(This summer, our Michigan team is working with GreenNation on the Green Economy Leadership Training program. This entry was written by GELT-er Ayoola White. Cross-posted on Solutionaries.net)

Over the course of our time in Highland Park, we GELT-ers have had a variety of learning experiences: permaculture lessons, visits to nearby farms, a lecture about the danger of nuclear power, and tutorials on home weatherizations. In addition to those classes, we’ve been taking a seminar entitled “the Freedom Movement”. In this seminar, we have discussed the history of slavery, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Poor People’s campaign.

To the untrained eye, this seminar would stick out like a sore thumb when compared with everything else. After all, our overarching goal is to create a model green economy in Highland Park. What do the civil rights battles of the past have to do with the environmental struggles of today?

In actuality, social and environmental concerns have salient intersections. After all, the most disadvantaged people in the world—women, people of color, citizens of the Global South, and disabled people—will be affected first and most severely by climate change, pollution, rising ocean levels, and the like. These groups have struggled and continue to endeavor to gain political efficacy, just as blacks, women, Chicanos, and indigenous peoples did in the ‘50s and ‘60s in the United States. Attempts to solve environmental problems must take into account human communities in order to succeed. Sadly, not everyone realizes this necessity. As one workshop facilitator at the United States Social Forum noted, news regarding environmentalism covers two topics almost exclusively: politics and polar bears. People? Not so much. How can the human population as a whole deal with environmental crises if a substantial portion is so encumbered by pernicious, institutionalized forms of negligence and discrimination? The lessons from the Freedom Movement offer tools to ameliorate the situation.

In our Freedom Movement class, we’ve sharpened the valuable skill of defending our ideas. One exercise we’ve practiced is to create a short thesis—25 words or fewer. Then, we must defend that thesis for ten minutes against probing and difficult questions from our peers. With this exercise, we have to keep cool and think on our feet, much like the countless civil rights activists who made arguments for equality to people who vehemently—and sometimes violently—resisted the encroachment on their unearned privileges. Certainly, the stakes aren’t the same, but I personally appreciated this opportunity, since persuading irreconcilables to recognize the reality and urgency of climate crisis is such a burdensome yet necessary task.

Nonviolence is another key concept we’ve explored. Although environmental activism is not typically considered to be as aggressive as other forms of activism (hey, we’re treehuggers, not tree mercenaries, right?) it is vital to remember that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “Hate multiplies
 hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” We, as environmentalists, must be proactive, not reactive. Moreover, we must make connections to other movements, not simply notice parallels between them.