The United Nations Climate Change Conference, dubbed the Conference of Pollutors by many in the global movement arena, or COP17, is concluding in Durban, South Africa. Last year, I made the journey to the 10-day conference, COP16, in Cancún, México, where I was ejected from the conference after participating in an act of civil disobedience in protest of the closed-door and high-stakes negotiations that excluded the participation of 1,000’s of campesinos y campesinas in Cancún, and the 99% of people who will be most devastated by climate change. The action I participated in caught the attention of media outlets around the world and most notable in the US was the coverage of the action by Democracy NOW!
Yes, of course it felt cool to see my face and the beautiful brown faces of my peers televised to millions across the world. Yes it was neat to hear my name come out of Amy Goodman’s mouth in the affirmative, and not as a racialized, criminally profiled Latino we’re used to hearing about on the 10 o’clock news. Cooler than the 15 seconds of “fame”, though, is what was achieved during this encuentro of progressive media, grassroots organizing and global solidarity. Before we get to what was and continues to be achieved, I want to provide some more context about where we are.
Industrialization, in the United States especially, has done quite a job of instilling in our consciousness social order and consumer options, even in the minds of those of us who consider ourselves progressive or change-makers. Industrialization has positioned us as consumers with options. While my parents’ generation was a generation that was primarily positioned to consume actual products (i.e. sub-prime mortgages, credit, citizenship), the mutations of the global capitalist economy, from the US (land-based) to the speculative pockets of the “1%”, has left my generation with fewer material options and instead has presented us and subsequent generations with a full menu of identity politics to consume.
The backdrop to this menu of identity politics is a social order, or the way power is organized, also known as hierarchy, which in essence forms power-containers– the ranks or levels of an hierarchy that is navigated through the identities we embody and use to access a power-container, like “white, heterosexual, male”, or the identities we embody and use to critique a power-container, like “queer, woman of color”. As individuals from both sides of the spectrum, we’ve learned to use our identities to access and critique power. As individuals through our experiences navigating and negotiating power, we’ve gained a taste of a major transformation of power. As community, it is our opportunity to bring forth the transformation never before seen, the transformation to restore social and ecological harmony. Are we all on board?
I can only speak from my experience as an environmental justice rights activist and organizer, and as a joto xicano. Having worked within community-based organizations, I have observed some organizational practices that force a separation between “local, community work” and “movement work”. Understandably, many community-based organizations are funded to conduct “community-level” work, but we, as queer and trans folks, people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, women, young people, or any combination of these identities, must be brave and define community for ourselves. From this place, “community” can come to mean the housing complex and neighborhood we live in and our homelands and the homelands of our parents and the spiritual spaces we share with those closest to us who might live hundreds or thousands of miles away. We must not limit the terms of community, instead continue to figure out the conscious means to transform community and make community stronger. It is from this communitive consciousness that we can build the relationships with peoples’ struggles against capitalism around the world.
Over the years I have heard much criticism, from executive directors of non-profit organizations especially, about the choices made by community organizers to participate in “movement” work: national or international conferences, alliance-building gatherings, or convenings that require organizers and leaders to travel to another city.
From what I observe, the biggest reason for censoring organizers’ participation in movement-work is the perception that movement work compromises local work. Often, this patriarchal critique (the “either/or”, “all or nothing” kind of thinking) ventriloquizes itself through heterosexual males or females of color, or white lesbian women or white gay men at these “community-based” organizations. Fast-forward to the present and the most recent round of internal-negotiations at community-based organizations took place as it pertains to the UN Climate Negotiations taking place in Durban.
Acknowledging the real, material, financial, and resource needs of community-based organizations, I write this as an invitation to strengthen and example of how we might redefine “community” in powerful ways. Tere Almaguer is a veteran organizer working with PODER in San Francisco for over 10 years. Tere, along with other PODER staff, and the hundreds of PODER members, have successfully campaigned to convert public lands in San Francisco’s Mission District into public benefits for immigrant families, creating public spaces to for members to share costumbres and recreate the tradiciones that have sustained PODER families for hundreds of years in their homelands, traditions of caring for one another, trusting one another and relying on one another.
In California during 2011, PODER began organizing around climate justice issues affecting PODER members, particularly around cap-and-trade, a false solution to climate change and greenhouse gas emission reductions being put forward at the state-level by private research, private interest groups and a California government agency, the California Air Resources Board, that has ignored the thousands of calls made by low-income people of color in California. Cap-and-trade grants pollution permits to pollutors in exchange for finance ($) or carbon-offests (planting trees on the other side of the world). Thus, cap-and-trade does nothing to ensure the low-income communities of color, the communities MOST affected by pollution and carbon emissions, are alleviated of the environmental and climate burdens that already exist in their local communities.
After organizing political education trainings, preparing and taking direct action throughout the state, Tere and the youth at PODER, along with allied organizations throughout the state such as Communities for a Better Environment and Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, have not been able to bring down cap-and-trade, in spite of the cries from communities throughout the state.
Tere had the opportunity to travel to Durban, South Africa for COP17 with a delegation of grassroots leaders, indigenous climate activists and allies from the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Global Justice and Ecology Project. While Tere was in Durban, PODER members were back home making the connections between their land reclamation work in the Mission District in San Francisco and the debate about REDD’s and carbon market schemes that forcefully displace indigenous peoples and allows polluting sources to continue polluting in low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color in the US.
After more than a week of protesting and meeting people representing struggles for climate justice throughout the world, Tere found herself attending a session at COP17 where Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, was delivering a new way of talking about the cap-and-trade scheme in California that promises GHG reductions for all Californians. Tere intervened in Mary Nichols’ otherwise seamless presentation by reminding Chairwoman Nichols that Nichols did not speak for the 1,000’s of low-income people of color in California who are opposed to the program.
The 1% and private interests groups operate at all levels of the social order we have inherited. Mary Nichols works for a California state agency, is paid with taxpaying dollars, has ignored the widely supported demands of state residents, yet had the resources and time to attend an international conference in Durban, South Africa to advertise a carbon market she is championing. As communitive, conscious organizers and community-based organizations, the hard work at home is compromised if we don’t meet our opponents in the key, strategic places where they arise. It is my hope that as COP17 concludes in Durban and as the countries most responsible for climate change withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, that we begin to look to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, taking place June 2012, and other international and national convergences in the future; that as we engage in these transnational/translocal politics, we keep in mind- our opponents have become and maintain the “1%” through their exploitation of land, time and people. As the “99%”, our call is to reclaim land, time and the rights of people from the 1%, and, like the desert maguey following the water, that sometimes requires travel.