5 Things the Climate Movement Could Learn from DeRay McKesson

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of hearing DeRay McKesson speak at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (learn more).

He gave us a Social Justice Movement Action List, and also gave some great tips outside the list. I’ve been thinking about how to apply some of his teaching to climate change work. Because it is, deeply and profoundly, social justice work. So here are my thoughts on five of his points. I’m hoping to expand on the rest in a later post:

1. Privilege is about the idea that some people have a right to comfort, at the expense of others.

Folks are determined to keep their lives the same, until the effects of climate change are forced upon them. They are sure their right to comfort matters more than their children’ right to a future, more than than their neighbors’ right to clean air and water. We have to break down the idea that my right to comfort supersedes your right to exist.

2.Create on-ramps for people.

This is huge for a movement as broad and deep as the climate movement. In Parents for the Planet, we call this “welcoming all the stories.” I shouldn’t care whether what resonates for me is the same as what resonates for you, as long as we’re both on the bus. Maybe for you it’s public lands, for me it’s healthcare costs. So I need to listen to you well enough to know what on-ramps I need to provide, based on, as Katharine Hayhoe says, your values, not mine. Then I need to be prepared to talk about public lands, not healthcare costs. I need to reflect your values rather than imposing mine or assuming that mine are the only valid ones in the conversation.

3. Never let the system off the hook. 

This struck me hard. He said ‘don’t get addicted to the programs. Systems love programs because they can’t be operated at scale, so they’re no real threat. How many programs do we have in climate response that are appeasing but unscalable? So many. We have thousands of small-scale great programs doing small-scale great work, keeping us and our money and our attention busy. And that money and attention isn’t then focused on demanding that the systems change at a larger scale. We’re busy, incremental change is being made, and the systems can proceed on their destructive paths without real interference from us.

4. Stop talking about preaching to the choir as if it’s a bad thing. 

"Make the biggest choir possible. Choir is work, and we need all the workers. Turn mumbles into melodies. People are waiting to join the choir." 

We have a plurality of people that agree with us, but we don’t have enough people acting with us. We need to move the folks whispering on the sidelines into the choir and worry less about the people that are singing something else. If we get a big enough choir, we won’t be able to hear that other song anyway. We must give ourselves permission to concentrate on the people we can convince to act. Because there are so many of them.

5. It’s easy to tell the truth to strangers. It’s harder to tell the truth to your friends. 

It’s one thing to give a great talk. It’s one thing to connect climate to real-time events on social media. It’s a BIG other to integrate that conversation into your everyday life with your friends, with people you meet on the street, etc. But that’s how we make this real and tangible for people, that’s how we model concern and action. If it doesn’t mean enough for us to talk about it even though it makes us socially uncomfortable, we’re right back at point #1. 

Does Mr. McKesson have all the answers? Is Mr. McKesson perfect? No. Neither am I, neither are you. He had some powerful things to say and some interesting ways to say them. We need to keep listening to and supporting and learning from each other, within the climate movement and beyond to the greater social justice movement. We need to evolve. And quickly.

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