By Julie Maldonado
August 30, 2016
A common way to explain something often starts with, “Let me tell you a story.” Storytelling is one of our oldest and most basic forms of communication. It is how we remember, learn, teach, and experience the world. Stories are often deeply personal, lived realities. So how can coming together to share stories help during this critical time for our earth’s climate system? How can storytelling foster the creation of and inform a just transition to a clean energy economy?
Some of the answers were revealed to me in July 2016, as I journeyed along with 23 other Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates, activists, and community workers – from youth to elders – across the United States on the Protect Our Public Lands Tour: For a Just and Renewable Energy Future, a project launched out of the collaboration between the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), Food and Water Watch, Paper Rocket Productions, the Native American Producers Alliance, the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, and the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking.
A Navajo/Hopi film crew (Paper Rocket Productions) filmed the tour – from the site where Navajo activists showed us where they stood their ground against the development of the Desert Rock coal-fired power plant; to protesting outside the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management Office in Santa Fe where a young Navajo woman on the tour told her story of witnessing her community’s devastation just the prior week to an explosion at a fracking site causing 36 storage tanks to catch fire and forced dozens of families to evacuate; to Lake Thunderbird in Oklahoma where Absentee-Shawnee tribal members talked about resisting another pipeline, the Plains American Red River II Pipeline being laid across their sacred land, near where their ancestors’ remains were dug up and dumped into a mass grave after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded the land in the 1950s to create a lake reservoir, with tribal residents’ houses washed away and entire families forced to move; to participating in a Summit and March in Philadelphia, PA to build a clean energy revolution. For more details about the tour: go to LiKEN blog “Caravanning for Justice: Movement Building Across Communities and Regions.”
The film and short clips that will emerge to help inform a just transition to a clean energy economy, will be primarily disseminated through our community, organizational, professional, and scholarly networks, which are a key LiKEN asset. The film can be a tool for partnering organizations to use in their trainings with communities and other organizations, it can be shown in classrooms and at community forums, and help build the scholar–community and science—people iterative process of translation and communication between different knowledge systems.
While the stories shared were deeply local, what emerged during and after the tour was how stories could be leveraged through social media to build conversations, share knowledge, and create solidarity across cultures, communities, regions, and even nations.
When I returned from the tour, I turned on the computer to check the elusive email pile-up. Too overwhelmed, I did what many of us do to avoid doing something else. I clicked on Facebook. I started seeing posts from people who were not on the tour, but whom we encountered along the way, talking about the tour and sharing information with others about our activities, feeling connected whether or not they were actually on the caravan. For example, after listening to tour participants speak during a panel session at the Summit for a Clean Energy Revolution in Philadelphia, a community activist attending the Summit posted on Facebook,
“I just witnessed on of the most moving and tragic tales of this country and its people I have ever encountered. A caravan of Indigenous people traveled more than 3,000 miles to come to a climate summit in Philadelphia. There was a grandma in her 90s, children and grandchildren. They were about 30 all told from many nations. Each one had stories to tell of how the white corporate structure and all the white consumers who support that structure has effected and affected them personally. They were in tears as they talked. I was in tears. The audience was in tears. And as their stories carried into what should have been the next session, no one moved to stop them, and the audience grew…We’ve walked out on these people too many times, and for me, nothing is more important than hearing and telling their stories.”
Turning to some of the posts my friends shared about our caravan, I was struck in particular by one from a friend who is witnessing her homeland in Alaska sit on the frontlines of climate change,
“There is nothing more attractive to me than Native people devoting their hearts & minds to defend our climate, lands, and a plan for renewable energy. Quyanaq to all the friends involved in “Protect Our Public Lands Tour” and “Clean Energy Summit”. Your work makes all of our work so much more effective and meaningful.”
I readily saw through my feed that my friends and colleagues had now become Facebook friends with other people who were on the tour, and that they were sharing each other’s posts. That is not particularly spectacular itself. But what is significant is when an Indigenous activist on the tour posted about resistance efforts in North Dakota against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry half a million barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota to Illinois, threatening Standing Rock Indian Nation’s water sources, land, and health.
One of my colleagues, a scholar-activist who works in Appalachia shared this post, and, in turn, an Appalachian activist who is a friend of hers shared the post, commenting in the text box, “in solidarity.” This activist had not been part of this particular struggle before. But the words flashed on my screen, “in solidarity.”
In those two words – in solidarity – their stories were tied together, linked across cultures, time zones, histories, and geographic boundaries. They were connected, no longer in isolation. There is no quantified result of this type of journey and collaborative efforts. There is however, knowing that thousands of miles apart we can be present within a common struggle. With a grounded foundation, we can leverage these efforts to build awareness, share knowledge, and stand in solidarity across cultures, communities, regions, and even nations, to infuse environmental justice into the transition to a post-carbon, clean energy economy.