July 10, 2017
If This Really Means Freedom...An Anti-Oppression Curriculum for the Climate Movement
An introduction to a resource bank that we hope will help us move a little bit closer to realizing our dream of a just and sustainable future for our movements and the world.
As fireworks filled the country’s skies on the Fourth of July, and many of our neighbors celebrated America’s past and present, we chose instead to reflect upon its future.
For us, Independence Day was a day to recognize that America is not perfect, that our forefathers partook in unforgivable atrocities from slavery to genocide. America is a singular experiment in the idea that humanity can forge a nation around a set of ideals — liberty, equality, and justice for all — but it is still just that: an experiment. We felt duty-bound to acknowledge this, our country’s full history, in order to strengthen our resolve and ability to create a future in which the ideals upon which America was built are truly realized.
In the climate movement, we bear the same obligations. Our predecessors in the environmental movement, too, oversaw their share of activities that exploited and harmed people of color and Indigenous Peoples.
We felt duty-bound to acknowledge our country’s full history in order to strengthen our resolve and ability to create a future in which the ideals upon America was built are truly realized.
The crux, perhaps, has been our movement’s overwhelming whiteness and historic shortcomings in recognizing the intersections between our work and other struggles for justice. This reached a flashpoint in 1990, when a coalition of grassroots organizations rooted in marginalized communities across the Southwest penned a letter to ten national environmental NGOs calling them out for pursuing projects that “emphasize[d] the clean-up and preservation of the environment on the backs of working people in general and people of color in particular.”
The “SWOP Letter” was one of many similar actions that underrepresented communities took to call on the “mainstream” environmental movement to address concerns about diversity and justice or risk slipping into irrelevancy.
The problems, of course, were not solved in the 1990s. We could spend thousands of words critiquing the environmental and climate movements, but a wealth of literature already does a pretty good job. To start, check out the seminal Diversity 2.0 report on inclusivity among national environmental NGOs; these reflections on solidarity from organizers of Our Generation, Our Choice; 350.org on Ferguson and the climate crisis; Tisha Brown on decolonizing the climate movement; and of course, the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice and Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, which were crafted by grassroots organizers of color in the 1990s and remain relevant to this day.
"Every day, I experience the challenges of being a young activist of color in the youth climate movement. I often do not see people who look like me in leadership roles in the mainstream climate movement. I rarely hear the climate movement talking about issues that are relevant to my community."
Sometimes, we need look no further than our own friends in this fight. Here’s Eva Malis on her own encounters with oppression and exclusion in her work: “It was disappointing to see that 27 years after the SWOP letter, I and many other students of color at UC Berkeley felt that we were not represented by our campus’s environmental community, which led us to call out their shortcomings in a letter of our own. Every day, I experience the challenges of being a young activist of color in the youth climate movement. I often do not see people who look like me in leadership roles in the mainstream climate movement. I rarely hear the climate movement talking about issues that are relevant to my community, which in many cases feels removed from the whiteness of the movement. They sometimes mistake my passion for climate action with striving to “be white” and therefore don’t always support my climate advocacy work.”
Despite the adversity we face, we are still here, as young people of color who identify with and take ownership of the climate movement. We refuse to brush aside the past. As we acknowledge those who came before and alongside, we add our voices to the growing calls for our movements to confront this history of ignorance, erasure, and in some cases outright oppression of communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, environmental destruction, and the unjust socio-economic forces driving both.
To do so means putting people of color and working families first. It means building trust and solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and others that our movement has historically harmed and excluded. It means ensuring our efforts to fix the climate crisis don’t further harm communities already suffering most from its impacts, but rather reverse their historical burdens and propel all of us further along the path to prosperity and self-determination. In this, we bear both a moral duty and strategic imperative, for we believe addressing oppression in our work to fight climate change is not just the right thing to do, but also offers the most promising path to victory.
Imagine what our movement will look like when we make all of these actions a priority. Imagine what will happen when we fully embrace putting frontlines first by directing resources and committing capacity to create wins for communities most impacted by climate change — which are often the same communities on the frontlines of many interconnected injustices such as poverty, police violence, and deportation. If we can generate momentum from hundreds of these local wins, not only can we win on climate, but we can also realize solutions that create thriving communities, healthy homes, and good-paying jobs for all — especially those who need it most.
Addressing oppression in our work to fight climate change is not just the right thing to do, but also offers the most promising path to victory.
In an effort to facilitate this work, we partnered with young organizers from communities across the country to develop an Anti-Oppression Curriculum & Resource Bank for ourselves and our peers in the climate movement. The Resource Bank contains links to a variety of workshops, toolkits, readings, and other databases for you to explore. Many organizations in and affiliated with the Power Shift Network have already created resources on how to do the necessary work of addressing injustice in our movements, so all we had to do was pool our connections and collective knowledge to create this tool. That’s the beauty of networks!
The Anti-Oppression Curriculum & Resource Bank includes tools for everyone who cares about solving the climate crisis to understand and combat the toxicities of oppression within our movements. It’s organized into themes and lessons that range from understanding privilege and oppression to building bridges with community-rooted organizations led by people of color. Next to each item in the resource bank is the name of the organization that developed it, so if you want to explore further, we would recommend checking out the websites of each featured organization to learn more.
We hope this Anti-Oppression Curriculum & Resource Bank will help us move a little bit closer to realizing our dream of a just and sustainable future for our movements and the world. Envision a climate movement in which all of us — a white construction worker from Omaha, a first-generation young Vietnamese person from Richmond, CA, an Indigenous leader from Standing Rock — can fight side by side for a shared vision of clean air, water, and climate justice for all. The work to get there is tough, emotional, and may at times seem downright impossible, but we believe we can do it. We must.
So please feel free to explore, offer feedback, share with your colleagues and friends. Onwards, and in solidarity.