On Thanksgiving, #BlackLivesMatter, and what it means to be an “American”

(This is a personal post. It’s about my  journey to make sense of a few particular aspects of the world around me. I’ve thought long and hard about what I could say that might be of value to the much larger conversation about race that is happening in the US. I’m not sure what the right answer is, but my hunch is that speaking honestly about my own experiences is a good place to start.)


I’m 6 years old, walking along the brick path to my grandmother’s front porch. It’s Thanksgiving day, 1989, and wind is whistling through the cornfields. I’m wearing a paper pilgrim costume I colored at school. My cousin is wearing an Indian feather headdress and vest made of a paper bag. I have a vague sense that his is the better outfit, but I’m not sure why. I roughly understand that our outfits represent some historical gathering of two kinds of people. We’re celebrating this, right?

I’m 16. I can’t say I fully know what happened to the pilgrims and Indians, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t end so well for the Indians. I see pictures of my younger self in the hand-colored pilgrim costume. I feel filled with shame.

I’m 20 and I don’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving. Give thanks for genocide? How messed up is that? I take the train to my aunt’s house in Petersburg, Virginia. Nearby, there are civil war reenactments – I try not to think too much about what is being reenacted, or why. I love my aunt, and I know she cares about social justice. I make vegetarian stuffing and try not to think about genocide. My cousin is serving as a marine in Iraq. I did my part as one of so many student activists – I tried to stop the war. It wasn’t enough. I don’t want my cousin to die, but I don’t believe the war is just.

I’m 16, and I’m studying AP US History. I like my teacher but sometimes the subject matter just makes me so mad. I act out by writing a flippant paper using Disney song lyrics to criticize – and trivialize – historical events at the time of the Revolution. I don’t know how to express the deeper despair I feel to be a heir to a legacy that encoded some people (slaves) as not fully human into the Constitution. I don’t want to pretend anymore that what’s important is whether or not I pass this class. We get our papers graded. I get a B- and a weary look of disapproval from Mr. Hasty.

I’m 4 and I attend a nearby preschool while my mom teaches high schoolers during the day. My best friend is named Margoleila and she has hair that poofs out between her ponytail holders. The student body is very diverse at the preschool but I don’t know that yet. I mostly tell people apart by the sounds of their voices, contours of their smiles and caliber of their laughter. Skin color is vaguely like hair color to me – a spectrum I don’t yet have names for. I go to her house for her fifth birthday; her family is loud and boisterous and loving and I feel warm in her living room. I am sad when we go to different elementary schools for 1st grade.

I’m in 7th grade and I learn that, through circumstances or fate, Margoleila and I are now attending at the same middle school, both having moved into a new school district. At first I’m thrilled – destiny! I’m reunited with my early childhood best friend! But it’s not the same. Like a bucket of ice, I’m chilled by the realization Margoleila is black, and I am not. To be “black” means something, to be “white” means something, and all I feel is a tragic sense of loss. I have other black friends at Belzer Middle School, but she and I never quite manage the transition.

I’m 19 and I’m walking down a side street in northwest Washington, DC, next to my college boyfriend. We’re 30 feet away from a larger thoroughfare when sirens begin going off. I quicken my pace toward Wisconsin Ave to see what’s going on. I turn and realize Jordan is half a block behind me. Confused, I turn back and ask him what’s happening. “White people are crazy! We were taught not to head *towards* trouble. When we hear police sirens we run the other way.” I’d never even considered that.

I’m 8. I’m 9. I’m 10. How does a child even begin to make sense of what it means to live on land that was stolen, to benefit from an economic system that depended on slaves? What does it mean to grow up in “Indiana” but not know any Indians? In 4th grade I transfer to a magnet school called Indian Creek. My teacher’s breath smells like stale cigarettes. I squirm when she looks at my work over my shoulder.

Jordan isn’t actually “black” anywhere but the color of his hair. His skin is more like medium-dark chocolate. It’s beautiful. His father is white. His mother’s ancestors were slaves, so some of their sires were white, too. But we live in a country that doesn’t see color on a spectrum. For the two of us, there are only two categories – white and black. It’s no use pretending otherwise.

In high school, every morning, we are supposed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A television in every classrooms shows footage of a waving flag.  “I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I experiment with relatively tame forms of resistance. Sometimes I omit “under God.” Sometimes I mouth the words. Sometimes I refuse to stand up at all. This pledge doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t buy that there’s truly liberty and justice for all. In my heart, I do not pledge to this flag.

I’m 19 and I’m traveling on an alternative winter break trip with college classmates. There’s another Emily on the trip, and I like her a lot. She’s 100% Navajo, and she’s smart and funny and brave. I’ve never met a Native American before. She tells me how tired she is of being the “token Indian” in all her classes. I listen and empathize, and silently promise myself to try to never tokenize someone else. I secretly fear I do it all the time.

I’m 10 and my parents move into a new neighborhood. It’s beautiful, tree-lined, filled with creeks and woods and places to play. All the properties have names. It’s Indianapolis, so my middle class parents can afford a house with 4 bedrooms and a big yard. I love it here! I play for hours in the wood and pretend there are fairies and goblins. In my explorations I find old ruins. I’m 12 and I go spelunking in the archives for the neighborhood history, founded more than 100 years ago as an estate 15 miles north of downtown. Some facts fill me with pride – like when the 9-hole golf course was turned into a Victory Garden during World War II.

I’m 14, and I learn from my mom that there was a black family considering buying one of the houses in the neighborhood, and they decided not to because the neighborhood association still has rules (though not legally enforceable) against non-whites buying property. “Why don’t they change it?!” I ask, certain that this can be easily fixed. She explains that it’s not easy to change the neighborhood bylaws, people are arguing that it’s too hard, or that it sets a bad precedent for changing other rules in the neighborhood, especially since those rules are negated anyway. I tell my mom this is wrong, but I can’t yet fully articulate why. Later, I realize why it bothers me so much. The people in power – in this case the neighborhood association – are quite literally saying that honoring the legacy of a racist and unjust system is more important than making the neighborhood safe and inclusive for all families.

The black family moves away. Nobody seems to think this is a big deal. Inside, I feel rage.

I’m 15 and I feel full of despair. I  wonder – were things better during the Depression? I mean, I know people were hungry, and there was hardship, but maybe people took better care of each other? Maybe families had more time to be with each other? I look around at relative economic “privilege” at my high school, but the kids who get BMWs on their 16th birthdays don’t appear to be that happy at the end of the day.

I’m 31 and I’m agonizing over a Facebook status update that I am writing but I will not post. I don’t know how to use my words to bridge the gap between the worlds I straddle.

Jordan tells me how his mom always jokes that she can’t find his dad in the crowd because “white people all look the same.” I feel hurt – I don’t look the same as other white people! It takes me an embarrassingly long time – months? – to get that he isn’t insulting me, he’s pointing out how painful and dehumanizing it is when people say things like “black people all look the same.”

Really, I’m no more “white” than Jordan is “black.” My skin is a sort of light peach/tan, and my cheeks get rosy when I run or drink a glass of wine. My hair is straight and I sunburn easily. My ancestors weren’t “white” because that wasn’t a thing in Europe 500 years ago. They were Irish and Scottish and German, and perhaps some Jews that later converted to Christianity. I like to think they were forced to convert to Christianity to save their lives. My capacity for an active imagination and desire to align myself with the oppressed goes to comical depths. I’m 31 and I’m still working to untangle it, even as I get better at laughing at myself.

I’m in the 7th grade and the OJ Simpson verdict is announced on the television stations in the lunchroom cafeteria. Half the room erupts in cheers, the other half decries it. I don’t have an opinion, but I’m aware something big is happening. It’s not til years later that I make sense of what was happening, why the verdict was interpreted in such radically different ways depending on one’s point of view.

In 4th grade, students learn Indiana history. Here’s what’s emphasized:
– the geological, archeological, meteorological and agricultural origins of the state
– Indiana’s role as a northern state in the great battle to end slavery
– all the brave Hoosiers who served as important stops on the underground railroad
– Indiana is the crossroads of america
Here’s what’s not emphasized:
– what happened to the people who originally lived here
– how doctors in Indianapolis were leaders in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, pioneering the practice of compulsory sterilization of undesirable poor families
– the tens of thousands of Hoosiers who participated in Klan activity in the 1920s
– how the interstate highway system that gave Indiana its nickname cut apart poor black neighborhoods and facilitated white flight to the suburbs
I know, I know – some of these ideas are easier to explain to 4th graders than others. Some of these ideas don’t sit very well.

I’m 30 and I’m staying up late at night reading articles about reclaiming white indigenous roots. I allow myself to acknowledge the thrill of excitement I feel to learn I am not the only one who thinks about this. I’m thinking more and more about what it means to embrace a culture that was lost, when my ancestors traded cultural and spiritual identity for the privilege of being “white”. But I don’t quite know where to begin.

I’m 17 years old and I’ve fallen in love with Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Like my dad, he comes from a German family who settled on the east side of the Indianapolis. He writes at the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five that writing a book against war is as futile as writing a book against glaciers, but he’s going to do it anyway. Now here’s something I can believe in. In another of his novels, he writes of a privileged white woman that she was “a traitor to her class.” I know at that moment that that’s what I want to be – a traitor to my class, my race, to all the privilege I was born into but never asked for, anyway.

I’m 21 and I’m studying abroad in Mali, West Africa. Perhaps now, for the first time, I will know what it feels like to truly be in the minority. There are days when, not attending school with my fellow study abroad students, I don’t see a single other white person. I feel conspicuous, to be sure. Some kids call me “toubabu” on the street. But I quickly realize I can deflect calls by engaging with the kids, I’m treated kindly by strangers, and welcomed heartily into the neighborhood. It doesn’t take long for me to recognize that being white in West Africa does nothing to tell me what it might be like to be black in the United States.

I’m 19, and it’s the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’m taking a course on the poetry of witness. It affirms my proclivity for paying attention to the dark and difficult aspects of human relations, yet makes me wonder if I can quite survive the heartache. I go for a run in the woods near my school, and I stop and sit on a log, sobbing. So many deaths. So many massacres. So many genocides. Will it ever end?

I’m 31 and I’m reading reactions to the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of a young black man and the non-indictment of the police officer who killed him. I am filled with so many strong emotions. I have so much I want to say and so little certainty of what I should say. I read the words of friends and family and I don’t know whether to focus on amplifying the words of those with whom I agree, or finding some way to start genuine dialogue with others whose reactions scare me. What I most want to do seems the most difficult – how do I find a way to connect with my family members who don’t believe that the justice system is fundamentally unjust? For folks who see young black men through the dark lens of their own projections?

How can I – with the utmost compassion and love – find a way to reveal to those who cannot quite face it that everything about American history has set up a system of white supremacy, which is really just a fancy term for the idea that so-called “white” peoples’ lives matter more? Because I am convinced that this is a not simply a case of a missing rational conversation, or getting people on the same page with “the facts.” As citizens of the United States we cannot yet have a rational conversation about “the facts” because we have yet to fully reckon with or heal from a history so dark and cruel that it is easier to deny the humanity of others or pretend that no discrimination still exists. These are fantasies, and they are powerful ones.

I’m 31 years old, and I’m back in Indiana. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2014. I do feel grateful for so many things, people and places in my life, not to mention the larger ecosystem, the planet, the stars, the sun, the moon, the universe. I feel grateful for all I have learned about the world, and all the ways I am growing. I am grateful to be connected to the growing movement of people working to raise their voices to affirm that #blacklivesmatter across the United States. I’m grateful for indigenous activists and their allies across the United States and Canada who are working to protect the land from new oil drilling, pipelines, mining and deforestation. I’m grateful that today I’ll get to spend time with my grandmother, aunts, brothers and cousins. But I also don’t want to pretend anymore. I don’t want to pretend that this country belonged to the people who look like me who settled it a couple hundred years ago. I don’t want to pretend that it wasn’t built on the backs of Africans shipped across the ocean, murdered, abused and raped. I don’t want to pretend that actions like that don’t have consequences that ripple down through the generations, and still affect us today. Those realities have shaped us, our institutions, and the land itself. Truly, there is so much work for us to do. I don’t think it’s easy and I don’t think it comes quick, because the challenges we’re dealing with were centuries in the brewing. But I do think we can find meaning in the process, and facilitate healing as we work with some of the trickiest, most challenging and thorniest aspects of what it means to be American and engage in the giving of thanks.


Ways of Seeing: Foraging for New Sources of Nourishment

A few hours walk through Central Park has forever changed the way I see the world around me.

Sounds dramatic, I know. But there is no other way to describe the shift that has taken place between how I perceived the world before the walk and now.

Let me explain. Take a typical road trip – say you’re traveling up the Taconic Parkway from Manhattan to the Hudson River Valley. On a typical July day, if you were a passenger like I was last weekend, you might look outside your car window, appreciating the green of the trees, the whites, soft reds, warm yellows and bright oranges of the flowers growing wild along the roadside. Say you idled, briefly, at a rest stop, to take a smoke break, eat a snack or walk your dog. Your eyes would have briefly registered the greens of the weeds growing alongside the parking lot. If you were particularly observant you might have noticed some of the delicate shapes of their leaves or seedpods, glanced at the clover and wonder if there were any lucky four-leaves. Had you walked a little ways into the woods, your shirt might have caught on some brambles, and if you knew what to look for you, you then might have found some perfectly right black raspberries, waiting for you to pick, eat and savor. But all in all, if you were like me before my Central Park experience, the drive would have been mostly a visually-pleasing journey, with perhaps a few wild berries as a treat.

Last Saturday I drove up the Taconic, but it was following a 4-hour tour of Central Park, foraging for wild foods as guided by “Wildman” Steve Brill, a wild foods enthusiast who has been guiding the curious and uninitiated – like me – for more than 30 years. And while I expected to have fun, learn a few things, and gather some food, I had no idea how dramatically he would shift my very perceptions of the world around me. In teaching our group to observe the plants around us, name their characteristics and discern which parts are edible, which are delicious, which are dangerous and which to discard, he provided a new framework for me to interact with the world.

Let’s return to the Taconic Parkway. I had just learned that careful discernment along the edges of the park, amidst the wood, in the weedy patches, could lead to unexpected nutritional bounties. If one pays attention to the shape of the leaves, their arrangement on a plant, the small little cues, you can easily discern where the poison ivy is hiding, the difference between a berry that will kill you, and a berry that will delight your tastebuds. Thanks to some careful looking along the edge of the northern pond, before exiting the park at 110th street, my fellow adventurer Emory and I had found a half dozen red clover flowers, prized for their sweet taste. As Emory drove up the Taconic, I looked out the passenger window, lazily dreaming about the kind of foraging that the woods of our destination in Columbia County might provide, as I noticed the red clover out the window – vast sweeps of it. So many flowers meant food to my newly acquired way of seeing. I could have covered a 100 wedding cakes with the purple/red petals! Then, day lilies. Much like the squash blossoms that sell for ~$6 a small box in the Union Square farmer’s market, day lilies are edible and delicious. Just take the flowers, remove the green ends and stuff the petals with cheese, other spreads, fruit or grains. Many people grow them in their yards, and for good reason – their bright orange petals make them a vibrant addition to summer gardens. But they also proliferate along roadsides, especially near creeks, during the summer. As we passed dozens of stands of the flowers, all I could think about was the marvelous food growing along the roadside, like an endless farmer’s market with a neon sign that read “free for the taking – all you can pick.” We stopped just south of Hudson, watching the sun begin to set over the Hudson River Valley. I read the sign about the history of the area, and then walked along the edge of the parking lot, wondering what I might find. It didn’t take long to learn the answer. More red clover. Yellow wood sorrel – those heart-shaped leaves that get confused as clover, but are actually another plant entirely, as delicious as a slightly tart strawberry. Lambs quarters, a green that you can eat like spinach, growing bountifully. I walked up the little path, encouraged by what I might find. Caught on the thorns of a bramble bush, I found those ripe berries, a real treat. Further back, a stand of garlic mustard, which I harvested for its seeds.

Now I’m back in Brooklyn, and on my morning run today I noticed less of the cracks in the sidewalk, and more of the plants along the way. More lambs quarters, dandelion greens (which sell for a couple dollars a pound), and so much poor man’s pepper that I could make feast worthy of Cruella DeVil. There’s a lot of talk in cities these days about food deserts and food justice. We live in a society so out of balance that for people living in poverty, the challenge is rarely lack of calories, it’s lack of nutrition. Changes in global food prices result in real shortages – much has been written about the links between the Arab Spring and global food prices. Andrew Zolli & Ann Marie Healy begin their book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back with the case of the Mexican “tortilla riots” of 2007. As a kid, I learned that food came from packages you get from the grocery store and markets, originating in farms and factories. The only real link I had to foraging was a dim memory, when my grandfather was still alive, of the whole family going to hunt morel mushrooms in the wooded hills of Southern Indiana. Like the truffle pigs of southern france, Grandpa had a real knack for finding morels, those delicacies that go for $25 or more in many markets. But foraging seemed like a thing of the past.

If I had only known – when I was a kid picking those heart-shaped faux clover leaves, that I could have been getting a tasty and nutritious snack at the same time. If my parents had only known – how to show me how to recognize these treats among the weeds. If our society only knew how much is waiting to be harvested, even here in the city.

My personal shift seems to be part of a much larger one. Farmer’s markets, organic farming, paleo diets and gluten-free foods. More and more people are beginning to recognize the perils of being so far away from the source of what we eat, of the dangers of highly processed food. As affirmation of this, corporations seem to be coming up with clever new ways to package “all-natural” food to sell to us. But that’s not where we will find our lost vitality.

The wild foraging tour gave me a new lens with which to see the world. Everywhere I turn now, I see food ready to be eaten where before I saw weeds – if I noticed them at all. The plants that grow in the cracks of the city won’t easily provide all of my nutritional needs yet in the past six days I’ve had many meals with foraged items serving the role of key ingredients. Foraging for wild food connects me more to the world right in front of my eyes, and the present moment. Part of resiliency is having an arsenal of tools at one’s disposal, to adapt to shifting changes. The ability to see and harvest the plants around me as food and medicine makes the 4 hours & $20 donation for the tour an incredibly smart investment.

Check out Steve’s website for information on joining tours of Central Park, Prospect Park and many other locations in the tri-state area. His site is a treasure trove of information, and his iPhone/iPad/Android apps have even more. Note that he also provides significant details on discerning between edible and deadly plants, and that it is important to be cautious when first learning about edible wild foods.


Dawn on the Amazon

On finding hope & inspiration in an era of environmental devastation

Global carbon dioxide in atmosphere passes milestone level
Climate warming greenhouse gas reaches 400 parts per million for the first time in human history

- The Guardian, May 10, 2013

I’m in the middle of a five-week trip to the Peruvian Amazon, working with indigenous communities who have suffered from 40 years of contamination as a result of oil drilling on their lands. Digital Democracy is working directly with these communities to help them better use technology to share what is happening to their rivers and advocate for the necessary clean-up efforts.

This work is part of something much larger. Digital Democracy’s program, Remote Access, is, at its core, about renegotiating power structures, creating tools that allow historically oppressed, marginalized groups to tell their own stories about what is happening to them, stories of environmental and human rights abuses that all too often occur far away from the watchful eye of 24-hour-news-cycles and ubiquitous wi-fi connections.

The work here in Peru is specific and important. It’s about rivers I can name – the Pastaza, the Corientes, the Tigre – and the people who travel up and down them, documenting spills that have contaminated specific fields, water supplies and hunting grounds.

But oil drilling – whether in the Peruvian Amazon or elsewhere – is also of universal concern and consequence. On Thursday, May 9th, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – referred to as PPM (parts per million) exceeded 400  – a number that hasn’t been seen on earth for several million years. Meanwhile, Time, working closely with Google Earth, released a website with some of the best multi-media reporting I’ve ever seen. The TimeLapse project culls through the past three decades of high-res LandSat imagery to expose a powerful picture of how humans are changing the environment.

The situation is dire. To claim otherwise would be false. And yet, I want to get up every day and embrace life. The following two journal entries, handwritten over the course of the past week, represent my own internal struggle in the face of this global challenge.

Sunday May 5, 2013. 5:30am. Iquitos, Peru:

I see it so clearly.

Historic opportunities: The bottom-up work of the monitors finally being recognized. The need to keep pushing and pressuring for the full extent of the environmental damage to be recognized by the State. The role that Dd can play – further building the capacity of groups fighting – quite literally – for their lives. The key role of getting information from remote places to headquarters, to partners, to government. The work has already begun, we are here to strengthen it, amplify it exponentially.

Thinking of Aurelio’s powerful story on Friday. When he began, the work was dispiriting. Many of his own community members saw no choice but to work with oil companies. Now, resistance is growing – the communities are uniting. Just as it is in the great plains of North America, along the Keystone Pipeline, the Tar Sands of Canada.

And it is easy – all too easy – to be cynical and lament that, despite this resistance, business as usual is inevitable. That oil drilling will continue here, in the Western Amazon, in Western Canada, in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, in the Niger Delta, ad infinitum.

But to that I say: Things are only impossible until they are not.

There is no physical law binding oil companies to extract every last drop of crude from the earth. It is not a given like gravity or the turning of the earth around the sun.

No. Oil extraction in the Amazon, climate denial, oppression of indigenous people – these are strong forces, but they are not givens. They can change. The future is always built by people who believe in their vision, aided by those who wish to support their vision, and also by those who disagree but who do nothing because they believe in the false premise that they are powerless to stop it.

The work of Dd these past four years has taught me that seemingly impossible things can become possible. Studying history has taught me that nothing is inevitable, change can hang on the edge of a blade. The protestations – or acquiescence – of the marginalized masses can shift the balance, or lay down at the feet of the status quo.

Now is a time for rising up, for fighting back. The window of time is ever narrowing, as carbon emissions soar and the rainforests which store so much carbon – not to mention biological and cultural diversity – are being logged, clear cut, mined and drilled for oil. But there is growing recognition that things must change, as even The Economist acknowledges that oil companies’ reserves must not be drilled,* and more and more people rise up in direct action, nonviolent protest & acts of civil disobedience.

I have a part to play in all of this, and I have been building for it all my life. For Dd too, the successes we have built up to now have prepared us for this – a bigger challenge, a more ambitious task, a role we are perfectly suited to play.

This is the kind of struggle where it is worth going all in. For the sake of our partners, and their right to determine their own futures – a right that has been denied for too long to too many. For Digital Democracy, this is about alignment with something larger. Everywhere, rights are in need of defending. We are focused, for now, on developing the tools which stand the possibility to empower the largest number of people. We are focused on fortifying activists from marginalized groups with the capacity, skills and tools they need to fight for the impossible – and win. We may not get it right, but we are devoted to try our best in this endeavor. Why?

For the sake children being born, for people living on islands, for residents of New York City, for all people, everywhere. For the birds and mammals, fish and reptiles, insects, plants and trees of a world where, although species are threatened, ecosystems are still teeming with life. It is not too late, but it will take all our efforts to shift the momentum and “inevitability” of history, and the dawn of a new era of relationships – with ourselves, and the planet at large.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

*Unburnable Fuel. Either governments are not serious about climate change or firms are overvalued. The Economist. May 4th, 2013.

Sunday May 12, 2013. 7am. Tarapoto, Peru:

I’m writing from the tropical hills of Tarapoto, a gateway to the vast network of rivers and smaller tributaries of the Upper Amazon. In the past week I’ve gone from the rainforest to the Peruvian capital and back to the rainforest, accompanying a delegation of indigenous leaders and community-based environmental monitors in their first meetings with Congress, the Prime Minister & President in Lima. These meetings won’t change everything, but they are a start – they represent a shift in Peruvian policy, an apology from the government for the environmental damage. And that is important.

473414_10151664671287704_1804573429_oFor the past week I haven’t been able to shake an image & the idea it represents – that of the dawn that Gregor & I witnessed last weekend in Iquitos. Morning’s first rays of light, shining over the Amazon River with the waning crescent moon overhead. It was an important moment to witness, but I think it is more than that. Dawn on the Amazon – it is a powerful metaphorical message.

Sunrise, the moment light light breaks the long dark of night. Sunrise, the promise of a new beginning. Sunrise, the promise of a new day.

For the past week I have been pondering this idea of sunrise in the context of working here in the Amazon, where decades of oil drilling have taken a massive toll on the communities for whom the rivers are a lifeline. And it is an honor to be here, thanks to the trust Gregor has built over the past decade, working directly with the communities who are documenting the impacts of oil contamination,* creating maps and reports, and using these to advocate for clean-up of existing spills – and a stop to further drilling. In this context, the sunrise on the Amazon represents this small window we have to change course – not just here in the Amazon, but throughout a world that is addicted to consumption of fossil fuels and other commodities, addictions that stand in direct competition to a healthy balance of life on planet Earth.

It is fitting to reflect on this today, Mother’s Day at home in the States & here in Peru. I’m thinking of my own mom, my grandmother, and my many friends who are new or soon-to-be parents, their babies, their toddlers, my own goddaughters. What does the future hold for them? We have more knowledge than ever before about precisely the impact of unsustainable consumption on the planet. Just Thursday, we crossed the 400 ppm threshold for carbon. I read the news and I think about the world these babies are inheriting. The prospect is daunting, almost overwhelmingly sad. Information alone can almost do the opposite of inspiring action – it can induce paralysis.

And that is why I am writing. To strengthen the resolve in my own heart to address this mighty challenge with action. To seek words that will forge alliances, to build community with others who value life on this earth. I’m writing to combat paralysis, because there is no den of denial strong or large enough to protect me and those I love from the consequences of climate change. Because as I watched dawn emerge over the mighty Amazon River I realized – it’s not over yet. It’s daunting, but it’s not done. Great hope and possibility exists even in the face of enormous challenges. And great happiness and fulfillment also lie in moving toward the type of life I want to live – one with less things but deeper connections. Less of everything fueled by oil, more by wind, sun and footpower. A more just and equitable world.

* Check out the important work of PUINAMUDT – Observatorio Petrolero de la Amazonía Norte


Offline in the Amazon

For the next five weeks, I will be in Peru with my colleague Gregor getting Digital Democracy’s new Remote Access program off the ground.

My mom called me a few days ago to ask how to contact me on the trip. I joked – smoke signals! No, really. Although some of the time we’ll have internet or a mobile connection, the whole point of our program is to support the efforts of indigenous groups who are monitoring the environmental impacts of oil drilling in areas that are completely off-the grid. In other words, there will be no access to phone, internet or even electricity in much of the areas where we’ll be traveling.

We planned our trip around some important assemblies that are taking place with some of our indigenous partners, as well as a research delegation from the EU. However, given how things work in the Amazon, our schedule will surely change in multiple ways. I thought I’d post our original plan, and update it with how many times the plans change.

Original plan:
Thu Apr 25: Travel to Peru
Fri Apr 26: Travel to Iquitos
Sat Apr 27 – Mon Apr 29: Meetings in Iquitos with monitoring programs
Tue Apr 30: Travel to the Temple (1.5 hours from Iquitos).
Tue Apr 30 – Thu May 2: Meetings at the Temple
Thu May 2 (early morning): Return to Iquitos
Thu May 2-3: Travel upriver via Corrientes river to Andoas (2 days)
Sat May 4: Meetings
Sun May 5: Gregor travel downriver to San Lorenzo
Mon May 6: Gregor flight San Lorenzo – Wisum (Achuar territory)
Mon May 6-13: Emily & Martí monitoring visits in Corrientes
Sun May 12: Gregor travels downriver from Wisum to mouth of Huitoyacu
Mon May 13: Gregor travels up Pastaza to Andoas, meets with Emily & Martí
Tue May 14-19: Monitoring visits around Andoas
Mon May 20: Travel downriver to San Lorenzo
Tue May 21 – 26: Working with monitors and monitoring team including workshop in San Lorenzo
Mon May 27: Travel San Lorenzo – Lima (Leave 6am, arrive in Lima 11pm if all goes well)
Tue May 38: Evening flight Lima – US

Revised Apr 26 – Extra day in Lima & Gregor’s departure from Iquitos
Fri Apr 26: Meetings in Lima
Sat Apr 27 – Mon Apr 29: Travel to Iquitos, meetings in Iquitos with monitoring programs
Thu May 2- Sat May 4: Gregor Meetings in Iquitos
Sun May 5: Gregor travel downriver to Apulco
Mon May 6: Gregor flight Apulco – Wisum (Achuar territory)

Revised April 29 – Emily going to Lima with delegation
Thu May 2- Sat May 4: Emily & Gregor Meetings in Iquitos
Sun May 5: Emily flight to Lima
Mon May 6 – Wed May 8: Emily accompanying monitors to meetings with Congress
Wed May 8: Emily flight to Andoas
Thu May 9-13: Emily & Martí monitoring visits in Corrientes

Revised May 2 – Emily & Gregor travel together to Andoas
Wed May 8 – Thu May 9: Emily travel Lima to San Lorenzo
Mon May 13: Emily & Gregor travel from San Lorenzo to Andoas

Revised May 9
Sat May 11: Emily fly Lima – Tarapoto
Mon May 13: Emily & Gregor travel to San Lorenzo, meet in San Lorenzo & travel to Andoas

While I’m traveling, I may not be able to respond very quickly to messages, but I will update my twitter feed as possible. Even if I’m slow to respond, I’d love to hear from you during my journeys!


A visit to Honeymoon Farm

This weekend I traveled to St. Louis to speak at Clinton Global Initiative University. The last time I was in St. Louis was October 2011, when I flew to St. Louis to attend my friends’ Lara and Steve’s wedding in Carbondale, Illinois. I’ll never forget the night – it was a full moon, and so many of my favorite people were there. Returning to St. Louis again, I decided to revisit Lara & Steve on the land where they were married, which they’ve been turning into a farm over the past 8 months. And boy, am I glad I did!

Honeymoon Farm is their labor of love, a place where they are working to revitalize the land and humanely raise animals. The land has been part of Steve’s family for generations, and I was so inspired to see the thoughtful and heart-centered approach they’re taking to cultivating it.

Here’s some of what I helped with this weekend:

  • Moved the chickens from an inside roost to a temporary outside shelter
  • Fed the pigs whey and rubbed their bellies
  • Helped the goats reach high branches
  • Picked ticks off of various animals
  • Tried to help train Athena the giant puppy
  • Talked about permaculture and biodynamic farming
  • Made yummy meals and hung out with a happy baby

I also took a lot of photos for Lara & Steve to use. Here’s the blog post Lara wrote about my visit, with lots of photos!


Under the Glacier

Ten years ago I picked up Haldor Laxness’ book Under the Glacier, a superb (and absurd) piece of literature that explores topics of religion, spirituality, and the clash of modernity with tradition at Snæfellsjökull, the Snæfells glacier on Iceland’s western peninsula.

I think it’s in no small part thanks to Laxness’ gem of a book that I found my way to Iceland earlier this month, traveling with my dear friend Mr. Andrew Frist to celebrate our 30th birthdays, and two decades of friendship.

One of these days I’ll get around to posting more photos … in the meantime, check out Drew’s images of our trip.


Charting the seasons

I’ve been writing letters more and more these days, and I think it’s one of the most wonderful ways to share thoughts and ideas. Here are a few excerpts from a letter I sent friends on Sunday, to mark the first day of July, my half birthday, and the second half of the year.

… when I was a child I went to a camp in southern Indiana’s gently rolling hills. On Sunday mornings Fred, the weathered patriarch, would lead us – dozens of girls between 8-12 years old – into an old pine grove, where we would sit on the roots and fallen pine needles, quietly communing with nature. He called the pine boughs above his cathedral, and I knew, even as a young girl, that I was sitting with someone who was deeply in tune with the world around him. I’ve made changes in my life over the past year to more closely become that kind of person, and each change successfully made has been thanks to the loving kindness and support of each of you.

My personal changes take place within a much grander context. The systems humankind built in the 20th century are outdated, failing or undergoing disruption. We’ve all seen this firsthand, from the way debt and unemployment cripple the human spirit, to the way that our “always on” technology can lead us to feel overwhelmed. Extreme weather patterns remind us we are experiencing massive shifts to our climate directly caused by overconsumption and disregard for the environment. From New York City to Syria, people face incarceration, arrest or murder for being born the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong gender, the wrong class, or having the audacity to demand participation in the systems that govern their daily lives. We live in a world where patterns of oppression and violence are repeated, and trauma is passed from one generation to the next. There is no shortage of causes to support because there is no shortage of problems that need fixing.

And yet. And yet. Despite all the reasons for despair, despite the heartbreaking and gutwrenching stories, there is hope. Hope because the nonviolent tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King continues to demonstrate its enduring power from Yangon to Tahrir Square to Wall Street. Hope because across our communities, people are creating and building alternatives to the broken systems.

I feel surrounded by people who live & breathe collaboration, who truly care for themselves and their loved ones, and let’s be real, that is the non-negotiable foundation for doing right in the world. I feel grateful to have a group of friends for whom one person’s victory is not another’s defeat. Who commit themselves on a daily basis to positivity, despite the odds. Who embody the best of human characteristics: compassion, honesty, curiosity, ingenuity, integrity. We’re all human so we all make mistakes, but we accept them with humility, and we keep getting up, every day, to remake the world.

Here’s to that beautiful world we are making, each & every day.


The Lady on the relationship between empowerment & dignity

I first learned about the situation in Burma/Myanmar more than ten years ago, when I was stopped by a student activist from the Free Burma Coalition (now the US Campaign for Burma). Since that first, fateful introduction, I’ve spent thousands of hours reading, writing, interviewing, photographing and exploring the deep complexities of the country, its peoples and its impact on the world. From covering the role of technology in the Saffron uprising for MobileActive, publishing a chapter called Burma, A Modern Anomaly for ‘Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management’ to my recent article on the incredible victories of the Burmese BarCamp community, I have learned so very much from the many Burmese people within and outside of the country I have met over the years.

I continue to learn from one Burmese person in particular, although I have never her in person. I first read Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear shortly after I first learned of the situation in Burma. At the time the Nobel Peace Prize winner & rightful winner of the 1990 National Elections was under house arrest, a state she has been in for most of the past 10 years. It is astonishing to consider just how many changes have occurred since then … even a year ago, it would have been astonishing to think that Aung San Suu Kyi, known as the Lady, would be running for parliament, or have given the keynote speech at BarCamp Yangon.

I recently came across this video of the Lady speaking on the relationship between empowerment and human dignity. Both concepts can seem vague and difficult to define at times … because the audio was slightly difficult to discern, I transcribed her words.

Power is something that comes from within … for you to achieve that kind of power from within, you need to believe in your own dignity as a human being. If you have not upheld that dignity, you will not have the clear conscience that will enable you to feel empowered. So I think the basic connection between dignity and empowerment is the human connection. Are you a dignified human being? Have you lived up to your human dignity? And if you feel you have dignity, you naturally feel strong, because you’re confident in what you have done & what you stand for. And that empowers you.

… Human dignity is at the foundation of human rights. In the preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is talk about the essential need to recognize everybody’s dignity as a human being.

Lotte - Joy Davidman

Snow in Madrid, decades later

Happened upon this haunting image of Joy Davidman, taken by one of my heroines, Lotte Jacobi. Davidman was a poet, a communist, an intellectual, an independent woman. Accomplished in her own right, eclipsed by the fame of her second husband, C.S. Lewis.

Read more about her life.

Snow in Madrid – Joy Davidman

Softly, so casual,

Lovely, so light, so light,

The cruel sky lets fall

Something one does not fight.

How tenderly to crown

The brutal year

The clouds send something down

That one need not fear.

Men before perishing

See with unwounded eye

For once a gentle thing

Fall from the sky.


Land rights in Chiapas

Last spring I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to conduct trainings as part of a Digital Democracy project. Months later, I am still inspired every time I hear updates from our local partners. These slideshows tell the story of what we worked on, and what the community chose to document with the cameras.