This letter is an invitation. I am writing to tell you that I am ready to lead with love as we challenge the normalization of hate.
I am writing to invite you to join me.
I have been standing on the riverbank. I have now stepped into the flow of the river. For me, the flow means shifting how I do my work to better reflect the values underlying the vision of the world we seek to create. For me, that means showing up for racial justice and moving to end violence. It means getting to know my neighbors and elected officials. It means more fully connecting my work for the earth to my work for human rights. It means doing so in ways that create wholeness. I am ready to step into deeper community with you to generate audacious and bold vision, joy, connection, and action, even in this unfathomable world.
I met a woman this fall, a long time organizer for racial justice. When she tells her story, she talks about her choice to be a happy black woman, about choosing that as her practice, as a daily choice. To be happy anyway. Here she was, a person whose body, simply through survival and presence, represents the target of so much ire: ire bound up in the festering of so much of this country’s putrid history of violence against black and brown people and against women. Here she was, doing her work in this world for racial justice, and choosing to be happy anyway. As a practice.
What does it take to be happy anyway? Who do we need to be? What needs to change, inside oneself and out in the world, to enable that well being? I am moved by these questions. The answer is total: at one and the same moment, everything needs to change, and nothing. We are, and we have choice about how we hold the unfathomability of what is. At the same time, when we are in the flow, we are actively moving to end violence and create what could be.
What happens when how we do our work reflects the values underlying the vision of the world we seek to create?
When I answer these questions for myself, I am clear that meeting this moment means building deeper community. I want to walk with you as we figure out a thousand ways to hold the unfathomability of what is, and to embolden us to create what could be in ways that reflect our true selves. When we do that well, we are creating the new systems and cultures we need to live rooted in resilience, regeneration, and interdependence. The richness of which we have not even yet tasted. What does that look like? I want to figure it out with you.
David Whyte turns to poetry as language against which we have no defenses. He reflects that this moment of maturity and integration “calls us to risk ourselves…for a bigger picture, a larger horizon; for a powerfully generous outward incarnation of our inward qualities.” He says that the moment “beckons…asking us to be larger, more fluid, more elemental, less cornered, less unilateral, a living conversational intuition between the inherited story…and the one, if we are large enough and broad enough, moveable enough and even, here enough, [that is] just astonishingly about to occur.” This letter is an invitation to walk together in a different way as we mind the gap between the inherited story and the new story.
The inherited story is one of domination, violence, and extraction. The new story is one of interdependence, regeneration, and resilience. It is as though we are each holding different pieces of the map. Some can see the contours. Some can read the current. Whole segments remain uncharted. I am energized and terrified by this sweeping thought. I have friends who kindly roll their eyes at this point. Who say, come on. We just go. We just go together. We step into the flow together. Because we’ve been here before, they say. Pieces of the new story actually flow from a very old story. A story older than our inherited story.
I am reminded here of my friends in the U’wa territory of rural eastern Colombia. This fall I hosted a visit by Aura Cristanco Tegria, a young U’wa woman, the first in her indigenous nation to become a community lawyer. For longer than Aura has been alive, the U’wa nation has stood firm against exploitation of their lands and waters by big oil. Their firm stand against exploitation is rooted in their firm stand for balance between the spirit world and this world. To the U’wa community, standing for balance is fundamental, elemental even, like breathing. It is their reason for being on the planet.
When U’wa ambassadors like Aura come to the States, much of their time is spent demonstrating to us here the thousand ways that their communities are defending and creating anew the systems and cultures we need to live rooted in resilience, regeneration, and interdependence.
It’s like breathing. It’s who they are and what they do. Aura comes here, as her elders have in decades past, to remind us that the U’wa can’t create that balance without us. We globalized the economy. In so doing, we continued the export of our inherited story in its most bulbous and distended form. Our guns enable the unwanted extraction of oil from under their land. They understand the oil as the blood of the earth. They can’t create the new story, parts of which flow from this very, very old story, without us co-creating it from here. Our mutual liberation is, as they say, bound up together.
Lest this writing veer toward righteousness, here’s the bitter pill. On the equities, the U’wa are screwed. And by most accounts that count, we are not. I could opt out from walking in solidarity with the U’wa community at any moment and, because of the segment of the global economy that I inhabit, my life today would not perceptively materially change. If on the other hand the U’wa people opted out of walking alongside us towards our mutual liberation, they would die. They would die out as a people, or continue to be quietly murdered for their stance against the extractive economy upon which my life is based. Our mutual liberation from the inherited story is bound up together, yes. But the skin we each have in the game couldn’t be more disparate. And that’s the problem I’m having with standing on the riverbank.
The inherited story is one of domination, violence, and extraction. It is the story that made certain people and the planet disposable. Survivors of this story are ringing the bell, inviting us to wake up. In Colombia there used to be a saying: ‘Colombia es U’wa.’ It was a way of saying that the indigenous struggle was everyone’s struggle. Taking a stand in that struggle was not charity, it was about mutual survival and liberation. It brings to mind a distinct but related bridge that my Native friends from Orange County like to say: Standing Rock is everywhere. Saying so does not detract; it expands. It is an invitation “to be larger, more fluid, more elemental, less cornered, less unilateral” in how we see ourselves, and in how the parts fit together.
We are needed to stand in protection of the Missouri River; we are needed to stand in protection of the waters right here in our backyard. Both and. It is the same with saying that black lives matter. That is an inclusive statement. It is saying, black lives matter, too. We know that white lives matter and blue lives matter—protection of these lives is built into the system. The Movement for Black Lives invites the nation to envision what would have to change for black lives to matter, too. All of these invitations are incompatible with the continuation of the inherited story.
The new story is one of regeneration, resilience, and interdependence. We get there by putting love at the center, with community and care. Deep democracy is an outcome. When I live into a ‘conversational intuition’ between the inherited story and the new story, here’s my hunch. Our hearts know that we have a lot more skin in the game already than our minds are yet willing to concede.
Our hearts know.
Just because there is still drinkable water flowing from our tap, that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the effects of drought or pollution. Our hearts know. When our Mexican, Muslim, and gay college students go underground, and our school kids learn the N word on the playground, we are in the times that cause the community to break. Our hearts know. Although some of us can walk away, or turn off the news, or think that giving money is enough, distancing ourselves is an illusion.
Our hearts know there is no true distance, there is no separate self. Our hearts know. The expansive self is the one that aches to remember ourselves as parts of the same whole, tumbling forward together in our mercifully beautiful and awful human messiness. Our hearts know. Our inherited story created the unfathomable present, with that man seeking power a grotesque incarnation of our brokenness. Our hearts know. Everything needs to change and wholeness is available.
Our hearts know.
It is upon us to turn squarely to the question of wholeness. And that means looking where we don’t want to look. It means, in the words of adrienne maree brown, holding each other tight as we do so. It means reckoning and repair and reweaving.
Our hearts know. This business of wholeness also means joy. Which is the place from which I write this invitation.
Last week, when my colleagues returned from a historic visit to the U’wa territory in Colombia, they carried with them a calm, a certainty. It was the calm that accompanies clear vision, and the certainty that comes from having tasted what could be. As they arrived back in Washington, D.C., they faced the affront of trying to square this deep sense of wellbeing with the fear accompanying our unfathomable present, palpable not only there in the belly of the beast, but across the nation as virulent hate enjoys its new air time. They arrived home and jumped back into the fray. Because that’s what we do.
By contrast, when Aura returned from the United States to her land a couple months ago, she built in to her work plan a ten-day walk deep into the mountains. She fasted and prayed in a cleanse meant to reconnect her to place and home. It’s how her boss and her elders ensure that she can traverse the two worlds, doing this vital bridge work, without getting stuck on the lures and hooks of our inherited story. It’s what they do. I am taken by this distinction.
The election threw into relief how much work we need to do. That work has always been there. Frontline communities know this best. I am taking my cue from the leadership of women of color who are showing us what it takes to be happy anyway, or to anchor ourselves in home as we take action out in the world.
It’s as they say: everything now must be done in a sacred way.
What happens when we slow down to go fast? What happens when we say no disposable people, no disposable planet? What happens when we do so together?
This is the flow I want to create with you. Will you join me?
Abby Reyes is director of the Sustainability Initiative at the University of California, Irvine, leading community-engaged sustainability scholarship. She is also co-chair of the board of directors of EarthRights International. At UC Irvine, Reyes is co-principal investigator of the FloodRISE project, principal investigator of the Regional Climate Resilience project, and co-chair of the Faculty Engagement and Education Working Group of the UC Global Climate Leadership Council. She has provided facilitation and design for the Salton Sea Initiative, UCI OCEANS, Research Justice Learning Community, Nexus 2014 Environmental Health and Justice Convening, and Borrego Stewardship Council. She has also facilitated research collaboration for indigenous communities in California, Colombia, and the Philippines, and contributed to landmark international human rights and environmental cases in domestic federal courts. Reyes completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford and JD at UC Berkeley Law. She clerked for the Honorable Richard A. Paez on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Reyes received UC Irvine’s 2015 Excellence in Leadership Award and a 2016 California Higher Education Sustainability Best Practices Award. She has a TEDx talk on How to Come Home.