In all of the newsletters and communications I receive from climate change and environmental organizations over the last 5–6 months, I notice that almost all of them are working on anti-racism, equity and justice.
As more and more climate migration, community disruption, home loss, and death become the story behind and in front of climate change experienced first and worst by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities and people globally, I feel grateful in still being around to witness this level of wokeness. And being able to be a part of the necessary healing and reconciliation happening.
And, I still have deep concerns.
Like many organizations, we are going through our own growing pains in relation to BIPOC staff, how we are welcomed, accepted and appreciated within our organizations. Conversations about anti-racism which necessarily include discussing white privilege and racism I find to be as painful today as they were 30 years ago. The Black/Indigenous woman writing this would appear to most of you to be a tough, take no prisoners type of anti-racism warrior. But the fact is that everytime I enter into what are still mostly white spaces and listen, dialogue, and participate, the more I realize that the issues we attempt to address are molded in so many of the practices and frameworks that are harmful to BIPOC people.
It makes me wonder if the healing of BIPOC people is really centered in all of this very hard, extremely traumatic work…or is it up to us to be healed enough to be there for the white folks at the table? I do not ask this glibly.
And I believe the time is ripe to bring this up as we are entering into a week of Climate Generations’ Summer Institute for Climate Change Education–so many of the conversations are not simply about climate change but delve into the complexity of climate justice which necessarily beckons our consideration of white privilege and white supremacy.
As I write this, having spent a significant amount of time today hearing mostly white ancestry, experience, and perspective, I am feeling quite isolated. I think of this type of sharing from my years growing up and living and still rarely hear others at the table saying, “I am the descendent of slaves and those upon whom genocide continues to be perpetrated today.”
When I was quite young and forced to sit through (to me) agonizing stories of family trees, I remember sharing–because my dad told me I had to–that my ancestors were slaves at one point in their lives. Shame, tears, and self-hate permeated my being. I felt this way again today and heard myself accommodating what I’ll call an ancestral white privilege by emphasizing the extra positive, hugely successful aspects of my ancestors while not acknowledging what they went through to get there–theft, debasement, violence and death. Not really.
Another question that came up was when the first time anyone in our group had a BIPOC teacher. The paradox revealed was that my white colleagues were by and large amazed that this had not crossed their minds, whereas my whole life, I wondered where are the teachers who look like me?
As we shared these stories in a group and got to the questions about how we related to racism, I am the only one who says “I grew up knowing about and talking about racism. My parents taught me and it was important in our house”. And I suppose, even more painful, is the fact that the “white story” is still centered in all of this and that not one of those white colleagues or fellow participants has ever voluntarily ceded the floor to say, “my story is accepted as part of the American historical canon. I’d like to listen to and hear someone who isn’t like me. I want to center your voice.”
We say it all of the time–in different words and empowering phrases–that we value and center BIPOC experience and voices. And not just Climate Generation, but many organizations doing the hard work of advocating for, fighting for, climate change solutions and climate justice, are centering these stories in their communications–even starting to hire more BIPOC leadership and externally facing staff. I wonder how many of these new leaders and spokespeople are feeling what I felt today: yes, this is progress, but wow…I am hurting.
And I want to be clear: the hurting is not about the content of the stories, it is not one-upmanship or envy. Rather, it is that sense of being alone and being the one that is always different and not really feeling heard. And the rub of indifferent silence that our often quite different stories produce; and our trauma in sharing rarely acknowledged or assuaged.
And yet, this anti-racism work is important, and it is especially important for all of us to stay at the table, pass the talking stick and hold each other in our hearts. It is, I assert, even more important for teachers who are a large part of shaping and nurturing our youngest learners. The whole climate justice movement has solutions that prior movements have not been able to fully harness: the forming of an inclusive, anti-racist society and economy that can right the wrongs of the past while offering reconciliation and reparation.
I ask that if you are one of a white majority in a room seeking to achieve processes and systems that are anti-racist that you please consider ceding the power of the floor, that you consider seeing those BIPOC faces that are experiencing the pain of past trauma in real time–reach out and say: I don’t know and I am trying to understand, but I see your pain and I am here. This will go a long way in our mutual healing and offer a reciprocity that is meaningful. This gesture will also allow us to know that our space at the table is valued and desired. For those of us who are BIPOC, I ask you to stay at the table and continue to work in the space of possibility.
I hold a lot of hope for the climate justice movements of today. Our work is so important for sustaining future generations and saving the lives of millions who will be negatively impacted by climate change. We must move forward in the spirit of respect, dignity and love.
I’d like to thank my co-conspirator in working on anti-racism for Climate Generation, Kristen Iverson Poppleton, for ceding the floor for this newsletter.
Here’s to a wonderful rest of the summer!
Senior Director of Development, Marketing, and Communications