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Climate Activists’ Panel

March 8, 2019 (from the first RC Conference on Climate Change/Climate Justice)

Video Description: In this video, 6 climate activists answer these questions:

  • What are you doing?
  • What is the effect of what you are doing?
  • What do you enjoy about it?
  • What is a challenge?

The video recordings are captured from Zoom videoconference transmissions to satellite workshops in several places around the world.

Alexa: Hello everybody my name is Alexa and I organize in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the past 3 and a half to 4 years I have been working to build a people’s organization based around the largest oil refinery on the east coast, which is located in a Philly neighborhood, a low income black neighborhood and back in 2014 there were plans to really expand fossil fuel infrastructure in the city and a group of me and my friends heard about it started strategizing. We had spent a couple of years learning the landscape of organizing in the city and kinda didn’t see groups that were poised to use strategies of campaigning and direct action and weren’t really poised to develop leadership of people who would be most impacted by this expansion plan.

So we started knocking on doors around this oil refinery and heard the health impacts, heard asthma in every household, and generations of cancer that have been really a direct result of the law breaking pollution from this refinery. So that was all we needed to hear and we set out to build a broad based organization so our primary constituency are the people who live nearest the oil refinery and have been on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry in Philadelphia, are primarily low income black Philadelphians and we are a broad based organization. We have a segment of young adults We have theater artists who formed a choir in our organization. We have physicians and health care workers. That is the base.

Our goal is to unite Philadelphians around the right to breathe, we found that was a really resonant... Yeah, remind me to breathe myself. We breath all throughout our meetings. We found that was bold. A really resonant literal call for the experiences of living near this refinery and the way that young people were being robbed of their ability their right to breathe and then also could broadly symbolize and be a metaphor for what the right to breathe means for all of us as humans--so the right to affordable accessible housing, to not be targeted by the police or by racism, and so opens up the whole conversation about this broad vision around the right to breathe.

The effect, we won 3 campaigns. We stopped refinery expansion--that was the first thing we took on. The weird thing in Philadelphia is that none of the political leadership talks about the fact that we have this giant refinery in the city limits. Breaking the law every quarter, raking in billions of dollars. So that just isn’t part of the political conversation. So part of the work has been to make it part of the political conversation and so we really have put the refinery on the map these last three years to say there’s no conversation about sustainability in Philadelphia. We can’t just talk about weatherizing the homes we have to talk about this massive toxic facility. That Philadelphians are owed something and have known the impacts of fossil fuels, and have solutions and ideas about what the future of our economy should look like.

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What do I enjoy?
Long walks on the beach (laughter). We have managed... I am still trying to figure out how. The relationships we have built are everything to weave a new community and new culture across segments of Philadelphians that really are kept very segregated within the city, has been so interesting and awkward. We fumble a lot towards each other but it is beautiful. And I think kinda mutual aid and solidarity with each other has been really a way for people to see that we are not trying to use each other and this isn’t about transaction but we help each other with homework and we give each other rides and we celebrate birthdays and we go funerals together. What I love about the work is I have gotten to really throw... my skins in the game 100% and I have families across South Philadelphia that I love and we just get to enjoy each other immensely.

What is hard?
There is a lot shifting. I think conditions are getting tighter and tighter on the fossil fuel industry seeing that they have a closing window to push expansion through and so there is a lot that we are handling around new developments and how to react to those and also to keep our vision visionary and be organizing not just out of reaction but we have a chance to plan. The refinery could be closing down because of bankruptcy soon and we have a plan. We have a chance to plan the future of 1300 acres in Philadelphia and that’s amazing. If that land could be restored back to the public and the neighborhoods around it getting to decide what happens with that land is just such... it’s just a lot to figure out. And we are developing leadership of people and we need to be going slow and it is a process for people to take on more and more leadership. It’s always something to figure out as conditions are shifting.

Cecilia Lim: This is kind of daunting, but I will go ahead anyway.
I am Cecilia Lim. I live in Jackson Heights Queens NY. I want to talk about a couple of things but maybe the first thing is a recent campaign. You may know that we recently won with Amazon’s announcing.. However, it’s not over because I think it was tactical on the part of Amazon to do that so the electeds and other business owners who are in favor of Amazon coming to Queens would rally and show that, ok maybe we are as strong as the opposition. So that fight continues but that is a huge thing.

Not something that as AL and I were talking earlier that necessarily is seen as climate justice work but really the cause of the climate crisis is classism, right, is this system of unending profit, the need to profit and you know Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world and he does not need any sort of tax subsidy or any other handout. And we actually need take down Amazon, not just keep them out of Queens, but take them down as a corporation. We need a different economic system. That’s definitely a huge part of the work that we have been involved with, and you know a great thing you mentioned is the relationship building that’s huge, the relationship that AL and I have built that sustains us doing this work.

What is hard is also the relationships. It is a lot of work to maintain relationships and people can get confused pretty easily and where something seems like it is under the guise of being a political disagreement and it’s not actually a real disagreement. Things get tricky as you get confused about are you my enemy or not.

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The other thing that I wanted to talk about is more of a new thing. I think last summer it clicked to me the connections... Most of the work I have been involved has been centered on immigrant rights and racial justice and worker justice and those movements are absolutely and inextricably tied to climate justice.

And last summer some of you may know Tara Villalba, who is counseling leader in Washington, was preparing for a workshop that she was going to lead at GCAS around the connections between climate, war, sexual exploitation, and that the US military is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels. And we wouldn’t obviously have the climate change if it weren’t for the use of fossil fuels. War requires, needing to prepare for war requires men to not be feeling and so what is the outlet that they get. They get to go and avail themselves of the services of women.

So all of these things are tied together and for me I was like, oh my god, I need to make this work central to the work. That I can’t stop doing what I am doing already around those other issues. But I need to make this work central and it makes sense. I firmly believe in that people on the frontlines of the discriminatory policies and practices, they need to be the ones leading us.

So the Philippines is one of the top five nations impacted by climate change. AL and I are working on starting a Filipino/Pacific Islander led climate justice movement in NYC so we have in our project where we are interviewing Filipino immigrants to tell their stories of how they stay connected to place and people in the Philippines, and it is going to be exhibited at the Queens Library in Woodside, and we have an instagram account (which is a social media photo based thingy). It is really a base building tool for us, right? So as we do the interview we have this live drawing that we are going to create for the community member and on the reverse side will be information about why connection is important. What’s true about Filipinos? Some information about climate change, and then inviting people to work with us to change the conditions both here and in the Philippines.

I think what is hard about this work and intersecting and using our own culture to effect change is you are battling that artist oppression that tells you that everything else is more important than this. But in fact artists are the ones that make movement irresistible, make the revolution irresistible. There is a quote that I shared earlier. It is a quote by Toni Cade Bambara, which I can share with you all later. That’s a huge thing.

And also just knowing classism, the impacts of classism, and how we have all internalized this desire for comfort, and to live a certain type of comfortable life, which makes us not thinking that we are powerful and capable of systemic change. And then also which makes us think, i mean there’s just so much messaging about that it’s about our individual impact. It’s like even if we never recycled again but we took down the system that would be fine. Eat as much meat as you want as long as you are working for systemic change.

John Braxton: Hi, I am John Braxton. So you really kinda set me up here perfectly because the two organizations that I work with, I do a lot of work with unions. And the two organizations that I work with outside of my own union are U.S. Labor Against War (technically it is U.S. Labor against the war because there was only the Iraqi war when we formed it) and the Labor Network for Sustainability. And so both of these are working together to make sustainability, to put sustainability on the agenda within the labor movement. And so it’s interesting, the labor movement is hard to move. I think that I am

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jumping down to the last question a little bit. It’s hard to get it to move. But we have had some real successes.

We were able to get, during the apex of the Iraq war, we were able to get the AFLCIO (which is the largest conglomeration of unions in the U.S.) to come out against the war and also to give a statement that our militarized foreign policy has been a disaster. And that’s a huge sea change for the AFL-CIO to do that. Some people used to jokingly/pointedly call it the AFL-CIA because there was a lot of cooperation between the AFL-CIO in suppressing revolutions around the world. And so that has really changed.

And so and then with the Labor Network for Sustainability, I started looking around and said, well I have been in labor for a long time, who’s doing work around this? And learned about the Labor Network for Sustainability and what I found is that they have been doing lots and lots of good work but they weren’t really mobilizing people yet. And, they said yeah, we have been thinking about doing that. We have been wanting to have a big convergence as they called it but we really don’t have the resources to do it. So I said, well I know how to organize. I think I could take on being the organizer of that convergence. So I organized the first convergence with a lot of help but it meant that it got started a year earlier than what they would have done otherwise. So we are slowly trying to have an impact within the labor movement.

In my own union, the American Federation of Teachers, we passed a resolution on climate change which is very strong. It calls for keeping fossil fuels in the ground. It calls for a just transition so that workers are not negatively impacted when their jobs change away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.

And also for frontline communities that are hurt by the pollution and also hurt by the transition. I sometimes feel like well what’s a resolution mean? Does it really go anywhere? But one of the things that happened was interesting. When President Trump announced that he wanted to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, our national president of our union had a press conference and she took the resolution that I had written and said that this is our policy. This is what we need to be doing we don’t need to be pulling out.

But there also are setbacks. It is part of what is hard.. I used to think naively that everything would steadily, if there is an upward trend then the everything should always be going upward but it doesn’t appear that way. It hasn’t been my experience. So we have had some defeats and obviously there is a huge amount of work to do.

But I think what I enjoy also are the relationships that I developed meeting new people and deciding to tackle this--people who are deeply involved in the labor movement but also want to see progressive change and progressive policies around war and around climate change.

I’ll just close with a cute button and bumper sticker back in the late 60’s and early 70’s that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things”

Marian Michaels: My name is Marian Michaels and I am from Minneapolis, Minnesota. And I do organizing work with Sunrise Movement, which is a movement of young people and younger adults who are working to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process. 

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So our plan is to do that by moving to 100% clean energy by 2030, and building resilient communities in the face of climate change disasters. Other stuff, I am not going to be able to remember it all, but one other big important thing is making sure that everyone who wants to have a good job with a fair wage to assist in the transition to renewable energy and to stopping climate change is able to get a job like that. So that would be the Green New Deal.

Sunrise is completely focused on the U.S. right now and focused on politics and electing climate champions. So I have been working with Sunrise for almost a year and we worked to get climate champions elected in the midterm elections and we have led mass protests across the country in support of a Green New Deal. Sunrise played a major, major role in getting the Green New Deal, getting it into the mainstream of the climate debate. And what is the effect? Well putting it on the map for the 2020 elections and beyond. There is so much I could say I am not going to remember it all. Come talk to me later if you want to hear more.

What do I enjoy?
Sunrise is incredibly intentional about building a culture that is hopeful and joyful and sustainable. And the thinking behind it is incredibly strategic about how do we actually make a difference, how do we create massive change on a nationwide scale, and what do we need to, what avenues do we need to use in order to make that happen? So I just love the strategy parts of it and the community building parts of it. Love what you said about art (referring to CL) there’s lots of singing and lots of beautiful artwork, beautiful posters, beautiful tee shirts, I love all of that stuff.

What’s hard?
Sunrise is really less than 2 years old and is growing incredibly quickly. And when that happens you have to be learning how to do everything all at once. So we ran a fellowship program at 8 locations across the country this summer and fall without having funding to be able to pay for it. It did get paid for, but when the program started it wasn’t funded.

So we were figuring out how to fund it at the same time as how to run it for the first time. And when you are organizing like that it gets messy and all of the material that people have not discharged yet comes up. Which means that racism comes up big, sexism comes up big, class oppression comes up big, so all of that is hard too. I think I’m done.

Alyssa Lee: I am Alyssa Lee, I’m from the Boston Area. Raise your hand if you know what an endowment is? Raise your hand if you know that universities have endowments, and they make investments? Further than I was when I was entered college. Raise your hand if you know that some of those investments are in things like fossil fuels? And raise your hand if you are like, that’s cool? (laughter) You all support my movement!

My work is with a program that just started last year called Divest Ed and so Divest Ed is the national training and strategy hub for the campus fossil fuel divestment movement. So students all across the country who pretty much every day are planning, strategizing, recruiting, making art, instagramming about getting their school to stop to investing and divest from fossil fuels and to re-invest in justice and in their communities. And our organization started last year. 

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That movement has been going on since about 2010 and part of the reason my program of Divest Ed only started last year is because there were other groups doing that work in the space nationally: 350.org, Divestment Student Network, Responsible Endowments Coalition, but they all mysteriously stopped working on that in 2017. And I was the only one left doing the work. So then we did some strategic planning in my organization and we do that work now. So that means I have been working on fossil fuel divestment pretty much straight for 7 years, almost 7 years, so since 2012 spring semester at UCLA when I started my campaign.

And how I started in that campaign was purely from other students. Students organized a statewide convergence, connecting students working on environmental issues, and students put on a workshop about fossil fuel divestment. Students recruited me to go to that workshop and then roped me into a strategy session after the workshop.

I mean it was all like they were all students doing this, educating themselves, figuring it out, and making lots of mistakes. And for me I definitely made a lot of mistakes. I don’t think I did a one-on- one meeting until a year into the campaign. And I’d just write these long agendas and just spend like hours and hours just emailing--like one night I ended up emailing 500 people. I did not know what I was doing at all!

So what I get to do in my work now at Divest Ed is me and 2 other staff people, we provide coaching and training and mentorship for students doing these campaigns and hopefully make sure that they never feel as alone as I did or doing stupid stuff that I did like writing these stupid long agendas that no one was excited about. So that’s really the primary thing.

It would be great to see every campus divest from fossil fuels but really what we are doing is giving investment to young adults, college students who learn about divestment but when they get into like now especially with Zero hour and all these amazing high school movements. They come into college ready to join and they are so ready. They are going to eat, sleep, play, study, work, all day long at a lot of these schools and they care a whole damn lot about what their schools do.

And administrators just don’t get. They see these as naive kids, a lot of young adult oppression there, and they don’t understand--why are they doing this. Shouldn’t they be studying, preparing for the future? They don’t get that that school means a whole lot to , and what that school does and what role they play at school means a whole lot to them. And sitting and learning in class about all of this policy stuff then waiting until they maybe get important enough or the right degrees and get hundreds of thousands of dollars more in debt to eventually say something and be important is just not going to cut it.

And so what the campus fossil divestment movement does is to say that you don’t have to wait at all. You have a ton of power right where you are and you have so much access and ability right here on campus to change enormous amounts of money and enormous amounts of politics.

And we often get asked why don’t we work on 100% renewables, why not get your schools to change over there? And we get asked that from administrators and we get asked that from other climate people and you know if you add up all of the total emissions of colleges all across the country it’s a few percent. But if you add up all of their social influence, the way they represent solutions of the biggest problems in the world, the money that they have. I mean Harvard has an endowment of a small country, bigger than a lot of countries, 

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that way out weighs those emissions and it’s an enormous opportunity to change the story and to build to create an entire new generation of students.

And so I mean I obviously am still doing divestment work, all of my friends so many people who are still doing climate work or social justice work and they leave being trained on how to run campaigns, how to power map, how to facilitate meetings, how to recruit, how to table, how to negotiate with decision makers, how to not get manipulated by decision makers, how to do media work, how to do licenses, how to sit it, how to plan blockades, how to do affinity trainings.

I enjoy all of those things and it is hard to deal with the young adult oppression and it’s hard because students have no boundaries. They work so hard and I don’t know how to handle all of that sometimes. And you want to give them everything and also they want everything. They want trainings on everything, readings on everything, study groups on everything, but it is really, really great work.

Liam: Hello, my name is Liam. I am from London in England. I have done a whole bunch of organizing on different issues. A few years ago or about 4 years ago, partly through joining Sustaining All Life, I decided I wanted to focus that organizing work around climate change. And then I figured out how did I want to get people in my city in London to think about climate change?

I wanted to do something around air pollution because about 9000 people a year die from air pollution in London and that’s a way, that’s a climate justice issue. It’s also just a way that people can directly feel something about climate change. And so I found a group called Stop Killing Londoners and started organizing creative protests.

What I didn’t know at the time when I joined them they were part of a whole parent organization that was basically trying out tester campaigns towards doing something bigger about the whole issue sometimes soon. So that ended up being called Extinction Rebellion and so I have been working full time, more than full time, on Extinction Rebellion since September last year. And I was one of the core coordinators that helped launch the campaign at the end of October.

And I’ve had many, many different roles and as people have said, when you are expanding rapidly you do a lot of different things. Like sign the lease on offices in Westminster. I’ve also been the office manager, but I have also organized protests, that is my main role is organizing creative actions.

So organizing people super gluing shut our energy minister’s offices for a day. Organizing 6000 people to block the main 5 bridges in Central London for a day. In that 2 weeks, we kinda organized about 10 protests in 2 weeks and we went from at the end of October having 3000 followers on Facebook to having about 50,000 followers on Facebook within that month. We now have groups in 25 countries. There’s 30 groups here in the US. There’s 90 groups in the UK. There is someone somewhere saying I support this in over 100 countries. So that is some of the effect that it has had.

I think a key thing is that it is focused on I think it has a human approach. Before we did any protesting we did talks in over 60 places around the UK talking to people about climate change, the real science, and getting them to feel something about it, saying you need to grieve about this because we are facing human extinction now. We are not just talking about some people far away or some species far away. We are talking about you needing to

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think about your life and your children’s lives and grieve about that. And get them to listen to each other and then kinda move through that grief towards taking action. And so our tactic is non-violent civil disobedience and so using disruption, and because we are a rebellion, this isn’t a one-off protest. This is multiple disruptive acts that will bring the government to the table to discuss our 3 demands.

I think disruption is working. We are getting outreach, the press. We are building groups around and as an example when I was at COP and our energy minister was speaking about how to get past coal by switching to fracking, so I kinda stood up and said that I disagree with you and what do you think about the people that super glued themselves in your office a few weeks ago. She was very slick about it but her civil servant, her staff members were crawling through the crowds to get to me, begging me to please stop disrupting her, and we will have a meeting with you outside of this if you please stop this disruption. This is one really succinct example of disruption.

What do I enjoy? Is the creativity, even when I am feeling very hopeless about climate change, and just seeing the amazing things our groups are doing all around the country and around the world and how they are coming up with new ways to talk about this issue is amazing. Working with some like really amazing creative organizers, particularly some really strong women artists and activists that are leading us.

And what’s hard is sexism is hard, like the male domination in the organization coming from some of the older activists particularly. What else is hard? And it’s hard to face extinction every day. The first banner drop that we did was 50 meters long. I don’t know how many yards that is but basically was the length of the whole bridge and it said “climate change we’re fucked”. We are kinda taking that approach. (laughter). Let’s not take it lying down, get out there and not having many options gives you more freedom to take action.

[End of transcript]

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Last modified: 2019-11-27 19:02:46+00