By Rajasvini Bhansali, Thousand Currents board member and former Executive Director
They had persevered against threats of assassination, constant harassment, grave personal losses, and surveillance. From Nigeria and Brazil, they have peacefully organized their communities against the collusion of corporate and governmental powers that seek to cause harm to Mother Earth.
I honor these brilliant environmental defenders and warrior for justice — people who have fought for decades to preserve the land, water, forests, territories, and cultural knowledge of Indigenous and rural peoples. And I was honored to have the chance to moderate a public conversation with them recently, well attended by over 100 people.
After the event ended, an older white gentleman, who has many decades of board membership of several human rights organizations and past political wins under his belt, approached me. Let’s call him Steve. Steve proceeded to berate me for not giving him 60 precious seconds to launch his idea for a new philanthropic fund at the event.
“How could you ignore me? Clearly, you are not serious about moving resources to defenders. I was here to help, but you made it impossible.”
I explained that with so many questions and only 20 minutes for our Q&A session, it was simply not possible to entertain all the raised hands, and in his case, he never raised his hand to speak. It felt it more important to be equitable across the room and get as many questions directed to the panelists as possible. In an attempt to de-escalate the vitriol aimed at me, which was shocking after a rather successful event and discussion, I asked Steve if he would like to share his ideas over a follow up email with those gathered.
Upon hearing this, Steve became enraged. He raised his voice and told me that he was a very important man. He simply did not have time to engage in emails.
“The ball is in your court. If you want my attention, you will write to me. I cannot promise I have time to respond to all the emails I get from people like you.”
I explained to him that funds like the ones he proposes already exists. In fact, one of the members of the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund collaborative — the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights — is particularly skilled at getting rapid response funds in the hands of environmental defenders within 24 hours.
Steve was so carried away by his righteous rage that he did not listen to a word I was speaking. Instead he continued to make the case for his importance, my mistake in not honoring his singular idea, and the serious implications this could have for me. I explained I was not interested in seeking his funds — that I was doing my job as a moderator on this panel. I also explained that elsewhere, I lead a foundation, a grantmaking organization that already does what he wants to start to do.
Steve continued his diatribe. I felt my blood pressure rising. And my heart sinking.
I excused myself to attend to the many women who were moved by our event and wanted to share their thanks and reflections with me. I took three breaths. I attended to the task at hand — to connect and build with the many people in the room who came with minds and hearts ready to learn and to honor the environmental defenders.
The audience had just finished pairing up in an engaging dialogue about how we are complicit in the threats that face defenders. With communities facing such loss of land and lives, many people in attendance were grappling with questions of how best to exercise solidarity. People wanted to talk more about how we may act in our own backyards to stop the financing of extractive industries and to block policies that perpetuate killings of environmental defenders.
I walked away from Steve, this caricature of a failing empire asserting itself into its own importance.
I walked away from Steve, who needed to place himself at the top of a crumbling hierarchy when encountering the brilliant collective power of people of color and people from the Global South.
I believe Steve’s frustration represents a social good industry trying to find its relevance as more women, especially from formerly colonized countries, are rising to leadership. Global development and international philanthropy used to be a sector that ensured that we knew our place only as junior staff — middle management the most for which we could hope.
I wish I could say this was a surprise. I wish I could say I have never had to ignore racist, misogynistic, offensive bullies before. But sadly, it was not. I walked away with clarity as well as sadness.
Clarity that when I say I represent the Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund — a collaboration of four fierce organizations all led by women who are seeking to solve the climate crisis not singularly but collectively — that it is still hard to believe that such a thing can exist. It must intimidate the Steves of the world that we do not ride on celebrity charisma or patriarchal displays of importance, but instead work thoughtfully with each other through complimentary strengths and with accountability towards environmental defenders, climate justice activists, grassroots organizations, social movements, and aligned advocates.
Sadness that in our search for meager resources to fund our partners’ under-resourced work, we are willing to make accommodations for Steves and the possibility of their support in the form of money, media, and connections. Sad that the implicit bias inside Steve made him assume that I am yet another woman of color without power. Sad that that bias leads him to treat me with disrespect and paternalism. Sad that it took Steve realizing that I am a funder to soften his stance.
Later as I was talking with a climate scientist, Steve interrupted my conversation to assert himself once again. He handed me his business card and said:
“I might have come across as being cross. Here’s my card. If you write to me and I’m not too busy, I may respond.”
I will write to Steve. I will write to him to invite him to talk more with me. In a conversation that I hope we will have, I will share how his misdirected frustration impacted me. I will ask him if his espoused values are congruent with his actions. I will ask him how he would train his own daughter to respond if a man came at her the way he did at me. I will ask him to examine what insecurity or fear was at play for him that prevented him from deeply listening to the solutions offered by people of color and women on the stage. I will ask him why he must invent something anew when so much already exists that he could support and help grow.
I will engage with Steve because I believe in human transformation.
I will do so because the lesson I have been taught by grassroots leaders who put their lives on the line to fight for what they love, i.e. that we must invite all humans — with love — to become our comrades. They have also taught me that we must speak truth to power — not only to stand against oppression, but to also make the space to build what we can imagine.
But before I write to Steve, here is what I needed to recover after this incident. I needed to share my story with my beloveds and let them soothe my hurting heart over phone calls and several drinks. I needed to feel into my own rage, sadness, hurt, grief, and impatience. I needed to know that I could look white supremacy and misogyny in its eyes and not let it decimate me. I needed to talk to my trusted white friends and ask them for advice. I needed to go on a walk with my older desi feminist sister leader and hear her guidance. I needed to know that I am not alone.
Yes, two decades of professional life as a leader of color, and I still have to pick myself up from the floor and piece myself together after every hurtful encounter with unchecked racism and sexism.
Power does not concede without confrontation, without organized demands, and without our capacity to engage with it. I am determined to be unafraid of power. I am determined to wield it with care and to change the conditions, as well as the narrative, about who power rightfully belongs to. I am determined to use my own influence, privilege, and networks to support Indigenous, Black, immigrant women, and gender queer people to lead with values and principles. I am determined to remain accountable to the movements, leaders, and ancestors before us that made it possible for us to have this power.
I will remember also what the environmental rights defender on the panel reminded our audience — including Steve and myself — that day. He, who has escaped many attempts on his life for his convictions in Nigeria, reminded us: once you are hooked to the struggle for justice, there’s no going back!
I am hooked, I admit. I am hooked to not being another brown woman who internalizes her own oppression, who exercises complicity through collegiality, who vents to her own community but remains compartmentalized at work. I refuse to be fragmented as a human and as a woman.
This is the work — the work of healing my heart; of asking for support; of speaking truth to power; and most of all, transforming conditions from abuse and extraction, towards greater harmony and interconnection.
If someone like me who can exercise relative privilege can be bruised and battered as such, what is the hope for the many young women of color who must still continue to work in organizations led by the self-important Steves of the world?
So no, I cannot brood any longer. I have to dust myself off and get to work.