Climate Justice Demands Active Solidarity
When frontline communities are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.
I can feel feet stomping pavement, sweat soaking the bright orange bandana that pinches my left arm. It’s emblazoned with a simple message: It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm. I was marching that day toward the back of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance’s People’s Caravan – a delegation of grassroots, base-building groups “led by women [and] gender oppressed people of color and Indigenous peoples on the frontlines of racial, housing and climate justice across the country.”
Familiar as this scene may sound, the action took place nearly a year ago. Leaders of the People’s Caravan were completing a journey from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Barack Obama was still President of the United States. Donald Trump could not win the general election, according to Hillary Clinton, the mainstream media, and politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Our group followed a larger-than-life paper mâché figure of Berta Cáceres, the Indigenous rights and environmental justice activist assassinated in her home by the U.S.-backed Honduran military. Wielding masks with Berta’s face, we chanted: Berta vive, la lucha sigue – Berta lives, the struggle continues. Our voices bouncing between imposing arches of Philadelphia’s City Hall, suspending place, politics, and time, we celebrated that Berta didn’t die – she multiplied.
Let this sink in: then as now, people and communities were under attack – young folks, Black and Brown people, working people, women, LBTQI people, Muslims, immigrants, and people of different abilities, more than the rest of us.
Our overlapping struggles are not against one man. Our struggles are systemic and entrenched, collective but particular.
On this side of the election, some find it hard to keep present that our overlapping struggles are not against one man – as much the white, rich, women-groping, racist, immigrant-hating, and chronically violent man threatening to cripple the world’s only global climate change agreement seems to personify all that we fight against. Our struggles are systemic and entrenched, collective but particular.
Now more than ever, we need to honor grassroots movements for climate justice as deeper-rooted and farther-reaching than resistance. Long before Trump, movements for environmental and climate justice have been resisting the fossil fuel industry and linked systems of gendered and racialized colonization, militarism, economic exploitation, and ecological destruction. And equally, these movements have been and will continue to build and rise for a “Just Transition” to sustainable economies powered by relationships of care, deeply democratic governance, and decentralized renewable energy.
The fact is that those of us who are least at risk are most likely to conflate #theresistance with overlapping struggles for climate justice. I know this all too well. Shielded by privilege along lines of race, class, and gender, my political awakening to climate injustice did not stem from a childhood gasping for breath next to polluting facilities or evacuating a flooded home – as it has for so many low-income youth of color living in low-lying parts of my hometown of New York City, and all the more so in this era of “superstorm” hurricanes like Sandy.
I am a young white man from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which shifted quickly since the time I was born from a privileged but still-diverse neighborhood of working families to an increasingly exclusive enclave of mostly-white elites. I spent my childhood waking up with clean air to breathe, nestled between two city parks where I learned to identify birds on their annual migration to and from South America. I had access to a public school system that in middle school taught me to recognize race as a social construct, and in high school kept me up late reading Marx or analyzing the idea of “wilderness” as a historical partner to genocide, exclusion, and extraction. My early education in grassroots struggles for justice largely came through privilege, not struggle: through aha-moments in college classrooms and late-night student organizing sessions building alignment in resistance to school policies on sexual assault, student immigration status, racial justice, marginalized social justice curricula, and inaction on climate change.
Can you, like me, go home tonight to a lived reality that feels distant from struggle? If my story sounds familiar, I hope you’ll join me in slowing down to think deep and hard about what it means for us to “resist” – and more urgently, help build movements for climate justice.
Shared chants aside, “our” fight for climate justice stems from deeply uneven urgencies – ranging from daily survival to learned concern. We can’t glaze over these differences if we’re truly seeking collective liberation – justice on the terms of those least responsible and most impacted by climate change and intersecting systems of oppression. Nor can we build a powerful enough movement to confront fossil-fueled consumer capitalism, avert climate chaos, and build a livable world for most of us by simply adding “justice” to our messaging.
Last summer, I used my master’s thesis as an opportunity to join a series of convergence spaces across US-based movements for climate justice. I paid special attention to leadership of the Climate Justice Alliance, a partnership of US-based, people of color-led, grassroots environmental justice groups, networks, and support hubs that advocates “root-cause” solutions to climate injustice.
What I learned is this: for those of us young people “waking up” to power and privilege, the single most powerful thing we can do for climate justice is to practice an ethos of active solidarity. Active solidarity demands that we do two things. One is to act now in alignment with people and communities at the frontlines of climate, racial, economic, gender, and other overlapping dimensions of injustice. Another is to make space and time for honoring difference, building relationships, shifting consciousness, and rising with collective purpose.
For those of us young people “waking up” to power and privilege, the single most powerful thing we can do for climate justice is to practice an ethos of active solidarity.
That we need these two prongs of active solidarity – making space and time for difference, while also acting now with people and communities most impacted – is not my original insight. Environmental justice leaders have struggled for decades against mainstream environmentalists’ attempts to appropriate or marginalize their struggles. Despite this fraught history, these same climate justice leaders now are working overtime to confront tensions of difference, not brush them aside – calling to “build the bigger we” for climate justice through active solidarity.
I learned to recognize two registers through which grassroots climate justice leaders practice active solidarity, and through which they expect us to do the same.
The first aspect of active solidarity involves practices emphasizing material transformation. Big environmental groups have lopsided access to funding and visibility in climate activism. Building meaningful collaboration between folks like myself who come in with relative privilege, and people who go home to children struggling with pollution-exacerbated asthma, requires practices addressing power dynamics, redistribution, and accountability. In this vein, climate justice leaders are experimenting with ways to shift funding from mainstream environmental organizations to grassroots, justice-centered groups through the Building Equity and Alignment Initiative. Meanwhile, they challenge mainstream climate activists to practice the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing – which among other things, call for continually honoring leadership from the frontlines of injustice.
In equal part, climate justice leaders taught me to recognize active solidarity as a process of relational transformation. Stories, visual media, songs, chants, and prayers serve as grounding for building relationships, trust, and emotional accountability in alignment with those most impacted and least responsible for climate injustice. At the same time, they help create space and time for all participants to shake up our assumptions of what is at stake and for whom – including those of us with layers of privilege that might otherwise muffle urgencies and misalign priorities in our common struggle.
Practices of active solidarity are nothing new for grassroots, base-building social and environmental justice groups. They’ve been putting these to work for decades, threading deep and wide through everyday engagements of working together and building collective power.
But what previously were wealthy, predominantly white, and male-led environmental groups are finally beginning to wake up to active solidarity, too. Groups like the US Climate Action Network and Power Shift Network have already made marked shifts in leadership and priorities. Women of color now lead both organizations. Both groups seek to empower and direct resources toward grassroots, base-building climate justice organizations. Both now push back on stale arguments for incremental policy change and welcome calls for local organizing and mass movements.
These groups will never be on the “frontlines” of climate justice – nor should they take up space there. But they can and must commit to work in active solidarity with those people and communities who have most at stake in struggles for climate justice.
You and I have a critical role to play in holding them accountable to making and honoring this commitment.
I am grateful to have joined SustainUS last November on a delegation to the 22nd United Nations climate conference, this time held in Marrakech, Morocco. SustainUS, a youth-led organization pushing for justice and sustainability, also confronts a legacy of disconnection and misalignment with grassroots environmental justice movements. Yet as leadership has shifted, the group has radically reoriented priorities away from policy advocacy toward building community, amplifying stories, and engaging in active solidarity for climate justice.
Last November, we made plenty of mistakes. But we also experienced the tremendous potential of making time and space to build deep relationships among our delegation, with youth activists in Morocco, and with others from across the world. Our priorities centered on processes of solidarity with, as much or more than measurable impacts for any one preset objective. We strived to practice material transformation through cultivating a more diverse community among ourselves and mobilizing our privilege as US youth to bring environmental justice communities’ demands into the halls of the UN. We reached toward relational transformation by creating space for shared grief and hope after the US election, unveiling our own “Peoples To Do List” for climate justice with embraces and song. And I believe deeply that it was these imperfect but full-hearted attempts at practicing active solidarity that made our work powerful.
In these stark times, we must continue to resist. But we need to make sure we know what and whom we’re resisting for.
So I close with an invitation for young people joining these shared movements. In these stark times, we must continue to resist. But we need to make sure we know what and whom we’re resisting for. We need to make sure we know how to build with active solidarity – how to rise for climate justice through self-transformation.
Thankfully, we need not and cannot go it alone in this difficult work. Movement elders and peers on the frontlines of injustice have been mobilizing the radical potential of alignment and self-transformation for decades. Humbly, bringing our full youthful and creative potential, let us rise for climate justice through active solidarity.