I want to take a moment and appreciate the land that we’re on today. I want to acknowledge the indigenous people who have taken care of this land, and bring them into the space.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship to the land recently. We’ve arrived at this point in our histories of catastrophic changes to our surroundings because of how we have distanced ourselves from what we might call nature. And when I say nature, I mean all forms of life on this planet, because how we treat the land is how we treat each other.
So before we talk about protecting the land, we need to acknowledge where the land has come from, and where we have come from. There are stories in the land, and we need to understand our role in that story. The land nourishes us, protects us, and we nourish it back.
As a white person working for climate justice, I must acknowledge the ways historical and current white supremacy and colonialism contribute to the climate crisis, and be constantly pushing back for racial justice and decolonization. The problems are inseparable – the fossil fuel industry continues to disproportionately affect people of color and low-income communities, yet these are the groups that contribute the least to the problem. We can’t have climate justice without racial justice.
Part of that racial justice work for me as a white person is to come to terms with my whiteness, which I know is something this community has been confronting recently, as I inherit this history of white settler colonialism and the violence of separating people from their land.
When I think of home, I think of the midwest. I was born in Chicago before I grew up in wealthy, progressive Ann Arbor, Michigan. Studying my own history helps me recognize the ways these systemic forces of oppression manifest in direct and tangible ways.
As I learn to theorize about environmentalism and art in my classes, I don’t always have to think about the fact that my institution was literally built on the deaths of indigenous peoples. And the school capitalizes off of it, calling it diversity and an interesting historical landmark.
The story of my role in colonialism starts much earlier than that. Before I arrived at college, I grew up swimming in the frigid waters of Lake Huron almost every summer at my family’s cottage. It’s another home, a place I am lucky to have and where I’ve formed an intimate relationship with the Great Lakes. The water nourishes us. When the sun breaks through the long clouds, we cool off in the clear water and dry off on warm slabs of granite rock. We paddle across the serene surface, listen to the loons at twilight, hike up a small mountain for a view of small islands dotting the horizon, and sometimes get a lucky and adrenaline-filled glimpse of a bear.
As I got older, I came to terms with what it really meant for my family to lay claim to this place. When we say my great-great-grandfather bought the island, what that really means is he essentially stole that land from the First Nations tribes that had been there many, many years before. We have a relationship with a First Nations family there; they are family friends and caretakers of our cabin. Many First Nations folks struggle to make a living there, and most of the work is in dangerous cement factories that pollute the water. Tourism and climate change threaten traditional livelihoods.
As we move forward in this fight, we must re-learn our histories, so that we can create a just transition to a world that works for everyone.
I saw a glimpse of that world when I was humbled to stand in solidarity with the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota fighting the Dakota Access pipeline. Over my fall break last October, I was honored to volunteer at the Oceti Sakowin camp.
As a Unitarian Universalist fighting for climate justice I am guided strongly by my belief in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I learned this in a new way when I was there.
I thought more about what it means to be from somewhere. When we born, we are given a narrative as we move through the world. The physical land provides emotional grounding, a sense of identity, a history. It’s up to us how we hold ourselves accountable to that narrative. Accountability in solidarity means walking along the tributaries of resistance that run deep and wide.
While I don’t want to glorify or oversimplify the complex realities of the Standing Rock resistance camps, that community was unlike any community I had been a part of. I spent most of my time in one of the main kitchens, slicing vegetables and scrubbing dishes in big tubs of water, trying to talk to as many people as I could. There was always someone who stepped up to do dishes or give medical care – everyone had something to offer, and everyone was there for a common goal. During frontline actions, water protectors would security officers in the eye, chanting “I love you.”
Love – for the land, for each other, for water – is the basis of this movement.
Being so aware of my identity as a white non-Native American was challenging in so many positive ways, because it is so easy for me to forget how my identity affects those around me as I move through the world. I was immensely humbled that the Native American water protectors made so much space for me, even though I was a white person. Solidarity work is a never-ending process, not an identity or an event. And we need to learn how to lean into discomfort, because this work needs to be uncomfortable.
And the fight to protect our water is not over just because the NoDAPL resistance camp was destroyed by the U.S. government. We still have roles to play, and I am immensely grateful to indigenous folks who lead the way in teaching me and other non-Native folks about the sacredness of the water and the land.
Social change happens in a spiral. Sometimes we come back to the same places, and we have to do the work of educating each generation, and constantly challenging ourselves. We need to actively re-learn our history, honoring our pain for the world while taking ownership of re-envisioning the future. The road to justice is a long road, but one we must take, and we must pave it with a fierce love.
Climate justice is about fighting for love, with love. It’s about holding ourselves accountable to the land and to history. The land has loved us unconditionally, and we need to give back. Climate justice is about refusing to be silent about whiteness. It’s about knowing when to listen and when to speak up, using privilege to lift over voices, and stand up for justice.
I hope by telling parts of my own very incomplete narrative of whiteness and climate justice, I can inspire other white folks to thoughtfully consider their own identities. By naming whiteness for what it is and making it vulnerable, we can start to dismantle it. Guilt is not the same as accountability. In fact, they may be opposites.
We must push ourselves past the ego of guilt into a self-awareness grounded in humility and respect. The question we must ask ourselves is, what is my role? Often this means, where do I come from? What is my frontline? This work is about coming to terms with and cultivating intentional relationships to the land, to each other and to ourselves, and acting on the appreciation for the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.