Nexus: We Can Do This Differently

The intersection of human rights, the environment, social justice, and the economy

Caroline Griffith

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is composed entirely of white people. Same with the Arcata City Council. The Eureka City Council has one member who identifies as non-white, as does the Humboldt County Planning Commission. This trend is reflected in nearly every elected or appointed board in Humboldt County and on up to the state and federal level. Though the current Congress is the most racially diverse yet, gender and racial representation in Congress still doesn’t reflect the population. So, it’s not surprising to hear that one local person of color running for office this November said they had never really thought of doing so before because, “I always thought this was a white person thing.” According to Aristea Saulsbury, facilitator of roundtable discussions for Humboldt Area Foundation’s Equity Alliance of the North Coast (and Northern Humboldt Union High School District board member), this is why representation is so important: Seeing people who look like you in leadership positions inspires people to think, “I could do that, too.” Representation is also important because without proportional representation on decision-making bodies, we will never truly be serving the will of the people, and we miss out on ideas and perspectives which could profoundly enhance our communities. 

Saulsbury and the Equity Alliance of the North Coast have been leading discussions about racial equity for years, most recently focusing on how to increase the presence of BIPOC community members on elected boards and commissions and stay engaged beyond the current election cycle. These discussions came out of looking at who has been representing us in local, state and federal government (not surprisingly, most often white men) and asking “What did we learn about civic engagement growing up? And what did we learn about who gets to make decisions?” 

One barrier to engagement is the format of the meetings at which decisions are made. Often they are held at times when it can be difficult for working people or parents to attend. Even the structure of many meetings, with the complex rules of when and how participants can speak and the decision-makers looking down from the dais, discourages participation and feels unwelcoming to those who haven’t been trained how to participate. What if we didn’t have to use Robert’s Rules? What if we didn’t use a podium and dais? “We don’t have to do it this way,” Saulsbury says. “We can do it however we want. We can run meetings and make people feel like they are a part of the process. I love the rabble rousers, the ones who come to our (School Board) meetings who make us think differently. They are making people in positions of power ask how we can do things differently.” 

We can do things differently at an institutional level, but those of us in the environmental community should also do some self-reflection and figure out how we can be doing things differently in our organizations. The same issue of white supremacy that exists in our political institutions affects the environmental movement, from the makeup of our boards to the processes we use to make decisions, to how we choose which campaigns to work on. The history of the environmental movement is intertwined with the rise of the Eugenics movement and even our ideas of conservation come from an era in which powerful white men were “saving” land for their own uses. 

Though the environmental movement, locally and nationally, is working to address its racist history and correct the representation issue, our methodology still comes down from the dominant culture and ascribes to the idea that we are saviors of the land, rather than a part of it. At a presentation for Indigenous People’s Week entitled, “You’re on Indian Land: The White Supremacist Roots of American Environmentalism,” Dr. Kaitlin Reed of the HSU Native American Studies Department quoted Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga, who said, “What you people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives.” Even the words we use to describe what we are doing and what we are fighting for come from a place of possession and dominance. Dr. Reed asks, “How could our work be transformed if we didn’t think of our relatives as resources?” 

This question brings others to mind: Why are we doing things this way to begin with? Who decided that this was the “right” way? And where do our ideas about conservation, and the words we use to talk about our relationship with the environment, come from? We are in a pivotal moment in which our climate is drastically changing because of our (in)actions, our government is in crisis and a global pandemic is raging. It’s time not only for new leadership, but a change in our orientation. Luckily, there are plenty of examples of ways to do this differently, but first we need to step down from the dais and ask those who have been excluded how we can do things differently. From the Indigenous anti-capitalist resistance in Bolivia, to the Progressive Club on John’s Island, S.C., to the Indigenous-led movements here in what we call Northern California, there are many examples of how we can reorient our culture to serve planet and people rather than power and profit.

As Saulsbury said, “We don’t have to do it this way.”