Change is coming fast. The brief window we have to turn around the climate crisis, the growing gap between rich and poor, the violence at home and abroad, debt and austerity politics—these are among the most pressing issues facing all of us, especially young people. We asked a group of leaders, all under 40, to talk to us about how they see their lives, their leadership, and their future.
Sarah van Gelder: How do the challenges facing your generation (people under 40) compare with those faced by leaders of the civil rights, women's, and labor movements? What's at stake now?
Adrienne Maree Brown: I would say the biggest difference is we've increased our exposure to all the suffering and struggle in the world without increasing our capacity to handle it.
The speed of knowledge has increased—now it's a nearly instantaneous flow of crisis, tragedy, and need, sprinkled with glimpses of triumph, resilience, humanity. And we are supposed to have a coherent opinion on all of it and stay focused on those things we can impact. We need mindfulness practice to come with our smartphones!
Henia Belalia: We're looking at the frequency and impact of climate-related “natural disasters,” and it's daunting—how do we take our foot off the gas pedal when we have very few years before we hit a point of no return and it's game over for the planet?
Clayton Thomas-Muller: I think of our aunties and uncles who were in the American Indian movement, the Black Panthers movement. Back in the day, there was a lot of responsibility on a very small group of leaders, and it was relatively easy for agents of oppression to target those individuals. Whereas today, through social media and digital technologies that can transfer popular education materials to vast audiences, we have a more level playing field.
Carlos Jimenez: Power is becoming more concentrated and more removed from our daily experience.
I assume it never was cool to question capitalism or ask hard questions about systems of oppression. But these days, it feels like we have to stretch in ridiculous ways to question the structures of our society without being seen as radicals or crazy people.
Pancho Ramos-Stierle: In fact, sister Sarah, we are not under 40, we are 13.7 billion years old, our cosmic age, and we are part of an unfolding story of love.
Our pioneer brothers, sisters, and kin of the civil rights movement during the '40s, '50s, and '60s didn't have that gorgeous picture of ourselves, the Earth, from space. And now, we're able to detect planets outside the solar system that might support life, which is bringing a new sense of our humanity. All of a sudden, all of the nonsense divisions based on the colors of our skin or culture or spiritual practice or religion just vanish, and we're one sacred living organism that is the wonderful Earth.
van Gelder: How do you see where we're headed as a human community? How does that shape your own choices?
Belalia: One has to believe that another world is possible, but we need to be very real about what that looks like and not just put on Band-Aids.
We're going to have to make some big changes in how we live. We're going to have to consume a lot less and give up luxuries. Living in the Global North, in the United States especially, we have a responsibility to the rest of the world to reassess how we live.
How can we create alternatives that are so beautiful that they just naturally are in conflict with a collapsing, broken system?
Brown: In the stories I hear of past generations, we weren't just moving toward a better world, there was a sense of responsibility to maintain and/or create a better world for the next generations. Right now I think we need to move toward being better and better ancestors.
Thomas-Muller: We need to be talking about a new economic paradigm, not patching up the existing one like some crazed engineer obsessed with patching up the Titanic. For example, green jobs are not created by producing photovoltaic panels under indentured servitude in massive industrial wastelands in China, then shipped to California where young African Americans are hired at minimum wage to install these panels onto rich people's houses.
If instead we look at the establishment of local economies, the 100-kilometer diet, urban farming, and radicalizing the conversation around the distribution of wealth and land—that's the conversation that I'm interested in.
Ramos-Stierle: Seeing with the eyes of an astrobiologist has given me an appreciation for technology. Everything can scale up very quickly. Small decisions can have big impacts in all directions—exponentially more so than a few generations ago. Scalable new design principles—local, decentralized, open, non-linear, emergent, biomimetic—all can spread like wildfire today. We not only have the chance now to name a new story, but our generation has the means to live a new story into being.
van Gelder: Can you tell a story from your own experience about how social change is happening today?
Thomas-Muller: We've seen the rise of Idle No More, which is being led by the most marginalized group in Canada: First Nations women. Canada is going through a painful process of reconciliation, not unlike what South Africa continues to go through post-apartheid. Idle No More and the tar sands movement and other indigenous struggles have ripped away the scabs of racism. We're seeing television, print, and radio airing the voices of the most extreme racists against indigenous peoples. What's kind of beautiful about it, though—as ugly and as painful as it is—it's driving people to our side of the movement who are sick of the hatred, bigotry, and overall nastiness. So it's actually expanding our political base of allies and our overall resistance.
Brown: Recently I was involved in facilitating a gathering on black reproductive justice. The folks came into the room with a lot of painful history, and they committed to healing, whatever that took. And it took sitting in that room with each other and listening to each other in new ways, hearing each other's ancestral stories and current stories. This meeting felt so different. Instead of: “Who's got the best strategy and the most resources?” it was: “Who's really committed to transforming inside themselves, how they show up in this movement, and then how we can be together?”
Ramos-Stierle: One of the most revolutionary direct actions I've been involved in was building a 20-by-30-foot greenhouse on a third of an acre in San Francisco. We had 100 volunteers show up at the Free Farm to help, and since then, we've given away close to 9,000 pounds of local, organic produce.
That greenhouse became one of the main providers of Occupy the Farm a year ago on land administered by the University of California. We planted close to 15,000 seedlings in one day with 300 people, and it was such a celebration to be there disobeying with great love. Children and all the generations stood up for life and beauty.
So how can we create alternatives that are so beautiful that they just naturally are in conflict with a collapsing, broken system?
van Gelder: Sometimes people working for change get separated into silos. My impression is that those silos are getting less rigid—that people are more open to each other's perspectives and issues. I'm wondering if you think we're getting better at working together?
Jimenez: Yeah, I feel like there's less time spent trying to tell each other what to do and more collaboration, both among members and leaders.
Belalia: For me it's a systemic change. The corporate powers that are running the world today are all-pervasive, involved in everything from our food to our education to our elections. So for me the systemic is what feels the most authentic.
In our movement, we're pushing for a paradigm shift that will require connecting migrant rights, economic justice, housing justice, and other social justice issues with the work on runaway climate change.
It feels like we have to stretch in ridiculous ways to question the structures of our society without being seen as radicals or crazy people.
Ramos-Stierle: I've heard a lot of people say, “How can you bring peace if you're not peaceful with yourself?” And then I think, “That's over!” We need to have both. We need the inner revolution connected with the outer revolution. It's time for activist people to become spiritual, and for spiritual people to become active.
We need to focus on our means. It really doesn't matter what you're doing if you're making a more violent and resentful world with your brothers and sisters and kin through your work. There's no reason why we have to wait; we can be making the world more harmonious right now!
Belalia: Part of my own personal philosophy is learning to just be in this moment. What we envision in our minds is part of what we create in the world, so we need to take care of soul and heart, and create a much more tranquil and sane inside to be able to carry out our work on the outside.
Thomas-Muller: Yeah. I share that perspective. Coming from an indigenous perspective, that's one area where we actually have a bit of privilege: We have only been separated from our relationship to the sacred for a few decades, whereas for other groups, it's been millennia. The connection we have to the sacredness of Mother Earth has been damaged by the psychotic Western industrial experiment called capitalism. Through re-evaluating our relationship to the sacred and embracing our place in the sacred circle of life, we can fill the gap left by hyperindividualism and consumption.
Activism has to be grounded in something bigger than yourself. However you perceive God, whether that's through the smile of your child, or by connecting with the sacredness of Mother Earth through hiking in the forest, or going to church, or practicing Buddhism, or being a sun dancer, it's important to have those elements in your activism so as not to get overwhelmed and to fall. And even with those elements you still fall, because we are facing unimaginable foes in our struggle.
van Gelder: We chose this issue theme now because there's such urgency around the climate crisis, extreme inequality, and the growing power of the 1 percent. A lot of our change strategies don't seem to be working in terms of these critical questions. How do you think we can get the real change that we need?
Belalia: Building networks of resistance and resilience is a really powerful way to look at change. From Occupy grew a kind of sustained resistance—the idea that “We're going to be in a space, and we're not going to leave until we get something done.”
But Occupy also has done a lot to build sustained resilience. I just spent time in New York with friends who are part of the Occupy Sandy networks, which set up distribution centers after Hurricane Sandy and are still working with those communities. One group I met with is creating workers' cooperatives.
Jimenez: I'm becoming a big fan of assemblies. Occupy was a space for assembly, but I'm also talking about people's assemblies like those the social forums tried doing. I can't emphasize enough how powerful it is when people come together from different walks of life, different traditions, and see that we can work together. I'm thinking a lot about how we can extend invitations and bring in more people so that it's a bigger assembly every time.
Ramos-Stierle: As brother Carlos was speaking, I was having this vision. Wendell Berry said that if you eat, you are involved in agriculture. I say, if you eat, you're involved in the movement, like Occupy the Farm, which some of us call Occupy 2.0. Our elder Wendell Berry says, “An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.”
Brown: I'm writing and collaborating around speculative and science fiction, which involves strengthening our capacity for vision and for imagining ourselves in a future where we're experiencing abundance. I've been reading a lot of Octavia Butler and trying to get more people to read her work and to write their own work.
And I'm a facilitation evangelist! Facilitation means to make things easy—facil—to make sure that the time we spend in each other's presence is authentic, invigorating, and healing, and that it leads to real impact.
van Gelder: My last question: When you think about what you're doing now and when you look to the future, what do you find most daunting, and what is most hopeful?
Brown: The most daunting thing to me is the scale of change that's needed.
What makes me the most hopeful is that so many people are asking “How do I live my life? How do I spend my money? How do I care for my babies and care for the loved ones in my life?”
People are realizing the front line is within us, and we have to practice. And that makes me hopeful because I can feel that change in myself and see it in the people I love.
Jimenez: It's the little things that give me hope, like that I'm starting to see people leading meetings and conferences who look like the people I grew up with—who look like my family.
In terms of fears, the scale, as Adrienne said, is really freakin' scary. The world could literally collapse. It's daunting that people don't even realize how grave the crises are.
Thomas-Muller: What overwhelms me the most is patriarchy. Speaking as a Cree man, I fight internally all the time with patriarchy as it plays out in my life. We come from a matrilineal society. In our traditional way, it was the women who made decisions, and the men were told what to say. We were the spokespersons for some really tough old Cree ladies!
The most daunting question for me is, “How are we going to take out this system of predominantly white male patriarchy that's driving the destruction across Mother Earth?”
And what is most empowering is seeing the rise of strong First Nations women all across Mother Earth who are rising up and leading the movement, teaching all of us what the sacred feminine creative principle is about and what it means to think seven generations ahead.
Belalia: One of the things that's the most daunting is how closely politicians are working with corporations, and how blind a lot of people are to their own power.
Jimenez: Thank you for providing a space for us to creatively weave this thread. Even though we're coming from diverse backgrounds, it's amazing that we're saying similar things, and I'm grateful for the space and definitely think that was cool. Feeling anxious about life in a broken economy on a strained planet? Turn despair into action.
Ramos-Stierle: We're kind of orphans in this generation. We better pay attention to the elders and listen to the re-generativity of cultures that have been living here for millennia and be a little less arrogant. We need to listen to many examples of selfless service and to everyday Gandhis and everyday Emma Goldmans and everyday Dolores Huertas, everyday Martin Luther King Jrs., and everyday Cesar Chavezes. One little star at a time forms a galaxy, and one little drop creates an ocean. And we see these shifts happening everywhere—like the shifts from scarcity to abundance, from consumption to contribution, from transaction to trust, from isolation to community, from perfection to wholeness.
We are overwhelmed by the ways that we put in danger the magnificent biodiversity of our planet. At the same time, we are recognizing that there are small things that we could be doing on a daily basis.
Like, after this call, I just feel that I love you. That's what I think is happening. I don't know you physically, and I feel that you are my sisters for real and my brothers, and we're connecting with this technology that wasn't there before. And so if this is the last time that we talk, I'd like you to know that I am going to keep this for the rest of my days in my heart to continue this great journey.
Brown: I love you back!
Jimenez: Much love!
Adrienne Maree Brown was national co-coordinator of the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit and head of the Ruckus Society, but today focuses on her practice as a doula and facilitator.
Carlos Jimenez is Midwest regional organizer for Jobs with Justice and before that, with the United States Student Association and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
Pancho Ramos-Stierle is a full-time ServiceSpace volunteer who lives now in Casa de Paz at the Canticle Farm in East Oakland. His nonviolent activism centers today on meditating—including in public spaces like Occupy Oakland—as well as disobeying with great love through guerrilla farming.
Clayton Thomas-Muller heads up several First Nations' campaigns to stop the tar sands.