Overcoming Racism 2015 Conference Keynote Address

Dr. Heather Hackman’s keynote focuses on the difference between doing racial justice work and living a racially just life and the importance of decolonizing our bodies, minds and spirits so that White folks can get in the boat, stay in the boat, and row with People of Color/Native People against the tide of racial injustice. 1:03:50

(c) 2015 Hackman Consulting Group

Grounding In to Equity and Justice Work

In this excerpt from a 90-minute training on Race, Racism and Whiteness, Dr. Heather Hackman leads participants through an opening grounding exercise and discusses why “grounding in” is a foundational practice for social justice work.

Recording of workshop at First Universalist Church, Minneapolis

November, 2014

(c) 2014 Hackman Consulting Group

Educating AND organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much Ado About Cecil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Not D & I

by Heather Hackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living a Tradition

By Heather Hackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjusting Our Climate Justice Lens

By Heather Hackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so how did we get here?

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

And so how DID we get here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I’m suggesting:

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

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

Painful? Yes. Hopeless? No!

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

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

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

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

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

Naomi, India and My Home Town

By Heather Hackman

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

Author’s disclaimer: Since I have not posted in a while this is a long one, so hang in there. :)

I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was not born there, mind you, but I lived there from the age of 6-18 and so it obviously had a significant influence on me. I often share this at the beginning of trainings to help folks understand that I was not raised in a place where I would be naturally predisposed to social justice work. The tag line for the city does not say “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas…and we are totally committed to race, class and gender justice!” Nothing of the kind. In fact, it is quite the opposite – it is a city that is predicated on taking your money and having you smile while we do it, almost never really knowing what hit you. We alter the lighting in casinos, we make sure you never see the shift changes, and we hide all clocks so you have no sense of time passing. We have endless sources of food and drink so you are always sated. We make sure no real culture expresses itself but will fill the horizon with facsimiles of culture like Venice, Paris, Rome, Egypt and New York. And most of all, we make sure that there is nothing visible that would give pause to hedonism – no homeless, no hungry, no examples of racism, and when we show you women almost completely naked taking your drink order, we make sure they are always smiling so as to offer the impression that working in a thong and pasties for eight hours is enjoyable.

Las Vegas is often a reference for me in my training work when talking about my own gender awareness (I hated the depiction of women in that city), my lack of racial awareness (it was a place representing the most extreme results of colonization and exploitation and so there was simply no mainstream conversation about race at all, at least not one that was connected to racial justice), and my experience regarding class (make it seem like you have money at all costs because that is the only parlance this city understands). Though I had no substantive political consciousness, these gender, race and class dynamics often left me uneasy, confused or on the outside looking in.

But after reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), I can see one more reason why that town never felt like home to me – it is the penultimate example of extractivism over nature, of humanity’s desire for “more” falling in direct conflict with what is and should be possible in the middle of the desert. And that’s the key point – Las Vegas does not sit in the middle of a lush, green landscape with water readily available for its 61 golf courses. Nor does it reside in a temperate climate that does not require constant air conditioning. Nor is it located in an area where food is locally grown in plentiful amounts. No. It is in the middle of the desert. Dry, hot and what does grow there is not what we want in our “world’s biggest buffets”. But that has not stopped the developers from turning Vegas into the most impossible of spaces and forcing it to be green, forcing it to be cool, and flying, trucking and “training” in all manner of foods to assuage the palates of the entire world.

 

As you can imagine, there was very little of the city I liked as I was growing up, but I did have a fondness for its heat, its vast terrain and the challenge its isolation posed. On occasion we would head up to Mt. Charleston or drive out to Red Rock Canyon and each and every time I felt more alive and more grateful and more at home than I ever felt in the city itself. Maybe even as a young person there was something in me that knew that Vegas was ultimately a deeply flawed and likely failed proposition. Building such an edifice in a place where not a single aspect of it should ever be seems to be the ultimate testament to the hubris that has led us to this current climate moment – the mere notion that we can completely, indefinitely, and without any consequence bend nature to our will, no matter how obscene and unnatural it is. Only by connecting to the natural world via those excursions outside of Vegas, was I able to understand how problematic my home town was and is.

 

I know many people who “love Vegas” but not a one of them is engaged in the struggle for climate justice and the creation of a social, political and economic framework that is sustainable. Their love for Vegas might, on its surface, simply be a love for sun and fun. But, in truth the love that members of extraction societies hold for Vegas is likely because of the role it plays in being the ever-present reminder of our dominion over nature and that life can seemingly be abundant and enjoyable in the process. Vegas is an escape, like most vacation destinations, but it is a particular escape into the fantasy that humanity can consume at rates unthinkable (in a rational world) and somehow still be okay.

 

I rarely go back to Vegas, but was there last April for my brother’s wedding and while driving with my mother, I looked around at the mall expansion and the fact that the city has built and built and built right up to its very edges, and I said to her, “there is nothing that would ever have me come back to this place.” So smug, right? So self-righteous. So “above it all” in cool judgment and educated condemnation…except for the fact that you can take the Heather out of Vegas but not the Vegas out of Heather (at least not without some serious work). And so I have had to look at (thanks again to Naomi Klein’s book) the ways I carry the Vegas mentality with me – how I consume in absurdly racist, classist and ultimately imperialist ways. How I engage with the world as if it is made of infinite resources. How I create space and places and ways of being that simply have no business being where they are. And within this where I am truly just ignorant, and where I am willfully choosing not to see.

 

Let me be more specific – I was recently traveling in India for four weeks and the concrete, recurring question bumping up against my inner-Vegas was, “what on earth am I doing traveling for pleasure?” The carbon footprint we laid down as we went from Mumbai to Kathmandu to Varanasi to Bodh Gaya to New Delhi to Hampi to Fort Kochi to Thekkady to Alleppey and then back to Mumbai with me then returning home to Minneapolis was absurd. No other word for it. I was not there for work, I was not there for research, I was not there for any social justice reason at all, I was there because two friends live there and I wanted to see India and so going while they were there seemed like a good idea. Hello Vegas.

 

This past week TED posted a sweet, and if you listen closely, deeply poignant talk by Matthieu Ricard about altruism and climate change where he posited altruism (a path to climate justice) in opposition to selfishness (the path to climate disaster), and I had to face the fact that traveling the way we did (flying, driving, and hotels with such an extensive carbon footprint!) for pleasure is and was simply selfish. This bucks right up against the “but I’ve earned it” and the “I need to relax a bit and unwind, what’s selfish about that?” refrain so often uttered by middle-class U.S.-ers. It even can bump up against those who espouse the “deep growth and change of worldview that travel can bring” argument, and while this learning is often true and has almost always been true for me, it pales against the reality that we are very quickly passing critical planetary boundaries and we must steeply curb, swiftly change and substantially adapt if we are going to have a shot at a sustainable future.

 

And that means that travel for pleasure is likely on the chopping block for me. Notice how I hedged my bet there… “likely”. Even as I write this I cannot quite bring myself to fully commit. And yet, I hope that by being more public it will help me connect with others who are at similar places regarding truly unnecessary consumption, but caught in the throes of a neoliberal, globalized, colonial mindset. The class category I am identifying here is clear, right – U.S. middle, upper-middle and professional middle class folks who have disposable income but who are not the 1%. I see myself as a member of that group and in a nutshell we consume like mad.

 

And even though the bulge in CO2 emissions is shifting to the Global South, do not be fooled by that. Carbon emissions are recorded for the country they are emitted in, not the causality of those emissions. So, China, India and others in the Global South release much of their CO2 in the process of producing goods that we consume in the Global North. Thus, it is our consumption in the Global North that is still driving rising CO2 in a literal sense via what we purchase, consume and throw away. But, it is also driven by the illusion of power, prosperity and “happiness” that we have exported in connection with this level of consumption – the cultural imperialism of consumption. As I was driving the roads all over India I could not help but notice the mark of Western advertising promising happiness if only you eat this (vegetarian) Whopper, drink this Coke, or try this Jolly Rancher (these folks looked particularly happy, actually). This form of ideological colonization, by conflating happiness with consumption, will kill us all if we do not see through it, rigorously critique its impacts, and offer alternatives.

 

One of the most slippery ways “consumption” defends itself, however, is by saying that if we stop consuming, all of the folks in India, China, Mexico and Brazil who are making these products will lose their livelihoods. That is true if the only source of life is the maquiladora. However, what I quickly understood as I was in India is that if I took the money I waste on my useless consumption and instead offer it up as payment for the Global North’s climate debt, I would be making an amend for the havoc my consumption has wrought, I would be supporting green and truly sustainable development, and I would be interrupting the ideology of consumption and extraction and replacing it with a more global vision of stewardship and climate justice in response to the crisis we are in.

 

I’m not talking charity here, I’m talking about wealth redistribution and putting substance to the IPCC’s “equal but differentiated responsibilities” framework. There are truly countless organizations all over the world (many of them indigenous) working locally to replace the extractivist worldview with something much more sustainable. For specifics, go to Naomi’s book and the references in the back. Better yet, read her book and come to understand some of the work these organizations are doing globally.

 

And so that is really why I am writing this – not to do the solipsistic, passive aggressive lefty thing where we cynically criticize ourselves and call ourselves hypocrites in order to actually shame and blame others, nor am I trying to induce guilt and shame and point a finger. Instead, I am openly sharing what has come up for me since I left for India in December and how I intend to apply these lessons to a hopeful and sustainable solution whereby we ALL can live on this planet. By some studies / measures as a middle-class U.S.-er I consume 80% more than is allowable if we are to try and keep planetary warming limited to two degrees centigrade. While many think we have missed that two-degree mark, it is no reason to not then shoot for two-point-five degrees. And while there is no guarantee that any of this will matter or work, it is absolutely certain that if the West does not curb its consumption by somewhere around 80%, and stop exporting this way of life as laudable, we will most surely suffer deeply and badly as a planet for a very, very long time.

 

Please do not hear my words from a place of guilt or shame. Brain research has shown that that is a weak place of motivation and stops learning (see, for example, the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Mindful Brain). Rather, if you are a middle-class U.S.-er, make the changes you can and do this work from the place of altruism. Do it for the love of the natural world. Do it because it truly is the right thing to do. Do it as an amend for the colonization and genocide that created this wealth. Do it for future generations of all life on this planet. Do it as spiritual practice. Do it for a host of possible reasons or combinations therein. Whatever your motive, let us begin to do it now – to dig deep, to cut deeply, and to move quickly to a worldview that is in resonance and not dissonance with this planet.

 

One of Klein’s last points in her book, to light the way perhaps, is an analysis of various social movements that have achieved significant political, social and at times even some economic change – and of course the overarching theme was the word movement. We cannot do this alone, but if we are not practicing it as individuals it becomes difficult to authentically participate in those movements, and almost impossible to keep them alive over the long haul. One of the slogans of the People’s Climate March was, “to change everything, we need everyone” and so please join in climate justice work, please talk to others, please engage politically and socially, and if you are someone with economic access, please dig deep and work to make the changes necessary for this movement to lead us into a sustainable future. I thank you for your partnership on this path and hope to learn from you as we all do our level best.

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.

“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.