As part of Fresh Energy’s ongoing work to organizationally advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization, Janiece Watts, policy associate, and Caley Long, communications associate, sat down to chat all things equity and communications. They’re sharing their thoughts here, Q+A style.
Caley (CL): OK, let’s be real, Janiece, the way we frame issues can be very powerful. So, what’s the overlap in communications, equity, and environmental justice?
Janiece (JW): We have a responsibility in communications and equity to tell the truth about climate change, energy, and our work. Right now, we are in a time of social, political and ecological change. In many ways we’ve made great progress in alleviating poverty, reaching better racial and gender equality, and transitioning to cleaner energy resources. But we have to be honest: white supremacy, patriarchy, and the constant drive for profit continue to erode and deter progress and the wealthiest individuals wield great political power that hinders us from making real strides in stopping climate change. That keeps marginalized people in both the U.S. and around the world in the most powerless positions. These individuals contribute the least to climate change and yet they are the most burdened by its effects. That needs to change.
CL: In communications, though, there’s often a drive to use broadly popular, “common denominator” issues and feel-good, positive language. How does that intersect with talking about and tackling racism?
JW: It’s very clear that the framing of common denominator language does not leave room for those honest conversations on how to challenge racism and all forms of oppression. It’s hard to be clear about the harm of these oppressive systems if we don’t talk about them openly…
JW: But, a question that arises for me then is what are we really saying if we don’t talk about these systems openly? And what does it mean when Fresh Energy does openly use the terms white supremacy, anti-racism, classism, sexism, underrepresented, under-served etc.?
CL: Using these words clearly and directly is important; they (hopefully) clarify to others that we’re not sidestepping injustice, and that we won’t be party to that. But I also think it’s equally important not to simply use these words as virtue-signaling. We need to both call out what’s holding repressive systems in place and make tangible movement to meaningfully course-correct.
JW: Ok, Caley, so how can we use this language throughout our work?
CL: We need to do it more! All over the place! A big example that comes to mind is when we are programming events. How much are we charging? Where are we holding the event? Who are we inviting? So many -isms can pervade “business as usual” and unless we’re stepping back a bit and looking at how we’re speaking and writing, we could (and likely are) unintentionally excluding people…
CL: Which makes me wonder: Where can Fresh Energy do better in being equitable and mindful in our communications efforts?
JW: The language we use is one of the best things we can do right now. We want to be clear where we stand. But I don’t think it has to be an either-or situation. We don’t have to change Fresh Energy’s tone in how we communicate, but we do have to be upfront on what we believe and how we’re committed to equity. We can’t assume that the broad audience doesn’t want to understand racial and economic justice or hear us speak to how these things show up in our energy policy work and inside the organization. This is a critical time for recognizing and committing to justice; our world is at stake.
JW: OK, finally Caley, how do we make sure that we don’t get stuck by white fragility when having these conversations and talking about these concepts? And who do we need to learn from to do this work effectively and authentically?
CL: This article really rocked me. And it made me sit with my own big and wild discomfort in talking about race, where I have to confront that I am part of the problem, too. So how do we not get stuck? I don’t know the whole answer to that. But I think a small part is remembering this, from Robin DiAngelo: “the most effective adaptation of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” So, I think it’s time to get messy and grapple a bit more than maybe we have—without retreating into feeling ashamed and guilty.
Looking for more diversity, equity, and inclusion resources?
Janiece suggests her favorite tool for learning: podcasts! Her top picks: Seeing White – A thoughtful and comprehensive investigation into how race was fabricated, and how racism is operationalized through the complicity of white people. The Electorette – A long form interview podcast dedicated to elevating the voices of women and femmes. Counter Stories – Discussion based podcast on race, identity and social justice with Black, Indigenous and People of Color Minnesotan perspectives.
Caley recommends this list as a great place to start and to check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. For fiction that takes on classism and cultural appropriation of black culture, White Tears is superb. For on-the-ground organizations doing this work, check out Nexus Community Partners’ Board and Leadership Training Commission.