Disrupting Activist Culture with Care and Beauty
By Morgan Curtis
December 4, 2015 ~ Paris, France
A cup of tea from a vast steel pot finds my hand, and I feel the care of yet another mobile vegan kitchen collective roaming Paris. We’re halfway through COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the city is teeming with activists, dreamers, artists and the thousands of military men assigned to keep us and the fragile city’s safety in check, just a few short weeks after the November 13 attacks.
I’m in L’Annexe, a squatted warehouse in the north of the city, temporarily home to an intentional arts-activist community named The Eroles Project. Just a few days ago this place was raided by more than one hundred riot police. They confiscated a Tibetan singing bowl.
I’ve spent the past week hauntedly rushing around inside the United Nations as a US youth delegate, scarcely finding a moment to breathe amidst overflowing schedules and inboxes. I can see in how many ways those of us working for change find ourselves embodying the systems we wish to dismantle. When the email subject “Sustainable Activism Workshop” came across my inbox I knew there was nowhere else I needed to be.
As I walk backwards in time to the sound of a slowly beating drum I feel the knocking of my colonizing ancestors, calling on me for healing. As I cradle the head of my fellow US youth delegate Chloe I am moved to tears, asked for the first time to really drop in to the miracle of her existence. As I mill and meet eyes with activists from around the world I allow myself to grieve the dearth of connection elsewhere.
I leave the workshop with a caution and a promise scrawled to myself in pink ink: “It can take more courage to disrupt activist culture with care and beauty than it can to disrupt the status quo.”
December 12, 2015 ~ Paris, France
I’m exhausted. COP21 has just finished and I’m seeking refuge in a small apartment near Place de la Bastille. Mind, body, soul, done. Fourteen long days and nights have blurred together – actions, meetings, writing, emailing, tweeting, lobbying, speaking, yearning, all alongside some of the most powerful and committed young activists I have ever had the privilege to meet.
Yet, my over-riding feeling is of failure. The Paris Agreement signed that morning is genocidal, a death sentence from climate change for the most vulnerable nations . And I, as witness, as a young person from the US, the most obstructionist country in the twenty-one years of these negotiations, am deeply complicit. I feel both blood and oil on my hands.
We light the last of the Hanukkah candles and I know what else needs to burn: I unclip my United Nations “Observer” access badge from its lanyard and hold it above the candles. “I burn the idea of observing injustice,” I say. “I burn the idea of preserving privilege.” I watch my own face go up in flames.
“Can I play you a video?” Daniel asks, seeing me agonize as I turn the most crucial moments of the past two weeks over and over again in my head. “Yes,” I respond, grateful for him, a new friend who is holding open a door for me between two worlds of activism. I know I can’t go back to sleep.
“There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger… It is now, when the future of all beings hangs by the frailest of threads, that the kingdom of Shambhala emerges… Now comes the time when great courage is required of the Shambhala warriors, moral and physical courage. For they must go into the very heart of the barbarian powers and dismantle the weapons.” Joanna Macy’s kind face fills the screen, recalling a prophecy told to her by a Tibetan monk. I feel my shoulders fall.
“They train in the use of two weapons. The weapons are compassion and insight into the dependent co-arising of all things. Both are necessary… But insight alone, can seem too cool to keep us going. So we need as well the heat of compassion, our openness to the world’s pain. Both weapons or tools are necessary to the Shambhala warrior.”
May 13-14, 2016 ~ Albany, NY
After the sheer inadequacy of the Paris Agreement to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the climate justice movement mobilized to take matters into our own hands. May 2016 sees the largest coordinated global series of civil disobedience in history – Break Free From Fossil Fuels. Thirty-thousand people taking escalated action on six continents – shutting down coal mines, fracking rigs, shipping ports and tar sands oil refineries.
I’m in Albany, New York, living in a church with a team of dedicated organizers working to blockade the train tracks next to Ezra Prentice Housing Association in the South End of Albany. Hundreds of “bomb trains,” carrying fracked oil from the Bakken in North Dakota, pass through this low-income community of color every day, bringing poisonous off-gasses and the threat of explosion to their daily reality.
There is so much to do. We organizers are sleepless, eating only snacks and losing the ability to see or deepen with one another. The pattern is eerily familiar, and I remember my pink-scrawled promise. This time I have an accomplice: Adin Buchanan, a new friend from my recent experience with the Earth Leadership Cohort, a Work That Reconnects program for young change-makers.
We are told that there isn’t time for everyone to gather, so I lead a milling upstairs in the church with a smaller portion of the organizers who are keen. I feel myself soften as I guide the weaving activists, watching eyes begin to smile. Finishing with hugs and gratitude, we up our ask, and are honored to be given space to lead another milling the following day: on the train tracks. Pausing can be a revolutionary act.
How do we embody the center of the Great Turning? How can our holding actions demonstrate life-sustaining systems and shift consciousness? Since my time in Paris, these questions have been propelling me forward. This milling became a first, messy answer. Crammed between speakers and DJs, Adin and I invite four hundred some people to shift their way of relating in a place of direct action.
Drawing on our connection to simultaneous actions on six continents, we speak to the power of this moment for feeling our interconnection with a global movement. I think of my friends in Germany preparing for a second night bedding down in Europe’s largest coal mine, and of comrades in Australia lying down on coal train tracks while dressed as angels. This is it, I think, the co-arising of climate justice. I’m grateful to have felt it.
July 9, 2016 ~ Philo, California
I’m standing by the little library at River’s Bend retreat center when Joanna asks me if I will share about my work with our Work That Reconnects intensive community. I’ve just been inside, finishing a letter to this year’s recently selected SustainUS Youth Delegation to COP22, the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference. No one was more surprised than me when I applied to lead this year’s delegation. Yet, the deeper I dive into questioning how activism might be done differently, the more I know I have to put what I am finding to work.
That night I sit in the circle of fifty elders, youngers, healers and change-makers, and tell of my journey to this moment – through the darkness of Paris to sunny California. I tell of my dreams for this year for a group of young activists whose power is grounded in relationship, who know one another’s stories, worldviews, hardships, theories of change; for a way of showing up in the international movement that brings listening, empathy and ceremony to active solidarity.
As I speak, an image fills my mind: young people and the decision makers of the US State Department, milling together at the United Nations. Asking silently of one another: who are we? Why are we here? What do we love? What do we stand to lose?
September 7-11, 2016 ~ Oakland, California
At Canticle Farm there is a depression in the middle of oasis: a seasonal pond amidst the leafy, multicolor permaculture garden. Her name is Sister Death, and she lives closely together with a leaning fig tree and a multitude of stray cats. Ask Anne Symens-Bucher, for whom this land has been home for thirty years, about her and she’ll smile: “Sister Death is our place for underworld journeys.”
It’s September now, and I have the immense privilege to find myself living at Canticle Farm, a platform for the Great Turning, one of many homes for the Work That Reconnects community. A few days out from the arrival of the SustainUS delegation, and Annie and I are planning what we might want to do together. Joined by Martin Wagner, another member of our intensive and a veteran of ten United Nations Climate Change Conferences, we plan a truth mandala in Sister Death.
Our day begins in gratitude, the nervousness of a new team being together for the first time broken by sharing our love for life on Earth right now. We share a circle of ancestral stories, inviting our ancestors in, honoring the diversity of journeys that bring each of us to this moment – from indigenous resilience to waves of colonization, immigration, remaking.
Moving through the spiral we laugh, sing, cry, listen, contemplate, dance and imagine together. We sit in Sister Death and our grief is held, honored by her earthen container. We step in and out of time, ending the day incredulous that this mere twenty-four hours has formed this family.
We have fallen in love. We have remembered what it is to be human, to reach out and touch, hold, and support one another through this time of vast and intersecting crises. Now the work begins – to fall back on this love when all else is telling us not to. When the deadlines rear and the negotiators bore and the protests fail and the media ignores. This is when we will return to one another, and reconnect with our source of power: our compassion, and insight into the interdependence of all things.
The SustainUS COP22 Delegation travels to Morocco at the beginning of November. Working inside the United Nations space, we will be engaging in creative storytelling and performing direct action, working to uplift untold narratives of justice and sustainability. We are committing to a new and ancient model of activism – one that is heart- and soul-centered, that begins and ends with community, and recognizes that systemic change starts within and between us. You can follow our journey at sustainus.org/cop22, @SustainUS, and, if you are able, donate to support us at generosity.com/volunteer-fundraising/sustainus-cop22-fundraiser–2/.
As a storyteller, climate activist and educator, Morgan works at the intersection of sustainable community-building and political mobilization, striving to understand how stories shape human relationships, resilience and revolutions. She is the COP22 Delegation Leader for SustainUS, leading a delegation of US youth climate justice leaders to the UN Climate Talks.