard, my space and it is the “my” that I think is what kept them from seeing anything out there as “our” and more importantly from seeing this street, this neighborhood and this city as an “our”.

 

The insidious relationship between U.S. class and race structures has us drowning in endless divisions of “mine” and “yours”, and far too few of “ours”. And yet I, for one, deeply want more of the “our”. I do not want to live in a home that feels isolated and cut off from those around me. In some U.S. (and certainly many global) communities there is not this separation. In predominantly white, professional middle class communities there is. In the past I would frame this analysis within the context of race and class and the need to dismantle these structures and that would be it. Today I agree with that framing and know that we must place it in an even larger context of adaptation to the coming climate reality. Globally, the most vulnerable will feel the pain of it all first. In the U.S., a society that has “me, mine and yours” firmly tied to race, class and gender, those targeted by deeply rooted racist, classist and gender oppressive power structures will be the first to be impacted. And so I am writing here not to proffer more political framing, but rather to suggest a simple shift that might help – a shift from “mine” to “ours”. The rugged individualism so intractably associated with the race and class history of this country would have us believe that this idea is “socialism”, “weak”, will make us “vulnerable as a nation”, and will ultimately “destroy our democracy” because it is “un-American”. It would have us think that whatever we who are white and middle class, and those male, have in our possession has been earned and achieved all by ourselves (and not acquired as a result of oppression and privilege). But, if we are going to bandy about clichés, I prefer ones such as “silence is complicity”, “if not me, then who? if not now, then when?” and “no one is free when others are oppressed” because I think they are more honest. The idea of an “individual” is one that serves disconnection, which feeds fear, which is fuel for the deepening “mine” versus “yours”, which distills into “us” and “them”, which is exactly the division necessary for systems of oppression to exist. Racial, class, and gender oppressions rely on this separation, a community grounded in “ours” blurs it.

 

And so, I think my little garden experiment, in the faintest of ways, brushed up against these divisions and offered a different take on what we could be to each other and how we could live together on this block. It acknowledged the fourth wall and asked people to step through, cross lines, blur boundaries and in so doing be just the tiniest bit more of a “we”. For a more articulate and compelling conversation about this I strongly suggest you watch two TED talks (Pam Warhurst and her work in a small village in England and Ron Finley and his work in Los Angeles) that demonstrate the power of “we”. Contrary to the typical naysayers, their work is not weak, nor detrimental to human progress. Instead, they both breathe life into the notion that we are a family of people and that we do, in fact, live here together. I am taking guidance from these two “radicals” and next year will be planting even more “stuff” for the boulevard, trying to get a neighbor or two to do the same, and blurring a few more lines in an effort to build the kind of community I want and that we actually need for the coming decades of climate reality.

 

Perhaps it was a titch ambitious to hope that a library in my front yard and three small raised bed garden boxes would lead to a south Minneapolis revolution (one can hope), but it has taught me a lot. Most importantly, it has given me important information about Liberalism and the power of the possessive “mine” so that as the fall descends and winter draws near, I will spend my time inside drawing up “Season Two of the Little Library and Community Gardens Action Plan” in hopes that next year there is just a bit more connection of my politics to my life, the slightest movement form “mine” to “ours”, and a little more conversation and community. Feel free stop by. Or better yet, build some on your block.

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