(Tompkins Weekly, 11-22-23, by Cathleen Banford)
Recently I was asked to develop an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion outline to share with our newest Sustainable Finger Lakes board members. Building Bridges provided us with a “Walking Our Talk” workshop a few years ago and this outline will also explore overlapping content, but there is always more to learn.
“Working to create justice is a gift to the land,” noted author Robin Wall Kimmerer as she visited Cornell’s Ithaca campus to share insights about Restoration and Reciprocity and Land Justice. She eloquently highlighted important ideas about land restoration and the need for “Re-storyation: historical and contemporary,” including the importance of “Engaging with Indigenous people to identify stories, names and relationships with land” to better understand Indigenous world views.
We listened to Kimmerer’s story about a plant called “tortoise eats it,” which teaches how “Indigenous languages are a repository of ecological knowledge. “She emphasized the importance of a two lens perspective, Western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge. TEK is an Indigenous world view of “land as home, land as source of knowledge, land as sacred, land as moral responsibility, land as inspirited, land as identity, land as sustainer, land as residence of non-human relatives, land as ancestral connection, land as healer.” Kimmerer reminds us that the most biodiverse spaces in the world are homelands of Indigenous peoples who have lived synergistically with local ecologies; by example they provide vital teachings in the face of our climate crisis. Kimmerer adds, “It’s not only the land which is broken but the relationship to land.”
Experiencing reciprocal relationships changes thought patterns, which is necessary work towards healing collective trauma. Relationships also require presence, authenticity, mutually shared contexts, and an honest appreciation of circumstances. Relationships built on trust are more resilient and better equipped to endure change.
Imagine more people rethinking social climates that are intentionally divisive, emotionally charged and that prey on the vulnerabilities of people living with challenges. Many are refusing to buy into negativity as evidenced by the growing numbers of young people peacefully casting their votes. Actively refusing to encourage or perpetuate exclusionary hateful rhetoric takes imagination. What if all of us felt valued in our lives? Thankfully artists such as photographer Nydia Blas (who grew up in Ithaca) exist. Blas’s work, such as her series The Girls Who Spun Gold, is poignant and transformative. Her photography tells magical stories about positive identity and self-worth and conveys a determined and resilient attitude in the face of racism. Pushing past the confines of others takes courage. Artists often lead the way, and tune us in to what really matters.
Almost a century ago, Eleanor Roosevelt diligently made the effort to understand perspectives different from her own. Cultivating healthy relationships was especially valuable during the Great Depression, and Eleanor Roosevelt worked tirelessly to heal relationships at a systems level. She courageously showed up to build trust and maintain authentic relationships. She observed, listened deeply, gave voice to those who were voiceless, and worked to hold people accountable to human decency. She sought to understand people’s circumstances and she conscientiously changed her behaviors as she learned.
What if Eleanor Roosevelt had been president? Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s chief advisor, Louis Howe, did actually encourage her to run for president.
Diverse women and men found ways to work together in the 1930s to improve people’s experiences. Howe observed that, “Women had actually transformed the political game. They want and demand facts, they want their facts free of rhetoric and confusion… They were always skeptical. They went door to door, in every community, armed with literature and prepared to debate any question with intelligence.” He goes on, ” …Their devotion, their intelligence, their tireless activities. And if the issues continue to be as they are now – humanitarian, educational, and all the other features of the New Deal…a woman might not only be nominated but elected on the grounds that they better understand such questions.” People with lived experience better understand the issues they face.
When FDR didn’t request Eleanor’s silence on certain issues, she resolved to share her opinion. “…I have always believed ignorance was a sure way to fall victim to propaganda. I do not believe in communism, because I do believe in freedom and in our form of government, but I did not attain that loyalty through repression.” She also acknowledged that she battled an inferiority complex for years. When she asked her daughter Anna what she most wanted for her own daughter, Anna replied she wanted “freedom from any sense of superiority or inferiority to any group of people, and a sense of values that will help her to be tolerant, useful and happy.” They both faced negative mindsets and difficult feelings, pursued a strong sense of self awareness and dared to imagine themselves as being relevant and interconnected with others.
I’ve always dreamed of being more, designing better ways of being together in life; I imagine that most people in the world dream this way. The dream wouldn’t be complete were I to design initiatives in isolation. There’s a magic that happens when communities creatively invent their way into a better future. I know from experience that collective trauma can be a huge motivator for change. It also can inhibit people’s will to connect and dream.
In a recent virtual event honoring Joanna Macy’s “The Work that Reconnects,” I experienced a taste of her beautifully creative approach intentionally designed to empower people and awaken opportunities. Discovering meaningful connection feeds a healthier sense of self, and inspires people to create. Shared experiences such as writing poetry together feel like living with abundance, empathy and joy.
Authenticity and reciprocity are fundamental to Macy’s work; people resonate with this because living with a sense of possibility is compelling. Living with rigid expectations (such as being a quiet, dutiful wife in the1930s) can feel dehumanizing.
We are profoundly impacted by the stories we hear and tell ourselves. For example, dismissing people’s need to belong or refusing to acknowledge their value, greatly inhibits their ability to engage collaboratively. Collaboration may feel more like an unknown, unattainable expectation. Erosive environments pique people’s defenses on all sides and relationships can become toxic; whole organizations may become stuck in patterns that perpetuate inequality.
Accountability to the well-being of people and place grows the potential for people to feel valued and appreciated. Conscientiously embedding space for mutual authenticity provides opportunities for people to build trusting relationships. Being invitational creates space for people with varied lived experiences or differing perspectives to contribute to the overall design and increases the potential for organizations and communities to thrive.
Reimagining and co-creating challenges people; being invitational is a leap of faith and it all requires stamina. Learning from each other helps to identify erosive cycles at a systems level, and facing challenges helps to realize what’s possible. I’m grateful when people authentically connect, honor each other’s identity, recognize each other’s purpose, and for people who breath life affirming energy into our community. Just as with pollinator habitats, resilience happens in the midst of diversity, it looks like all types of people together, creating space for responsive strategies to emerge. Aren’t we nature after all?
Cathleen is a board member of Sustainable Finger Lakes and a liaison with Building Bridges.
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