This article is part two of a series by Community Engagement Coordinator Shawn Fleek. Read Part 1 here.
Day 4 – What The Hands Do, the Heart Learns
The morning began with Indigenous communities local and international celebrating. So many songs, prayers, and hearing from Ohlone people the stories of the Shellmound in West Berkley, now a parking lot, razed by development. I cried twice. I danced. I smelled the medicine on the wind. International delegates from the Marshall Islands and Brazil brought a unique perspective to the space: international, indigenous, and infuriated at how climate change and false solutions conspire to colonize and desecrate their homelands.
After several hours at the Shellmound, delegates broke up into bus tours that went all over the region. I toured Richmond’s extractive economy, and saw the frontline housing developments located precariously close to the refinery infrastructure, toxifying their air and desecrating their land. The tour leader, Ratha, put our group through a simulation of making a location a “shelter in place” space, as Richmond residents had to do in 2014 when a Chevron refinery exploded. Sheltering in place requires one to seal the doors and windows and wait for further instructions. A horrible feeling of isolation sets in when you realize you don’t know when you’ll be permitted to go outside. It was terrifying to be so close to this infrastructure that threatened 15,000 lives. It probably threatened many more, but that’s the number of people who went to the hospital seeking treatment after the explosion. Then the hospital closed, because a refinery executive was on its board. When a settlement was finally reached, the only recipient of a check was the City of Richmond. The compounding corruption and carelessness of these extractive industries and their wealthy owners is shocking, appalling, and makes me want to scream and fight for these people.
We also toured the community of people who are building a new, better, more resilient Richmond, including Rich City Rides, a bike group that builds community, feeds youth, and develops leadership and community resilience in the city. It’s a wellspring of hope, and a truly inspiring thing to see in a city so ravaged by industry. A group of youth who were on one of the regular, every-Sunday rides, stopped in to see the tour group at the community center, and then pedaled off when we loaded back into our tour bus.
“Can we continue the tour please?”
“This is the tour.”
During the next leg of the tour, the all-too-common antiblackness in our country and world revealed itself. A Sol2Sol delegate, a black man, spoke up on the tour bus to say that the issues of the black community were being lumped in with those of other people of color and thereby disregarded, and he held space to directly ask the question and demand an answer of the tour’s organizers. A voice from the back of the bus complained, dismissive of the valid concerns this black man raised, saying “can we continue the tour please?” The black man responded, “this is the tour.” The facilitators did a good job of directly addressing that, indeed, these are issues that affect black people specifically, not just “people of color,” for sure, and explained that we need to be very clear about the issues facing all our communities, and specific communities. The conversation didn’t escalate, and there was no direct conflict between the two folks who spoke up. But it was unfortunate that a delegate (I am not sure who they were, as I was seated on a tour bus) would choose to speak against a valid concern of another delegate. Solidarity was the reason for the week of action, after all. We still have learning, growth, and unity to develop as a movement. This was the first instance this week for which I was present wherein a member of the black community present for Sol2Sol would raise such a concern.
The tour continued, past the Richmond City Hall, where local progressive activists talked about their success in electing a slate of candidates to advance a community-led agenda in Richmond. We then drove to the North Richmond Farm, a plot of land being turned into a food source for the low income communities nearby.
I didn’t know I was going to end up working on a farm as a part of this tour. But I also didn’t expect to like being on that farm so much. I grew up surrounded by farms, many of which were run by bigots, and they usually have that negative connotation. But the opening of our time at the North Richmond Farm changed that. A powerful black woman named Big Mama Africa began by offering some prayers, and then some deep, real talk. She pounded the ground with her stick to invoke the names of dead, told us our ancestors form the stones that are the bones of the dead, and said their names and had us say the names of our ancestors as she poured water into the earth. It was moving and made our connection to the land so much more real.
Then the farm’s master gardener gave us the opportunity to choose a task, from less-difficult to more-difficult, depending upon ability. I chose to join in the toughest manual labor, because I’m privileged to be able bodied and frankly I could use the exercise. I dug in heaps of manure, compost, and soil, moved full and empty wheel barrels back and forth as we constructed new rows, shoveled soil and stabbed at weeds, made a mess of my shoes and pants, and prepared the ground for planting to come.
Before we began the master gardener told us the soil, formerly a dumping ground, was free of toxins but was also free of microbial life. It was dead. But we brought the earth to life with our hands, cow poop, rotten food, and sweat. I built a stronger relationship with Andres from Communities for a Better Environment, who works in Richmond to grow and sustain community power. There are so many organizations in this week-long gathering, doing so much good, it’s hard to catalogue them all.
The blisters on my hands match the pain in the soles of my feet from jumping and marching so much the day prior. Working hard reminds me of my old days in manual labor. It makes me tired, and want to sleep. Byt the time farming is done, I want a La Croix and a clementine. I want to relax. It’s only been a few days since we got here, but it makes sense why the organizers continue to emphasize the need to hydrate. I’m only just, by the end of the day, getting my voice back from the march that started the week.
We had mole tamales at Cupid’s Span, a beautiful park where a giant bow and arrow stick out of the ground. The organizers of the weekend from the four national alliances checked in, and the OPAL squad volunteered to clean up, or at least straighten up, after the meal. A medicine woman gave me a smudge, which I so needed. I had much to process. The medicine this week keeps coming, in big waves. I’ve smudged every few hours here it feels, and it has opened my heart up to some powerful energy in this gathering.
The team and I were all tired, and so we didn’t stay for the New Moon ceremony that local indigenous women were hosting. That’s my biggest regret so far. I should have stayed to soak it all in.
Day 5 – The Global South Descends on the Global Climate Action Summit
Monday morning, the capitalists of GCAS are meeting in the Parc 33 hotel, and we know it. It’s where they’re finalizing the deals they’re going to make public later in the week at Jerry Brown’s trade show for climate capitalists. We held a 400-person action outside the hotel, featuring indigenous leaders who yesterday had demonstrated an ongoing commitment to fighting for sovereignty and against the ugliness of the carbon trading and offset-peddling poisoners of frontline communities.
The action was raucous. I met up in the streets with new friends, and the OPAL contingent was interviewed on Indigenous Rising, a media arm of the Indigenous Environmental Network that does incredible communications work. Talk about a dream job: following rad Indigenous family around as we take on the worst excesses of colonial capitalism through digital storytelling is so inspiring to me. Our interview reflected the reality we saw before us: indigenous people, black people, Latinx and Asian people, low income people, the global south, we all stood together on the right side of the fight. Outside the hotel, we chanted unequivocally “Let Them In!” The night prior, a delegation of indigenous leaders from around the world had prepared a statement to deliver to the GCAS leaders. That statement made it clear that we would fight to protect Mother Earth, Father Sky, and sacred waters and forests from being commodified by their false solutions.
From the action, we headed to a membership Encuentro. A world café, where small groups rotate in answering questions, was a huge logistical challenge that somehow worked for the 600 attendees. Folks engaged topics about how the national movements should come together, what we’d need to make it happen, and how we’d like to see the movement grow. All in anticipation of the next convening of this movement, which will happen in Summer of 2019. I facilitated a small group discussion, and was the best facilitator I know how to be. The Encuentro organizers advised us to be very proactive given the short amount of time we had. I aggressively quieted people who took too much space, and I pushed for clear answers and decisions. Everyone in both of my 10 person groups gets a chance to weigh in, and as a part of my summation I note that people in this national movement want more educational resources, and a unified campaign for all our organizations to take on together. The people I facilitated were calling for a national campaign of It Takes Roots, and that’s exciting.
During a report-back, the question of anti-blackness was again raised. This time, no baseless objections sounded out in the room. Instead, an impassioned speech from a black woman from Philadephia compelled delegates to recommit ourselves to create real space for the voices and leadership of black members of this movement. The space she took, and held, and her inspired remarks, made clear that it is unacceptable for any real movement for justice to disregard the unique position of black people in the history of oppressions. Indeed, as in Richmond, black people are at the frontlines of extractive industries, and are the direct targets of offsets as a false solution. It is critical we never disregard this reality.
After the Encuentro, each of the four national alliances led a skit to demonstrate why each exists. Grassroots Global Justice is explicitly led by women of color and offered in Spanish, save one black woman who speaks in English. Right to the City plays the roles of evicted tenants, community organizers, demonstrators, and greedy landlords. Indigenous Environmental Network plants skit participants in the crowd, and shows us how many indigenous people across the country face the same corporation – Waste Management – dumping on or near their reservations. CJA sang songs and led call and response to get the room amped to continue to take action – including a chant to honor Berta Caceres, “A – Ante – ante-imperialismo!” The entire Encuentro was translated simultaneously for everyone present. Getting a chance to hold it down with the 8 languages in the room was incredible. The language justice portion of the It Takes Roots week of action was impressive and showed me a world beyond borders. The Language Justice team read a statement prior to each meeting, explaining why the interpretation is happening, to make it possible for each of us to take on the role of supporting the translator by slowing down fast talkers, and getting quiet people to speak up.
After the Encuentro, the church auditorium became an impromptu dance floor, and a salsa band riled a hundred or so delegates into a frenzy. I don’t know how to salsa dance, so I spend my time talking with some new movement friends, share a bit with a lot of people and a lot with a few people, and decide to take my leave.
Most of the delegates who aren’t from the PNW are actually staying near SFO airport, in South Seattle. It’s a mess of distance from all the ITR events, an extra hour on any mode of transit. I was lucky to be able to walk back from the Encuentro to the church where we’re staying in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. I was wandering San Francisco at dusk, 40 minutes of a cool but not cold night to stroll between parks and cute side streets. On my way I thought about the membership, the movement, the music, the work we do together and separately, the language barriers and colonial borders that serve to divide us, and the beauty of our cultures than can bring us together.
I had been carrying my laptop and bookbag everywhere this last few days, even as I hopped around during the opening march and led chants. My feet ached, my knees felt compressed, my hips were sore, my spine was squished tight. My calloused, city-boy hands were just starting to heal form the farm work. I got back to the center, quickly showered, and stretched with big arching back bends and shoulder stands. Stretches have never been so loved.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Part 1 is here. Part 3 will be published soon.