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 Mixed Race in the Climate Justice Movement

by Eva Malis

“Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.” –Gloria Anzaldua


When you are mixed race, it is easy to feel confused about your identity. There are no cultural stereotypes for you, no cliché paths for you to follow—although those may exist for different parts of you, or for multiple identities that you hold. So my mixed story is one of being incredibly lost.


A story

I was both never and always aware of race in my life. Growing up in white suburbia, race belonged to a world that was rarely talked about.

But that doesn’t mean that race was unfelt. From an unbearably young age, I remember feeling ashamed. And I remember hiding—having the privilege to hide, in some circumstances, that which made me “other.” I remember discouraging my Chinese mother from attending parent events in elementary school. I remember telling people I was wholly the half of me that they would want to hear. I remember, over and over, checking only one box: White, White, White.

And then later, I remember telling everyone my truth. I needed to clarify my identity each time I met someone, before I had to watch the confusion settling into the stranger’s eyes. I felt the need to explain, to say kindly, “Don’t be so confused—I just don’t fit in the boxes you’re used to.”

The uncertainty of how the next person was going to perceive me affected my sense of self. In my search for identity, I came to environmentalism (for the most selfish reasons of altruism, mind you). I fell hard into it. I desperately needed something to ground me, and caring passionately about people and the planet filled all the right gaps, becoming the center of my identity.

I eventually developed an infatuation with mixed race. I sought it in everything I consumed, from literature to art to foods. I read novels telling mixed race stories, finding myself in every character, and even took a class on Mixed Race in college. It was that same search for belonging, driving me onward.

In my exploration of mixed race identity, the sense of immobility struck me hardest. I found no mixed race stories with happy endings. The characters were always stuck, lost in confusion, with no space to move. They had such strong senses of self-dehumanization, were passive and detached, unable and unwilling to stand up for themselves. The darkest feeling was recognizing how much their immobility and dehumanization resonated with my own.

But it is la facultad that flips the narrative.


la facultad

  1. the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities

  2. anything that breaks into one’s everyday mode of perception


Chicana feminist writer Gloria Anzaldua writes about a mestiza consciousness, a special way of perceiving the world that fosters a special power: la facultad.

When I first read her piece Borderlands/La frontera, I had no idea what was going on—with myself or with her words. It took a lot of processing to come to terms with what she is putting on paper, and to relate to it.

When you are mixed race, whether you are conscious of it or not, you develop the ability to switch back and forth between worlds. You develop a hyper-sensitivity to your surroundings and cultural contexts, and a hyper-reactiveness to adjust quickly to gain acceptance. It is a survival tactic for most of us. This is mestiza consciousness, mixed consciousness, 混血cognizance--the basis for la facultad as I understand it.

Because of this hyper-sensitivity, you see more deeply. You grow used to holding multiple identities, places, opinions, narratives. You hold a wider range of contradicting perspectives, validate them all simultaneously, and struggle to choose a side. This is also la facultad, the ability to accept differences and embody the bridge between contradictions.

Therefore, in the face of a broken world, you are able to hold conflicting ends of a spectrum and everything in between. You are both the broken and the breaking, the oppressed and the oppressor, together as one, inhabiting a single body. You are the bridge, the circle, the 阴and the 阳.Therefore, you are both the biggest threat and the greatest resistance.



The greatest resistance


Mixed race people are a threat to everything that keeps people separated.


Our world is falling and rising, and so many pieces are spiraling out of reach. There are disconnects every step of the way, with systems of oppression dividing us. What bell hooks calls “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” certainly keeps us distanced, keeps us from loving each other and cultivating community across differences.


But the existence of mixed race people proves that our division will not last long. Our very existence denies the doomed fate of isolation, living proof that love persists past boundaries. We are beings of resistance.


That is why mixed race people are relevant not only in resisting systems of oppression, but especially in the fight for climate justice. In the face of the greatest threat to global life, we bring together heritage from sinking islands, melting glaciers, superfund frontlines, indigenous lands, segregated and gentrified housing. We break binaries and bring an understanding of multiplicity that is crucial to movement building. We have la facultad, and we offer this power humbly.


Granted, the climate movement often isn’t accessible to everyone, especially not people like us. Those of us who are racialized often struggle to relate to mainstream American environmentalism. Those of us who are mixed race may or may not have felt welcome in the environmental movement (or we may have felt either at different moments). So as mainstream climate work transitions toward a focus on justice, we each find ourselves in different positions to engage in the issues that affect our multiple communities disproportionately.


We don’t know that we can solve these problems. We do know that we have each other. We know that we must stay together, connected, connecting, listening, sharing, reflecting, singing, together. We know that we must do this, and that we are already doing it now.


This revolution isn’t about me, but it’s about me. I have a duty to bridge my worlds together. Understanding my identity is a source of empowerment in the climate justice movement. I know now that mixed race people do not have to hide anymore. We don’t have to choose a side anymore. We are the resistance to all that keeps us separated, and that is where our power lies.

Eva Malis grew up in southern California and spent the most recent years of her life studying environmental science at UC Berkeley. She was the core organizer of 2016's Power Shift West Convergence and did her undergraduate thesis on wetland restoration in the San Francisco Bay. She fell in love with the red rock and rivers of the Colorado Plateau as a participant in the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. Her passion lies in the overlap of racial and environmental justice. Now she is the Grand Canyon Trust UPLIFT Coordinator, organizing an annual climate conference for young people. 


by Laiken Jordahl

Aggravated assault. Reckless endangerment. Unlawful trail damage. Illegal logging. Obstructing a public thoroughfare.


At 82 years old, J.D. Protiva is no stranger to the court system. J.D. accrued his most serious charges over ten years ago after stringing a metal cable across the route of a motorcycle race on Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks—a race which he alleged was illegal due to its passage through Mexican spotted owl habitat deemed “critical” by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Some labeled him an eco-saboteur and terrorist. One commenter called for him to be “strung by the balls from his cables.”


Last August of 2016, J.D. was on trial again for felling trees across the route of a downhill mountain bike race and planting himself firmly in the center of the trail with his four horses tied together in a pack string. Shortly after the action, the Arizona Daily Sun published a scathing editorial entitled “Forest Protestor Needs a Timeout and More.” On his court date, J.D. showed up in a bathrobe and black armband—a tribute to Vietnam–era Supreme Court case affirming students’ rights to protest in public schools. Again, J.D. said he did it for the owls.


Intrigued by these events, I dug into J.D.’s past, feeling an undeniable, yet cautious adoration for this character. Indeed, the more I learned about him, the more he fit the bill of an emblematic environmentalist loon, born between the pages of an Ed Abbey novel. This anarcho-cowboy archetype, I believed, had been long-buried beneath the suburban rubble and evaporative reservoirs of the new sanitized West. But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps J.D. was the real deal. I knew that I had to meet him.



I pull up to a ramshackle barn in Doney Park, a ranching community on the outskirts of Flagstaff. It’s 8 am and already hot. A familiar, lethargic haze hangs in the air—carbonized particulates from Arizona’s perennially burning ponderosa forests. J.D. comes bounding down the wooden stairs in faded overalls, a wiry white beard hardly concealing his wicked grin. Today we’ll be riding to Doyle Saddle, 16 miles and 4,000 feet up the mountain. He’s been meaning to retrieve some “equipment,” I’m told, left up there years ago.


We rig dusty saddles on four horses—J.D.’s trusty accomplices—and start our trek up the mountain into the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. An oil-stained chainsaw bobs precariously atop the formerly-feral burrow in front of me. We’ll need the saw to navigate through this spring’s blowdown of beetle-killed pines, J.D. informs me. I remind him that we will be in wilderness lands; saws are illegal. He grunts back at me. I gather he doesn’t give a damn.


As we traverse up the mountain I learn more about J.D. I notice how he toes that paradoxical line between being a socialist and a libertarian. I confirm that he’s certainly more of a monkey-wrencher than a letter-writer. A lifetime of direct action protests has landed him in “Coco-GitMo” (otherwise known as the Coconino County jail) more times than he can count. From speaking out against the Iraq war by hoisting himself atop a national monument flagpole in a rowboat, to stopping traffic with his horse and buggy in protest of the Forest Service’s refusal to implement a campfire ban, J.D. explains that often times, inaction is simply not an option.


When it comes to the issues, J.D. is usually right. Barely a week after his 2010 arrest for protesting the lack of a fire ban, an escaped campfire set 15,000 acres of fuel-loaded ponderosa forests ablaze, causing horrendous flooding, the evacuation of 650 homes and the tragic death of a 12-year-old girl.


We ascend into the wilderness through the scorched, dusty aftermath of that same fire. The landscape has barely begun to recover. Lines of alien tree cones, snaking mulch swales, and plowed earthen berms crisscross the landscape. The fire was so unnaturally hot that not even the old growth survived.


J.D. is no scientist. But he has an intimate understanding of the land that few agency professionals could ever grasp. I’d call it wisdom. His voice cracks and his eyes glisten as he describes his relationship with the San Francisco Peaks. He tells me that he truly felt the fire danger that June in 2010. He was terrified to lose what he loved best and knew he had to act. “It’s my Shangri-La,” he chokes. “It’s the only place for me.” Newly home from jail, he watched the mountain burn and cried. He felt he didn’t do enough.


We continue up the Weatherford Trail until a waist-high blockade of fallen beetle-kill pine stymies our passage. I watch J.D. wrestle with his chainsaw, ripping at the pull-chord repeatedly, to no avail. The machine growls and dies, growls and dies. Breathing too hard to speak, the 82 year-old tears at the old saw with dogged persistence, sweat gleaming on his flushed-pink forehead. I begin to wonder what would happen if he keels over here, ten miles up the mountain. I imagine writing an obituary rather than an essay.


The contraption roars to life.


Part of me cringes as I watch J.D. rip through the ponderosa trunk. I cough, inhaling the gasoline and sweet pine dust, admiring the old man so full of contradictions in front of me. I may not always agree with his means, but I can take lessons from his resolve.


I think about what my generation is up against. I think about how the people at the helm in Washington have made dismantling environmental protections, bullying the marginalized, and spreading a doctrine of fear their top priorities. I think about the fate of our public lands, about the spiritual, cultural and natural wealth that could so quickly be lost.


Moving forward, I will take a page from J.D.’s playbook. When you know what you love, and you know what you can’t stand to lose, inaction is not an option.

Laiken Jordahl currently works with the National Park Service studying trends in wilderness character in parks and monuments throughout the Rocky Mountain West. He is a University of Arizona Graduate and grew up in Flagstaff Arizona.



by Claire Martini

The wind kicks up below the dam on days like this, stirring the 106-degree air into a convection oven. I clap a red hardhat on my head and clatter down the catwalk to the dock. Though Glen Canyon Dam plugs the canyon with enough concrete to build a four-lane highway from Phoenix to Chicago, the river still flows.


As a weekday climate activist and weekend river guide, I brighten as I lean against the outboard motor to tell guests how the Colorado outsmarts the Bureau of Reclamation. Only 16 miles of Glen Canyon were spared from flooding when construction began at the site chosen by the Bureau’s commisioner, Floyd Dominy, back in 1956. Each year since then, millions of gallons of water skirt the pump house via pores and fissures in the Navajo sandstone. Downstream of the dam, seeps line the canyon walls.


Between pointing out the petroglyphs and beaching the raft for lunch, my guests learn they’re tracing the arteries of the Colorado Plateau. These waterways possess an uncertain future as the already-arid region becomes hotter and drier. The triple smokestacks of the West’s largest coal-fired power plant—Navajo Generating Station—are visible for miles, but people often don’t notice. When I draw a map of the high voltage lines and water pipes of the Central Arizona Project with a stick in the sand, they are shaken to learn that this remote outpost quenches the thirst of urban Arizona.


They move water and electricity “all the way to Phoenix?” they’ll ask, voices rising. “From here?”

We ought not to be surprised. Water and coal both sound like money when they move.


At my day job, I work with young leaders through Uplift Climate, an action-oriented community rooted in the redrock and sacred peaks of the Colorado Plateau. Here, within the bullseye of drought, fossil fuel extraction, and toxic emissions, we scramble to organize community meetings, write letters, and learn to put our bodies on the line to protect our communities.


As the sixth mass extinction unfolds, Millennials are stepping up to tell a new story. In a warming world, today’s emerging leaders possess a careful fire. I’ve listened to my peers initiate painful and healing conversations about environmental racism, stolen lands, and how to deconstruct historic systems of oppression.


Environmental injustice injures the body. When mainstream conservation ignores this fact, it fails frontline communities, often communities of color and the rural working class. My friend Janet Valenzuela, a Chicana ecofeminist, speaks powerfully to the truth of her urban Los Angeles community. Conservation, on her community’s terms, is “I want to breathe.” For me, for Generation Anthropocene, her words echo Eric Garner’s.


The question for our culture now is one of breathing room.


How do we protect natural rights amid the paralyzing climate crisis? We begin by centering and elevating the needs of marginalized communities like Janet's (#wearejusttryingtobreathe). We go outside and farm, hike, climb, or ski; we do whatever it takes to remember our land ethic. We  hold the line against fossil fuel development. We must not forget the stories written in the landscape.


This February, after 41 years of devouring coal from Black Mesa on Navajo and Hopi lands, Navajo Generating announced its boiler would close in 2019. Priced out by cheaper electricity derived from natural gas, the shutdown of the iconic coal plant tells us Page, Arizona, is becoming an unlikely bellwether for a long-awaited energy transition. Yet the shutdown signals a moving frontline. “Climate change is violence,” writes Rebecca Solnit. "In every arena, we need to look at industrial-scale and systemic violence, not just the hands-on violence of the less powerful.” The fracking boom in Eastern Navajo and Chaco Canyon is an act of environmental and cultural violence as large as the landscape, like Utah legislators’ efforts to undermine Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The unrelenting sale of public and tribal land for oil and gas—even land bordering national parks like Zion and Canyonlands—precludes a livable future.


We must connect communities to protect landscapes, and protect landscapes to connect communities. Without this interchange, and without regenerative and resilient landscapes, we have no room to breathe.


After I get off the river each evening, I drive out to Lake Powell to wash the gas fumes and dried sweat from my skin. I pick my way down to the current low water mark for my nightly bath, Lake Powell’s shores stained white by the fossil hopes of my grandparent’s generation. Navajo Generating Station illuminates the night in rhythmic pulses with its flashing smokestacks. I close my eyes as I am rocked on the waves of the Colorado River.


The struggle for climate justice will be long, the work difficult. But the community runs deep. After several days of emotional planning, one circle of organizers I belong to turned to one another with an affirmation: “I see you. If you fall, I will catch you.” For the moment, we breathe easier.

Claire Martini is a coordinator of Uplift at the Grand Canyon Trust and part of SHIFT's Emerging Leaders Program. She graduated from Whitman College with a bachelor's degree in geology.

Claire currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

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