To Change Everything, It Takes Everyone

The following is Part III of Coming of Age on a Warming Earth — the platform speech I gave at the Washington Ethical Society for Earth Day 2015. Follow the link to read Part I & here for Part II!

You can find a recording of the full speech on the Ethical Society’s website.

If you like what you read, then please consider a donation to my campaign to raise $5,000 for the remainder of my tuition at the Academy for Coaching Excellence where I am learning to coach individuals and teams on some of the topics discussed below!

“To Change Everything It Takes Everyone” Banner at People’s Climate March. Photo Credit: Heather Craig

I learned a lot about movement organizing in the campaign to ban fracking in Pittsburgh, and most importantly I learned that everyone has their own vision for the future and how to affect the change necessary to get there. Different people have different ideas of what should take priority and what the movement needs to focus on. Of course, although each person’s vision is perfect in their own mind’s eye, any one vision rarely works out to be perfect in physical reality. This is because the only predictable trait of physical reality is unpredictability. Maybe a funding source dries up when it’s needed most, or the website crashes on launch day, or someone forgets to bring plates to the potluck. Life happens in imperfect ways, so we often operate on plan b, c, or d instead of plan a.

Many campaigns have fallen into the trap of trying to follow one very specific vision and losing bright people who see it differently in the process. Leaders in these sorts of campaigns often realize too late that some aspect of their original vision won’t go according to plan and it all falls apart.

That’s why, just like a good potluck where the imperfection becomes irrelevant in the warm light of abundance, we need plenty of skills, perspectives, and tactics to affect the change we need. And the best way to make room for that abundance in my experience is by acknowledging the hero in everyone involved. When we strive to understand and lift up the vision of each and every changemaker as a hero and leader in their own right, our movements become resilient to the unexpected and we are more likely to achieve the change we need.

Doing this is not always easy, especially when emotions run wild in a meeting or other setting. In that scenario it becomes easy to see others in a negative light, or through a “red lens” that makes their contributions more difficult to see. We may have thoughts that sound like: “There’s something wrong with this person…they’re just wrong!” or “this person is such a drain on me and our campaign! We’ll never move forward with them involved!” We can get so caught up in seeing a person through the red lens that we close ourselves off to the gifts they have to contribute, and we lose an opportunity to grow our movement. So, I am going to share with you a mental tool I’ve learned that helps me practice seeing the hero in people called “the green lens”, which I learned from one of my teachers Maria Nemeth. Find a friend or a mirror, take a deep breath, and look them/yourself in the eye and repeat these phrases:

  • This person is a hero: whole and complete.
  • This person has goals, dreams, and a desire to make a difference.
  • This person has all their own answers.
  • This person is contributing to me right now.
  • This person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

I use this list of affirmations as a sort of mantra, and I make a guarantee to myself every morning that I will see others in this light. I even keep the list written on a card that I take to meetings and events. When I start to feel that someone is being a drain on me, I take a deep breath, remember the green lens, and choose to believe that this person is indeed a contribution to me and the work we are doing together. It is a powerful tool that is integral to my organizing, and I invite you to practice it in your own life.

By using this tool, I have learned the power of an increasingly popular slogan in the climate justice movement: “To change everything it takes everyone.” Now, change is going to happen no matter what. That is a given. But now we humans are faced with a decision to either radically change our behavior and support a planet we can thrive on or continue burning through our carbon budget and change our planet into an inhospitable oven. We are all stewards of the planet, and we are all responsible for the outcome for better or worse, regardless of how deep in denial we might be about our present situation.

To be frank, the present situation is looking dire for my generation and the next. Our governments are doing too little too slowly to avoid the tipping point to runaway climate change. Meanwhile, extreme extraction industries like fracking, boiling crude oil out of tar sands, and mountaintop removal coal mining are accelerating us toward the point of no return. Our planet is already showing signs of severe exhaustion in the form of more severe storms, rising seas, and extreme drought. Nevertheless, we must not get lost in despair, and we must be willing to work collectively toward a vision of a thriving, abundant earth.

How do we do that work?

We organize, and we involve everyone in the potluck.

By “involve everyone”, I don’t just mean giving everyone a seat at the table. We need to go beyond that and cook together. Cooking together means trying some new ingredients and techniques to better understand another perspective. It means taking a close look at the menu and how it’s put together. Is everyone invited actually involved and supported in the process? If the menu is all comfort food, then who is it comfortable for? One person’s comfort food might make everyone else at the table very uncomfortable, and that can lead to exclusive behavior when the majority is unwilling to respect a different perspective and try something new.

My point here is that the way our movements operate might work well for a particular group of people, but they all too often exclude other people who would make a great contribution if given a safe space. So, are we willing to support everyone in our community to make the contribution they are here to make; even if it means being a bit uncomfortable with a different way of doing things? Are we willing to listen and contribute to a dialogue that will generate an equitable discussion and a way of coming to consensus?

In order to build power and affect change, we need to say yes to these questions and build a safe space for an intersectional movement that gives everyone a voice and lifts up those differences that make us stronger. And sometimes we must push past our comfort zone to create that space.

The climate justice movement has started to create that space by learning from Martin Luther King’s belief that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, and we are applying that lesson to connect what were previously thought of as disparate movements: climate and environment with all human rights.

We are starting to connect indigenous rights with fights to stop extreme extraction….LGBTQ rights with workers rights … and civil rights with our right to breathe clean air. We are organizing alongside our brothers and sisters in the Global South and sinking island nations while we also work for a sustainable future here in North America and Europe.

We call it “climate justice” because we recognize the impacts of climate change will be distributed disproportionately based more or less on privilege, and we can’t stand idly by at home while the effects of climate devastation are already being felt elsewhere in the world.

We have seen many examples of the growing climate justice movement in recent years. The campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and tar sands extraction has consistently lifted up the voices of indigenous peoples. The People’s Climate March, which brought 400,000 people together in New York City last fall, used the slogan “To change everything it takes everyone” extensively and the organizers ensured that communities on the frontlines of climate change were involved throughout the process. And next week we will see another mass mobilization organized by Gulf South Rising, which will highlight the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the environmental injustice faced by people in the Southern US who are most affected by climate change but are very often sidelined while much of the political action happens in California, New York City, and here in Washington, DC. On a global scale, civil society has commanded an increasingly more visible presence at annual UN climate action negotiations in a way that puts those peoples most imminently affected by climate devastation front and center. The ranks are forming once again this December for the landmark climate negotiations in Paris when world leaders are expected to sign off an a framework for international climate policy that would ensure we do not surpass critical climate tipping points.

This all goes to say that we are the most effective stewards when we are working in solidarity with a diversity of people — cooking together — and building a safe space for an intersectional movement to overcome oppression. My vision, as shaped by my experiences, is to be part of a local and intersectional community-centered movement of stewardly chefs who all come together and work for justice holistically and radically — climate justice included. I hope that you see something in this vision for yourself, and I invite you to act on what you see.

Of course I would be remiss as an organizer if I didn’t ask you to write letters to the editor, vote, lobby your elected officials, join demonstrations in your area, and plan actions with your own community. Please, do all of those things and do them often. But also take some time to connect with people on the front lines of a struggle for justice in or near your own community. I guarantee that they exist. Pull out your green lens and ask your neighbors, young people, and people who look different than you about their experience of injustice and what their vision is for the world. Share your own vision and talk about how you can support each other in making the change you wish to see.

Then go do it. Cook together. Take steps every chance you get to push those visions into physical reality. No matter how imperfect the results are, invite some friends, share the abundance, and know that you have contributed to the benefit of everyone and that they have contributed to you.