Fire. Power. & Love.

José G. González
Feb 9 · 15 min read
Photo by Chanelle Guillaume.

“if we wanted to.
people of color could burn the world down.
for what we have experienced.
are experiencing.
but we don’t.
– how stunningly beautiful that our sacred respect for the earth.
for life.
is deeper than our rage”
― Nayyirah Waheed, Salt

“knowing your power
is what creates
humility.
not knowing your power
is what creates
insecurity.”
― Nayyirah Waheed, Salt

“being in love with my people does not mean i hate others.
how ridiculous is that. — self”
― Nayyirah Waheed, Salt

HERE WE ARE

The first poem above by Nayyirah Waheed is one I often see referenced by people of color as they experience anger, hurt, and a system that devalues, un-sees, un-hears, and undermines them.

It resonates when a marginalized, disenfranchised, excluded identity feels that too familiar pain and asks WHY — — although inside they are fairly certain as to the answer and wonder why the oppressing side doesn’t see it as clearly as they do, feel it as they do, or why they choose to ignore it.

The poem further resonates with me in how the feeling of anger and rage does not exclude from reaching to a deeper well of sacred respect for the earth, for life. It is doable but not easy. Actually it can be damn hard. Like all things that require habit-building and change, it is a practice.

I chose this poem, along with the other two Waheed poems, because of three words that quickly come to mind as I reflected on the current situation with the Outdoor Industry, not just with Camber Outdoors, but with the whole system in place:

Fire.
Power.
Love.

These poems speak a truth to me. About fire, about power, about love — elements which I encounter in this space. They serve as reminders, armaments, and weaponry at my hand — and what leads me in this work and in this space as I have grown in it and been tested based on the choices I have made. They are tools, habits, practices, but most importantly VALUES that guide me. Sometimes as anchors in grounding through particular storms. Other times as wings that keep me aloft focused on destinations on the horizon.

Those values include:

Compassion, Community, Joy, Network Weaving, Learning, Humility, Healing, Hope.

I have found I need these, among others, as I engage to deconstruct complex topics in this work. Topics such as Decolonization, Intersectionality, and Collective Liberation. Yet they are very simple in the need to ensure they are understood to affect positive change in closing equity gaps and ultimately leading to justice-oriented solutions.

For this I often try to derive lessons from nature. We are after all intimately connected. There are limits for sure, given our human experience, but I try to see how I can ground some of my initial understandings there, especially as I keep proposing to ground on deeper truths, and ones I easily forget in the over-complication of human matters. And as I keep stating how we should decolonize our conceptualization through indigenization.

Thus, the first lesson and metaphor that comes to mind is FIRE.

BURN IT SO MORE CAN GROW

By now I think we know all too well what happens when we reactively suppress fire in natural landscapes. They harm the ecosystem. They throw things off balance. They also set up the space for more disastrous fires when they do occur, feeding off built up matter. However, fire is good, to help with transitions, and when aligned with the rhythms and cycles we often ignore, suppress, or forget.

Indigenous communities worked with fire to landscape parts of the ecology. Their knowledge and engagement with natural forces and their observations of natural workings are no doubt far beyond what we have credited them, given we deliberately destroyed so much of their knowledge systems through colonization.

Recently we have been paying the costs, literally and figuratively, for how we worked against natural cycles of fire, responding to fear. We also built carelessly, or rather imposed our presence in places that grew up with a fire ecology. We also mismanaged landscapes to suppress fire so that built up and pent up fuel was there to be lit catastrophically. In many ways it was a matter of time.

I see parallels here. How we respond to that “fire” ignoring causes, history, and how to understand succession and the ecology that comes after it, is to me what matters so we do not further get lost in the destruction, deny what does need to burn away and why, and what benefits from such underbrush clearing. Where some see the destruction, there is also the potential for regeneration. To see what seeds will grow from such a space.

POWER AND LEADERSHIP IN TENSION

I have often framed myself as an “ambicultural leader” learning how to lead as if I were ambidextrous, using two aspects of my cultural identity to bridge spaces, to make connections. It allowed me to move from a place of shame to a place of pride as I grew and understood my identity and culture as an immigrant. And it was key to the founding of Latino Outdoors.

I then expanded that to a quantum identity, thinking about how to hold the multitudes of me, and how some facets collapsed into an experience depending with whom or where I was interacting. I believe it made me a better, nimble, more thoughtful resilient person — or maybe that I could at least have greater impact for the work and change I wanted to undertake. It allowed me to ensure I could stay as grounded in the grassroots while pushing and negotiating at the proverbial tables at which we all wanted more representation. And to a large degree it worked for me.

The Colorado conservation cowboy and I, in Vermont, when I first started. Learning to work and learn across difference. Photo by Ginny McGuinn.

Yet, dealing with and engaging in power structures comes at a cost. It goes down in many ways: social, emotional, physical, spiritual. Many leaders of color in our community often willingly choose, and suffer, from the tension of serving in two spaces. On one end, we work with organizations, institutions, and power structures that chafe at changes and struggle to maintain power and dominance. Spaces and structures that ask and sometimes require our participation for change.

On the other end, we are loyal to our own community, we want to represent them, do well and right by them and for them. Fight for them. Be clear in our love for them. In between is a social and internal tension that comes with a lot of work, risk, judgement, doubt, fatigue, and need for constant self-reflection.

To represent our community, sometimes we embed ourselves in the systems, constantly evaluating how we are still guided by “what’s right”, how we might be compromised or how we become complicit, with the community frustrated at the pace or lack of change. We ask if our participation has been contorted and co-opted for the interest of the power systems. Do we have any leverage? Do we move any needles? Do we open any doors? Can it all be revoked in an instance? When it is, it is a reminder and fact about who had the power all along.

That word, POWER.

I think about this in relationship to leadership. What is leadership without power and what is power without leadership? Sure, they can go together, but the two are not the same.

This is where I have often been graced by the leadership and support of women of color. Women like Dr. Carolyn Finney, Dr. Nina Roberts, Audrey Peterman, Angelou Ezeilo, Midy Aponte, Laura Pulido, Celeste Royer, Maite Arce, Adrianna Quintero, Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, and SO MANY OTHERS, who I consider elders to me in this space. Not because of their age but because of their experiential wisdom. Each has inspired me and directly helped me as I’ve worked on figuring out and ascertaining what I could bring to this space.

Midy, has reminded me how we cannot be afraid of the exercising of power, and the many shapes it can take. There is a need to think strategically. After all, we cannot be afraid of the fire. We have to think through it and beyond it. There is much toiling to do during the period of regrowth after a fire.

This exercising of power includes saying no. Maite, Adrianna, and Angelou have shown me how that asserts our sovereignty. All three generously offered me their insights and time in how to create your own space, to create your own organization. They have built institutions from the ground up and forged the partnerships and relationships essential to the work they do. They are stellar. I distinctly recall talking to Angelou and her saying “if at any point you need me, I can offer to mentor you.”

Maite always showing me como si se puede. Original madrina right there.

The exercising of power includes saying yes. It affirms our conviction and presence. Carolyn, Audrey, and Aparna have shown me how expansive their presence is with so much love and joy without without ceding one bit of their power and conviction. They are original forces of nature. Their words and love strike me with the impact of truth and art without hesitating to also deliver them with a smile when they choose to, on their own terms, to be their own wonderful learning individuals. Vulnerable when they want to. Damn powerful.

The exercising of power includes knowing where the real pressure points are and exercising our voice to manifest change with a focus, as well as the long-view. To not get caught up simply in a crisis and apology. To see what is beyond the apology and what the brands and institutions are called to do because the Outdoor Industry needs to continue to change, as does the conservation and environmental movement at large. We still need actionable, measurable, accountable steps and outcomes. Celeste, Nina, and Laura have given me academic language and institutional frameworks of looking at this work for systems change, of the power of leading from within the very structures we seek to change. The workloads they carry while still staying grounded in community change amazes me. They are rock solid.

It is crucial to affirm women of color because they have long been disenfranchised, disregarded, objectified, simplified, diminished, and forgotten while serving on the front lines of leadership.

Such models of inspirations, have shown me how they lead with fire and power impactfully. They also, in their respective ways, have shown me about love in this work.

I think about what role LOVE has to play in this, particularly as a tool and perspective to create the radical envisioning of the future we want and deserve.

This is where I think we need to push ourselves as to what is the new language that is required for the evolution and envisioning we have for our work, presence, and power in this space. Language we put into practice. That sees, acknowledges, and understands the fire and rage and moves with it and through it not out of fear but with respect and ultimately to love, in my opinion. Sometimes this means practicing the things we didn’t have, that were not given to us. “Teaching how to fly even as our wings were clipped.”

Because we cannot heal through more oppression. To have awareness to not use the tools of the oppressor on each other, even in righteous anger, or perhaps despite it. I know we do not all have the privilege to start there, to offer the compassion we are denied. To call out tone policing because we have been expected to only be seen, heard, and valued on the oppressor’s terms.

STANDING WITH YOU

I know not all problems are nails and not all tools are hammers. We sure as hell need them or sometimes nothing stays in place. And we often need some damn big hammers to take down some things. Yet the tools are many and the variety of approaches are needed to advance this work forward. These are the conversations Teresa and I have had over the years as we navigated in the same space. To me it is a privilege she has afforded me in terms of her time, patience, and thoughts, much like the women of color I mentioned before. I told her the first time we met I was intimidated by her, that I wasn’t sure I could keep up with her. She laughed. She reminded me I need to stay true to me and that as long as we kept the focus on the work, we would find a way. “We got us” she said. And we figured out how to base a working relationship that deliberately and intentionally included the things we often didn’t see enough of in this hard space. Humor, humility, learning. But not bears. Teresa has had enough of bears. Although she doesn’t get enough of my travel fiascos. The laughing has been particularly important…

It was back then that I chose to stand with Teresa.

We did not always need a public statement. Sometimes, but not always. I was not sure how we would always agree on the same thing but we could at least commit to show our willingness to respect each other by laughing together, camping together, hiking together, attending each other’s events, inviting others into our space and openly sharing how we saw and said things, sometimes differently. Moving with the actions as best we could.

HEALING FORWARD

The fire is here. In many ways it was due and it was only a matter of time. It is not about putting it out or letting it carelessly run free. But it does need to burn what is no longer needed, what holds us back, to set the space for regeneration. That is what I feel calls to me and it is something I am here to sign up for. That is a set of tools I know I can bring into the space. I am clumsy with the tools of the call-out culture so I can’t pretend to wield them with efficacy or purpose. But I am often told I bring a healing presence, and that is a set of tools I have assigned myself to practice, to grow with, because I have experienced my share of hurt. Hurt I have sometimes inflicted on myself. Hurt others have inflicted on me. Hurt I have inflicted on others. I have patriarchy reparation payments for years to come. So I ask and challenge myself what is needed to not perpetuate cycles of trauma, how to lean into my spiritual practice, which has been particularly important. Because I want better. I believe we deserve better.

This is where I see the opportunity to flip, respond to, dismantle, and change systems of oppression with systems of healing — insights I have gained through the work of Dr. Rupa Marya and Michelle Holliday.

Dr. Rupa Marya. Bioneers 2018.
Michelle Holiday. Age of Thrivability.

We have not set up the systems of healing and collaboration needed to make this happen, especially in the Outdoor Industry. We have not invested enough in the structural changes to hold the space for productive struggle, conflict negotiation, and mediated outcomes. In the absence of that, the default benefits the power structures in place, and they will continue to be, often rightly so, targets for call-out activism. They should be called out. Because there are many layers of oppression there, at different scales, with different levels of impact. Some do not see it, others see it too clearly. Many muddle through. To this day Luis, Juan, and I joke about being confused for each other. It happened again at this past Outdoor Retailer show.

Do we know how to hold and move with hurt toward healing? Not dismissing it. Not easy-fixing or quick resolutions, but intentional movement that carries discomfort with intention and learning? Does that feel attacked too? Do we have too many fronts on which we fight that we operate from fatigue and defense? That we use the tools at hand that DO work but up to a point? Every problem a nail for our hammers. Starting and running away from fires but not reconnecting to the lessons and purpose they offer?

These are questions I ask myself and offer to others, especially knowing that sometimes I think I know what’s right but many times, frankly, I don’t. Often, I’m certain on what’s correct, but certainly not right. I sometimes wonder, “what may be the fallout of all my good intentions?”

So I come back to my reminders and to be guided by what I often espouse, the values I try to lay out to move me forward:

Compassion, Community, Joy, Network Weaving, Learning, Humility, Healing, Hope.

They come with a set of tools that I know are not afforded to others. I know I am privileged in ways others are not just as I fight systems on my own front. But these are tools I have chosen. It is how I have chosen and choose to lead. And whether people agree with me or not, they are my choice for growth and learning. And if I am no longer needed in this space, then I step out. There are plenty of other spaces in which I continue to push with my share of non-advertised fights in policy, academic, and cultural spaces.

Learning with and from the community. Tension, love, and all. The founding of the Next 100 Coalition.

CLARITY

Although nuance, complexity, and systems-thinking is part of the work I do in regards to equity and inclusion, I still want it to be clear that:

  • Systems of oppression are real and present in this space. Oppressing is wrong AND we have an opportunity to learn and apply our lessons to move forward.
  • Columbusing and other forms of appropriation are real and present in this space. Co-opting is wrong AND there is much work to do bring equity and justice into this space.
  • Colonizing structures are real and present in this space. Erasure is wrong AND we have the opportunities and responsibilities to remember and craft new narratives.

As Bethany Lebewitz, Founder and CEO of Brown Girls Climb reminds me: we do not need anyone’s permission to exist.

We exist with Fire, Power, Love, and then some.

Sometimes we use Fire in restorative justice activities to burn away things. Hurt, disappointments, whatever is holding us back and is no longer needed. Let the fire consume that. We then write and hold what we want to grow in its place, the habits we need to practice, the Power we want to embody, or remember we have. To practice the Love of self and other because that is often the first thing lacking. To build the deep wells of trust needed to engage with disagreement and conflict for the purpose of collective liberation. Again, this can be damn hard, but doable.

A couple of years ago Dr. Carolyn Finney reminded me of that. Of how important it was to not lose sight of why we care and the role humanity plays in that. That the reasons to be upset and be angry about are real. And they come with a responsibility to still lean with the best of what makes us human. She set a high standard that I try to meet, that I choose to meet.

Dr. Carolyn Finney. POWER, JOY, and TRUTH TO POWER. Photo by Michael Estrada.

At my last panel for this past Outdoor Retailer I stated a version of these words:

  • Protect Black Joy
  • Respect Native Sovereignty
  • Embrace Queer Worth
  • Defend Brown Skin
  • Empower the Feminine
  • Support The Non Binary Spectrum
  • Reconnect with Land Sacredness
  • Detoxify Masculinity &
  • Be Bold in the Creative Act Of Decolonizing Your Imagination

They were to an audience that included employees and executives of VF Corporation, other brands, and frankly a predominantly White audience. So they heard me. It’s not that I’m being too careful with my language, but also not careless. I need to stand by those words if they mean anything. And I want to stand by them through my values because I will continue to call on the industry not just to do better and be, but to do different. Because the future is here asking to be seen. To know what it feels like to not be included. Ignore that and you cannot complain when the fire feels like it is ranging out of control. We are either responsible stewards together or burn in guilt and blame.

The leadership on the industry side needs to step up, to roll up the sleeves and show the action behind the intention. Otherwise do not be surprised when you are called to step back, step out, or step down.

We have work to do. Let’s get to work learning forward. I do not doubt we can do this and make each other better. We got us. Or we got nothing at all.

“decolonization requires acknowledging.
that your needs and desires should never come at the expense of another’s life energy.
it is being honest that you have been spoiled by a machine that is not feeding you freedom but feeding you the milk of pain. — the release”
― Nayyirah Waheed, Salt

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