The climate justice conference I attended yesterday was…interesting, educational, and motivational. Speakers were interesting and engaging, and I do appreciate that we had chances not only to listen but to talk to each other…including for instance the coffee and snack break in the middle, and breaking up into small groups at one point to discuss our ideas for activism.
But it was still pretty much what I’d expect from most conventions/conferences of the sort. Which is to say… steeped in academic language that would be impossible to understand if you were new to the movement, and might scare you away from the movement if you did end up there as a total newbie curious if climate justice might be of interest. I’ve been involved for close to a year myself, and I STILL couldn’t help thinking to myself “I don’t belong here”, which is so easy to turn into “I don’t belong in the climate justice movement”, and from there to turn into “I don’t belong in activism”. This the OPPOSITE of what not only this conference, but climate justice and activism as a whole, wants and needs…
Probably also difficult for many without formal higher education to follow (unless you’re a very intelligent and/or motivated self-teacher with a lot of time on your hands), or with learning disabilities, or auditory processing difficulties associated with autism or other disabilities. As an autistic person, the auditory processing was in fact pretty difficult and frustrating, and the sensory overload got intense at times, and I counted ZERO gluten-free snacks available on the snack table, and in fact the ONLY gluten-free food I could find on the entire campus was sushi from a “to-go” snack bar…. which I had to secretly eat, feeling guilty I was eating fish out of a plastic container at an environmental conference. Because of this, and because it took me 30 minutes to even find this sushi in the first place, I completely missed out on the important networking opportunities of the snack and coffee break.
I won’t go into all the other, myriad access barriers here. I won’t go into detail about, for instance, how I was lectured about clothing from big box stores when such stores are the ONLY stores I can get anything I can afford in my size (the very occasional clothing swap aside). But needless to say, there were many. And yes, I expect as much from most conferences. I even expect as much from most environmental conferences (which disappoints me, but I’ve come to expect and learn to deal with it nonetheless). But I expect better from a conference specifically intended to be ABOUT the intersections between climate justice and social justice. I expect better from a conference specifically aiming to increase access to the climate justice movement to marginalized groups of all kinds. Seriously, and you wonder why our movement isn’t more diverse…why is this even a question, when most events I’ve been to are pretty much exactly like this with all the same problems??
Like… I also noticed maybe a handful of POC at the whole event, when there were maybe 50-75 white people, and these POC were often asked to speak on behalf of all POC environmentalists. While attendance is of course not entirely within event-planners’ control, I do think it’s telling, and I think it’s important to consider how events are advertised and run and the audience that might be drawn to that format. Also yeah no, please NEVER ask anyone of any marginalized group to speak on behalf of everyone in that group, as if they’re a monolith…just no. The same thing happened to me when I brought up disability justice and now I wish I never did and just tried my best to “pass” as non-disabled like I usually do…
I think, for all myriad reasons, we need to start getting climate justice out of the conference halls and out from behind podiums altogether.
We need to get it into the streets (and I’m not just talking the already-pretty-green streets of cities like San Francisco, Portland, Boston, and NYC).
Beyond that, we need to get it into living rooms, public schools, corporations, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, and everywhere else.
We need to stop just talking and start doing. We need to get our hands dirty. We need to work in good faith with people who are completely different from ourselves, actually considering their points of view and wants and needs as equally important to our own. And for the love of all things good in this world, STOP expecting these people to be teachers or inspirations or representations of their entire group. All ANYONE can do is represent OURSELVES.
So… who’s with me? What now?