Interview with Adrienne Maree Brown—Voices of Climate Justice
My number one inspiration right now is not an organization or a person or an event, it’s the city of Detroit. I first went there a couple of years ago to do organizational development, and later for direct action trainings with Detroit Summer, which was founded by Grace Lee Boggs and her partner Jimmy Boggs. Their key lesson is, ‘Transform yourself to transform the world. It’s time to grow our soul’s capacity to deal with the world we’re living in.’
The tangible solutions that are now coming out of Detroit blow my mind. It’s not just young folks getting excited about these ideas and trying to implement revolutions. It’s the 30- to 50-year-old black men coming out of prison or unemployed, gardening and farming. It’s not about getting a job and being a cog in someone else’s system. It’s about liberated work, where you are playing a useful role in your community.
Watching “The Greening of Cuba” reminds me of Detroit. Detroit has had an economic crisis for decades. The auto companies have divested, now it’s this urban rural city. Detroit’s population is less than half what it was. Out of necessity, people have had to start community gardens and urban farming. Music and food are being used to organize people. Potlucks provide a communal place to talk about issues and eat together.
Detroit has the highest statistics in terms of crime, unemployment, and drop out rates. Those are the symptoms of an unhealthy society. Those negative aspects can create a real darkness and depression. But that darkness can be the womb from which our new societies are born, where we can create the world we want to see.
Detroit is full of ‘midwives.’ They say, ‘We’re birthing it. We have to do love. We have to transform ourselves.’ In all of our cities, we have to begin to live the world we want to see. Our actions have to be towards the world we want. We need to be guerilla gardening and turning people’s heat and water on. We need to be the guerillas putting up solar panels in the hood. That’s what Detroit has taught me, and what I’m trying to bring into my leadership in Ruckus.
How is Ruckus integrating climate justice with its work?
The over-arching vision of Ruckus is that all communities acheive self-determination and sustainability. We prioritize directly impacted communities—folks who are impacted by economic and environmental injustice and are angry about their situation. We help them determine how to strategically take action, so they can reorient themselves to the long-term vision of self- determination and sustainability.
People often try isolated organizing. It’s regular for a community group to tell us, ‘We really need help to stop this coal fire power plant from being built,’ or 'We need help to stop water contamination.’ But we have to start seeing isolated issues in the larger context of ecological justice for all. There are many false solutions out there. For example, carbon trading—a long-term, comprehensive lens shows that that's not a compromise we can make. We don’t want to perform an action as a compromise, or a reaction. We want action taken towards a real solution.
How are you organizing?
At Ruckus, we train people in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. All of the circumstances relating to the ecological crisis—waste and toxins, food and agriculture, water—are changing the quality of life for communities today. We provide training and support to groups facing these problems. And at our camps we often see folks working on several of those issues and learning together. From our work within the Indigenous People's Power Project, and now learning with Movement Generation, it's clear that those issues naturally intersect. They are all community resiliency issues. We prioritize communities with long-term visions to build community strength.
How does direct action fit into your view of how social movements make change?
As a non-negotiable component for success. Direct action is where escalation happens, where people can play an active role in advancing a negotiation, where we see and feel each other's solidarity. At its best, direct action is where we advance the frontline of our movement work by visualizing the change we seek. Direct action is how we first saw images of blacks and whites at lunch counters together in the south. Today, guerilla gardens are one example of a way to show that we know how to live more sustainably and we will push our leaders to catch up with us.
It's about framing the issue in a way that inspires people to act, not just react. I think the key need of our movements today is visionary voices and actors who are living a viable future and making it accessible to our communities.
What sort of organizing and consciousness raising do you see as crucial to building an effective international movement that is rooted in local concerns?
I think we need movements where folks practice what they preach. We need movements that aren't centered on what the powers that be can grant us, but rather on what we can build and practice together. We need urban-rural relationships that are based on shared water and food sources. We need movements that show that everyone must change—not just policies, or rich folks or poor folks or middle class folks.
What’s the difference between liberated work and green market economy?
The green jobs frame seems to be shifting people from low-income jobs that aren’t environmentally focused to jobs that are “sustainable.” It's great to train folks to install solar panels, but if those solar panels are not going to be in Bayview or West Oakland, if those solar panels are going to be in the wealthier parts of San Francisco, in Marin, and in places outside of their communities, what is really changing in the long run? The essential inequalities of a market-driven society aren't challenged.
Liberated work is when we are practicing solutions that benefit and liberate all communities. A 'green economy' doesn’t mean we are liberated from the concept of jobs where we toil for the benefit of others. Let us use our minds and our hearts and exist as human beings, not fit into someone’s assembly line and make things for the class above us. To be liberated is to be free to work for our own communities, to thrive, to be in symbiotic relationships based on our needs and our dreams.
In terms of sustainability, I don’t believe we can have a green future or any future, unless we understand that we have to change the power dynamics based on race, class, and gender. We have to invert the power structure. We must pour our resources and relations into those who are the most impacted and have the most need—that means our children, our elders, those who are sick and dying. They should become the recipients of our energy. That’s where our wisdom comes from; and our future. A truly sustainable society takes care of itself. You may be driving a Prius but if you don’t know how to talk to your family or connect with your community and land, it’s not going to be sustainable no matter how much you call it green.