I just heard about a big student activism event taking place this Thursday and Friday on the campus of EMU, and reached out the organizers with a few questions. What follows is my exchange with EMU doctoral student Johnny Lupinacci.
MARK: Can you tell me a little about this event coming up at EMU?
JOHNNY: The event is really a series of events that all fit together to strengthen networks of solidarity among the people both at EMU and in the local community who take action in response to the immense unjust social and environmental suffering occurring on a daily basis. There are two major components to the event. The first is the Porter Lecture which brings visiting scholar-activist Derrick Jensen to Pease Auditorium on Thursday March 22nd at 7:30 for a lecture, titled “Civilization and Resistance”, that is open to the public. The second part of the event consists of two full days of participatory workshops and sessions framed by two themes: “Activism and Education: A Celebration at EMU” on March 23rd, and “EcoJustice as Activism” on March 24th. The entire event is being billed as “EcoJustice and Activism” which includes a variety of activities that pull several folks from both the EMU campus and the larger local community to explore how we might all work toward diverse, decentralized, and sustainable communities.
I guess it might just help if I gave you the schedule.
“ECOJUSTICE AND ACTIVISM”
Thursday March 22nd “Civilization and Resistance” – Derrick Jensen 7:30 PM @ Pease Auditorium
Friday March 23rd “Activism and Education” Porter Building @ EMU
9:00 – 9:20 AM – Welcome!
Exhibit Room Opens (This is a place for Tabling and Exhibits as well as an open meeting place where people can suggest an idea and time and schedule meeting space for any time over the course of the second day)
9:30 – 10:50 AM – Workshops
“But I’m Not an Activist” – A workshop run by S.E.P.E. about how to organize, make decisions using consensus, and utilize a campaign to train as social environmental activists.
“The Portal of Possibility and The Sacred Playgrounds” – A workshop run by the Superhero Training Academy that focuses on reclaiming public space to revitalize the commons and create avenues to invite the greater community into their activist work.
“Seedbombs Away!” – A workshop run by local folks and students who garden and make art together that will cover the basics of seed saving, planting seeds, and making and placing “seed bombs.”
11:00 – 12:20 AM – Workshops
“Bikes-EMU” – A workshop run by Bikes-EMU that covers the basics of bike maintenance, rebuilding bikes, and local riding. The workshop will also further develop a plan to distribute bikes throughout the community.
“Eco-Art Attack” – A workshop run by students and local folks who raise a ruckus together that will cover art as a form of direct action and public pedagogy. The workshop will cover some creative ways to spread a political message using mud stenciling and wheat pasting.
“Democratic Education” – A workshop run by local students and teachers who work in alternative education to offer a truly democratic education. The workshop will cover how they run all school meetings as well as use consensus and nonviolent communications as their mediation tools.
“It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop” – A workshop run by students and local folks that will share, create, and imagine possibilities for taking action with the use of words.
12:30 – 1:30 LUNCH BREAK
1:30 – 2:50 – Conversations w/ Local Elders
This session is a conversation where wise elders can address the attendees and advise. Confirmed participants include Malik Yakini, Fabayo Manzira, and Janine Palms.
3:00- 4:30 – Academia and Activism: A Workshop with Derrick Jensen
Derrick Jensen has agreed to stick around after his talk and join in the fun for the day. This workshop, like all the workshops will be open to the public, and will focus on exploring the role of the public intellectual and community activism through an open dialogue.
4:30 – 5:30 – Dinner – EcoEats
A potluck open to the public hosted by G.R.E.E.N. a student organization that has a regular activity they call EcoEats in which they gather locally grown and sourced food ingredients and cook together in the afternoon and then share that food with each other and guests.
5:00 – 7:00 – Climate Action Planning: World Café
This is a visioning session that involves EMU, Michigan Suburbs Alliance, the City of Ypsilanti, to vision as a community and develop a plan to take steps toward living sustainably as a campus.
7:00 – 9:00 – Film – If A Tree Falls
Saturday March 24th – “EcoJustice as Activism” – Porter Building @ EMU
9:00 – 12:00 – EcoJustice Education Workshops
Part 1 – Foundational Concepts in EcoJustice Education
Part 2 – Teaching for EcoJustice
12:00 – 6:00 PM – Papers, Panel Discussions and Presentations from visiting scholars and activists.
MARK: Sounds pretty ambitious… What was the impetus behind it?
JOHNNY: This year, there was an opportunity in the College of Education to bring a variety of scholar-activists to campus whose work complements, inspires, and challenges current perceptions of the role of the university. Derrick Jensen, was nominated by students and a few faculty as a possible candidate to be invited to be a part of the 2012 Porter Chair Lecture Series. When it was determined that he would be coming, I began to work with students to organize activities that would accompany his visit. As a student and educator at EMU, I wanted a way to organize students to work together to propose a way we might model participatory education. Being concerned with the deep cultural roots of the Industrialized Western culture within which we are living and enacting violence every day, I decided that teaching about this in class wasn’t enough. It was essential that we could, as students, learn situationally in local ways through which we could learn to see the ways in which our thoughts and actions either supported the living local systems or undermined them. The political climate seemed about right for something more than a lecture and so through organizing doctoral, masters, and undergrad students together with supportive faculty and key members of the community we determined it would be amazing to throw a good ole fashioned teach-in and call it a celebration. I would be totally lying if I told you there weren’t other impetuses behind this organizing, but all I can say at this point is that support and inspiration from the Occupy movement and local the formation of a local OY play a huge part in what is to come.
MARK: Can you tell us a little about Jensen, for those of us who aren’t familiar with his work?
JOHNNY: Well, given that the basic gist of the work that Jensen puts out there can be easily found on his website, I won’t go too in depth. Derrick Jensen is a writer with a lot to say about how we are a part of a violently unjust, fundamentally unsustainable culture. From his books to his regular articles in the widely read environmental magazine Orion, he consistently reminds us that we are all too at ease with abusing each other, ourselves, and—most of all—the living systems upon which our existence depends. I think there are a lot of reasons that his work is relevant, but it is important to understand the position from which he is coming from. Jensen (2005), in an interview titled “Bringing Down Civilization” published by No Compromise, states:
“I want to bring down civilization. It’s really clear that civilization is killing the planet. I’m interested in living in a world that has more wild salmon every year than the year before. A world that has more migratory songbirds every year than the year before. A world that has less dioxins and flame retardants in mothers’ breast milk. A world not being destroyed. A world where krill populations aren’t collapsing. A world where there are not dead zones in the oceans. A world not being systematically dismantled. I want to live in a world that is not being killed. I will do whatever it takes to get there.”
So, there is a massive need for educators to closely examine the cultural roots of what Jensen is referring to as “civilization”, and for them to not only recognize the role they play in reproducing a culture that is killing each other and the planet but also to recognize how they can play a critical and ethical role in changing the cultural habits that reinforce relationships shaped by racism, sexism, ableism, and speciesm, to name a few. The point is that these relationships are shaped by habits of mind that are culturally constructed in an understanding of “self” that means to exist is to be fully human—which in the case of the civilization Jensen is referring to, the one many of us all are born into and reproduce on the daily, means to exist as an individual. This idea of self as an individual is incredibly isolating and is a false construction of our biological existence. Derrick Jensen suggests: “If we wish to stop the atrocities, we will need to understand and change the social and economic conditions that cause them” (Jensen, 2004 p. xxi). Jensen (2000), writing about hope beyond the violence of modern human culture, suggests we confront our assumptions about existing as individuals separate from and superior to the greater ecological systems to which we belong. Jensen writes:
It is not possible to recover from atrocity in isolation. It is, in fact, precisely this isolation that induces the atrocities. If we wish to stop the atrocities, we need merely step away from isolation. There is whole world waiting for us, ready to welcome us home It has missed us sorely as we have missed it. And it is time to return.
The point here articulated by Derrick Jensen is that isolation must be understood as illusionary, or as anything but natural, in order for us to engage in relationships that reject authoritarian assumptions about human nature and practice relationships based on mutualism and respect for each other and the living systems to which we belong. Jensen’s work in vivid detail illustrates that how we think and act can be historically traced, as well as critically and ethically examined for how we either support or undermine living systems.
I’m not sure if this is enough, but I will say this: the basic premise for bringing Jensen to EMU through the College of Education is that there is an awful lot of colonizing going on through our schools and by examining this critically and ethically and connecting this examination with action, we can support efforts to decolonize schooling in our communities. The other part is that lately Jensen has been writing with other activists to promote a movement they refer to as “Deep Green Resistance”. This work is more thoroughly explored in the book co-written with activist, small-scale farmers Lierre Keith and Aric McBay titled Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet (2011). Keith describes Deep Green Resistance as a movement inspired by years of Jensen’s question of whether the current culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of life. Deep Green Resistance is informed activism that moves from ethical inquiry about why things are the way they are, to action aimed at changing the dominant culture. The movement identifies as being one for those who no longer have the patience to wait for change in fear that the planet will be destroyed beyond repair if action is not taken immediately.
MARK: How actively engaged were EMU students in the planning of the event? And what’s the response been on campus?
JOHNNY: Students have been responding with great excitement and interest. The days of seeing activism as a social stigma, or as some unnecessary hobby that people take up for selfish reasons may still linger among some students, but the overall response has been more supportive than I could have ever imagined. Students are tired of wasting money going to school to be bored and fed useless information toward a so-called career that just isn’t going to be around for them. There seems to be a general agreement that “schooling” from early childhood through college needs to be decolonized. As conversations to organize in response to the growing dissatisfaction with schooling, especially with teacher education, became both more frequent and intense it just seemed logical that the next step was to do something.
Yes, students have been and are involved in each and every step of the organizing, the planning, and the actual day itself. The key here is that students are not only participants but they are the leaders. Mainly students like Erica Mooney and the young-bloods in G.R.E.E.N and S.E.P.E. working together with masters and doctoral students in the Educational Studies Urban Education program. Certainly faculty are partnering but not as the leaders. Students get to call the shots and grow into what it feels like and requires doing this sort of work. So that means both making mistakes and an unleashing of an amazing creative energy that seems to emanate from the students.
In short, the idea here is that while many of these sorts of events take place in the community all the time, (Ann Arbor Free Skool and Reskilling Festivals to name a few) they are not exactly happening in ways that connect students to those experiences as a part of their college education. Really what is means to go to college is in question these days and rightfully so. This event is to pay respect to those in the community who for a long time have been working and providing these types of experiences for local folks, but what is far overdue is for future teachers who are in school being femtored and mentored as educators, and not programmed to be drones or prison guards in what we currently call schools, to identify as agents of change and as critical members of the local community. Hopefully being a part of an event like this will help connect students with the community and connect students, faculty, and community members with the local activists so that we may strengthen the networks of solidarity and transition toward a sustainable Ypsilanti.
MARK: I know it probably makes me an asshole, but, generally speaking, I find myself thinking poorly of young people today. It’s good to be reminded that, in spite of whatever trends may be playing out at a high level, there are good, young people who are willing to engage with the wider community and fight for what’s right. Speaking of those larger trends, in case you didn’t catch it, there was a study that came out yesterday, drawing on survey work done over the past several decades by researchers at the University of Michigan and UCLA. Here’s a clip from an article about the study that just ran in USA Today:
The debate over today’s Millennial generation — altruistic and civic-minded or materialistic and self-absorbed? — seems to never end. In the latest installment: a study that says the popular view of young adults as more caring, interested in social issues and concerned about the environment compared to previous generations is mostly false.
Published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study finds Millennials (born 1982-2000) more civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values, and less concerned about helping the larger community than were GenX (born 1962-1981) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to about 1961) at the same ages.
It does find “some good trends,” such as a rise in volunteering and a decline in prejudice based on race, gender, and sexual orientation — the result of more individualism, says Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, one of the study’s authors.
But even the good news about volunteering comes with a caveat: “it has this outside force working on it —school requirements,” says Twenge, author of the 2007 book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before.
While “there are certainly individual exceptions” to this image of young adults, she says, “overall, the pattern is pretty clear.The trend is more of an emphasis on extrinsic values such as money, fame, and image, and less emphasis on intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, group affiliation and community”…
In the freshman survey, the proportion of students who said being wealthy was very important to them increased from 45% for Baby Boomers (surveyed between 1966 and 1978) to 70% for Gen X and 75% for Millennials. The percentage who said it was important to keep up to date with political affairs fell, from 50% for Boomers to 39% for Gen X and 35% for Millennials…
I realize that students today are facing a different economic reality upon graduation, and that may be influencing their behavior/views, and I try, as best that I can, to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it just seems to me that they should be in the streets, demanding change, like young people were in the 80′s, over issues like nuclear proliferation and our government’s support of South African apartheid. I guess my question to you, as an educator, is how do we overcome apathy and fear, and both empower and motivate young people to break with this trend, and start to fight for change.
JOHNNY: So you are a man of my own heart, because I could – and would totally love to — talk about this all day and night. The important thing that stands out from this question is that there has always been and there will always be dissent. This is true for all of history, we just don’t always share or pass on these stories. I find that the study reminds us that “individualism” – the deeply rooted notion that we are separate and superior to everyone and everything else — combines with “rationalism” – a specific line of thinking emerging from the Enlightenment era, combined with today’s hyper-consumer “capitalism” has come to dominate not only how we understand each other, but how we relate to everything in the world. The good news is that we are being confronted with it in ways that cannot be ignored. The bad news is that this is not a new problem. It has been the root of the problems you protested in the 80s and our comrades protested in 60s and 70s. So a huge part of this endeavor is to reconnect with the idea that human nature is being defined for us in very limiting ways. As humans we have the capacity to act in extreme self-interest as well as the capacity to act in efforts of mutual aid. So, in other words, we are not simply caring and compassionate or vicious and violent creatures. We are complex beings with the capacity to be agents of change in a world that has us thinking that we are either competitors or we are mutual partners. So, as an educator, I try each day to work to provide opportunities, or experiences, to address the potential in all of us to live in ways that support diverse, decentralized, and sustainable relationships. Basically, an alternative to forcing children or young adults to work in the community in ways that reinforce the idea that without authority we could not care for each other or for the environment that simply reproduces the fear and apathy. I mean the consequences are not a secret. People understand that we are hurting each other, the oceans, and the land. What often becomes the solution to the desire to change is to force people to change. This approach, sometimes painfully referred to as service learning, is contributing to the feeling that our youth are just not interested or they are disengaged. However, I have found the exact opposite to be true. When the authoritarian approach is not taken with youth and they are empowered through experiences in which they can explore creativity, imagination, and alternative histories and understandings of their existence and the place in which they dwell with guidance from elders and non-authority hungry educators, they grow to recognize, respect, and represent something very different than what we often assume of them. Now, I don’t want that to sound too romantic. Our youth are exposed to insane amounts of advertisements and messages that tell them they need to look out for number one, and that the only thing that matters is money and that they need to fight to secure lots of it—for themselves. However, this myth is sadly coming to an end and lots of suffering is witnessed on a day-to-day basis. Youth, in growing numbers, are asking why. If educators resist staying the course that has us inundating our youth with information that is not relevant to the world we are experiencing, or that our children’s children will live in, then the questions become: What do we do? and When is enough, enough? I don’t have these answers, but I have a steadfast belief that if we connect with each other and ask each other what it is that future generations will say about us, we can begin to act locally in diverse ways around valuing and understanding how to think and act according to concepts like diversity, reciprocity, mutual aid, and sustainability then we have the opportunity to shift this culture out of a very destructive era of humanity. So while I am not completely certain it will come without a fight, I would like to think that by reframing the way we work with youth and empowering them through connecting collaboratively to a diversity of local histories and lived experiences in connection with the responsibility to belong to, protect, and contribute to a healthy community we can bring about a massive change. A change that doesn’t look the same everywhere but a change that sees power shifted from centralized authorities to the local – the land, the animals, the people, and the future generations of the living system.
[A heartfelt plea from Mark Maynard: If you haven't already, there's still time to click here and vote to send me to this year's Netroots Nation conference.]