Is it 5000? 6000? 8000 people? In every direction on the University of Maryland there are students, high school and college students wearing shirts that say Power Shift 2007 with an emblem of people lifting a wind tower that references that (complex) victorious image of the flag going up over Iwo Jima, or Stop Mountain Top Removal, or the names of campuses where folks had come from – Morehouse, Columbia, Hood.
Marty Aranaydo, director of the Indigenous People’s Power Project, and I (director of Ruckus) got in late last night and my little sister April scooped us and took us home, and after a few short hours of sleep she took us to Maryland where the campus was teeming with students, some who looked like obvious enviros with the right bottles, sandals, hair. But there were thousands upon thousands of them.
I was booked to head to Are We Equal Yet?, a panel on oppression and isms. Marty took off for The Role of Civil Disobedience in the Climate Movement.
On my panel, which ran at 9am and again at 1:30pm, I joined moderator Josh Lynch and two doctors – Deborah Wilcox and Jamie Washington. The panel started with folks placing themselves in the room, sharing what they wanted to talk about and being led by Dr. Wilcox in a stepping in exercise to give the room a visual understanding of the experiences of privilege, oppression and identity in the room. Then Josh gave some context to the panel and his journey to anti-oppression, culling forth vulnerable memories of how privilege had gotten him out of punishment in his youth. Then he and Dr. Washington named the assumptions in the room. First, exposing that while many folks believe we were all here to work on global warming, its important to see global warming as a symptom of systemic oppression and injustice. For the second Dr. Washington held up his fists one on top of the other like climbing up a rope, and said that everyone needed to understand that some folks were the top fist and some were the bottom. That we weren’t here to argue about the existence of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism…that some folks were on top, and that within oppression folks play that oppression olympics game that leads to saying “Immigrants are taking my job”, “Gays are taking over the community,” and other divisive stuff.
Then it was my turn.
I started as I often do, by speaking about how my parents, who I wouldn’t consider radical people, made a radical decision to follow love and that’s the foundation of my life. So I’m multi-racial – African, Scottish, Irish, German. Intentionally I’m trying to say use the term white less. White can be a social construct to maintain power, but it’s not an identity to grab on to, with a beautiful history and dances, music, a homeland. I spoke about structures of privilege and oppression and how it is the survival instinct of hoarding that causes us to construct and maintain divisions. Because we aren’t responding to the crisis ecosystematically (new word?), we aren’t seeing the drastic and brilliant solutions we need.
I surveyed the room to see how many of the students were looking forward to a career in environmental work of some sort (the majority), and pointed out that many of the opportunities available to them were still with organizations led by white men, with majority privileged boards and staffs. The decisionmakers, and those developing the campaigns, are still
not representative of the communities most impacted by the climate crisis. Ruckus is a great example or a group learning how to make this shift – we’re small but national, founded by brilliant and dedicated white men in Montana and now staffed primarily by women and people of color with a network that strikes a balance between old school environmental action experts and the front line impacted community organizers that are unveiling the future to us with their courageous work. Bringing the principles around impacted community leadership, and impacted communities speaking for themselves and making decisions about their lives and campaigns into our fundraising, collaborations and other work – with love – is a growing process we’re deeply engaged in.
It’s not enough to do the work out in the world though, I emphasized the need to take it home to the family. Thanksgiving/taking is coming up, another prime opportunity to come home and love your family enough to invite them into a world where oppression doesn’t come easy. Transformation from within means you can’t skip over your family, thats where the daily practice of oppression is happening.
The path is from racism (I hate those people), exoticism (I’m intrigued/aroused by those people), tokenism (I want one of those people in my life/board/organization), appropriation (I want to be just like that person, I’m going to emulate the behaviors without understanding or history). All of those are acts of interest and love that make a mess, but the goal must be equity – the awareness of cultural differences and history balanced by the ability to expect the same leadership and life opportunities for all people. So racism –> exotification –> tokenism –> appropriation –> A LOT OF WORK –> equity.
I referenced tools: given the whiteness and privilege of the room, it was important to speak on the new Anne Braden Program for White Social Justice Activists that the Catalyst Project is starting up. I told folks to look up the Environmental Justice and Jemez Principles, to be principled in their work. Overall, be willing to make mistakes and keep coming from love.
Deborah Wilcox spoke about the cycle of oppression, how its socialized and its no one’s fault at this point, the roles we are born into. She spoke to the reality that everyone experiences pain, and how that knowledge can be the common starting point into understanding the oppression of another. The Jamie Washington passed out a worksheet called Diverse Community Foundation which had some key principles – “you are doing the best you can, most of the time,” “acknowledge and celebrate progress,” – which he had folks discuss. Then he spoke to the role of pain, that it is pain that creates acts of oppression – guilt and shame for privileged folks and inferiority for people of color, folks with less privilege. But he emphasized that the guilt, shame and inferiority won’t pave the path to freedom and equity.
There was so much ground covered. After both panels, participants flocked to the front. After the second panel, so many students still wanted to talk that we moved from the room into the hallway, into another room, and finally out into the sun and crowds.
Between the two sessions, I ran over the moderate the middle of three panels called The Role of Civil Disobedience in the Climate Movement. Marty, Matt Leonard, Nadine Bloch, Ted Glick and Hillary Hostra held down the first panel. Nadine was off to another panel and Matt sat this one out, Hillary and Marty briefed me on the first one and what they’d learned to apply to this one. The legendary James Brady slipped in just before it was time to start and there we were, I was excited. The room was packed to the brim – we had The Ruckus Direct Action Slideshow playing in the background the entire time.
We started by defining the terms as we were using them for this conversation. Direct action – the strategic use of immediately effective acts to achieve a political or social end, directly confronting power. Civil disobedience is strategically and intentionally disobeying a law to highlight injustice. I don’t say break the law cause a broken thing wouldn’t work anymore, and despite the need for some law breaking, we rarely actually do that. We heard what folks wanted to learn about – primarily how to engage others in action, talking points for urgency, how to come up with something awesome.
Ted began with some historical context of action, Gandhi, the sit-ins, his own experience burning draft cards for which he served a year in prison. He is on the 61st day of the Climate Emergency Fast which I started out with him in September and going strong. He also spoke to urgency.
Marty and Hillary were next, speaking to how key it is for impacted communities to be leading the work, how action needs to be situated as part of a larger organizing, basebuilding process. Marty works with frontline indigenous communities, building a community of native direct action trainers. He quoted Ruckus trainer Gopal Dayaneni – “Direct action without organizing is lipstick on a corpse,” and added on that “organizing with direct action is like a big scary dog with rubber teeth.”
Hillary works with Coal River Mountain Watch and spoke eloquently and powerfully as a member of an impacted rural community living with the realities and threats of coal extraction. Her focus was on what makes actions strategic, and the importance of all that happens before its action time to build support and momentum.
James then came in as the great practitioner with stories and a new way of looking at action – “like a band. You practice, you get your gear and go out, do your thing, some people like it, some don’t, you go home have a beer, do it again.” He spoke candidly about the growth at Greenpeace, and kept everyone laughing while staying true to the essence of the conversation, which is putting it on the line because you deeply care about change.
The recurring theme of the day was getting comfortable outside the polite status quo world. I left feeling inspired and went out with Brett, Cy, James, Matt and others from RAN, Native Movement, Greenpeace – it was another of the lovely experiences of the far reaching Ruckus network, old school and new school, in one place kicking it, lovely to see. We had some amazing conversations about our work in this age, and what we are feeling called to, withing the realm of our institutions and beyond the realm of any group. Evolution, again.
My sister scooped me back to Virginia but I’m hungry for more – as Marty pointed out students have been the energetic force behind so many recent social changes, and feeling that raw, unharnessed energy, curiosity, desire to learn everything and do it all was intoxicating. Power Shift 07 is dope and huge and so many folks are here it can make you believe, not in a small way, that we can do this.