Transcending Cultural Identities for Community Healing

We are at a threshold moment of climate crisis right now. Our science is great and it hasn’t been able to move the political and economic machine to stop global warming. Words from environmental leaders such as David Korten and Joanna Macy have also expressed the limitations of science and technology, calling for a spiritual transformation.

I believe this to be true, that the real shift we need for environmental regeneration is one rooted in values and culture, as well as political economy. But I wish Gus Speth didn’t say, “We scientists don’t know how to do that,” because it so incredibly limits the purview of scientists, and locks them in to an intellectual box where they can only be valued for their technical expertise, and cannot be seen as whole, nuanced, complex human beings with emotional values, creative instincts, and transformative life experiences.

Holding onto these cultural identities too tightly ultimately limits our collective potential. The idea that because you are a scientist, you cannot be a good artist, leader, facilitator, activist, or community organizer. Or if you are an artist, you cannot be a good scientist. If you are a city person, you cannot possibly know anything about soil and plants. If you are a country person, you cannot know anything about fine art and culture.

Art and writing have been my blood and bone since I was born. I grew up in urban areas on Windows 32 and Super Nintendo games. I have a master’s in compost biology, and I am taking this knowledge and scholarly skill and applying it to my work in the field, in developing urban-scale, community-based integrated ecological compost farm and garden systems.

The thing about this work is that it is ultimately about community well-being on all levels – mental, emotional, physical. People come to the garden to heal – from depression, grief, loss, chronic illness, and the simple isolation that runs rampant in our world today. So these spaces we are creating are not just about ecological regeneration and sustainability, but they are also about facilitating meaningful connections and providing healing sanctuaries for the people that need them.

In this work, all hands are on deck. All of your skills, resources, talents, gifts are wanted, necessary, important. Your whole self, with all of its broken bits and hurting bits and shining bits, are wanted at the table. It doesn’t matter what your professional identity is, we are here to heal whole communities. And that means the personal is professional, and the professional is personal.

There are really no limits to the human potential. To think that because you a technical person you cannot have the capacity to understand values transformations in people is incredibly limiting and disempowering.

The calls for a spiritual transformation by these environmental leaders have inspired my journey to embrace my creativity and explore earth-based spiritual practices. To always have my whole self along for the ride in pursuit of a career in soil making and community healing. To always pair my intellectual exploration of the ecology with a reverence and respect for the land and its communities.

Part of the challenge with science education is that it doesn’t engage people who are not naturally inclined to be technical thinkers. For a creative person, thinking technically could possibly be a great challenge. Why should they expend the effort to understand the material? Why is important for them to dig in deeper? Addressing these deeper why’s help to facilitate the scientific learning experience. This is what inspired me to begin opening my soil and compost ecology classes with art, poetry, and history, as a way to create connection and generate cultural context for the deep dive into technical knowledge. When we feel inspired, when we understand why this is important on a visceral, body level, then it is easier to do the hard work of understanding scientific information.

The article contains an interview of Gus Speth’s life and career at the nexus of race, environment, and politics. He talks about how he got started with the NRDC and the environmental movement during the civil rights era because they were inspired by the black community. He said they did not work to include the black civil rights movement into their environmental work, and he considers that a great failure of theirs. He goes on to say that the source of the ills affecting black communities and the environmental movement are the same – the political economy and inequitable power dynamics of capitalism.

This is where the work of racial equity is not any different than other types of non-profit or community transformation work. It is the work. Environmental justice is the movement that brings both pieces together, acknowledging the intimate relationship between the two. Working in marginalized communities alleviates their burden. Engaging in social and restorative justice is environmentalism. Empowering disadvantaged communities is environmentalism.

Sometimes it can be easy to think that to call yourself an “environmentalist” you have to have a zero waste farm to table off grid lifestyle, and leave the smallest footprint possible. But focusing on lifestyle has its limitations. For one thing, it can continue to feed into an isolationist, competition-driven mindset that is more about cultural status than real community transformation.

It is harmful to engage in competitive comparison of who is more green, and we squabble over plastic bags and plastic straws. The real issue at play though, is a messed up system of design, production, and distribution that generates plastic waste. These are controlled by powerful corporations. The real issue at play is inequitable power dynamics. Corporations have too much power – we the people can do very little to sway their design and production decisions.

We the people need to discover our inherent power, we need to learn how to trust each other, love each other, connect, collaborate, organize, and otherwise work together to build the structures and systems that truly benefit us and the environment. Our professional culture does not require such things as love and trust, but these are the things we need to do this work. They are the real roots of the work. Otherwise, we continually end up in the same grooves of oppressive hierarchies leading to power inequity.

Understanding power and leadership as a lens of love and trust is part of the transformation that needs to happen. Power and leadership are a means of facilitating and stewarding the vision of ecological regeneration and community healing. In that sense, they are not characteristics unique to an individual, but rather they arise in relationship with community.

When people ask me what my advice is for them to do their part in saving the planet, I tell them to go out into the community and do their work there – build collaborative relationships and work together to make your community a better place for everyone. Because if we have strong collaborative relationships in the community, we can do so much more for each other than just using metal straws. We can organize and advocate for better policies, we can develop community programs that teach zero waste practices as a communal responsibility, provide opportunities for composting and growing chemical-free food, as well as safe spaces for all members of the community to visit and gather.

And so I work with science and spirit hand in hand, empowering everyday people with ecological knowledge, with loving encouragement for them to grow and be their best selves, so that we can work together better and collectively create more powerful transformations. When I teach science, I want laypeople to know that this knowledge is for them too, and it’s not just about science – it’s about love, healing, equity, justice, and empowerment.

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