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. You can support Janis' work by contributing to her Patreon account.
Earth Day 2020 is next week, and it’s definitely not going to be what I had imagined. If you had told me in January that–after two years of weather-related reschedules, after 9+ months of no income and lots of hard work, all in order to have the unique opportunity of hosting Austin in pausing to reflect on the last 50 years of Earth Day–if you had told me that I would be ready to let all that go in a heartbeat, honestly, I don’t know what I would have said.
In these times, we have only begun to confront the trauma COVID-19 has and will bring to all of us. We have begun to lose friends and loved ones. We live with fear. Our way of life has completely changed, at a global level. Life as we know it will never again be the same on an order of magnitude that most of us probably don’t allow ourselves to really experience fully.
To a great extent, privilege shelters some of us, at least for the moment, from the full impact of what is happening. Other whole communities, however, have lost access to food, to healthcare, or much needed services they used to rely on to fill the gaps created by our inequitable and biased system.
So what does this massive societal change have to do with the Earth Day ATX festival? For the time being, it made the festival irrelevant.
As of mid-march, I and our board of directors quickly saw that trying to move forward would be a mistake. It would not only cause harm, but for now, the festival was no longer the fullest expression of our mission, which is: “reinventing sustainability as an unprecedented cultural phenomenon with equity at the center. While our flagship program is the Earth Day ATX festival, our greater purpose is to facilitate coordination among community stakeholders to develop and implement scalable, systemic, community-driven solutions. We serve a future in which Austin leads the way in systemic transformation toward a sustainable society for all people.”
That’s who we say we are.
In the pre-COVID era (which also happens to coincide with the first 50 years of Earth Day around the world) our festival was a beautiful array of opportunities to participate in a more sustainable lifestyle. We were planning to have the most gorgeous expression of community at our 50th anniversary event back at the lovely home of our sponsor and host, Huston-Tillotson University. We had planned an interactive exhibit, the “people’s history of sustainability in Austin.” We were hosting a student film festival. And favorites like the butterfly exhibit or the bike giveaway were set to return. We were working with translators and interpreters, as well as exploring ways to implement more fully our goals for including environmental justice as a primary theme.
But what does all of that really mean for us now? What really matters? What really matters is our community, and surviving this pandemic together. And I don’t mean that like a platitude. I mean what matters is actively dealing with the massive systemic inequities right here at home. What I mean when I say inequities is that people already displaced by gentrification are now dealing with less access to health care. People who work in our essential businesses are not always being protected by their employers. Businesses owned by members of the Global Majority who were already underestimated are experiencing harsher and earlier economic impacts. Pregnant women are dealing with closed clinics and fear of exposure. Income loss, cessation of some services, and supply chain issues are impacting the ability of families to cover basic needs like diapers.
Disaster amplifies systemic racism on an order of magnitude. That’s why, three days after we cancelled Earth Day ATX, Rubén Cantú and I, along with members of our board, started Community Resilience Trust. This growing group has met by phone Monday through Saturday at 9 am since March 14. We now have over 100 participants, 18 official member organizations, and an active facebook group to help distribute vital information. You’re welcome to join us there.
As a collective, we are asking the question: “How can we ensure that we can, through our group intelligence and our networks, make Austin a more equitable city for everyone, starting with our collaboration on the pandemic, COVID-19?”
On our daily calls, we align on strategies for inclusive community outreach.Together, we gather and synthesize community experiences so as to partner with the city and county on community needs for resources and information, and look together to distinguish who and what is missing from Austin’s response. We then create and support cross-sector projects that address emerging needs for community coordination. In this process, we aim to stay actionable and mindful and avoid duplicating efforts.
Through this effort, we have already helped guide city communications, developed infographics relevant to our communities, created a website, worked with AISD on its approach to families, delivered food and equipment, addressed issues related to the release of juveniles and nonviolent criminals, built comprehensive strategies for testing, assisted with supply acquisition, and much more. The credit for all this incredible work goes to the partner organizations and individuals, many of whom have worked tirelessly in this space for years.
In climate change work, we talk a lot about resilience, but for me, this is what resilience looks like. It starts with listening to those who have been trying to be heard all along and finally responding with mindfulness and a collective spirit. It means setting aside knowing best and listening for what is actually missing. It is painful work to confront the reality of people’s experiences. It takes something to go all the way in and through. But in that pain, something arises. To be honest, I don’t know what that something is. It doesn’t yet have a name. Maybe possibility? Maybe connection? Community? Resilience? Trust?
In the coming Earth Week, you have options if you want a classic Earth Day experience. In Texas, EarthX is having a virtual festival starting April 22. New York’s Earth Day Initiative has an international online experience on April 19th. And there are plenty of others.
Earth Day Austin? I’m not planning any of that. And not just because my budget evaporated. It’s because this work, the work of truly collaborative and systemic action, is what my heart says the Earth really needs right now. We will have a festival one day. Maybe this year. Maybe 2021. But when we do, it will be a new celebration of the lives protected, the work done together, the minds changed and the new bonds created in our community. And my deepest desire is that THIS is the work of the next 50 years.
Love to all, and on Earth Day, I suggest you go outside, have a picnic with your family on your lawn. Breathe the air and love each other.