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?

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.

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 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.

Lessons from the Boulevard

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


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


The Library

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


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


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


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


The Garden

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


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


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


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

Moral Mondays

I was not raised a Christian and most likely will not identify as such in my life. I do, however, have a deep appreciation for the monotheisms and the key prophets and voices from each, particularly as they discuss social justice issues. Karen Armstrong’s work on the monotheisms in general and Christianity in particular, along with the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong and some of the writings of Jim Wallis have helped me understand more clearly the deeply rooted social justice nature of Jesus’s teachings and Christianity as a whole. As I listen to and read reports about the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina, I am again moved by the power of Christianity as a transformative force toward social justice. And while there has developed a fairly wide range of issues being protested each Monday since March, the general theme (what Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP and primary organizer of Moral Mondays, calls “a new Southern Strategy”) expressed by these multi-racial, multi-class, multi-denominational protestors seems to be a call for a state government that cares for its most vulnerable citizens and that safeguards the rights of those most marginalized.

The interfaith character of these protests suggests that across all denominations there is a shared message of ending poverty and helping those who are in need. To me this is incredibly heartening. Since the late 1970s the gap between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” has increased to absurd proportions and if history is any guide, this trend is a sure-fire recipe for internal collapse. A society cannot stay cohesive and healthy when so few control so much at the expense of so many. I was in Rome five years ago and while talking to an archaeologist who also worked as a tour guide (she said archeologists are a dime a dozen in Rome and so they all had to have one to two other jobs) I asked her why Rome fell. I had learned in school it was the “barbarians” nibbling at the Roman borders combined with internal political and religious strife that caused the fall of the Roman empire. She shook her head and said, “No, Rome fell because the gap between those who had and those who didn’t became too large and the needs of the many were eclipsed by the myopic avarice of the few. And, when the largest component of society is so weakened, and the smallest component is so bloated and out of touch, any society (indeed every society) will fall by its own hand.” Mind you she did not say money or wealth was bad, she was saying that blinding hubris combined with absurd excess leads to an imbalanced society that has no choice but to self-destruct.


And so the Moral Mondays, to me, are more than just North Carolinians protesting a handful of policies, they are more than just some people of faith speaking out against a perceived injustice, to me they are a calling of conscious that has been heard again and again in this and other countries when the basic needs of people are not being met, and more specifically when the needs of the many are eclipsed by the needs of the elite few. Again, I’m not a Christian (nor a North Carolinian for that matter), but I can completely get behind a movement that is rooted in deep principles of faith and willing to lay it all on the line to end class oppression and racial oppression in North Carolina (and in our society as whole). And as I have said, while a bevy of other groups have joined in and tagged on to the overall agenda, it has not escaped anyone that a very large number of North Carolinian people of faith have come together to say enough.


This country has a long history of class and race oppression. When the British began colonizing this portion of North America they brought with them two essential frameworks for their possession and use of power against “others”; the first was Christian hegemony whereby if you were not Christian you were not seen as “civilized” or truly “human”; the second was a long-standing class hierarchy so entrenched that it was simply understood that one was born, lived in, and died in their divinely ordered class. There was no “boostraps” myth and no Horatio Alger stories flooding the popular imagination yet. Instead, class was intractable, essentialized in the body, and meant to express one’s humanity and value in the world. Once the British realized these two frameworks of power were insufficient to control the various peoples in the North American colonies, they had to create another framework to buttress their colonial power: race. The creation of race, to first separate those who would oppose the British and later to explain away the contradiction of the birth of a democracy and the institutions of genocide and slavery, was and still is a powerful dividing line in US society. The result of this weaving together of race, class and Christian hegemony was the propping up of the power of white, Christian, land-holding men. And, whenever this was threatened one of the most convenient strategies was to pit poor and working class white men against poor and working class people of color (by the dominant power structure “playing its race card”) thereby using racial allegiance as a way to stamp out white working class frustration about their economic conditions. And whenever an alliance between poor and working class people of all races was able to overcome this pitting of people against each other, Christian hegemony was used to divide the “humans” from the “savages” and once again establish the power in the hands of the white, land-holding, Christian men.


Reverend Barber knows this history well, I’m sure, and so his and other religions leaders’ intention to not allow these age-old wedges to be driven into this movement is very powerful. Proactively reaching across lines of race and class and denomination is an extremely wise approach and will hopefully lead to a North Carolina that is not only committed to economic and racial justice, but whose Christianity is one that cares for the poor and vulnerable and opposes countless cuts to state government that hurt the poor and benefit the wealthy. I am in support of the separation of church and state and so would not want a Christian doctrine as the moral compass for this society. But, values of love, compassion, humility, wisdom, and caring for the most vulnerable and marginalized through the lens of equality and equity instead of charity and paternalism (sic) is a society I would be proud to claim and be an active citizen in. If a loving, humble, reflective and socially just Christianity is the lens through which some of my fellow citizens work to bring about such a society, wonderful.


In no small way it would literally be a miracle if the movement created by Moral Mondays could reclaim the loving, just and progressive territory Christianity can rightfully claim. As a non-Christian looking from the outside in it has always been difficult for me to understand how a religion rooted in love could have such a long list of people, groups, and ways of being in the world it hated. The Buddha rightly said 2500 years ago that hatred can never be stopped by hatred; it is only with love that hatred can cease. It seems to me that Christianity is rife with opportunities for this love to be expressed and I truly welcome the voices of the many people of faith in North Carolina and may the echo of their commitment for social justice carry across this entire country.

Facing Climate Change

Over the last four years I have been doing more and more research, teaching, speaking and training on climate change and its deep connections to social justice issues, particularly race, class and gender. And while the parallels and interconnections of climate change content to these social justice issues (and others) cannot be denied, there is one significant difference between climate change and other social justice issues: independent momentum.


For example, while race / racism / whiteness is incredibly challenging to talk about and difficult to change, it does have a hopeful aura about it because it is completely a human invention (as is sexism, as is classism, and so on) and therefore lies completely within the realm of human beings to change. As such the limiting factors focused on in these trainings, things such as limited knowledge about systemic oppression, lack of awareness regarding the dehumanizing aspects of oppression for everyone, or the need for more compassion and care in how we engage with each other, are all human attributes and signify that we can end these forms of oppression as soon as we “wake up” to these realities. As an extreme example, if every man woke up tomorrow and said, “violence against women will end today”, it actually would (or at least it would in short order). And that’s the hopeful news about these more commonly discussed social justice issues – there actually is room for sudden awakenings and dramatic changes in a very short period of time, and all of that is mediated by human choice individually, culturally, and institutionally.


In contrast, if every person in a carbon-fat society (those that consume the most carbon either overall or per capita on the planet) woke up tomorrow and said “climate change is going to end today” it would not. You see with climate change we are not dancing with our own conscience, our own lack of information, or our own ability to act upon or change the problem. With climate change we are in a dance with an independent entity – the climate system. To be sure, we humans have placed the initial energy (increased CO2 and GHGs) into the system, but because that system now has independent momentum, we humans cannot stop it on a dime just because we wake up one morning and want it to stop. Said another way, due to the above-Holocene-average amount of CO2 we have already loaded into the atmosphere, we have committed to a certain amount of inevitable climate change, no matter how we “feel” about it or what kind of personal transformation we have regarding it. The climate is beholden to the laws of physics, not to the capricious will of human beings.


And this is what makes climate change such a remarkably challenging issue to teach, speak and train on – there is no easy ending where we can “all just get along”. Climate change is already in motion, and no amount of wishing it to be otherwise or changing our mind is going to stop what has already been set in motion. As Bill McKibben said at one of his “Do the Math Tour” talks I was at, “the physics and science of climate change does not negotiate,” and therefore we cannot simply decide for this to stop and have it stop. Instead, we have to live under the reality of the laws of the physical universe, and those laws are clearly spelling out substantial climactic change for the future of this planet. To make matters worse, even though we would like systems of oppression such as racism and classism to end as soon as possible, with these issues there is no definite time-scale for the changes to be made. With climate change, however, there is a time scale and we humans are daily losing more and more ground regarding our ability to impact the duration and severity of climate change because of our anemic responses. Taken together, these climactic realities (that the climate is an independent system which we cannot control as we wish and that there actually is a clock ticking regarding our actions) make climate change an often terrifying and paralyzing issue in ways that other social justice issues are not.


So how can we talk about climate change without sending folks into a pit of despair? I have attended a few trainings recently where there were examples of what to do and what not to do, and yet even the trainings that had the “to do” elements felt a little incomplete. As such, in addition to teaching about the science of climate change, the large-scale actions taking place around climate change, and the great ways that we as individuals can make a difference, I have been including three other components to my talks:


1. Framing this climactic moment as an “evolutionary leap” for humans,

2. Framing it as a moral and spiritual issue,

3. And framing it through a social justice lens.


Speaking to the first point, there have been moments in this planet’s 4.5 billion years where species have seemed to make substantial leaps evolutionarily. Certainly this can be attributed to holes in the fossil record, but I also contend that there were moments in our planet’s history where there was a “leap” evolutionarily whereby in a comparatively short period of time, a species was able to “suddenly” adapt / respond to drastically changing conditions. And given that this moment is wrought with drastically changing conditions, it seems to me that framing this as a moment where our species can actually “evolve” in our relationship to nature, to each other and to ourselves is possible (some in this field would argue not just possible, but necessary if most on this planet are to survive). Why is this useful? Well, for one it gives us a reason to “lean in” to the issue instead of running from it. Two, it encourages us to open our minds to possibilities and ways of being that we have not considered before because of the stuck-ness of “that’s the way it has always been”. And three, it frames the current climate moment not as an apocalyptic doomsday event, but as a source for our species’ growth and maturation. And finally, while framing this as an evolutionary moment lends itself to more positive ways of viewing this climactic moment, it also takes nothing away from the current (and future) climate reality and therefore does not feed denial or delusion about climate change.


Once established as an “evolutionary leap” moment, I have found that in order to lean into this framework, a deeper motivation is necessary than the standard “let’s preserve our way of life (read the U.S.’s standard of consumption) for future generations” or “let’s save the polar bears”. Self-interest and abstract examples have not been sufficient to mobilize our society in emotional, political or economic ways that correspond to the degree of the problem. In fact they have served to keep us stuck in ways that feed the problem by legitimizing our over-consumption and by making climate change a problem that is “out there in the Arctic” and not something that is right here, right now. In place of these inadequate reasons we need motivations or internal drivers for action that reach deep into our psyches and that galvanize our hearts and minds in our resolve to do everything we can in the time we have, even if it seems like it will not matter. That is why it could be referred to as a “spiritual” conundrum (notice I am NOT saying it’s a religious one) whereby it is a call to question for each and every person: If not me, then whom? If not now, then when? To be sure, the tap-roots that allow humans to stand steadfast in the face of incredibly difficult challenges are different for each and every one of us. The need for the tap-root in such circumstances, however, seems to be universal. With such a foundation in place we can do this not because it is easy, not because it is sure to succeed, but because it is right.


And finally, having given ourselves to this human moment and its possibilities, and been steeled by the tap-roots we each draw upon, I believe we must then use a social justice lens as our compass for action. More specifically, I believe that non-dominant perspectives and comprehensive questions of power, privilege and access need to be at the forefront of every conversation about climate change. Internationally, it means the needs of the most vulnerable nations must and will be attended to immediately. Nationally, it means that we will consider the needs of people before the needs of corporations such that our political and economic decisions flow from a desire to best serve the health and well-being of all of the people, instead of having the laws and economics of this society first serve the corporations; we will not protect the needs of the few at the expense of the needs of the many. Regionally, it would mean that we in the upper Midwest would consider how we can work more cooperatively among ourselves and with other regions to become more sustainable and transition fairly and securely to a post-carbon life. As such, state and local legislation would reflect that value and work to support our entire state and community in this endeavor; no one will be left behind. And individually, it means that I connect more with my immediate neighborhood and work collectively to insure that we are all getting our basic needs met and are able to nurture sustainable environments capable of adapting to a much hotter and different life on this planet.


Understanding what the many problems are in terms of climate change, there exists a range of ways we can respond. Some of those responses will bring out the very best our species is and can be, some will bring out the worst. We do have a choice in which response comes to the forefront, but we cannot hope that business-as-usual will bring about the most noble and compassionate within us. Instead, I believe we need to live within the scientific reality of climate change and in the process see it as an evolutionary moment for our species, driven by our deepest and best motivations for all of humanity, and guided by our commitment to social justice and equity for all people. In this way we will not be able to avoid the inevitable climate change we have already set in motion, but we might just be able to dramatically slow any additional changes and then respond to the impacts that are coming with the very best of what makes us human. This, I believe, will be the most valuable gift we can give to those who follow – in exchange for hubris, consumption, and damage, we can leave a legacy of hope…hope in our possibility, hope in our ethics and morality, and hope in our commitments to each other as a whole human family.

Hope for the New Year

As one who consults on, writes on, trains on and focuses on social justice and equity issues on a daily basis, here’s what I hope for in 2013: that we learn to breathe. More specifically I hope that we can grow in our ability to just take a moment, slow down, and breathe deeply. Sounds simplistic, I know. My students used to quietly refer to this as “human relations hoo-ha mumbo jumbo”. But as I continue to develop training tools and ways to reach wider audiences, I am more often beginning each training, conference presentation, and even key note address with a “grounding in” that has us all breathing deeply and remembering to be here now. And while participants in a training or workshop may have different lives, struggles, and ways of viewing the world, underneath that is a common body of hopes and needs – we all want to be safe, we all want to feel loved, and we all want to contribute to our communities in some way. And I have found that if we pause to breathe deeply, slow down, and take the time to listen and connect with one another, we can see those common hopes reflected in each other and thereby better connect across that which divides us.


Lest you think this is hyperbole, Sylvia Boorstein suggests that breathing deeply does two critical things for us in times of difficulty: first, it relaxes the body. Just as the mind has an impact on the body (stress leads to tightness), so too can the body impact the mind. Thus, breathing deeply and slowing the body down relaxes and slows the mind down. And, it is from this space that we stand a better chance of listening and connecting. Second she suggests that deep attention to the breath stops “the story” for a minute and allows for the possibility of truly hearing someone else over the endless din of the old lines we have running in our heads. In this way, we are able to suspend our old beliefs long enough to see an issue from another point of view. Both of these are essential elements for successful social justice training and why I use them in every training I conduct.


In my trainings and workshops, I see how deeply afraid some folks are when confronted with issues of equity. But I can also see that underneath those fears and often-defensive responses lies the hope that somehow we really can all be okay and all get along. In every tradition, in every heart, in every home there is actually a desire to “get along”. And yet, despite the countless gains throughout U.S. history, our society still tends to lose its way in so far as various equity issues are concerned. But losing one’s way is not the same as having no way at all, and so in this the beginning of a new year for some (acknowledging that not everyone follows the same calendar) I am hoping that we can awaken the common hopes that lie within, breathe and allow them to rise, and in the process let them carry all of us back to what we know to be true – that we are all in this together and that at our best, we are creatures of community not isolation, of compassion not derision, and of love not hate. Many of the world’s best thinkers support this: Jeremy Rifkin, in his RSA Animate video, suggests that we are actually soft-wired for empathy, Karen Armstrong asserts through her  “Charter for Compassion” TED talk that we cannot possibly have peace in this world without it, and the Dalai Lama  continually teaches that love for one another is an essential aspect of a truly enlightened person. But empathy, compassion, and love take presence, and presence takes connection to the here and now, and connecting in this way is powerfully facilitated by breathing deeply and paying attention to the breath. And thus my hope for this year is that we all learn, myself included, to work toward connection, presence and compassion by taking the time to simply and more deeply b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.