Attentive Silence: The role of listening in the environmental justice movement

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with listening or making sure that I listen well, do not interrupt, and in general, do not occupy undue space in a conversation. In a world that privileges originality and assertiveness, listening to understand what someone is saying, rather than listening to respond, or come up with a unique perspective or interjection, has become a lost art.

To me, listening means making space – being present with someone as they share their experience with you. It means giving your time – the most precious thing any of us have to give. Listening means helping someone feel heard and understood. Listening means responding and asking questions at the right time, in order to better understand the person, not to interject with a similar experience or situation, which can derail the conversation, and at worst, suggest that your experience is equal to or more important than the speaker’s experience.

Listening better has been my New Year’s resolution more than once. And as I become more and more involved in environmental activism, I think about listening in the context of environmental justice. Like many people in Oregon, I’m concerned about climate change. Furthermore, like many others involved in the mainstream environmental movement, I am white and middle class – aware of climate change, but not actively experiencing its consequences on a daily basis. My house is well heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. My water is clean and the air I breathe at home is clear.

My concern with the climate crisis led me to 350PDX, the local group in Portland and the more I became involved in environmental activism, the more aware I become of its connections to social and racial justice issues. As I wade deeper and deeper into my activism, the world of environmental justice, and a community concerned with the systems and institutions that perpetuate racial and social injustice, I see more and more clearly how these systems and structures are related to the climate crisis. At its simplest, a planet with finite resources cannot sustain unrestrained growth. Just dipping a toe beneath this logical statement, I find sediment beneath rocks beneath sediment – there is more to it than that – the world we live in today is built upon industries, beliefs, and ways of being that exploit resources and privilege white bodies over all other bodies, and human bodies over all other living things. If you are not white and you are not human, you are likely to be exploited, negated, ignored, and silenced.

Deep listening, active listening, can be an antidote to the oppressive economic and social systems that lay at the foundation of racism, poverty, and the climate crisis. The environmental justice movement – really any movement – that endeavors to disrupt oppressive systems that exploit people and the earth for profit, must place listening at its core.

Deep and active listening is not a new concept. Listening projects have been around since the ‘80s to better understand the wants and needs of the local community. I think of listening sessions in the context of public policy; public gatherings where public policy experts and city council members listen to feedback from community members. I also think of the listening that came out of the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after Apartheid. It was a chance for people to express the harm they experienced and for people “to come to terms with their past” and express regret.

Listening is an opportunity for mainstream environmentalists to listen to those most impacted by climate change and for those impacted the worst and most, to talk about their experiences and express their frustrations and trauma.

My involvement in Portland’s environmental movement and my interest in listening leads me to ask: What is the role of listening in the environmental justice movement? This question is all the more important as report after report comes out, telling us what many activists and scientists have known for a long time: climate change is happening right now, it’s really bad, we’re causing it, and we need to work together to mitigate its impact. This is why we need to continue building coalitions and working together to not only halt climate change and address the fact that it impacts certain communities the most – especially those that are rural, low-income, or made up of people of color or Indigenous peoples – but so that we can get through this together.

In order to answer this question, “What is the role of listening in the environmental justice movement?” I reached out to a few friends and fellow activists involved in environmentalism, environmental justice, and social and racial justice to help me explore what it might mean to listen as an environmental justice activist.

Listening requires silence – but how much? Silence in listening can work for and against a practice of active listening. When speaking to Yolanda Gomez, an anti-racist activist and the Board Vice Chair for environmental justice organization Beyond Toxics, a similar line of thinking arose. When reflecting on listening in the environmental justice movement, Yolanda commented, “As far as listening is concerned, it’s pretty silent.

Silence as a response can be a form of inaction and negation.

When it comes to listening, too much silence can be a bad thing. When we are listening to someone, how we respond to what we are hearing is important. If our response is silence, it can become a negation of the very act of listening.

Anaïs Tuepker, a climate justice activist in Portland and 350PDX’s volunteer Organizational Resilience Lead says that listening is often about knowing “how to respond to what you’re hearing.” Are you being asked to listen, to show up, to help, to support, to sit back and be uncomfortable with conflict so that someone else can be heard and the conflict resolved? True listening, active listening, the kind of listening needed to build trust, relationships, and ultimately, coalitions, responds with something – questions, understanding, help, commitment – something more than simply silence.

Deep listening allows for healing and unity, something that Cameron Hubbe, the Board Chair for Beyond Toxics, believes is necessary for the environmental justice movement:

“We need a broad-based movement in order to be effective. And in order to build that movement, and to build unity around key policy objectives, we have to overcome the ways we’ve been divided by an oppressive society.”

Listening matters, it helps heal these divisions and the hurt perpetuated by oppressive systems that divide and conquer. As many in the environmental justice movement might say, systemic change needs to happen, we need to dismantle the oppressive systems and structures that continue to divide. Healing these divisions can address not only racial and social injustice, but also environmental injustice and the climate crisis.

So how does one heal from these injustices? How does one listen to understand the pain caused by oppressive systems? Or better yet, how does one use listening actively so that we can heal and overcome systems that perpetuate environmental injustice and the climate crisis?

We listen actively and attentively.

We listen, knowing that it is an “intentional effort,” as Simone Crowe, organizer and activist from Portland says.

We are silent when we need to be, but we are not silent when we are called to respond and act upon what we have heard. Listening is apparent and visible in the listening ear I provide, the hand I offer to help, and the body I use to show up to events where you need me to support and act with you.

Listening means showing up and slowing down

It means stepping back and acting with humility because just maybe, I am not the expert on your issues or problems. Maybe you are, and I should listen and try to understand your lived experience and the perspectives that brings.

As Cameron put it, listening is being “attuned to the person you are listening to.” It is essential to recovering from the hurt and it “is key to relationship building. It helps build trust, which is key to relationship building, and also the coalition-building which is needed to connect the environmental justice movement with mainstream environmental organizations.”

And we need each other if we are going to address the issues underlying the climate crisis.

Listening during the Portland Clean Energy Fund ballot initiative campaign

The 2018 Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) ballot initiative campaign is an example of communities of color and mainstream environmentalists coming together around environmental justice. Dr. Adriana Voss-Andreae, founder and former Executive Director of 350PDX, and a co-chief petitioner of PCEF, said of the campaign, “It was clear, from the earliest discussions, that PCEF’s success hinged on its being led by communities of color. Indeed it turned out to be critical throughout– from the crafting of an equity-centered initiative to our ability to work together to build the type of large, diverse and intersectional coalition that brought huge success at the ballot, to the community-driven implementation of the groundbreaking measure. I view this kind of deeper relationship building and intersectional coalition building as an essential component of bringing about the larger transformational change we need, commensurate with the climate crisis and rooted in justice.”

PCEF ran in the November 2018 election and sought to increase the business licensing surcharge fee on companies that made over $500,000 in Portland and $1 billion annually. The $50+ million raised annually by the initiative will go towards weatherizing houses, which is critical if we are to be prepared for extreme weather caused by climate change and the increased cost of heating and cooling our homes climate change this will bring. PCEF will also provide funding for green job training, rooftop solar, local food projects and green infrastructure, prioritizing underserved populations and neighborhoods.

PCEF directs funds to frontline communities first. According to the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, ‘frontline communities’ includes “people of color, low-income, Indigenous, and rural communities who are at the front line of environmental and climate injustice.” PCEF simultaneously addresses racial and social injustices and the climate crisis. The initiative passed last November with over 65% of voters supporting it.

PCEF is a case of mainstream environmental groups and environmental justice groups working together on a shared campaign – and it took time and listening to build that coalition. Adriana Voss-Andreae was one of two mainstream grassroots environmentalists working on the campaign from the very beginning. And one thing she realized was that they had to “slow down – way down– to be able to first cultivate the foundations of a trusting relationship upon which a frontline-led diverse coalition could grow, thrive and help inoculate itself against powerful external threats in the fast-paced campaign that followed”.

Slowing down was necessary in order for the organizations within the coalition to have the time to listen to each other – it wasn’t until after two years of drafting and finalizing the language of the ballot initiative that the campaign was officially launched. And slowing down is a hard thing to do when it feels like the world is about to burst into a ball of global warming-induced flames. This sense of urgency is not new – I would say it is endemic to the mainstream (read: white) environmental movement. This urgency motivates mainstream environmentalists to push forward and get things done – because haven’t you heard, the world is ending!!! But this urgency can also mean that our solutions might not be true solutions because we may have not considered the root causes of the climate crisis.

The real problem is our oppressive economic and social systems. This is what I think environmental justice movements work to address.

According to OPAL, an environmental justice organization a part of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, “the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work, learn, pray and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor. Communities of color, which are often lower-income, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts — say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot.”

We do need urgency. The right kind of urgency. The kind of urgency that acknowledges that things are bad – and have been bad – and that action needs to be taken. People are suffering right now from bad air quality, people are losing their homes in hurricanes and flooding and mudslides and fires. People are being exposed to toxic pesticides right now – and they have been for decades. The climate and environmental crisis is happening now, and we need to listen to those who are (and have been) at the frontlines of this crisis and follow their lead as they take action to change the system that creates and perpetuates injustice and the climate crisis.

When I talked to Anaïs about urgency, specifically within the PCEF campaign, this is what came up – that not all urgency is bad – it’s what you do with that urgency, how you respond to others, how you listen (or don’t listen) to them as you search for solutions – that matters. Listening and sitting with urgency can be hard, especially when everything feels urgent during a ballot initiative that has a definite end date: Election Day. But slowing down, that’s what was needed to build a sustainable environmental justice movement in Portland that can last past Election Day.

When I spoke with Adriana, she spoke of a 1-day retreat that happened about a year before the campaign launched. She saw this retreat as being one of the “turning points” in the campaign and in the early coalition formation. People engaged in deeper learning about each other’s backgrounds and identities and afterward, she says, “we built a new level of trust and relationships grew. Taking the time-out to learn about each other and listen led to a stronger coalition.”

“A lot of listening and time was key to hearing others’ perspectives and to coalition building.” – Adriana Voss-Andreae

 As I spoke with different activists, it struck me how activists representing frontline communities responded to my question, “What is the role of listening in the environmental justice movement?” discussing what it is (and is not) like to be heard.

Their surprise at being deferred to for major decisions in the PCEF campaign, or the desire for white allies to do more than listen – act and show-up – called to my attention the fact that white voices are more listened to than the voices of people of color. Being listened to, being heard and asked for guidance, doesn’t seem like something activists representing communities of color are all that used to. This can mean a lot for the environmental movement, especially those organizations that strive to support and forefront their frontline community partners. They might think more critically about how they are listening and how they are giving space and spotlight to their frontline partner organizations.

During the PCEF campaign in the summer of 2018, I saw this happen. When I worked with the PCEF campaign coordinators and organizers as the interim 350PDX Community Organizer, we discussed how a video about the ballot initiative would highlight voices from the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Coalition of Communities of Color, NAACP Portland Branch 1120, Native American Youth & Family Center, OPAL/Environmental Justice Oregon, and Verde – all frontline organizations on the PCEF Steering Committee. We worked together to spotlight frontline voices and make them be heard.

Following Frontline Leadership – A workshop in listening and empathy

 So how do we learn how to listen? To be active listeners? We know that we need to be silent – but not silent for too long. We know that listening can mean showing up and helping. It can mean listening for how to best respond to a situation. It can also mean making space – for feelings of frustration, hurt, and healing.

At the beginning of March, I attended a workshop lead by 350PDX called “Following Frontline Leadership” led by Anissa Pemberton, 350PDX’s Just-Based Transition and Equity Organizer, and Anaïs. The workshop leads with this question, “How do we show up as allies and accomplices to frontline communities when we are in coalition with them?” According to the event webpage:

“In this training, we will discuss why and how we act as allies and accomplices, and also practice our active listening skills to fully understand why differences in opinion may show up in these spaces.”

The training began with each person sharing with the group what they wanted to learn – I wanted to learn how to know when to ask for guidance from frontline partners, and when to try to figure it out before asking for help (this comes up most often when making decisions on supporting or not supporting policies that concern frontline communities). On one hand we want to include and defer to frontline leadership, but we (meaning white-led organizations) also don’t want to bombard their capacity.

We began the workshop by asking, “What is a frontline lead space?” and discussing what ‘frontline’ means. We also discussed what it means to follow – it means that we trust those that we follow. As noted in adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy, one of the principles of an emergent strategy is: “Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)” What a calming principle to live by.

For me, the most powerful part of the workshop were the active listening and empathy exercises.

In the active listening activity, we talked about and read short articles on what ‘active listening’ is – one was an article in the Harvard Business Review called “What Great Listeners Actually Do.” In a nutshell, active listeners:

  • Don’t talk when others are talking – don’t interrupt!
  • Make sounds like “mhmmm” and “yes” to let the speaker now that they’re listening
  • Repeat back what the speaker says

So we practiced listening to a partner. We repeated back what they said, offered some thoughts on how they might get involved in the environmental movement (we each asked each other what our favorite activity within activism has been), and tried to make the other person feel like they were heard.

On the surface, this activity seems pretty simple, and honestly, it felt like I was practicing a life skill more than anything, but in what other situations are we given the opportunity to intentionally listen and receive feedback on how well we listened? Not many. Instead, listening is looked at more as a personal quality, instead of a skill that can be honed and practiced, like math or writing.

The empathy exercise was a little harder – we shared an instance that we struggled with in the past, how we felt in that moment, and how we feel about it now. The listener was tasked with listening and empathizing. Sitting with something potentially uncomfortable and making space for that person to express how they felt then and how they feel now.

This was important.

All too often, when uncomfortable feelings are expressed, we want to make them all better, possibly ignoring the feelings entirely. When I was in group therapy, if or when someone cried during group, we did not give them a tissue to make ourselves feel better, we let them express themselves and we listened – making space for whatever they needed to do to let those feelings out.

This is important.

If we are going to struggle together – because the climate crisis marks a collective struggle for survival – we’ll need to be able to sit with uncomfortable feelings. We’ll need to sit with pain and hurt and past trauma that is a result of a social and economic system that oppresses non-white bodies. And there is intergenerational trauma there that needs to be heard and made space for. We can do this through active, attentive listening.

Where do we go from here?

Listening takes time and practice. I think about it every day. Am I listening to my partner as he tells me about what’s bothering him? What does the sound of snow sound like when it crunches under my feet? Am I listening to my body when it tells me it needs sleep? And am I listening with patience and with compassion, am I listening for moments that desire a silent murmur of “I’m here for you,” or “I will be there”?

Listening is not something I grew up with as being a prized personality trait, instead it was individuality, leadership, and speak up! To change these ingrained ways of being, I need to practice. And I need to surround myself with people that are good active listeners, so that I can learn and copy their ways of listening.

Listening to know when to step back, show-up, and actively listen to people on the frontlines of the climate crisis and environmental and racial injustice is going to be important as more and more people find themselves on the frontlines of climate crisis – whether that be a flooded city or a bomb cyclone in the Midwest. The number of people on the frontlines is going to continue to expand and we’re going to have to be able to listen to each other if we’re ever going to address and get through this social, cultural, and climate crisis together.

Nicole volunteered and worked with 350PDX for a year and a half before moving to Corvallis last September to pursue a Masters in Rhetoric, Writing, and Composition focusing on environmental, activist, and social justice rhetoric at Oregon State University. She can’t wait to adopt a dog and go on adventures with it.