“Discovering Mindfulness”

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

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

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

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

Homophobia As Nationalism

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“And who will join this standing up

and the ones who stood without sweet company

will sing and sing

back into the mountains and

if necessary

even under the sea:

we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

What a Load of COP (19)

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


Do not despair

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

A Love-ly Week

I’ve started this post a number of times trying to find a way to share the experiences I have had this past week without sounding superficial, forced, or like a bad greeting card. Nothing has worked and so I’ll just get to the point.

It began last Saturday with a workshop I did on racial justice for a faith community in the Twin Cities. Lots could be said about the content of the day, about the exceptional commitment of its participants, or about the deep import of social justice within so many spiritual belief systems, but as I drove away after a very long day what stood out the most was how deeply folks responded when we spoke of love and how essential it is for racial justice work and living a spiritual life (at least in this tradition). Importantly, these were not orchestrated moments of written reflection about “the connection between racial justice and love”, but rather spontaneous and heartfelt ones when I, or someone in the group, would make such simple but down to earth statements about the role love plays in our work. They were extemporaneous and quick, but they registered for all of us, often with a collective pause or a breathing in, and then we continued on. Of everything that was shared over the course of 8-plus hours of training, those brief moments of authentic connection to love were what stayed with me…because truth be told that is what I am hungry for right now. And I think it’s what others are hungry for too. Not the saccharin-y sweet, dime-a-dozen blither blather we constantly hear about love in this society, but the kind of love that says, “I’m here too. I’m not sure what to do either. But, together, and I mean truly together, I believe we can figure it out.” And so, I left that training reminded that I need more of that kind of connection if I am to do this work well, and appreciative of this congregation’s example of how to try and make it happen in their church.

Then, on Sunday I attended the wedding of my two friends Pete and Steve. The church was completely packed with family, friends, and colleagues all awaiting the marriage of two men who have been together almost 20 years. It was certainly not my first gay wedding, but there was something particular with this one. I know that many in the queer community question the efficacy and equity of placing marriage at the forefront of the LBGT mainstream political movement, I do too, but this is not a commentary about that. It is a commentary about the feeling in the room: the undeniable harmonics of the heart and the way 200-plus people resoundingly supported Pete and Steve’s love. When they were pronounced husband and husband the room exploded with cheers, applause, foot-pounding, and everyone jumped to their feet for an extended celebration. The ceremony wasn’t over yet but the crowd had chosen that moment to punctuate the day – love is love. The two of them were in tears, the family was in tears, the ministers were in tears, and the congregants were in tears. It seemed to me that the sheer size of the assemblage and its powerful support for Pete and Steve’s commitment allowed the room to slip one layer deeper into the life-giving truth about love…and we all surrendered to it. These are tough times, there is uncertainty lurking around too many corners, and in the midst of it we cheered like mad for these guys and the love they have for each other and that we have for them because we all needed it. Love is a salve, there can be no question about that. And last Sunday it certainly was for everyone in the room. Pete and Steve were just the “official” reason we were there, but what we really wanted perhaps without even knowing it was the love of community, of hope, and of what it means to live in a world where it really is all that matters, even for just a moment. I cried and cheered and was so happy, grateful and relieved to be present for such an unabashed display of love. What a gift they gave us.

On Monday I was training again and this time had only three hours to do some sort of racial equity training for a room of just over 200 teachers. Not an easy task, but made a little more challenging by the fact that they had already done various degrees of initial training and therefore were wanting something more compelling, more challenging, and “new”. I have learned over the years that when majority White groups suggest that they have “already covered a lot” of racial equity content it often means that they have “learned” a lot but perhaps not “integrated” all of that information. So, I went ahead and covered some of the basics, but from a different angle and then complimented that with stories from my own journey (mostly my mistakes) and where I am today. And it is here that I did my best to toss in elements of what bell hooks calls “a love ethic”. I shared about the love that master teachers have for the art of teaching, for their students, and for the deep human promise that education holds. I shared about the love that grows when we do racial justice work and that gets snuffed out when we do not. I talked about the way the soul can atrophy under the listless and isolating influence of White privilege and how it can shine like the sun of Hafiz when it is arcing toward racial justice. I did my best to be real and to speak truth to a tough subject with 200 different souls sitting in the room. When I was done I noticed again that what stayed with me were the audience’s reactions to the comments about care, compassion, and love. Maybe I imagined it, but the group seemed to lean in a little more and the room became slightly more still when we honestly broached the topic of love.

Given how challenging social justice work can be, and certainly how fraught this current social / political / economic moment in time is, the importance of deeply caring for one another and grounding our work in love cannot be overestimated. It’s what those people of faith wanted in their congregation, it’s why the crowd at the wedding raised the roof with cheers and tears, and it is what our teachers need as they help our youth prepare for their future. All too often I get “caught” in my head and so I’m grateful for days like these where I am reminded to lean more into my heart and come back to center. It is said that the best teaching, training, and organizing always has a solid balance between the head and heart and I saw the evidence of that in the groups I had the privilege to be with this week. I’m grateful for their example.

The Courage to Teach: Part III – Four Wishes for Teacher Education

This week’s post is the third installment in “The Courage to Teach” series and is directed at this country’s teacher education system. Too often, our national conversation around education and what needs to change within it focuses on the work that teachers are doing – teachers before administrators, teachers before community members (and their frequent resistance to passing educational support measures like levees), and teachers before teacher education (almost always). And yet, after spending 12 years teaching pre-service and in-service teachers, I believe that not only does teacher education need an overhaul in order to meet the real needs of this nation’s education system, but it should also be one of the first places we look when we considering educational reform. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion when teacher education is mentioned (as in my home state) it usually takes the form of a state-wide legislative committee with little or no direct educational experience making changes in teacher education assessment or loosening teacher education licensure requirements as a whole.


Given this reality, I would like to make four wishes for teacher education in hopes of developing a system that more effectively meets the needs to today’s communities, school, teachers, and students. This is not an exhaustive list of wishes, of course, but if we were to begin with even this small list, I believe we would make some good headway in getting teacher education to do what it is charged to do: prepare our teachers to be exceptional educators in an incredibly complex and challenging times.


Wish One: Stewardship

I was in a College of Education “Future Development” committee meeting about 12 years ago when it just so happened that our state legislature was making moves to eliminate the “human relations requirement” for teacher licensure. I mentioned to the group that this was disturbing because of its content but also because its process signaled one more time that those who were actually in education were not making the decisions about education. In response I suggested that we, as a College of Education in a good-sized university, respond vociferously to this and be the stewards of education that we are philosophically charged to be. How can we possibly say we are going to do right by preparing teachers but then do nothing when the quality of that preparation is jeopardized? I expected to be met with general agreement if not a rousing sense of support. To my surprise, I was instead met with disagreement, dismissal, and one colleague telling me it sounded “too communist” to challenge the legislature on their educational decision-making. A decade later, there was another round of the chipping away at teacher preparation by the legislature, I made another suggestion that we not roll over and instead speak up to defend what we know is right, and received yet another barrage of laughs, dismissals, and head shaking at me.

And so here is my first wish – that those in teacher education stand strong for what we know to be right for teachers, for students, for schools, and for education as a whole. Instead of finding new and innovative ways to help teachers “manage” larger and larger classes, let’s get out there and demand for more funding for smaller class sizes. We know that when class size is too large, teaching, learning and overall student development is hampered so let’s do something about it. Those who do not blink at the price increase for a Grande Latte need to be reminded that just like their latte the cost of truly good education cannot be the same as it was “when they were kids”. Likewise, if we know that standardized testing is mind-numbing, a horrible measure of one’s academic capacity and inherently biased with respect to race, class and gender, we must stand up for rigorous and unstandardized assessment. If we know that fast-track licensing for people from professional fields with no formal educational training is bad for education, we must strongly resist and defend the need for preparation in deep and complex ways. And instead of being reactive to issues like these, let us respond in proactive ways and without apology make the case for equity in our schools, for teacher education requirements that are rigorous and steep, and for change in our immediate, local and regional cultures regarding education and make it one of the most respected jobs in this society. If we are tenured (read “safe”) and the authors of the very teacher education textbooks our students use, we are obligated to take a stand and say to those who legislate education that we have had enough of their short-sighted and underfunded expectations for education. In my mind, there is no group of people more able to take the risk of pushing back on governmental intervention in education than college and university faculty. We have an extraordinary amount of privilege and power and it is high time we use it to support teachers and course-correct education in this country instead of worrying about our own books, articles, and careers. There is NO substitute for well trained, incredibly competent, and extremely knowledgeable teachers and it is the responsibility of teacher education to make this case to the public and be relentless in our efforts. In short, let us be the torchbearers for education.


Wish Two: Representative Teacher Education Faculty

This is a pretty straightforward wish: the faculty in teacher education needs to be a representative sample of those in our classrooms. More specifically, the faculty should reflect the racial, cultural, linguistic, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious, ability and nation of origin demographics of our schools. For example, in various higher educational programs I taught in, I found less than 5% of faculty were People of Color. This is particularly true for positions that are tenured or one-year fixed-term positions. In contrast, it is quite common to find faculty from historically marginalized groups hired as adjuncts who get paid very little, have no power within departments, and also are not responsible for student advising or graduate thesis advising.

This is easier said than done and so here are a few specific suggestions to help our teacher education programs lean in the direction of greater representation:

1) Examine, through a social justice lens, the culture and climate at the heart of your teacher education program,

2) Using this analysis, identify areas where there are dominant group norms that go unquestioned and unchallenged and in response begin to dismantle those. For example, are your meeting processes grounded in White or male or professional middle class norms and if so, how might that make retention of historically marginalized groups difficult. Then, identify how business as usual of your teacher education program consciously or unconsciously perpetuates long-standing biases, closed-doors, and overall dismissal of historically marginalized groups.

3) Begin to transform those ways of being in your programs that perpetuate dominance, privilege and the oppression of marginalized communities. For example, change the various ways you structure tenure, develop job descriptions, implement policies and procedures, and structure hiring processes.


In a nutshell, the answer to this is not to “get more of ‘those’ people in our program” but rather ask “what in our program is making it inaccessible to historically marginalized people and favorable to those in the typical dominant groups in this country?” This is not about tokenization, but really a simple but incredibly important response to the increasing needs for multiple-identity perspectives in teacher education.


Wish Three: Get Into Today’s Classroom

I would love to see those in teacher education get into the classroom again; not as someone observing teacher education students, but as someone who is actually teaching the class AND being observed by others. Teacher educators who are confident in their teaching content, in the methods they are imparting to their students, and in the pedagogical frameworks they espouse, should have no fear of being in a high school, middle school, elementary or early childhood classroom themselves. And yet, if I were to place most of those I know in teacher education into contemporary U.S. classrooms (and had them observed) I am sadly confident that many of them would not be successful or able to respond to the need of students in today’s classrooms. I often explain the importance of the need for this “wish” this way: we have long-term faculty in teacher education who were E-12 educated in the middle of the 20th century, taught and / or went to graduate school in the latter quarter of the 20th century, who are then teaching undergraduate students who were raised mostly in the beginning of the 21st century and will themselves be teaching students who will live to the end of the 21st and perhaps even into the 22nd century. Given the rapidity of social, political, scientific, climactic, and global change across this span of time it seems likely that a faculty member who has been in teacher education for 20 years as of 2013 will not truly understand the current landscape of today E-12 setting unless they have jumped into it on a regular basis. For this reason I implore faculty in teacher education to get in the front of an E-12 room and allow themselves to be evaluated just as they evaluate student teachers. I am certain that the experience and observational feedback they receive will have a strong impact on how we teach future teachers.


Wish Four: Teach for 21st Century Education

I think this one is more of a personal desire than anything grounded in piles of research, although there is research to support it. It is my hope that teacher education take a hard look at what is on the horizon and teach accordingly. For example, the archaic “siloing” of topics and content areas in education no longer serves the complex and multi-varied nature of this society. When the workforce was built on an older model of industrialization where there were structured, singular tasks to be performed, this parceling out of educational content seemed to serve a purpose. But today when an ever-increasing percentage of our workforce is doing more and more complex work, or telecommuting, or working multiple jobs as a result of a downsized economy, it does not make sense to separate math from economics from social studies from science. The 21st century workforce, political arena, community voice and slate of challenging global issues calls for citizens who can think critically, bring a wide swath of knowledge to bear on the problem, and function as well in collaborative projects as they do in independent work. Sadly, our teacher education programs are not acknowledging this reality and still silo students into content areas distinctly separate from the greater whole. For me, this resulted in pre-service teachers in my classes, for example future biology teachers, unaware of how language arts skills such as literary critique, the analysis of voice, or attending to the social implications of a piece of writing were relevant to the treatment of the environment, the splitting of the atom, or the patenting of the human genome. It took several weeks to get these students to open their minds to these intersectionalities of content, thought, and learning, but once they did they repeatedly wondered why they were not being taught this across their entire teacher education program. I did too.


In addition, a 21st century teacher education program must be rooted in social justice and a commitment to helping students both understand and seek to solve the most pressing social issues of our society. They did not start these fires and yet they will be repeatedly singed by them. It is the very least we can do to give them the analytical and educational tools to try and put them out. In line with this 21st century teacher education needs to teach students how to work collectively, collaboratively and with empathy and care for those about them. These are indispensible elements of our society and yet we give them sparse commentary in teacher education. A few months back, Buddhist teacher Spring Washam quoted an ABC interview of the Dalai Lama where the interviewer asked the Dalai Lama, “If there were one thing you would change about U.S. society to make it better, what would it be?” And according to Spring the Dalai Lama said, “I would make compassion the central teaching of your entire educational system. If you taught compassion this way, all of your national problems would be solved.” You can debate this last statement, but it should be a no-brainer that if compassion was a core element of what we taught as teacher educators (and by default our students taught as E-12 teachers) we would certainly be much, much better off as a society.



In sum, I want to say again that it is all too easy to target this country’s teachers for the current state of education, but if we are concerned about the efficacy of our teaching in this country we should turn our attention to those who are training them. In the first installment in this series I suggested that we should truly appreciate and express our gratitude to those teachers who are true artisans and stellar examples in education. Likewise, we need to lift up teacher education programs that are exceptional and who do actually train teachers for the 21st century, while also calling to task teacher education programs that are not good stewards of education, do not represent our students and their families, are not rooted in the realities of the classroom, and that are completely out of date in their own practices and ways of teaching. I know this is merely a wish list, but it is one born out of 12 years of teaching future teachers and an even longer period of working with in-service folks and therefore has some experience the back of it. Perhaps if enough of us call attention to what needs to change and grow in teacher education these wishes will become reality.


Right Hopes, Wrong Lens

This week’s comments are in response to a recently published (October 17, 2013) Washington Post AP blog post by Kevin Begos entitled, “Environmentalists stress people of all races, backgrounds key to green movement”. The post (which, ironically, is also listed as a resource on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change home page) is a report on the recent young people’s climate justice conference in Pittsburgh called “Power Shift”, where Begos quotes a number of participants ranging from college students to national leaders of environmental groups. The essential premise of the blog post is conference participants’ stated concern that there are not enough People of Color in the “green movement” and that “more diversity is needed” if this overall movement is to be a success.

Unfortunately, there are two fundamental errors in this understanding of the issue. The first is obvious to anyone doing climate justice work through a global frame – across the globe there are not only People of Color involved in the climate justice movement, but People of Color are leading this movement. If more White U.S.ers would lift their gaze to the work and voices of such activists they would clearly see that global, regional, and even national environmental work (see the many Native communities in the Americas that have been addressing environmental issues well ahead of White U.S.ers) is rife with leadership from Communities of Color. True, I am talking on a global scale, but if you examine the overall framework of this conference and of the climate movement as a whole, talk on a global scale is often the norm (e.g. even 350.org has a global action focus) and as such those at this conference should know that People of Color are already at its center. If those quoted from the conference, as well as Begos himself, had considered this they would likely have titled the article, “White U.S. environmentalists realize that they have not paid enough attention to global leaders of color in the rush to address the current climate emergency.”

The second error is the fact that wondering “where the People of Color are” and stating that the solution is to “get more People of Color involved in the movement” is not only racist by virtue of its invisibilizing of People of Color already in the movement (as stated above), but is actually the completely wrong question. It’s the wrong question because it implies that “the problem” lies in the awareness, consciousness, or circumstances of People of Color and it totally avoids any conversation regarding the White dominant framework that has been central to the mainstream environmental movement(s) for the last several decades. It’s also the wrong question because it reinforces the erroneous notion that the movement has been and currently is a benign and neutral racial space whose leadership simply needs to figure out how to get POC to realize that climate and environmental issues “are their issues as well”. The dearth of People of Color in core leadership positions within the U.S. climate movement is not due to a “lack of interest, motivation or information”, but rather is a function of a) the ways institutional racism impedes the ability of People of Color to participate in mainstream organizing, and b) the ways that Whiteness is baked into the foundation of almost every organization, movement, and institution in U.S. society. Therefore, the question is not “how do we get more People of Color in the green movement”, the question needs to be along the lines of, “How do Racism and Whiteness make the green movement inaccessible or unattractive to Communities of Color?”

Asking the wrong question is common to social movements, organizations, or institutions that are majority White and therefore it is not surprising that the White majority involved in this current climate justice moment is echoing the age-old White liberal “diversity and inclusivity” focus. I have trained in many organizations for whom this is the central pillar of their work around racial issues. To be clear, their hearts are in the right place, their commitments are also usually in line with the base elements of racial justice, but their lens and the actions they take through that lens are overwhelmingly White liberal and therefore doomed to never achieve racial equity, and by extension to never have an organization that is effective and forward-thinking in its work. What I and my colleagues offer these organizations, and what we are currently trying to offer those leaders in the climate justice movement who are interested, is a different lens – a critical race lens. This lens begins by helping majority White climate justice groups look deeply at the unexamined Racial Narratives in their midst and the ways that White normativity has pervaded their organizational practices from top to bottom. From this place, we help them identify specific manifestations of transactional Racism and Whiteness in their policies, practices and procedures and offer ways they can utilize the Critical Race Lens in transforming their organization from one that is White liberal to one that not only hopes for, but acts toward racial justice.

I know I am laying out an incredibly superficial explanation of the above organizational process, but I am less concerned about the details here and more concerned about the overall climate justice movement understanding that this idea of “getting more People of Color” into their organizations is not the goal, but rather a natural byproduct of an organization that is truly doing its work with regard to Race, Racism and particularly Whiteness. Elaborating on my above point, climate justice organizations would deeply examine questions such as:

– “How has the White privilege, White supremacy and overall White normativity in this movement literally and figuratively kept People of Color out of climate justice organizing spaces (i.e. through silence, dismissal and further marginalization)?”

– “How has our organization’s unconscious Racism made this movement unsafe and inaccessible to Communities of Color?”

– “How as our personal and organizational inattention to Whiteness in all of its manifestations undermined our work and the work of the environmental movement overall?”

And this is the rub, isn’t it. Those who are mobilizing for this movement are undeniably passionate in looking outward and addressing the unbelievable challenges we all face at the hands of climate change. And yet, an essential element of the lens we need for achieving climate justice lies within – not in a narcissistic sense where White people focus endlessly on ourselves. But rather in the sense that as people with race (and often class, geographic and/or gender) privilege we are the carriers of the “climate disease”, if you will, and as a result we need to look deeply at the way Whiteness and its constituent parts have impeded our ability to do good, effective, and truly collaborative climate work. This is not about fear, guilt, shame or denial, it is about ridding our movement of an insidious and corrosive thread that will always serve to undermine our deepest commitments regarding climate justice. Climate change and now climate justice is the greatest struggle our species has ever faced. Given that Whiteness was (and still is) one of the forces shepherding it in, it is only logical that racial justice, critical race consciousness, and the dismantling of Whiteness is required for any effective mitigation and adaptation.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Last month I was at a speech given by Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson where she laid out the possibilities and challenges of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on our state’s medical options. She then showed slides from a Commonwealth Fund study identifying Minnesota as simultaneously one of the best states for overall quality of health care and one of the very worst in terms of racial disparities in health care. How is this possible? In asking this question of physicians, nurses and health care administrators, the answer is most typically an overgeneralized referencing to “the system” or “economic factors” or “the complicated nature of health care these days”, but rarely are these (majority white in Minnesota) health care providers willing to say “and part of it is the bias I, as a white provider, have been socialized to hold regarding People of Color.”


In a colleague’s PubMed search regarding racial disparities in health care, over 4,000 articles were found – a majority of which identified provider bias as one of a handful of reasons for racial health care disparities in the U.S. Additionally, the National Health Care Disparities Report of 2011 also names provider bias as one of the key determining factors regarding racial disparities in health care. This report builds on over a decade of knowledge regarding the role of provider bias stemming from the Institute of Medicine’s report “Unequal Treatment”, mandated by Congress in 1999 and published in 2002 which found that provider bias and stereotyping were a significant contributor to racial disparities and that extensive training for providers is needed. This was eleven years ago: racial disparities have not lessened, and providers are still not being trained. The influence of  “provider bias” is not exclusive to health care and is widely present in other major sectors of U.S. society such as education, law, government, non-profits and for-profits – areas that I happen to do a lot of racial equity training and consulting in. And while these other sectors of U.S. society can be quite challenging to train in because of resistance, denial, or misinformation, I have found that no sector has been as difficult to even get in the door as the health care system. Mind you, their reticence to be trained has not stopped these providers and their major employers from holding summits and colloquia and conferences on racial disparities in health care. It has not stopped them from saying that racial disparities are a significant problem. It has not stopped them from suggesting that “something must be done”. And yet, in the last two years of trying to gain any traction in providing a race, racism and whiteness (RRW) training specifically designed for health care providers, I have hit wall after wall after wall. Some of it has been the simple fact that I am not an M.D. or an R.N. and therefore “cannot possibly have anything to say” to doctors or nurses. The rest of it, however, is whiteness and the insidious ways it seeks to preserve its hold on the health care system in the United States.


The current and historic white centrality of this overall institution is substantial, and runs deep (see Harriet Washington’s work, Medical Apartheid). I was at a presentation a few months ago where a white, male speaker was quite forthrightly naming RRW and its problematic effects on health care. During the question and answer period, a researcher who has been looking at provider bias for some time stood up and said that if you try to address provider bias through the lens of RRW you might make some people (read, “white” people) defensive and shut down their willingness to learn. Instead, this person suggested that we use terms like “cultural competency” and “diversity” training in order not to alienate anyone (again, read “white” people). It was quite amazing to hear her say this given that she is a well-known researcher in the field. More disconcerting, however, was the fact that “diversity” and “cultural competency” frameworks, while fine in their own right, are awful approaches for racial issues because they are not in any way designed to address race, racism or whiteness. As a result, the solution she offered belies the decades of research she herself has been conducting on racial bias, and in fact would allow the racial dynamics of racism and whiteness in health care to stay safely in tact due to the utilization of a completely ineffective “diversity” approach.


But where does this deeply rooted bias in providers come from? When looking over the arc of a doctor or nurse’s educational career, here is what we know: if they have a standard U.S. P-12 education, they have been woefully mis-educated about issues of race, racism and whiteness. And, if they have gone to most undergrads in the U.S. they have been exposed to very little racial justice content (an examination of most undergraduate general education credits will reveal this). Follow that with a nursing or medical school education where there is virtually no content regarding race, racism and whiteness and add to this a society whose messages are steeped in racial stereotypes and biases, and we get white providers who, through no fault of their own, are likely drowning in bias and preconceived notions about their patients of color. And so, unless a physician or nurse has actively sought out racial justice content either via an undergrad major, a medical school specialty, or through other avenues of professional development, there is no reason to presume that a white provider graduating with an M.D. or R.N. will have any awareness of issues of race, racism and whiteness beyond the standard stereotypes seen in mainstream media.


The answer to this in the short term is professional development for those already in the field. The answer in the long term is intentional and thorough undergrad (pre-med), nursing, and medical school education regarding racial issues and their impacts on health and health care. Both of the above bring me to my earlier point – I have been trying for two years through grant applications, conference presentation proposals, formal and informal meetings with hospital administrators, pitch presentations to groups of providers, and written appeals to health care leaders to get the chance to offer doctors and nurses a deep and comprehensive race, racism and whiteness training firmly grounded in health care and the daily realities of providers. And, as I mentioned, I have hit resistance, obfuscation, and simple silence at almost every turn. This is frustrating for obvious reasons – if provider bias is a key factor in racial disparities, then providers need to be trained. It is problematic for another reason, however, in that training providers is one of the most expeditious and efficacious ways to address racial disparities in health care. While large, structural changes in health care might take years or decades to enact and lead to observable, addressing provider bias can be done effectively and substantially in a much shorter time frame. In a study with a colleague, even a very short RRW training series helped a group of residents make important (and measurable) changes in their practice. Knowing this, it is even more problematic that the barriers to training providers on issues of RRW seem so intractable.


It may be hyperbolic to say in everyday life that “White Liberalism kills”, but it is not too much of a stretch to say it when it comes to health care and the desperate need that some of the most vulnerable people in this society find themselves. For example, hospitals who gage their ER efficacy on whether or not patients return with the same presenting symptoms will often conclude that their ER has done a good job because a patient did not return. However, if that hospital does not take into account that perhaps the patient did not return because they experienced racism and poor treatment, they are likely misreading that data and are quite possibly contributing to the persistence of racial disparities. This unconscious racial bias and its concomitant manifestations of racism and white privilege are clearly harmful to the patient (and whole communities of patients) in that they do not receive the care they need. However, it is also harmful to the entire health care system and the providers within it because it degrades their capacity to truly care for those in need. Perhaps I am being naïve here, but I believe that most if not all of these providers do what they do because they truly and deeply care for the health of their patients. I believe that they take their oaths seriously and know that the care they provide is literally life and death on a daily basis. And, I choose to believe that if they were aware of the ways that unconscious bias was impacting their ability to care for their patients, they would do something about it immediately. That is why I will continue to knock on the doors of health care, that is why I will continue to hold out hope that one will open, and that is why I am sure that at the end of the day providers’ willingness to lean into this difficult and often painful content will not only help their patients but also help them to heal as well.

How Many Alarm Bells Will It Take?

I learned a new word the other day, “solastalgia” – it means, “psychic or existential distress related to degradation of the environment, especially due to climate change”. Dr. Teddie Potter taught about it in her Minneapolis Community and Technical College presentation (which she graciously invited me to join her in) regarding issues of climate change and how our society is responding emotionally to its frightening realities. Dr. Potter suggested that, whether conscious of it or not, many in this society are realizing the current climate change realities and as a result solastalgia, sometimes on deep levels, is taking hold. If deep solastalgia was the case in the U.S. up to last week, after this weekend’s release of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding our current and future climate realities, most U.S.ers have likely slid even further into a solastalgic state. I wrote earlier about “finding your anchor” regarding climate change and climate justice work, and so I will not repeat that here. But, this sobering report certainly does challenge one’s capacity to stay present, look the issues squarely in the eye, and move forward and so the invocation to find our anchor(s) is as germane now as ever before. Despite the solastalgia potential, I strongly recommend folks look at the IPCC’s report and be familiar with its findings. I will list some of the key ones here, but before I do, I want to highlight a few helpful points regarding “scientific reports”.

Framing points to consider

1. The IPCC is a panel that draws from the work of hundreds of climate scientists around the globe. As such, it is a comprehensive, yet “middle of the road” body of findings. This is important to know because it reflects a framework of averages that are notoriously conservative. In contrast, many folks in the “climate change denial” camp draw on the findings of people who are not climate scientists at all, but who have other reasons (such as funding from the carbon lobby) for stating their climate denial beliefs and they often use the “middle of the road” findings of the IPCC as fuel for downplaying the presence or impacts of climate change.

2. Building on the above point, science in general does tend to be conservative when proffering “findings” or “estimates” and certainly with respect to “applications and implications” (when done within the parameters of solid science). I know this from reading the work of these climate scientists, from watching Dr. James Hansen so reluctantly step forward and gradually speak more of his mind, and from my own undergraduate work in biology (molecular and immunology) where I was taught first hand about the tendency for scientists to stay objective, open-minded, and strictly about the science (we can debate the reality of objectivity another time). This is important information because if a typically conservative field is sounding an alarm, it is critical for lay people to listen and respond to the call.

3. And finally, I want to underscore that science has been sounding an alarm about the climate, to varying degrees, for the last 30-50 years, with that alarm growing from a subtle caution to what it is today: an emergency. This is not a concern, not an issue, not even a crisis anymore – it is truly an emergency and the IPCC report helps underscore that point.

Some key findings

Having stated those initial points, here are a few of the key findings put forth in the report:

1. It is “unequivocal” that climate change is happening and that the dominant cause is human action (anthropogenic) and our pouring of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. More specifically, concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased to levels that are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years. The burning of fossil fuels is the main reason behind a 40% increase in CO2 concentrations since the industrial revolution (with 1750 being the typical starting point for these measurements).

2. And, even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2C by the end of this century. More specifically, the report says that global temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3C to 4.8C, by the end of the century depending on how much governments control carbon emissions.

3. Crossing 2C would have serious consequences, including sea level rises, heatwaves and changes to rainfall meaning dry regions get less and already wet areas receive more. More specifically, sea levels are expected to rise a further 26-82cm by the end of the century. Additionally, the oceans have acidified as they have absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted. This will have substantial consequences on the oceanic food chain as coral reefs and other shelled creatures cannot solidify their structures and will therefore begin to die off.

4. To avoid dangerous levels of climate change, beyond 2C, the world can only emit a total of between 800 and 880 gigatonnes of carbon (from the second bullet on page 20 of the report where it says to have between a 33% and 66% chance of staying below 2C, and when accounting for additional radiative forcings, the total is 800-880 GtCO2. Some media outlets have reported that our carbon budget is 1000 gigatonnes, but that does not account for positive RF). Of this, about 530 gigatonnes had already been emitted by 2011 (one citation averages it at 545 gigatonnes). This has clear implications for our fossil fuel consumption, meaning that humans cannot burn all of the coal, oil and gas reserves that countries and companies possess.

5. Global warming has not “stopped” or “reversed”, as some climate change skeptics assert, and in fact the last three decades are the warmest on record since consistent recordings have been taken. Most of this warming has been taken up by the oceans, and so using land temperatures only (which the skeptics often cite) would not give the whole picture of warming.

What can we do?

I avoid offering tidy “action steps” because social justice issues are so complex and do not tend to respond neatly to “how to” lists. However, this is a critical time and so I will toss a few ideas out.

1. First, we need to reverse our thinking regarding where we place our organizing / responsive energy, effort and time. For decades there has been a growing commentary about “switching to energy efficient light bulbs” and “recycling” and “turning off our lights”…all good and well. However, none of these “trickled up” in a quick enough or forceful enough manner so as to fundamentally impact the carbon industry, its lobby, or our governmental leaders. The result is that we are in a position where our carbon consumption and CO2 output has declined minimally, while the global consumption and output has continued to steadily increase. As such, I recommend that we do in fact continue to engage in “energy efficiency” acts in our residences, workplaces, and social spaces. The change, however, is that we must turn the bulk of our collective voice and organizing toward significantly pressuring our government to make immediate, substantial changes. Changes such as a carbon tax, changes like stopping Keystone XL, changes like investing heavily in renewable forms of energy, changes like limiting the shipping of coal to China and other countries, changes like subsidizing electric cars and charging stations, changes like focusing on closed loop production, and changes like demanding that the United States cut to 1990 levels of CO2 production in the next decade. The time for small-scale actions has passed and we are in a moment where we must make deep cuts, take strong action, and demand powerful and steadfast leadership toward those ends.

2. Second, we must move the climate conversation to the front of our political discourse. Elections are coming up soon and while issues like jobs, housing, and transportation are perennial political issues, as well they should be, the climate must also be at the top of the list given its compounding influence on every social and political area. For example, if climate change is not responded to immediately and forcefully, unemployment issues will be compounded – crops failing, forests burning, rivers and lakes drying lead to fewer jobs in all associated industries which means less money in the economy and the correlated losses from that and so on. Similarly, as the climate changes we will continue to experience “weather whiplash” and storms (on June 21, 2013 a substantial storm knocked out power to tens of thousands of residents with hundreds of trees down in a highly populated area of Minneapolis) will stretch our energy infrastructure and costs will begin to rise, heating will become more expensive, and housing accessibility will obviously change. And finally, transportation will obviously be impacted as the climate changes and we suffer the most egregious of its impacts. As such, we will see that slowly but surely the reality of climate change will drive the political discourse, and so let us not be reactive to that reality and instead demand that our elected officials are educated about climate change, understand its wide-reaching impacts, and make creative, adaptive solutions central to their political work.

3. And third, we need to educate ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities about climate change, climate justice and climate organizing so we can collectively pressure our government to act like a citizen of a global community. “We the people” must change from a national to a global reference. We all must help our elected officials and others in power awaken to the reality that “we the people” is NOT just about the United States and instead refers to all 7.13 billion of us. “We the people” is a call to our species, not to our nationalism. “We the people” is a naming of our common humanity, not a reification of US exceptionalism. “We the people” is a passionate and beautiful declaration of our connection and commitment to each other. That does not mean that we merge into one nation and lose our “identity” but it does mean that finally our common human connections and truths trump the separations we have nursed for so long.

In sum, what I am suggesting is that when in an emergency, it is not wise to focus solely on the minutiae at the expense of the larger picture – to take a garden hose to one small spot of a house engulfed in flames will not likely save any portion of the house, even that which the hose is spraying. But, if that garden hose is used to the best of its capacity and larger, more powerful, and widely dispersed hoses are directed at the house, then there is a chance to save the house.

One place to start would be 350.org. While I really struggle with some of the race, class and gender issues of their organization, they are folks who are mobilizing in large numbers in DC and around the nation / globe to respond to the alarm. Additionally, here is a listing of non-profits working on climate issues in terms of their philanthropic ranking. I’m not saying these are all the best choices either, but as you read about their work and dig more deeply into their political approaches you can decide if any of these are a good fit for you. You can also look up the Indigenous Environmental Network (and the work of Tom Goldtooth) as well as Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) to get a clearer racial / social justice framing of these issues and actions that are being taken.

Whatever group you decide to collaborate with, make sure it is one that is organizing at the bottom in order to apply pressure at the top, and which has the intention of making large, systematic changes regarding our carbon use and CO2 output. This is the critical issue. The IPCC has once again sounded the alarm. Let us, through our organizing and actions, make it the last time they have to do so.