this is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote for the book "No Way Out Many Ways Forward" by the Global Youth Leadership Collaborative in 2010
I was raised next to strawberries in Watsonville. From my car seat each day I would watch people picking strawberries as I passed by. I could never understand how someone could spend so long bent over in the sun. When I started school, I had friends who picked strawberries, they would come and go with the strawberry season. They would always sit in the back of the classroom. The teachers would ignore them, the other students would ignore them. I was told to ignore them too. In the "progressive" county of Santa Cruz, CA, I was part of a segregated and racist caste system I thought only happened in the south or in other countries. In order to succeed in school, I thought it was necessary to become subservient to all of the social and institutional rules, and so I did, and so I succeeded. Sort of.
Like so many, I despised school and loved learning. I left school a year early to set out on my own and try to learn from the world. Finally I began to learn about how I had been trained to passively watch the world go by and participate in outrageous racial and economic injustices. I was trained to think that what needed to be changed most was the environmental destruction that I was told was created by individuals. I thought that by consuming a little less, or recycling a little more, or waiting for a leader to come and tell me what to do, I was playing my part. I learned how I had been trained to consider my white, US born, blond-haired blue-eyed self incredibly important and entitled to comforts, safety, employment and other niceties like strawberries, regardless if others have them or not, or how they were grown and picked. I finally learned that oppression is structural, systemic, historical and I'm either perpetuating or dismantling it - through collective, not just individual action.
Not an easy or pleasant process by any means, my beautiful untraining required my whole involvement (I speak here in past-tense only for grammer sake, I don't think untraining is ever really over). It required an shattering the glass between me and the rest of the world that engaged my heart, body mind and spirit and moved me to act.
I stopped ignoring people and got involved in activism, and eduction. I created participatory theatre projects with the families in Watsonville who pick strawberries, I worked with the United Nations Environment Program as their US youth advisor, and organized JAMs with YES! I then went on to organize and facilitate more conferences, events and actions. I desperately wanted more people to feel as inspired and ignited to take action, and so I created educational experiences outside of schools, and made giant puppets and created theatre projects as my piece in the larger movements for global economic justice, social and environmental justice, labor rights and immigrant rights, and peace.
And now, I think about the weather. A lot.
Each day I think about what I will wear, if it will be hot or cold. I think about the differences this time of year. I think about the record high’s and lows. I think about how hot and dry it has been in Acre, the Eastern Brazilian Amazon where Laura and Tashka live. I think about Tashka’s cousin-in-law who recently showed me pictures of her well drying up – in the wettest place on earth. I think about the Alaskan glaciers melting, and the houses sinking into the tundra in Evon's community. Then I put on my boots or my sandals and go to work.
At work, another email in my inbox will read “climate worse than previously predicted”
Every day, some version of this email will arrive. Sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I forward them on with the hope that someone who hasn’t looked up in a while or noticed the crazy weather will consider our planet’s climate. I think about what it will take for this slowly growing movement for climate justice to yield enough power to prevent people in coastal cities and Island Nations from becoming refugees, to prevent total ecological collapse, more wars over resources, or my family from moving when the long drought hits California. I am hanging on by a thread sometimes to my hope, but still I have it. I envision the global economy localizing, with green, union jobs for everyone who wants them. I envision bicycles and trollies replacing cars and an end to coal and oil mining. I envision urban gardens and free health clinics and media centers and the strawberry fields broken into smaller sections, becoming worker owned, detoxified and used to grow food for the community.
I envision a different kind of education. I think about Paulo Freire’s anti-capitalist arts-based experiential critical eco-justice education that isn’t finished until action projects are completed. An education where the learner is at the center, his or her liberation from oppressive structures and conditioning is at the center, life is at the center. I live in Oakland now, where testing is at the center of education, where 50% of African American students don't graduate from high school. The systems of white supremacy and capitalism are rigorously maintained by our schools that track students from a young age to be either bound for college, the underground economy, or the pesticide laden, greenhouse gas emitting industrial strawberry fields.
I envision a movement for change with the people most impacted, disproportionately impacted by climate crisis and social and economic injustices at the forefront of these movements. I think the way these movements will be strengthened and will grow is in part through this kind of radical education where people unlearn some of the ridiculous notions we have been fed about power and change and relearn who we are.
So I turn to educational practices that encourage people to feel, to notice the world and their location and context in it, to notice the breeze on their face, and the people who live on their street. Practices that provide opportunities to rehearse what changes we want to see in ourselves, our communities and our world and then require that we act. Practices that spark our imaginations to enable us to envision and then in solidarity with many others, create a better world. I turn to Augusto Boal and bell hooks and Francisco Gutierrez and Ocean Robbins. I turn to theatre, to popular education, to participatory action research. I turn to puppets and music and dance.
I currently work with young people as a participatory action research coach - based on the principle that the people most impacted by an issue are the experts of it, and the ones who can create the most lasting change. We run projects that last about eight weeks to nine months in which young people explore things they want to be different about their communities, decide a research question, design the research methodology, collect data from their peers, analyze it, create a powerful artistic presentation of their findings and recommendations and from there, develop actions.
“If love is at the heart of the revolution, might imagination and the artistic fermentation of possibility be the soul of social justice work” Ananya Chatterjea