Choose action over despair

  • April 19, 2021
  • |
  • Mike Harley

The news of Daunte Wright’s killing at the hands of police has left me fighting a deep feeling of despair. This reaction goes far beyond sadness and it frightens me for its potential to overwhelm and paralyze me. I know that this demoralizing despair has the power to prevent me from showing up in a time that demands action for justice, and I do not want to give into it.

As I fought to resist that despair, I felt compelled to reach out to Black leaders, friends and allies who I have come to know in recent years through Environmental Initiative’s work. To be honest, I didn’t know what else to do. My notes to them were a chance to express gratitude for their work and for our relationships, to express concern for their wellbeing, and to ask what more I can do and what more Environmental Initiative can do for racial justice.

Among the many beautiful responses, one came mostly as a challenge. I was asked what I will do to let go of the narrative of “Minnesota exceptionalism” that claims that this is a great place to live – full of lakes and parks and bike infrastructure – with the footnote of “unless you are Black, brown or indigenous.” The killing of Daunte Wright and so many other Black lives before this is just one expression of how systemic racism is a deep part of the truth of who we are as a state and how little we value Black lives. That same structural racism also takes Black lives through environmental injustice that places disproportionate burden on those of us who are not white. It is time to stop treating that injustice as a footnote or an exception to the rule of our exceptionalism, and to acknowledge that it is a core truth of this place and of the systems we have designed and continue to maintain. It is time to commit ourselves to action to rebuild those systems, not as an afterthought but as the core of our work.

I am trying to choose honest acknowledgment of the hard truth and choosing to take increased action for racial justice rather than sinking into despair or clinging to a narrative that Daunte’s murder is somehow an aberration, To me, taking action means looking to my relationships with Black leaders and following their lead when they ask for what they need. I feel blessed to be in an organization that is embracing social and racial justice as core to our mission and that acknowledges our environmental work can be meaningful only if we can follow our relationships in communities of color, Tribal Nations and rural communities. We learn from people who are most impacted and excluded from the decisions that impact them.

For all of these reasons, I am not writing this blog post as a statement of outrage or solidarity, but instead to invite you to help make a bigger difference for our community and for racial justice in this moment of great suffering and hard truths. I invite you to find opportunities to speak the truth of the pervasive racism that cuts short or holds back too many Black lives. I invite you to seek out actions you can take to dismantle white supremacy and support Black, brown and indigenous leaders.

If you feel called to support the Brooklyn Center community and Daunte Wright’s family and friends, there are many internet and social media resources, including this compilation provided by the Sahan Journal.

I also want to share a few examples of increased action we are taking at Environmental Initiative.

We are providing financial support to the George Floyd Murder Listening Circle convened by James Trice. James is CEO of the Public Policy Project and cofounder of the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council (EJCC). James and members of EJCC have been among Environmental Initiative’s greatest influences and partners as we work to center racial and environmental justice. Our staff leadership team sees this support as an expression of our allyship with James and with the Black community, and as reflection of our growing understanding of what it means to join with the Black community in the work of racial and environmental justice. We are also working with James to raise additional funding for the Listening Circle KARE-11 recently featured from our donors and from our peers in white-led, mainstream environmental organizations. I am happy to report that the response has been strong.

We are providing financial support for the work of Roxxanne O’Brien, who is a mother of three children and a leader in the fight for environmental justice (EJ) in North Minneapolis. Roxxanne has been a partner and advisor in Environmental Initiative’s work for a number of years, including our work on air quality, and she led an EJ tour of North Minneapolis for our staff in 2019. She was a key organizer around the elevation of the Northern Metals facility, and she has been an activist on issues that holistically affect her family and community, including policy and police violence, homelessness, and gentrification. Together with Shalini Gupta, Roxxanne is a cofounder of Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ), a community-based coalition committed to addressing the environmental injustices occurring disproportionately in pollution-burdened neighborhoods in the city of Minneapolis. CMEJ has conducted impactful youth engagement programs, EJ tours of North Minneapolis, state and local policy campaigns and community building efforts. A current campaign of CMEJ aims to end the use of tear gas as chemical warfare by police in communities of color. Roxxanne is committed to raise funds for CMEJ to support the time and work of numerous women of color in the community. Roxxanne is also on the staff of Juxtaposition Arts, and donations to CMEJ can be directed to Juxtaposition Arts at 2007 Emerson Ave N. Minneapolis, MN 55411, with a note about the designation for CMEJ.

If you are interested in discussing our approach or supporting work like this, please contact me by email or telephone.

I hope that you will take to heart the choices that each of us have as we grapple with despair and as we strive to make a greater difference for racial justice. I hope that you are reaching across racial and cultural divisions in our community to build relationships that have the power to heal those divisions. Most of all, I hope that you also understand racial justice as essential and necessary work and that you will join Environmental Initiative in reaching toward our vision where: Relationships foster an inclusive, just, and thriving world for all beings.

I know that both I, personally, and Environmental Initiative as an organization, have a long way to go toward fully living out that vision, and I have confidence that it is possible if we can journey together.

In relationship,

Mike signature

Mike Harley