Reflections from the 2019 North Carolina Climate Justice Summit at the Haw River State Park


Reflections from Elijah Brunson

As I crossed over the final hump, a speed bump leading down the winding path to the Haw River State Park, I realized that in the five years of attending the North Carolina Climate Justice Summit (NCCJS), I have not once returned to the park as I was the year before — not physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Though excited about my arrival, I reflected on the pervasive sense of solitude that inhabits this line of work, especially when working for a small, if growing organization like the Rachel Carson Council (RCC). However, I found increased gratitude having Maggie Cummings, RCC’s Maryland Organizer, sitting just a few inches away, attend the summit with me. Yet, the Haw River always whispers that we are never alone; we are always in community with the earth and all its creatures.

Photo: Maggie Cummings, RCC Maryland Organizer

I felt at once the urge to reimagine how a future could be realized where we steadily approach climate and environmental justice for North Carolina—and the world. There is something about this Climate Justice Summit being held within a rich, pure and natural location that transcends time and space. “These are my people,” is a point driven further home by Vivette Jeffrey’s indigenous welcome to the land where we are asked to call in our ancestors and our descendants for them to travel with us. It is here, in this space, this magical container, that I am finally allowed to engage with what it means to advocate for justice through a lens of cultural expression and self-authenticity.

Surely, it comes as no surprise that critical conversations of race emerged in every conversation, as participants much like myself realized that the harmful practice of racism continues to be the seed that perpetuates environmental degradation and destruction in North Carolina. This is the understanding that the leadership team took into consideration when designing this fifth NCCJS. This year, the RCC was honored to facilitate a fishbowl discussion on biogas in the United States, with a special emphasis on the impacts of its development in North Carolina. I had long awaited this topic for deep discussion, which, once begun, soon shifted towards embracing race as an integral component of discussing biogas. Biogas, the collection of methane from horrid, hog-farm waste lagoons, is a “solution” designed mainly to create profits for power companies like Duke Energy. It rarely addresses the direct concerns of frontline communities who have lived with, and will continue to live with, the hazards of industrial hog farms.

Photo: Maggie Cummings, RCC Maryland Organizer

Youth at the NCCJS pushed for remembering the importance of reconnecting with the land as a model for alternatives to industrial agriculture, an intenesly extractive form of production from the earth. They suggested food co-ops, community gardens, and other practices to promote food security in the region. As our session drew to a close, it was clear that we had just scraped the surface. Nevertheless, everyone involved pushed toward solutions which recognize that the current practice of animal agriculture perpetuates climate and environmental injustice.

As I reflect, I honor that the photos here would never have been so intentionally captured without the support of my colleague, Maggie Cummings, for it is in community and with support that we really learn the truest essence of a story. It is in these collective spaces that we truly get to take the time to reimagine what the future of the world could look like. In many cases, it means stepping back and appreciating the practices of yesterday that led to regular communion with the land (i.e. small farming, forestry, and shepherding) in healthy and regenerative ways.

Then with a sudden jolt, I found myself imaginatively wading through the waters of a disaster, as Ajamu Dillahunt, a legend in organizing, and a leader of the Black Workers for Justice, pushed my focus group to create an emergency plan with a major storm just thirty-six hours away. “Finally, it is our chance to recreate,” I thought to myself, unaware of the difficulty of resiliency planning under a tight deadline. As we developed our priorities… “Twenty-four hours left,” rang across the room. Our response? We scrambled. Hoping to generate a comprehensive plan to protect our community, we were already somewhere in the midst of despair when the storm hit. Though merely a facilitation, Ajamu’s activity drove home the impossibility of creating and implementing a comprehensive emergency disaster strategy within thirty-six hours. It is a conversation that we carried with us, as Jodi Lasseter of the North Carolina Climate Justice Collective took us through resilience hub planning. But first, we were grounded with a breathing activity “seven seconds inhale, two to three seconds suspension, and four seconds exhale,” a phenomenal reminder that stress and anxiety live in the body and can be soothed by the power of the breath, a tool always accessible to us.

If I were to add a fifth “R” to Jody’s four R’s framework (see below), it would be resilience. This year’s summit amidst the vibrant trees and mellow waters reminded us that resilience is key to transformation and the key to resilience is proactivity, not reactivity. This is always highlighted sharply by the reactive technologies being developed to solve problems we have long entrenched ourselves in. We need, instead, to  reevaluate these systems, such as our food production that needs to be totally transformed, rather than simply tinkered with technologically. My gravest concern is that our solutions just beget more problems — problems that will most harshly affect low-income, rural, and people of color communities across the United States and the world.

With every summit, a wave of hope surpasses the lingering tides of despair. It urges me and my colleagues to move forward. For me, this means leaning ever more deeply into the concept of a Just Transition, a proactive framework by which we move from extractive industries, relationships, and practices into reciprocal and regenerative relationships with the land, one another, and all that exists in between. Simply put, through my role with the RCC and grounded in my own experience, I celebrate that the NCCJS continues to transform, validate, and restore the mind for continued work towards environmental justice. The NCCJS and the sacred space of the Haw River would, I believe, bring much joy to Rachel Carson as we strive to honor her legacy through the Rachel Carson Council that she hoped would carry on her work. Yet, the most important takeaway from the Haw River is that culture can never be separated from advocacy; it is for culture and traditions that we fight, to preserve, to protect, and to pass them on to future generations; and it is in this very culture, in community with each other, much like Maggie and I, that we cultivate vibrant relationships with nature — ones of appreciation and reverence, as opposed to domination and separation.

Reflections from Maggie Cummings

One might ask, as I also received this question throughout the Summit in North Carolina, why are you here if you’re from Maryland? Well, I hope this reflection shows why I intentionally carved out space in my work to attend the 2019 North Carolina Climate Justice Summit.

The Summit begins by breaking bread together, which immediately sets the tone of unity, support, comfort, and restoration, of being filled up in all ways — physically, mentally, spiritually — that creates an atmosphere of family. I learn so much more about and from a person over a shared meal then in a two-minute icebreaker at the beginning of an event.  This underscores one of the common themes I gathered during the Summit; we are in this together and having everyone in this movement is vital to having climate justice. A sense of accountability and reciprocity is fostered when we view climate justice as everyone’s fight. Communities and those that are committed to the effort need solid commitment from outsiders and grasstops when the going gets tough. If one does not show up in the way you said you would, or not at all, you’re essentially letting down your family. We needed you and your talents. Now there is a hole where you stood. So let us remember to show up intentionally.

I have found the Summit to be a place where I can step out of my organizing role, show up as a member among members, and deep dive with other learners and teachers. I can take a deep breath and know that the problems and issues will be there when I get back. For the time being, I’m going to take a step back and look at the whole picture — my work in Maryland, the goals of the Rachel Carson Council and what “Rs” (see below) are coming forward in my work. If we spend all of our time focusing on one “R” and determine our success metrics based on just one pillar, the efforts are flawed. There needs to be space to focus and foster all four “Rs” in order to fully address climate injustice. The Summit is one of the few places I am able to experience this transformative practice.

Photo: Maggie Cummings, RCC Maryland Organizer

The co-conveners, Jodi Lasseter and Connie Leeper, and the leadership team have created  great balance within the structure of the Summit. We deep dive into issues as well as the internal and external structures that keep them in place, but doing so where we collectively create space to take a step back, process, and re-engage. I believe that is achieved because the Summit engages all of your senses. There are, for instance, art builds, open mic nights, drum circles, spoken word, healing spaces, breakout sessions on core issues in North Carolina, deep dives into the four “Rs,” and meals that are provided and shared. When we intentionally engage with all that we are, we can address the continued maintenance of justice. This call to engage in an issue with all that we are, guided me to choose the Re-Imagine breakout. Re-Imagine is envisioning a just new system. At the beginning of the session, Jan Burger, Co-Founder and Director of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, discussed how he is on the more introverted side and how art allows for creativity and expression in a way that he can still participate in the movement. I too, consider myself an introvert and have always struggled with where I fit in with the part of the movement that is extroverted which, at times, seems to be its largest element. Spending time at that breakout session helped me to identify ways I can participate in the movement and show up with all of me and not try to force myself into being something I’m not. Another thing that Jan highlighted is how art can be non-divisive. It can bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in climate justice. The ability to do so allows for an individual and collective ability to engender new cultural norms by understanding how we think about ourselves in relation to each other and the whole.

So why do I carve out time to go to the North Carolina Climate Justice Summit each year as someone who works in Maryland? First, working remotely and seeing your coworkers from a computer screen can be isolating. So, I jump at the opportunity to work alongside my colleague Elijah and support him in his role at the Summit. Having organizational support out in the real world is reassuring. Second, the first time I learned about the four “Rs,” I had to pick my jaw up off of the ground. They made absolute sense and I saw the value this framework had for addressing climate injustice or any form of social transformation. The 4R framework made engaging with environmental justice work not feel like some lofty goal that we need everyone to get behind. Instead, there are all these barriers we have to get through first. I also believe it allows everyone to plug in and find how they can be the solution. I choose to bring this sense and power of a collectively decided, unified vision back to Maryland. I find organizing in Maryland can become quite siloed, meaning that everyone works in their particular area while trying to overlap and interconnect since climate justice is an intersectional issue. But there just isn’t enough funding or time or framework to do that. I hope to hold space open and to work with those who are already doing so, to determine our unified vision so it isn’t an afterthought. I hope to bring the information and application of all of the four “Rs” to Maryland. Jodi Lasseter highlights the four “Rs” as a conceptual framework for social transformation. If we focus on one “R” and even add metrics of success using only that “R,” then our framework is distorted, and even faulty, without the other three “Rs”. We can work on acknowledging the power of each “R” and see them as necessary elements of social transformation. Let’s acknowledge the individual and collective value we bring to the fight. Let’s acknowledge our internal and external barriers. Let’s show up for ourselves and others. Let’s hold space to re-imagine a just new system.

The 4 Rs of Social Transformation

Editor’s Note: This is the conceptual framework developed by Jodi Lasseter, NCCJS Founder and Co-Convener, that frames and undergirds the reflections of Brunson and Cummings

Individuals and organizations often focus most on one of these Rs. It’s good to be clear about the value that each R brings to our movement. You’ve probably noticed that people working in one R often think that people in the other Rs are wrong. Instead of this in-fighting or competition, the 4 Rs can all be seen as necessary elements of social transformation.

Reform: Working within the current systemRe-imagine: Envisioning a Just New System
The current structures in society have real impact on our daily lives and our ability to self determine. While we work on building new structures, we must simultaneously change the structures of society that are in place now. We understand the urgent needs of people who lack healthy food, quality housing, well-paid work, safety and opportunity. This strategy tackles immediate needs and requires current social and political institutions to put resources toward addressing social problems. Examples include: human services, policy development, and electoral work.We are in a critical period of social evolution that requires new ways of being. In order to generate a just world, we must be able to imagine and communicate what society based on partnership relation to each other and the whole, and taps our individual and collective ability to engender new cultural norms. Examples include: the arts, creative processes, media, academia, cultural and spiritual traditions.
Resist: Working Against the Current SystemRe-create: Creating Models for a just new system
Throughout history, we have seen that “power concedes nothing without demand.” Resistance struggles have given rise to our greatest wins. To address root causes of injustice, we are often called upon to stand against the destruction of what we hold dear. This strategy analyzes and challenges our current political and social institutions by directly confronting how they perpetuate inequity. Examples included: non-violent civil disobedience, direct action, and community organizing.The future we envision calls for the creation of new ways of doing things to take the place of broken structures that have not been serving us. This strategy enables us to experiment with new ways of constituting our society by building just institutions, forms of governance and leadership models. Examples include: democratic schools, restorative justice processes, and local economies based on cooperatives.

Elijah Brunson and Maggie Cummings

Though we reflected separately on the NCCJS 2019, it further illustrates the need for fusing alternate perspectives to gain a truer representation of the realities and dangers that we are facing today. It is through our experience with the Summit and our work in Maryland and North Carolina that we recognize the need for a shift, a transition in the way that we practice and work towards environment and climate justice. There is always a pervasive sense of urgency and hyper-precision in work towards justice, which leaves us siloed and desperately scraping at generating a better future. We get locked into a fight for survival, a fight that rarely allows us time to reflect and assess our own behaviors as we pursue our goal. Yes, it is urgent and change is absolutely and inevitably necessary for our continued existence and relationship with the greatest gift to us, the planet. Yet, it is through the practice of creating safe, intentional space where people can interact, step back and observe, and re-engage intentionally that will allow us to holistically address climate change and environmental injustices. Shifting from our hyper-precision mindsets where we overlook the interconnectedness of our issues, to a strategic place of recognizing that we, much like our relationship to the planet, are in a larger justice ecosystem where we have roles to play. We recognize that organizations and individuals have to expand past our “R” to appreciate the others and incorporate them into the road towards that just transition. How can a person who only reforms, transform a system initiated on the genocide of indigenous people and expect a just system? How can someone who only resists everything that is wrong with our current system transform it? How can one who only reimagines actually create in the world the visions within their mind? And lastly, how can one who only recreates learn that recreation of something means that we never arrive at the truest destination? It is through the healthy interweaving of the four “Rs” and appreciating the intersectionality of each of our issues that we build a better future for everyone where everyone is involved, intentionally. It is at this intersection that our most critical practice emerges; we must take the time to critique ourselves and reflect upon ourselves to always be refining the new systems that we create. For if we create a system that does not reflect upon and refine itself, then we have only replicated the structures before us that drove us to this brink of existence. We must recognize that we are not perfect, neither will we ever be, but introspection allows for continued improvement upon our process to become an increasingly equitable process to develop an equitable product. Let us never forget the process over the outcome.

Clip from the song “Ubaka Hill”, Artist Unknown. Lyric two, three, and four added by Jodi Lasseter. Performers are left to right, Connie Leeper, Jodi Lasseter, and Elijah Brunson.