Janis Bookout is the Executive Director of Earth Day Austin, as well as one of the organizers of Community Resilience Trust, a grassroots coalition that came together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the goal of making Austin a more equitable city for everyone. Janis regularly contributes guest editorials & posts to The Austin Common. You can support her work by contributing to her Patreon account.
Janis recommends that on this unusual Earth Day, take the time to do one thing that nurtures and heals you.
If this year has not taught us the connection between environmentalism and justice, between our environment and society, I don’t know what will.
Earlier this week, we heard the historic verdict of three guilty counts, signifying the yet-to-be-seen possibility of a cultural shift toward an equitable justice system. In the context of police brutality happening within hours of the verdict, and with racism and police brutality happening regularly in our own city, celebrating becomes problematic.
What does this have to do with Earth Day? Well, everything. (Hint: keep reading.)
“Where are we in this moment of time? Where are we going?” Whether we are environmentalists or social justice advocates or both, those of us who wake up concerned about the state of our community, the state of the country, or the state of the world–we ask ourselves these questions all the time. For some of us, making the change we want to see in the world feels like pushing a resting train from behind, waiting for it to creak forward, hoping to eventually, someday see momentum grow. For others, it’s more like walking backwards, pushing back on an enormous moving train, trying to slow it to a stop.
But all too often, focusing on our own passionate cause gives us myopic vision. We settle ourselves into silos, start small businesses or nonprofits, and start trying to convince ourselves and others that we have the solution. Pretty soon the train we are pushing is all about the sustainability of our personal cause. Can I keep the lights on? Can I pay my staff? Can I continue my work? How will I ever expand this movement if I can’t even win a grant proposal?
Students of critical race theory will tell you that silos, saviorism, wanting to “expand” and thinking you have the solution are the symptoms of internalized white supremacy. What if the same saviorism that gets some of us (myself included) up in the morning is perhaps our biggest barrier to real change? What if our myopic view obscures our view of the world as it is, and therefore leaves us in a sisyphustic turmoil, expending our life’s energy on a lost cause? In that context, hope can begin to seem like an intoxicating lie.
Would you prefer that I say, “Happy Earth Day” in a positive tone? Sorry, I can’t. The truth is, I have given up positivity in honor of something I think is greater – but I will get to that (and hope) in a minute. I have come to the conclusion that to gain real hope, you have to give up the false version of it.
The world is not working, but our social system is working just as designed. We live in a world built to advantage white bodied people and disadvantage everyone else, growing more and more disproportionate along a continuum of skintone. The racially disproportionate outcomes of COVID-19 hospitalizations, deaths, testing and vaccination distribution should not, at this point, surprise anyone. Even the funding of nonprofit organizations is completely inequitable, despite the fact that people get better outcomes from services provided by people who look like them. And when storm Uri hit, our startling lack of response to communities that waited up to 6 days for water, even after roads were clear, is not really that startling.
That’s why last year, when we cancelled the Earth Day ATX festival, we started Community Resilience Trust, a collaborative effort to offset the inequities that would (and have) be amplified by disaster, and build our resilience as a community in the long term. To us, it seemed totally consistent with our mission, which is reinventing sustainability as an unprecedented phenomenon with equity at the center. What else would we engage with in this very real-time threat to humanity? And it’s also why, when Storm Uri happened, we used that same collaborative space to organize groups to share resources and avoid duplication of efforts as we addressed inequitable food and water distribution.
Food access. Transportation access. Medical access. How are these not environmental issues? They are, obviously. So when our very important efforts to “save the X species” does not also intersect with the reality of inequitable vaccine distribution or police brutality, who do we think we really are, and what are we really about?
I think many of us have experienced this great pause caused by the pandemic as an (perhaps sometimes unwelcome) opportunity to see some of this dysfunction and let ourselves experience the impact of all of it. Many of us have also realized that more is coming. In the coming decades, it’s not going to get easier.
Of course, we cannot then digest, embrace all the world’s problems at once. It wouldn’t be healthy. Honestly, if one could stare the totality of harm we have done over time – the collective trauma of lives taken and never brought justice, the thousands of demoralizing experiences of navigating brutally complex social service systems on people who have no alternative but to rely on them, the plastic found in fishes globally, the growing toxicity of our water systems, the rising sea levels and its disproportionate impact on marginalized communities, and the very long list of things that could follow… one staring at all of this would surely be overwhelmed with grief and anger.
Many of us keep that kind of overwhelm at bay every day just to function. But what good has come from avoiding it? What good has come from working in our silos?
Where does it all leave us?
It leaves us in need of healing. Racial healing. Environmental healing. Healing from the trauma of the history of exploitation and its impacts. I now see a therapist. And, among other things, we talk about this. I have been working on finding real hope in the face of what appears to be the futility of my own life’s work. And it’s working. I am, in fact, finding joy anyway.
Joy. Maybe allowing oneself to experience joy in the face of reality is a revolutionary act.
The leaves are still green. The water is still cold. The air (a little cleaner these days) still fills my lungs. And the face of my child (born on Earth Day) still looks at me with a hint of wonder in his eyes. And I have the very real privilege of working with some of the most incredible people in this town on some of the most important work I have ever done. Every day, they hold me to account for being true to who I say I am.
I don’t take that joy lightly. There are many experiencing so much harm that joy is impossible. I carry my joy with a responsibility for my connection to them. And every day, when I wake up and shake off my cynicism long enough to drink a cup of hot water and make my lists, I ask myself, what can I do about it today?
Today the answer was to write this blog as a tribute to collective strength (as impossible as that sometimes seems) on this Earth Day, and also to extend an invitation to next year’s Earth Day ATX 2022. Trust that it will be a wholly reinvented experience. It can’t not.