We were able to stay with some organizers I knew who work on fossil fuel divestment at Seattle University. One night, we created Butterfly Talks, a TED Talk like experience where we challenged ourselves and each other to speak for one minute straight about any topic ever, on the fly. Topics ranged from favorite foods and actual butterflies to building solidarity with folks from many identities around the fight for climate justice.
This summer, I had the opportunity to attend the Just Sustainability: Hope for the Commons conference at Seattle University with Nazario, the SSI’s summer intern focussed on articulating the connection between environmental and social justice at Oregon State. This opportunity was a perfect fit with the Student Sustainability Initiative focussing on expanding the breadth of its work beyond just the environment and into social and economic justice, completing the three pillars of sustainability, or as we say at the SSI, the key to a holistic and healthy community. Coming from a background with a more environmental focus and just beginning to deeply explore the intersections of social justice, the benefits were bound to be multiplied being able to attend the conference with a comrade who had a social justice background and was beginning to expand into environmental aspects.
In the months since the conference, I’ve spent considerable time thinking about what I got from the experience. There was a slough of mundane sessions about public utilities and some folks talked about environmental policy. However, the most valuable experiences from that weekend in Seattle came from one particular keynote and the conversations it spurred afterward.
The ending keynote compiled a panel of people from around the world to talk about how environmental disruption and intersected with social issues impacting communities. In one particular example, a community had been moved to a small peninsula after the state took their land for reasons I wish I could remember but likely had something to do with racial displacement. Climate change was threatening the land their community had been forced to move to, and the state was refusing to support this community in finding a new home. Bonds were broken as people left the community to find anywhere they could afford or potentially find new jobs. The low-lying peninsula will likely be completely underwater by 2020, like so many low-lying areas already are. This is reflective of so much of how climate change is impacting people globally. Those most susceptible are the least capable of adapting.
The part of the keynote that struck me the most was a discussion around indigeniouty, or being indigenous to a place. The panelist, from one of the Hawaiian islands spoke of the rights to share the stories of others as tools for our own agendas, people’s personal stake in determining their own identity, and the value of a sense of place. The panelist did organizing around social justice issues in Hawaii and noted how people talked about homelessness. There was someone who lived along the shore and was completely happy, even though others took pity. This person chose to live that way and live in harmony with the land. It sounds idyllic and there is a lot to extrapolate from that generalization — unfortunately my notebook has since been stolen and I may never recall all the specific details about the session. It sparked discussion and, being at a university, we talked about the education system and how sweeping curriculum across an entire country is dangerous because it separates people from the reality of the very specific place they live in. From that, people are conditioned to make assumptions about the world: that those who don’t fit a certain archetype of dwelling are homeless, that their education would be applicable on their walk home or their job which probably would be place-based, that there are very specific bounds on the identities they can have, and an implication that the history of their actual locale was not valuable, even though it shaped the world around them. The panelist called on us to question why we shun those who drop out of school, as if our education system is really that conducive.
It was relieving to have someone finally step out of the routine of content I had been hearing and really challenge the system. I like to think of my education around justice and systems of oppression and social change as a journey because I know it is ongoing. I left that keynote with more questions than answers but I think that’s what is supposed to happen. We cannot expect to be spoon fed the ways to challenge the system, we have to actively seek it out. In the past few weeks since 2015 began, I’ve seen #StayWoke a few times and it’s really been striking me. It’s almost ironic because even in our sleep we become complacent. The system is designed to eat the things that challenge it. #StayWoke is a call to action. It acknowledges that the world changes a lot every day and it is difficult and often overwhelming to think critically about injustices. We have to keep reflecting on the things we learn and we have to keep seeking out new opportunities.
I think the SSI’s Professional Development Grant is important in that it allows us submerge ourselves in these experiences. We can and should read books and articles, think critically about current events, and have conversations with people around us. But the experience of being able to go to a conference and challenge ideas with hundreds of other people doing related work is an important opportunity that everyone should seize.