What does it mean to resist even when you know you can’t overcome injustice? I heard this question last week while part of a group discussion of systemic racism. It’s been lingering in my mind, as I wrestle with what I’m called to do for ecological justice.
I frequently hear a related question when I talk with people about making changes in their lifestyle to live more justly and sustainably within the planet’s resources. They ask, why should I make sacrifices, when nothing I do will affect the ecological injustices of species extinction, climate change, pollution, and habitat loss, and their related social injustices of poverty, starvation, population migration, lack of access to drinking water, and the disproportionate impacts of weather extremes. When I’m being honest, I must admit I struggle with the question, too.
As I’ve wrestled with these two questions, I’ve discovered there’s a big difference between them. The latter one implies I expect to see a benefit for doing something. In other words, my actions should bear fruit. My effort should be rewarded. I should see a result. I don’t want to make the effort to act unless it will make a difference. I’ve begun to realize this perspective comes from a life experience of having our society’s systems work for me.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t have obstacles to overcome. As a woman trying to make her way in the world of engineering, sometimes there was no connection between what I received and how hard or well I worked. How do you prove your worth as an intern engineer, when the staff engineers assign you a typing tutorial to learn? How do you “win” the client, when they won’t shake your hand or talk with you because you’re a woman? I faced challenges, but I was still lucky to be born late enough in the 20th century that I had opportunities women born a few years earlier did not. And I was lucky to be a white, cisgender woman. My first real opportunity came when an older, white man helped me because I “reminded him of his daughter.” My friends who were women engineers of color weren’t so lucky.
In general, the system worked for me, so for many years I remained bound by the idea that I’m supposed to accomplish something. If I didn’t, then it was my fault or failing. Like many people, I was indoctrinated in this perspective from the time I was a little girl. I was told I could overcome any obstacle if I just worked hard enough. In all types of media, I was fed stories of the self-made “man” and the lone hero who rights the wrongs of the world. In school I was taught the story of the U.S. as a place where people beat overwhelming odds to win freedom, conquer the land, and achieve the American dream. At work I was given goals and objectives, with the assumption that I would achieve them and be rewarded.
There is an element of truth in all I was taught, but by themselves, these teachings mythologize the systems in which we live. Many people have been and continue to be excluded from the potential and promise of our systems by the ignoble, unjust, and violent practices that are also part of the story. If I’d been born earlier in the 20th century, I could not have been an engineer no matter how hard I worked. Accepting the perspective that my efforts should yield results may have led me either to self-destruction as I overworked myself without getting anywhere, or the inaction of hopelessness because nothing I did mattered. Burnout or hopelessness is where I find many people today, when it comes to challenging the systemic and global ecological injustices our systems impose on people and the planet. At times I experience these feelings, too.
It’s a situation appropriate for my opening question, “What does it mean to resist even when you know you can’t overcome injustice?” This question doesn’t presuppose that what I do will effect change in the unjust system. And yet, it still demands a response. I’ve come to understand that limits imposed on black, indigenous, and other people of color by systemic racism for generations have made them experts in responding to this question. I have a lot to learn from them, as I wrestle with what I’m called to do in response to ecological injustice.
The root of ecological injustices is a system of greed built on the exploitation of land and people. Part of working for ecological justice is figuring out how to live within that system without acquiescing to it. I’m only a beginner, but here are a few things I’ve learned from BIPOC friends about resisting an unjust system.
1. Show up. This means learning about and seeing the injustices and acknowledging they’re a part of my life. Showing up is the start of becoming intentional in how I live.
2. Be in community with people who share my desire for a lifestyle that is just for all life on Earth. None of us can resist by ourselves. We survive together.
3. Within my daily tasks, make small changes to counter the status quo, even if they don’t seem to matter, because they change me and how I see myself. When I change, it affects those around me and has ripple effects beyond what I can see.
4. Define for myself who I am and how I will live, and don’t accept the definitions others assign to me.
For now, I’ve been thinking of resistance as a soccer game. In the privileged perspective of the US, I want to be the person who scores the goal - the one who changes the law, stops pollution, saves the ecosystem, and rights the wrongs. Like the striker on a soccer team, these people exist, but they are few and far between. And they score only because somebody passed the ball to them.
I and most people are the remainder of the team. We pass the ball around and work together with others in the game. We keep the ball in play. We defend it. We try to move it toward the goal. Sometimes we make progress; other times, we make mistakes. We lose the ball altogether and must try again. In the process, we build skills, strength, and endurance. And when our time is done, we turn the game over to others. Occasionally, we have the opportunity to pass the ball to someone in position, at the right time and place, to “score.”
What I’ve learned from my BIPOC friends is that sitting out the game is not an option. Just by virtue of being alive in this world, we’re already in the game. When it comes to ecological justice, each of us use the gifts of creation every moment of every day in the form of food, water, material goods, and all we have in this world. The way we use these things declares whether we’re playing for the wholeness and well-being of all people and life that share this planet with us or the benefit of ourselves and a select group of people. Either way, we’re in the game. I’m starting to understand that the ultimate act of resistance is to do something for a just reason, even if, and maybe especially when, you know it can’t overcome injustice.