In 2012, the Pachamama Alliance, a U.S.-based organization working in partnership with indigenous Achuar people in Ecuador, published a meme showing two native men discussing a new “scientific discovery”: the fact that our world is deeply interconnected. The joke, of course, is the idea that these scientists could “discover” a concept that is age-old wisdom for indigenous peoples across the world. I was delighted by the two-fold genius of the cartoon, the way it both highlights the importance of understanding the world we live in while pointedly calling out the dangers of cultural and intellectual appropriation.
This question of intersectionality isn’t the first time that science is playing catch-up to traditional knowledge, and it won’t be the last. As Pachamama Alliance’s accompanying blog explains: “Scientific research is bringing knowledge of the natural world full circle, offering biological and theoretical authority to the enduring truth of indigenous wisdom.” Yet, among all of these enduring truths, intersectionality is one of the most central. “Perhaps the most universal indigenous perspective is the idea of a world inextricably interconnected, on all levels, and across time,” the Pachamama Alliance wrote.
As an organizer in the climate justice movement and, more recently, in the migrant justice movement, I often think about how ancient wisdom translates into my analysis, my actions and my commitment to the slow time of resistance and healing. I see interconnectedness manifested in multiple ways: in the systems of oppression we’re fighting against, such as white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy; in our complicated identities; and within our own relationships. I also trust that all our organizing could benefit from not only a firm understanding of what intersectionality is, but also ways to translate this analysis into our various struggles and daily organizing.
The origins of intersectionality
In 1989, African-American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe these deeply intertwined connections. As she reminds us, the theory already existed, but her own experiences led her to give it a name. According to the textbook definition, intersectionality is: “the view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity.”
At the time Crenshaw was developing this term, she observed decades of erasure in the mainstream feminist movement — an organizing space in which “women of color are invisible in plain sight.” Thirty years later, intersectional organizing remains significant and much needed in feminist circles, where mainstream feminism still too often ignores the overlapping realities of class and race and culture. (One example that’s close to home for me is some white European feminists’ growing obsession with “saving” us poor Arab women from ourselves through actions like FEMEN posing shirtless in the streets of Europe to liberate Muslim sisters from the so-called dictatorship of the veil. By imposing their own cultural norms, these western feminists establish themselves as the moral authority while erasing our own cultures and traditions and my sisters’ right to choose for themselves whether or not they wear the veil.)
But the idea of intersectionality is obviously also helpful beyond feminism. In the climate justice movement, an analysis of intersectionality helps explain why we cannot simply fight for a greener, cleaner version of this current system by reducing emissions, stopping deforestation and shifting to renewable energies like wind and solar. The collapse of our ecosystems and disasters like hurricanes and oil spills have always impacted certain people more than others. Usually, it’s also those very communities who have less access to resources –– such as reliable housing –– that would help them survive the economic devastation that comes with ecological collapse. We saw this disproportionate impact in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, in the Rockaways in New York City after Hurricane Sandy. Climate justice and land defense, as opposed to environmentalism, are rooted in this knowledge that environmental degradation perpetuates already existing social and economic injustices. So the solutions must follow suit.
As an example, let’s look at how land defense and land reclamation movements grow out of an intersectional analysis. The issue of inequality in land ownership exists because of multiple intersectional oppressions. Colonialism, which is the theft and appropriation of lands, relies on white supremacy –– ideas like manifest destiny, which teach that the white race deserves these lands. The resulting inequality in land ownership has led to the ecological destruction of whole swaths of lands and the acceleration of climate change. In response, land defense and land reclamation movements that support the struggle of native nations for sovereignty and the right to self-determination offer a path to fight climate change while also dismantling colonialism and white supremacy at the same time.
Those leading the way
Luckily for us, there are some groups leading the way in putting these politics of intersectionality into practice. The Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project in the Bay Area, for example, seeks to organize around ecological crisis in a way that also works toward economic and racial justice in communities of color while honoring leadership from the margins.
Gopal Dayaneni, one of Movement Generation’s core collective members, explains to me that the group’s approach is rooted in the knowledge that all issues, people and living beings are parts of a unified whole. He points out that today’s breakdown in personal relationships creates “broken bonds with one another [that then] allow for our disassociation from other relationships” –– such as our relationship to the ecosystems that we depend on for our survival. Movement Generation sees these broken bonds as the central problem of our time. As a result, much of the group’s work centers on bringing people together through retreat strategy sessions and workshops, as well as earth-based skill sharing like rainwater harvesting. Through these gatherings and conversations, people explore common purposes and move beyond their separate, disconnected silos.
Dayaneni specifies that one of the group’s solutions focuses on moving towards a “regenerative land-based economy,” recognizing that many on the front lines of economic inequalities, such as migrants, come from land-based economies themselves. Creating a garden in a vacant lot close to home serves to not only address direct economic needs, it also calls on migrant communities’ traditional and ancestral knowledge of land and work.
According to Dayaneni, this type of intersectional organizing shouldn’t be considered the unattainable ideal, but rather the only way forward. “It isn’t just a win-win,” he said. “It’s the only way out. We face a truly existential crisis, and we simply don’t have time or resources to afford to not address the root causes.”
Weaving together our work and each other
The big question is how this understanding of intersectionality can translate into our work and relationships on the ground. From my organizing and that of others, I have observed a few methods that work well.
On a personal level, we have to slow down and educate ourselves so that we can name the toxic systems within which we exist. We have to relearn the real histories of the land, of resistance movements and what it has taken for communities survive. We must also take the time to talk through all of the connections so that we can build a deeper analysis of the crises we face. During this process, it’s important that we commit to the slow time of genuine relationship-building, especially as we learn to walk into communities that we’re not a part of in respectful ways. From there, we create space to truly hear each other’s stories and bring people together in ways that, as Dayaneni says, “we can see ourselves in each other.”
As we come together, we must remember: Intersectionality isn’t only structural. It is also personal. Most of us carry within us overlapping layers of privilege and oppression. As a migrant woman of color born into a working-class family, I may understand what being on the front lines of multiple oppressions looks like, but I also have the privilege of the economic and social access that my college education, mixed race and part of family’s transition into the middle class have afforded me. Glossing over these very real distinctions ends up allowing historical oppressions to continue to play out unchallenged, minimizing, silencing and erasing certain voices.
On a bigger scale, we need to provide resources and access to those who don’t have them in ways that are not tokenizing. Organizers have to stop talking of “empowering” people on the margins, as if they didn’t have their own power already. It’s about getting out of the way for others to take up space while valuing the fact that power already exists in marginalized communities. It’s also about understanding our own identities, where we benefit from the system and where we don’t — and taking responsibility for our layers of privilege in how we move about the world. It’s about established organizations being watchful of the inequalities they perpetuate, especially in terms of access to resources and to the job market within the non-profit complex. Through all of this, we have to commit to working slowly in spite of the urgency of our crises, and to holding ourselves accountable when destructive dynamics arise.
Lastly, when we lose our way, we can turn back to the ancient truths and wisdom that have survived the test of time. Victor Puertas, a migrant and resister from the indigenous Yagua community of (so-called) Peru, recalled the way his grandmother explained intersectionality. “She said, in her own way, that weaving is like us, like our communities: separate we are just strings, single parts of something powerful and meaningful, but lacking a purpose. Inside the web, all things are related, tied together and connected …. in the same way that different threads with a single purpose create a beautiful fabric.”