Environmental Activism in Disempowered Communities: A Pattern Language for the Privileged

12074750_10208294481788092_7217098040051561359_nTo support Ben’s ongoing research, writings, and teaching, please become a regular monthly contributor via Patreon.

by Benjamin Weiss

Part 3 of a series on social & economic inequality in permaculture. Part 1 is entitled: The State of American Permaculture: A Millenial’s Perspective. Part 2 is entitled: The Need for Landless Permaculture.

Who am I to write this essay?

According to the color of my skin and the current state of race relations and economic strata in the Western world, I am a white, heterosexual man who grew up in an affluent American suburb in a middle-class family. And so, according to privilege analysis, the contemporary method of analyzing people’s social, economic, and political relationships to issues of inequality and oppression, popular amidst progressive activist circles, and which has been very useful for me in my life’s work, I’m “at the top of the food chain” when it comes to privilege.

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The author and his friend Wilson Alvarez talk to a group of their students in a permaculture course in 2014. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

Nonetheless, in my youth, I was heavily influenced by my grandfather and my aunt who both spent much of their lives working for civil rights and to defend disempowered communities. During my high school years, and in my early twenties, I studied the history of oppression in the United States, participated frequenty in social justice initiatives, and attended many trainings related to progressive activism and community building. So, after studying permaculture and organic farming for several years as well, at age 23, I began what has become 9 years of work on environmental issues in communities where social and economic oppression tend to be a more apparent challenge to the people than the plight of nature.

Who is this essay written for?

This is written for anyone of privilege who wants to do environmental work in underprivileged communities that are not their own. As a permaculture teacher, organic farmer, and progressive activist, I have so often spoken with well-meaning activists who want to do the kind of work that I’ve done, but who don’t yet understand the nuances of working as an outsider in a disenfranchised community. Some of these activists have already participated in projects that have failed to achieve their goals or have even done damage in the target community due to a lack of social awareness. I’ve also spoken  and worked with many activists within such communities who’ve witnessed these failures and are often made very bitter by them. I’ve participated in such failures myself. Thankfully, I’ve also been a part of some successes. This essay is intended to be a gift to people on both sides of the equation. I pray that it helps lead to more successful projects, more powerful relationships, healthier people, renewed community, and the healing of Mother Earth.

Understanding privilege…

Privilege analysis makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Especially the privileged. So many of us want to jump past a deep look at the differences that divide us straight to our shared humanity as a foundation for working in outside communities. Our mutual, underlying humanness is a much safer place, emotionally and on many other levels, than the places where we may be unwittingly participating in forms of oppression. Nonetheless, a successful partnership with activists in underprivileged communities requires a humble and healthy self awareness of one’s own privilege on the part of the outsider activist who comes from a community with more power. Power comes in many forms, and the power of humility cannot be underestimated as a tool for finding the shared humanity which so many of us yearn for.

I have found it helpful, many times, when CaptureI’ve struggled with guilt or shame while analyzing my own unfortunate participation in oppression, to understand and remember the difference between interpersonal and systemic forms of oppression. Interpersonal oppression is a direct act of undermining a vulnerable individual. Systemic oppression is participation in social, economic, and political structures that disempower whole groups of people. Flinging a racial slur at someone with a different skin tone is an example of interpersonal oppression. Purchasing clothes manufactured in a sweat shop is an example of participation in systemic oppression. Generally, it is much easier to weed out one’s own habitual forms of interpersonal oppression than it is to unplug from the vast monstrosity of systemic oppression that modern, global, industrial civilization is founded upon. Do the best you can to unplug, and take solace in your efforts. The shame of participating in systemic oppression is only a hurdle to finding solutions.

And please remember that privilege analysis is not truth. It is a way of looking at the world, a useful lens for self-improvement and to understand complex dynamics of community interaction. As with any other way of looking, the more we assert its correctness, the less correct it becomes.

What’s a pattern language?

A pattern language is a set of sayings useful in a specific discipline, field, or practice for the purpose of systematically designing solutions to problems or attaining desired outcomes of a project. The key word here is “systematically.” A pattern language helps us to move through a process in a way that is not haphazard. The sayings themselves serve as guidelines, reminders, and even ethics that keep us moving toward better and better results. The phrases follow a specific order that lead us through different scales or scopes of observation of our work. The sayings also relate back to other phrases on the list, continually reminding us of our own guidelines and goals. The term comes from the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction authored by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Pattern languages have become popular conceptual tools in the permaculture movement as an approach to sustainable design.

This essay, then, as stated in the title, is a pattern language to help those who wish to address environmental degradation in underprivileged communities to which they are an outsider.

The pattern language…

I’ve divided the twenty-five sayings that make up this pattern language into three sections. Each represents a general body of work to be addressed during different phases of a project. The three sections are:

  1. Before beginning our work in a community, we need to do some work on ourselves…
  2. As our aim becomes clearer, and we identify a community in which we hope to work, it’s time to hone our focus…
  3. Here’s what we need to keep in mind as we actually engage in our work within the community…

Section 1:

  • Be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable.

There are so many traits we can cultivate to become better human beings in the eyes of those around us. My experience has taught me that it’s up to each of us to take responsibility for our own moral and ethical development if we want to participate in healthy community. I’ve identified the four traits named in this saying (authenticity, transparency, humility, & vulnerability) as ones that make us trustworthy as outsiders in a new community. It is impossible to be of real help in any community if we are not trusted by those we are working with. Simple as that.

Through authenticity, we allow others to know what to expect when they work with us, to know what we’re good at and what we aren’t. This way, we set ourselves up to be placed into roles in which we can succeed. And we don’t shock people by doing something unexpected, especially when it comes to our shortcomings. Though we must play different roles at different times in our relationships with others, consistency within our values shines through and, hopefully, builds trust.

Through transparency we never have reason to deceive or lie, and we make it easier on ourselves to work through our inevitable mistakes. I once got into an argument with an African American colleague about a lack of funding for a permaculutre workshop we were organizing in her neighborhood. We challenged each other about whose responsibility it was to be raising funds, and where some of the prospective funds were supposed to go. Although the conversation got heated and we disagreed about several important points, I had built up enough of a rapport with her that there was never an allegation of wrongdoing, and we came to the conclusion that we both needed to work harder to raise the money.

Humility is of the utmost importance when engaging with a community in which people may view us as members of a demographic that tends to be oppressive toward them. To show that we are aware of this oppression and have worked to understand our own part in it is essential. I cannot stress this enough. Many of the sayings that follow are about the cultivation of humility in this work, such as: “recognizing privilege is the responsibility of the privileged,” “shed intellectual superiority,” and “withhold value judgments.”

And by learning to be occasionally vulnerable, to stretch our boundaries of comfort, to put ourselves into situations in which we may lose out, builds courage within us and shows others that we are not rigid, overly demanding, arrogant, or selfish.

  • Be clear about your values.

When we work in a community whose culture is not our own, it becomes crucial that we understand our own values and boundaries, and where we are willing to bend. I taught a three month long permaculture course in an African American neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that was attended by a handful of members of the Nation of Islam. As a Jew, it might seem obvious that I would have some conflicting values with these folks that could derail the goals of the class. But I found the opposite to be true. By being forthright about my values and making space in my curriculum for the students to converse about theirs, we were quickly able to find common ground, and I was able to see potential conflict points to avoid. One example from this story is that these fellow humans’ religious views made it hard for them to process some of the scientific ideas that I normally use in my curriculum. So I minimized those portions of the curriculum and turned unavoidable pieces into conversation topics that benefited the whole group.

  •  Understand oppression & empathize with the oppressed.

Oppression comes in many forms, subtle and obvious, interpersonal and systemic. There are many groups of people who are habitually mistreated and abused by others. Understanding and recognizing oppression and our own complicity is a long, difficult process. If you’re reading this essay, you probably already have an in-roads to this understanding. Yet the work may never end. Study and research is helpful. Choose an issue that hits your heart and start there. For me, as a teenager, it was racism in the United States. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, every book and essay by Mumi Abu-Jamal that I could get my hands on, Black Panthers Speak, and so on. Through my deepening knowledge of my country’s history of racism towards blacks, I began to consider the genocide of the Native Americans. I read a book called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, and then many others.

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A Black Lives Matter “die-in” protest that Ben helped to organize in December of 2014.

Attend anti-oppression trainings. As a youth, enraged by what I read in those books,
passionate to act, I went three years in a row to NCOR, the National Conference on Organized Resistance, at American University. There I underwent anti-racism trainings, learned about feminism, sexism, and positive masculinity, met people working for labor rights, immigration rights, Palestinian rights, LGBTQ rights, and on and on. The more I studied different forms of oppression, the easier it became to see and understand other forms, and to begin to root out my own habitual participation in the mistreatment of underprivileged peoples.

Find, in your own life, moments when you have felt mistreated, disempowered, or taken advantage of, even if you’re a white, heterosexual man in America who, by birth, has a mountain of privilege and power. Recall the negative feelings that arose within you and use these memories to understand how others feel when they are mistreated. This is the root of empathy. My Jewish ancestors have been persecuted for thousands of years like some nightmarish pinball game of bad luck. Contemplating this history has made it impossible for me to support Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. You will find your own threads from within you outward onto the scale of world events. This foundational empathy is essential for work in oppressed communities.

  • Understand privilege.

A full explanation of privilege analysis is far beyond the scope of this essay. But essentially, this is about seeing the ways in which society and culture grant some people power where others are denied. For the purpose of engaging in environmental activism in disempowered communities, we must understand our own privileges, especially the ones that separate us from the people we’re trying to help. Even our concerns about the environment and conservation, and the quality of air, water, and food, can be seen as a reflection of our privilege. Although this may not be true in many indigenous communities in which the relationship to the land is of deep cultural and spiritual significance, in many impoverished, oppressed, and war-torn areas people’s desperation to meet their basic needs trumps, or even negates, their concerns for nature. For the privileged, it is our degree of economic stability that affords us the time and safety to focus on issues beyond daily survival. Some of the phrases in sections two and three of this pattern language, such as: “withhold value judgments,” and “prioritize the issues of the community,” reflect this realization and help guide us toward helpful solutions for the community we’re trying to assist.

Understanding our privileges also makes interpersonal relationships easier, especially with people who might be inherently suspicious of us. For example, as a man, being aware of men’s tendencies to talk over and interrupt women, and to devalue their ideas, I can help to put people of different gender identities at ease in a meeting or brainstorming session by pointing out these tendencies to the group and asking the men in the session to be extra self-aware.

Lastly, people in underprivileged communities often expect individuals from more powerful demographics to co-opt their ideas and projects, to grab the power. Many of the sayings in section three, such as: “be an ally & an advocate,” “leave decision-making to the community,” and “train leaders from within the community,” are meant to help guide us away from becoming just another inadvertent power-monger.

  • Recognizing privilege is the responsibility of the privileged.

Because those who are discriminated against have inherently less power, they are at a disadvantage to teach the powerful about discrimination. This is why the onus to learn about the dynamics of privilege and power is on those of us who have it, especially if we wish to work with those who don’t. So if it’s our responsibility to learn, how do we do it? The kinds of transformational educational experiences that I described above in the section on “understanding oppression & empathizing with the oppressed,” are good examples of the process. It is also possible to have conversations about these dynamics outside of the professional/volunteer realm with friends who are members of disempowered social groups. I will speak more about this in section two in relation to the phrase: “recognize personal & professional relationships.”

  • Understand environmental justice.

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    In January of 2015, Ben was arrested with a group of friends for blocking a core-sampling rig at a Native American burial ground. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

Environmental justice is the crossroads of environmentalism and social justice. As I said about privilege above, a full explanation of environmental justice is far beyond the scope of this essay. And also, as I encouraged above, find issues that hit your heart and use them as springboards for your research. For myself, the more I’ve learned about the struggles of oppressed peoples and the ways that extractive industry degrades the global ecosystem, the more I have realized that the recipients of the worst effects from these industries are almost always the poor. The wealthy (and often the middle class) tend to have enough economic power to prevent dangerous facilities from ending up in their backyards. The poor often lack access to healthy food and healthy land. This, then, becomes one of the most obvious areas of focus to do environmental work in underprivileged communities.

In my early twenties, I managed a small urban farm for a non-profit organization whose mission was to combat gang violence by providing alternative opportunities for disadvantaged youth. As a friend of mine who works on similar programs has said many times: “The young men in my neighborhood are already good at growing, weighing, selling, and keeping track of their money, so why not teach them how to do it with vegetables instead of drugs?” I once asked one of the directors of the organization I worked for how he had come to the idea of using urban farming as a solution to the gang problem. He answered: “Whenever I deal with a complicated social ill, I try to boil it down to one of the simplest parts of life, so why not start with food? When the youth are malnourished, their minds don’t function well.” During this same period of my life, a dear old friend of my grandparents’ was dying. She had just finished helping a non-profit food cooperative in her city, of which she’d been a member for decades, to found their own small urban farm to supply produce to their shop. She was a life-long volunteer and progressive social activist. I went to visit her one last time, and I asked her why she had spent some of her waning energy on this initiative. Her answer to me was that after a life of helping underprivileged people, she had come to the realization that they needed cheap, local, healthy food.

  • Shed intellectual superiority. 

Academic intelligence is not the only intelligence. The ways and means of knowing and understanding are not exclusive to the well-educated. In fact, the way that people of privilege use the word “education” is loaded with prejudice. All my life I’ve heard so-called liberals say things like: “Those people wouldn’t have so many kids if they were better educated,” and “the people in the ghetto would be able to get better jobs if they had better education.” Have you ever stopped to really think about what a saying like this means, and how it might sound to one of “those people?” Although there certainly is some truth, and some well-meaning kindness, behind statements like this, there is also a latent assumption of intellectual superiority. The underprivileged tend to have less access to the educational resources of the privileged, but they have no less life experience. As activists working in disempowered communities, the way we speak to people and convey our ideas is of the utmost importance. Using vocabulary that others can easily understand is not “speaking down” to somebody. Utilize resources that the community is familiar with. Shed your belief that what you know and have is better just because it’s more “advanced.” Other sayings later in this pattern language, such as “withhold value judgments, and “have realistic expectations,” will help us to build on our understanding of this one, which challenges us to a difficult personal process of letting go of hard-to-see cultural biases.


Section 2:

  • Prepare to be invited.

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    Ben with his graduates from a 2012 permaculture course he organized with his friend Rafiyqa Muhammad and her organization Ngozi, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

This saying addresses the most common mistake that I’ve encountered among environmental activists who want to work in underprivileged communities. The mistake is to insert oneself into an outside community with ideas of how to “fix” something, without the welcome of the community itself. I’ll speak to this even more thoroughly later in this essay under the phrase: “Don’t impose solutions.” For many people in disempowered communities, unwelcome reform efforts from outside do-gooders is obnoxious, offensive, and ignorant.

So how do we prepare to be invited? I set this saying as the first of section 2 (As our aim becomes clearer, and we identify a community in which we hope to work, it’s time to hone our focus…) because as we worked through the sayings in section one, we were already involved in this preparation, and the following phrases in section 2 represent the deepening of this process. We can place ourselves in a good position to be invited to work in the community by gaining useful skills for any activist, such as facilitation training, social media literacy, anti-oppression trainings, and so on. We get to know the community in which we want to have a positive impact by making friends and colleagues there, by knowing the history and the current situation, and by being observant, diligent, and empathetic.

  • Know the situation.

This saying represents a deepening of the work expressed by several of the sayings in section 1. Now that we’ve identified a community we wish to assist, and we’ve begun the process of getting to know the people, it’s time to take our understandings of oppression, privilege, environmental justice, and so on, and to focus them on the specific issues and history of this group of people.

I’ve been fascinated by reggae and Rastafarian culture since I was a teenager. Rastfari has had a huge impact on my worldview. I hoped for many years to eventually make a pilgrimage to Jamaica to meet Rastas and to thank them, somehow, for the positive influence their culture has had on my life. But I knew that I didn’t want to just land in Jamaica with no guidance and strike out into the country in search of new friends. Finally, last year, I was invited to do a consultation at a farm where an American Rasta lives with his family. Because of my knowledge of and respect for his culture, we easily became

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Ben on a “ganja” farm in Jamaica in March of 2016. Growing cannabis is now legal for Rastafarians in Jamaica. Photo by Kendra Hoffman.

friends, and a few months later he invited me to travel with him to Jamaica. I spent three weeks on the island, traveling to meet Rasta elders and farmers. Yet again, my knowledge of reggae, Jamaican history, and Rasta culture made it easy for me to connect with many people in this new community. Two weeks into the trip, some of the Jamaican farmers were already asking my opinion of some of their farming techniques and we began to trade knowledge and skills. I was welcomed back by a handful of people to participate in their projects. This story is also a good example of the previous saying: “prepare to be invited.”

  • Book knowledge is no substitute for first-hand experience.

And that includes this essay! Get out into the community. Make mistakes and learn from them. You’ve gotten the idea by now that I’m stressing the importance of preparation and research. But once we’re empowered by these, it’s time to hit the ground running. I’ve spoken so much about communities and how to understand and anticipate the dynamics within them, but communities are comprised of individuals, and every individual within a community will have there own opinions. The only way to figure out how to deal with so many nuances is to experience them firsthand. I had a sixty-year-old supervisor at the urban farm I mentioned above who used to pull out two pairs of boxing gloves when one of the teenage boys in our youth employment program was really causing trouble. I once watched him pop the top of a surprised young man’s head in one of these impromptu bouts. You would never find a method like this in a book or a workshop on how to deal with uncooperative teenagers, but my supervisor earned more respect from those kids than any of the other staff members could. And I learned a lot by watching.

  • Don’t impose solutions.

Again, as I mentioned previously, I have encountered so many times, the common mistake of imposing solutions to problems on a community that we are not members of. This is such an easy trap to fall into. Just as the first principle of permaculture, as stated by David Holmgren, is “Observe & Interact,” so this second section of the pattern language is all about observing and getting involved with the community we wish to help. Everyone who studies permaculture learns that the essence of sustainable design is to watch how nature works, and to mimic her balance, her process, her efficiency, and her flow in order to create human systems that function in harmony with the Earth. A social movement, or a grassroots strategy can be designed in the same way.

We begin with a sense of wonder, of openness, and all of the empathy for this new community that we’ve created within ourselves by following the previous steps of this pattern language. And from this place, we get to know the community, to “know the situation.” Through this process of observation we begin to see the needs of the community, and what work is already being done to address these needs. I encourage you to look for an initiative or an organization that is already working within the community, especially one that is run by members of the community itself, rather than to start something new, especially when you are new to the situation. This, hopefully, will lead you to the kinds of work that I’ll articulate in the third section of this pattern language, represented by sayings such as “prioritize the issues of the community,”  and “leave decision-making to the community.”

  • Withhold value judgments.

As we get to know the group of people we wish to assist, we have to recognize and come to understand the core values of the group as a whole and of the individuals we’ll be working with. But we don’t have to share all of these values. We must work to find common ground, as I illustrated under the phrase in section one, “be clear about your values,” but we don’t have to agree on everything. And, without a doubt, the more harshly we judge the values of the people we’re trying to help, the less likely we are to succeed. The core value of any activist working in an outside community has to be “service.”

I taught permaculture and organic gardening classes for four years at a Quaker spiritual retreat center. My supervisors explained to me that students there would expect my curriculum to be spiritually challenging. I’m not a Quaker, as are many of the teaching staff at this facility, but I am spiritual, so I did the best I could to find common ground. So many times, students there assumed I was a Quaker because of the spiritual values I included in my classes. Although I don’t even understand or agree with all that I’ve learned about Quaker faith and practice, I merely created space for the students to explore their own spirituality within my curriculum.

On another occasion I was asked to teach a permaculture workshop at an Occupy Wall Street encampment in autumn of 2012. I seriously disagreed with much of the strategy and rhetoric of that movement, but wishing to be of service, I used permaculture design concepts to help those activists examine their own strategies and tactics without inserting my opinion. It was a useful experience for everyone involved.

An African American activist who is my friend told me of a meeting with white activists hoping to organize around food justice in her neighborhood. She told me that a number of people in her community were offended when they brought food to a potluck meeting and some of the white activists complained that the food wasn’t organic, and didn’t want to eat food such as fried chicken supplied by the community members. This is the kind of value judgment that we have to avoid in this work. We do so by grounding ourselves in the very first saying of this pattern language: “Be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable,” and we expand this work by following some of the sayings in section 3, such as “when in Rome” and “take some personal risks.”

  • Recognize personal & professional relationships.

Creating interpersonal relationships within the community we’ve begun to work in is essential to the success of our work. But this phrase of the pattern language isn’t only telling us to recognize such relationships; it’s also a reminder to distinguish between friends and colleagues. Understanding who is our friend, who is our colleague, and who is truly both is important. I have found in my own work that in any community, there are people vying for power and/or trying to gain leverage for the community itself who will act friendly when it benefits their cause, but will switch quickly to a very professional demeanor (which may include distancing themselves or their organizations from our work) if they see fit to do so. Although I urge you, as an activist whose core tenet is “service,” to avoid these kind of “politricks” as much as possible, it is crucial to be on the lookout for this pattern, to understand why and when it happens, and to know how to deal with it. I have found over the years that, although it is sometimes necessary to distance ourselves and our projects from trouble-makers, generally, those who prioritize projects over friendships are not actually building community. This behavior happens in every community, but can be particularly severe in communities where resources are scarce. In such a situation, the battle for resources can easily destroy our work. I will speak to this more in section 3 under the saying “give gifts carefully.” 

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Permaculture design is based on observing the relationships in natural systems. Grassroots initiatives can be observed through the same lens.

Again, it is crucial to distinguish between the kinds of services and behaviors we expect from friends as opposed to colleagues. I once had an awful experience while working for the non-profit urban farm I’ve mentioned several times. I was struggling to find some of the resources I needed to do my job well. I was approached by a woman from the local college which had partnered with my organization to obtain a very large amount of funding via a grant. This woman framed our meeting as an offer to help me do my job well by finding out what kind of resources the organization lacked. I was so glad to have her help, and she was friendly. I gave her all the information she asked for. The result of this was not helpful at all. This woman used the information I’d given her to attack the board members and the director of my organization for neglecting to run the program the way she wanted it to be run. I ended up being caught in the middle as the board members and director felt I had betrayed our organization. The woman from the college, who had so much sway over our funding, was white, and many of the members of my organization, mostly Latino and African American, felt that they were being undermined in an overtly racist power grab by this woman and her institution. In the end, we lost our funding, and I lost my job. A lesson learned the hardest way.


Section 3:

  • Prioritize the issues of the community.

When we work on environmental issues with an underprivileged community, it is essential that we understand the primary concerns of the people there, make them the priority in our work as well, and find ways to make the solutions to environmental issues function also as solutions to the primary concerns of the neighborhood. In permaculture design, this kind of double solution is called “stacking functions.” In an organic garden, straw mulch around the base of the vegetable plants serves to protect the soil from erosion, to hold in the moisture, to stifle the growth of weeds, and to slowly feed the soil as it is broken down through decomposition. Similarly, a movement such as the one that recently prevented the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline served as a wake-up call against climate change, as a warning to extractive industry that their dangerous and greedy projects will continue to be met with resistance, as a source of pride for rural farming and indigenous communities whose land was threatened, as a heartening victory for the environmental movement, and as an opportunity for many different people and communities to find rare common ground.

Especially in communities whose history is one of systemic racial oppression, trying to do environmental work without also addressing racism is unlikely to succeed. This may be the single most important point I’ll make in this entire essay. So I’ll repeat it:

Trying to address environmental issues in oppressed communities without also addressing the oppression will not work.

All of the previous sayings in this pattern language have led us to understand and address this necessary effort. By the time we actually begin to implement a serious project in this outside community (recall that this section 3 is defined as what we need to keep in mind as we actually engage in our work within the community…) we should have already done so much work within ourselves that we understand this point completely. I have had many conversations with seasoned environmental activists who still don’t want to have to address racism when they work in racially oppressed neighborhoods, and it saddens me every time. The environmental movement will likely never become racially diverse if this trend isn’t bucked. So how do we make our green solutions serve doubly as push-back against social injustice? Many of the following phrases, such as “be an ally and an advocate,” “train leaders from within the community,” and “phase yourself out” address this question.

  • Have realistic expectations.

This saying is an important guideline for crafting our goals in this work. Especially in economically underprivileged communities, over-utilizing financial resources on a project that fails or doesn’t meet the critical needs of the community can severely discourage future projects with similar aims. Once a project fails, donors are often hesitant to lend money to something similar, volunteers are often hesitant to participate, and community leaders are often hesitant to get on board.

Regardless of the economic situation, when we work in disempowered communities, it’s important to remember that no matter how much research we do, if we’re not truly a member of the community, there are likely to be nuances that we cannot understand. And misunderstanding these nuances can lead us back to a place of unwitting participation in the forces of oppression that negatively impact the community, and we can quickly lose our good standing. For this reason, the goals of our projects should be as simple and clear as possible. Avoid trying to change beliefs, customs, or political views. If these factors are fueling environmental degradation that your project is directly trying to address, find ways to compromise. Look within the culture itself to find stories or practices that protect and nourish the Earth, and encourage these rather than discouraging something else. Find examples of people within the community who have already begun this work, who have already found culturally acceptable ways to bypass or bend the beliefs or views that cause the negative environmental impacts. Many of the following sayings such as “when in Rome…,” “give gifts carefully,” and “small victories are big victories,” help us to keep our expectations realistic.

  • When in Rome…Capture2

…Do as the Romans do.This one is simple.We shouldn’t design projects that are filled with ideas, people,
resources, technology, aesthetics, and products that are alien to the community we’re trying to serve. This doesn’t mean we can’t do
anything new. It’s just a suggestion to clothe the work in the trappings of the culture. People take care of things that they love. People don’t love things that they don’t understand. So we have to make our work as easy to understand as possible, and utilizing the culture, people, and economics of the community we’re working with is an easy way to help people relate to the work. We also, as outsiders, can allow ourselves to assimilate somewhat into the culture to help our friends and colleagues therein to relate to us, and to show our respect, and even our love, for aspects of this community that isn’t our own.

  • Take some personal risks.

Recall that the very first saying in Section 1 of this pattern language is: “be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable.” This current phrase about taking personal risks is that vulnerability in action, with a bit of courage thrown into the mix too. Throughout this essay I’ve spoken of ways to make ourselves trustworthy to the people we’re attempting to help. I can think of no better way to prove trustworthiness than to show that we are personally invested in our work, our project, our initiative, and the community we’re serving. In section 2, when speaking of the importance of understanding personal and professional relationships, I offered a warning about blending the two as we engage in this work. But this third section of the essay is about action, and so now I’ll discuss the opposite of that warning. There comes a point when taking some calculated personal risks can achieve several crucial goals:

  • To further erase doubts within the community about the goodwill of our intentions…
  • To demonstrate the level of understanding and concern that we have developed for the issues that challenge the community…
  • To distance ourselves ever further from participation with the forces of oppression that may have previously set us apart from people we are working to help…
  • To “become an ally and an advocate” as I will speak more about below…
  • To blur the lines between colleague and friend with the right people, a blending that has the potential to become a source of inspiration and power for our work that exceeds either type of relationship by itself… (Just as in ecology, it is often the place where two ecosystems overlap, called an “ecotone,” in which energy flows are most abundant, bio-diversity is highest, and resources are most readily available. Hence David Holmgren’s permaculture principle: “Utilize edges & value the marginal.”)
  • And to galvanize others to act, or to join the effort.

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    Ben presents a certification to his friend Rafiyqa Muhammad at the end of a permaculture course they organized together.

So how do we take a personal risk? We can invest some of our own resources or assets, beyond just our time. We can push our projects into realms that more directly challenge the forces of oppression that afflict the community we work with. We can lend our voice and express our opinions on related issues. We can show up at other projects within the community that have similar aims. We can continue to build personal relationships in the community, and we can take care of people outside of the professional/volunteer realm, simply on a person to person basis. And we can even participate in civil disobedience and direct action protests if we deem it appropriate.

  • Give gifts carefully.

There are so many different yields that can come out of any environmental initiative, and so many different ways to offer these yields as gifts to individuals, organizations, and communities. These gifts can range from fresh organic produce, to a new park, to volunteer labor, to jobs, to financial grants, and so on. I cannot overemphasize the thoughtfulness that must go into giving these gifts within underprivileged communities. One thing to be mindful of is to give gifts that “prioritize the issues of the community.” A new park may create lovely green space in a downtrodden urban neighborhood, but can it also address food scarcity, unemployment, gang activity, and systemic racism? The answer could be yes if the project is designed with these issues in mind. Often in such communities, the giving of expensive gifts can come across as an unwelcome publicity stunt by the economic elite, yet another way to quickly undermine essential support for environmental initiatives within the community.

Unfortunately, in this work, we also have to be aware that, in any community, there are individuals who take the goodwill of charity and use it for selfish gain. This ranges from crooked politicians and organizational leaders to regular people in the neighborhood. We have to do the best we can to make sure that the resources we pour into our projects actually make a deeply positive impact that reaches the neediest people and combats oppression, rather than propping up broken and back-door social and economic structures that proliferate injustice.

Several of my friends have worked for years on an amazing initiative called the Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP). They partner with other non-profit organizations to build food forests in urban Philadelphia. They utilize a fairly rigorous screening process to make sure that their partners will actually be able to maintain the complex orchards and gardens that POP designs and builds for them. This helps to ensure that the resources POP gathers for the communities they work in are not poured out in vain, an excellent example of giving gifts carefully.

  • Be an ally & an advocate.

Environmental injustice in disempowered communities is always connected to a slew of other social and economic injustices. By this point in our work, we should have a deep understanding of this truth, and hopefully we’ve begun to see many ways in which the issues and concerns we’re working to address are directly connected to other forms of oppression impacting the community we work with. I’ve already explained, under “prioritize the issues of the community” and “take personal risks” how we can become more integrated with the community in order to make our projects more successful and useful. This saying of the pattern language speaks to the inverse effect. Once we have trust and clout within the community through our successful environmental work, we can begin to lend our voice to efforts to combat other injustices, whether they’re environmental or not. This deepens our service to the community.

Remember that as people of privilege, we have power to speak to the privileged and powerful in ways that the underprivileged do not. By intentionally including marginalized people in our projects, we expose the more closed-minded to opportunities to expand their own views, and we send a clear message to the privileged that one of their own sees value in neglected sectors of society, not in an economic sense (although that is a potent force for getting the attention of the powerful), but in the innate value of the humanity of others unlike ourselves.

  • Leave decision-making to the community.

This phrase, as well as a few that follow, including: “train leaders from within the community” and “phase yourself out,” speak to the importance of empowering the disempowered. We have been welcomed into a community because we have some expertise and understanding that the community needs, but now it’s time to pass it on. This is the essence of the the old saying: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever.” If we’ve been tasked by the community to lead a project, then of course we must take some responsibility for making decisions. But as much as possible, we should empower community members to increasingly make important decisions about the direction and goals of the project, especially when it comes to decisions related to sensitive community matters in which we may still be viewed as an outsider without a very relevant opinion. Choose trustworthy advisers from within the community to help you make decisions such as who gifts should be given to, how to clothe the project in the culture of the community, when and how to take personal risks, and what other initiatives to advocate for.

  • Train leaders from within the community.

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    Listen to my friend Scott Mann’s interview with Karryn Olson-Ramanujan about her “Pattern Language for Women in Permaculture” by clicking here…

Teach a woman to fish and she’ll eat forever too. When I first began teaching permaculture and sustainable gardening in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, there were very few women doing similar work. It bothered me terribly that my classes and workshops so often had an all-male teaching staff, because I understood that for many of my female students this just made them uncomfortable. So I made a several year effort to find women interested in this work, build professional connections with them, and either offer them some training myself or encourage them to get it wherever they felt comfortable. The result, now, is that there are a handful of amazing women, and people of other gender identities, in my region who I feel confident are now ready to teach permaculture. I’m grateful to be able to work with them, and I’m glad to see their own efforts flourish. Much of my work in this process was inspired by another pattern language about women in permaculture written by permaculturist Karryn Olson-Ramanujan. This is an example of how this saying further encourages us to empower the disempowered through a focus on environmental justice rather than simply environmentalism.

  • Channel the fire of the youth.
Examining Turkey Tails

Ben and his friend Natasha teach his daughter Soul about “Turkey Tail” mushrooms. Photo by Michelle Johnsen.

Just as it is important to make space for leaders from within the community to emerge, it is equally as important to make space for the youth to feel valued, understood, needed, and respected. In some cases, involving youth in positive and meaningful ways may be the key to reaching other members of the community who have resisted or rejected the work we are doing. Youth involvement may also be a powerful force against oppressive factors from outside, or a key to unlocking much-needed resources. Sometimes the fresh vision of the youth offers us insights and ideas we wouldn’t have come up with. And where the efforts and ideas of the youth are a little too fiery for the good of the work we’re doing, we must find roles for them to play that satisfy their need to feel validated and included. At the urban farm I worked for, I and the other staff members saw directly how the lessons learned by the teenagers we worked with trickled through to their families and the neighborhood. Our youth crew brought friends and relatives to visit the garden, many of whom had minimal experience with gardening or fresh food, or knew so little about healthy nutrition. But the youth crew also brought us elders from the community who taught us gardening techniques we didn’t know about, educated us about varieties of vegetables that were desirous to the community, and taught us about the history of the land we were working.

  • Small victories are big victories.

I’ve already emphasized the importance of having realistic expectations, and of keeping our goals simple and clear. This saying is a reminder to take every success as a milestone, every failure as a useful lesson, and to build on these little by little, no matter how little they may be. Many environmental activists have huge visionary goals when they embark on projects in disenfranchised communities. But again, remember my warning under the phrase “have realistic expectations” about not trying too hard to change religious and political views. Massive sweeping reforms pushed on a community by outsiders, no matter how well-intended, are another force of oppression. Massive sweeping reforms have to be carried forward by people within their own communities and cultures in order to be peaceful and just. So as an outsider, celebrate the little victories every time. I once was with a friend visiting the tiny gardens she had built at the Boys and Girls Club in her neighborhood to teach urban children about fresh food. I pointed out that some of the techniques being used to grow the food were far from ideal, and my friend looked me in the eye and said “Most of these kids have never eaten a tomato before Ben. I got them to grow one and eat it right off the vine. That’s a big victory for them and for me.” And I realized instantly that her way of seeing the situation was powerful and positive.

  • Know when to fold ’em.

When we do fail, it’s often crucial to gracefully step away from the scenario so as not to make it worse. I’ve failed in this manner of work so many times and so many ways. My sincere hope is that through this essay, some of you won’t have to “reinvent the wheel” of failure, and can succeed more than I have and avoid some obvious mistakes. When we cling to our goals, unwilling to cast the work we’ve done onto the grindstone of trial and error in the face of impending failure, we do harm.

In this essay I’ve pointed out so many ways to avoid becoming just another oppressor, just another mindlessly over-privileged do-gooder. Holding fast to a collapsing project is a fast-track to losing our good standing in the community we’re working with, and can once again make it difficult for other similar projects to succeed in the future. So we have to know when it’s time to throw down the cards, throw in the towel, and hoist the white flag. I’ve watched well-intended, poorly executed environmental initiatives drag on for years, souring the community to the cause, the participants often oblivious to the negative impressions of the surrounding community. Then, finally, a blow up occurs, almost always followed by a black-hole of wasted resources. In order to avoid this scenario, rely upon the work that we’ve done in some of the sayings earlier in the pattern language such as: “be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable,” “be clear about your values,” “don’t impose solutions,” “prioritize the issues of the community,” and “have realistic expectations.” And lastly, when it is time to walk away from a failing project, do it as cleanly, kindly, and responsibly as possible.

  • Phase yourself out.

Fittingly, this is the final phrase of our pattern language. As I said before, “we should empower community members to increasingly make important decisions about the direction and goals of the project,” and “reforms have to be carried forward by people within their own communities and cultures in order to be peaceful and just.” This is why, ultimately, it is best if we train leaders from within the community to replace us, and eventually step down from a leadership role. This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon all of our friendships and involvement in the community. We can still “be an advocate and and an ally,” and we can find another injustice, possibly within the same community, to confront with all of the skill, tact, and wisdom that we learned from the last project.

Just as in every natural ecosystem species peak and fade away, having created the resources and fertile ground for another species to thrive, this is how we can empower the underprivileged to take environmental justice into their own hands and join a burgeoning international movement in defense of our Mother Earth. These kinds of projects and initiatives are more authentic and more inspiring when they are carried out effectively by the people whose communities are directly threatened by the injustice they seek to overcome. Local control of essential resources by local people is a solution to economic injustice, as well as environmental degradation. Local control of essential resources by local people is the embodiment of environmental justice. This is why the community must ultimately lead.

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is the leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”

-Tao Te Ching


I am humbly overjoyed to offer this essay to the world. I sincerely hope that it provides inspiration and assistance. It is the result of 17 years of work and study, many failures, and a few successes. So many people have helped me on the path to understanding what I’ve written about here, some of whom surely suffered from my mistakes. I’m grateful to them all. I’d especially like to thank my mom Miriam Ryan, my grandparents Gene & Rose Bloomfield, my aunt Barbara Bloomfield, and Mumia Abu-Jamal who wrote me a letter from his maximum security prison cell when I was 15.


A Recap of the Pattern Language:

Section 1:

  • Be authentic, transparent, humble, & sometimes vulnerable.
  • Be clear about your values.
  • Understand oppression & empathize with the oppressed.
  • Understand privilege.
  • Recognizing privilege is the responsibility of the privileged.
  • Understand environmental justice.
  • Shed intellectual superiority. 

Section 2:

  • Prepare to be invited.
  • Know the history.
  • Book knowledge is no substitute for first-hand experience.
  • Don’t impose solutions.
  • Withhold value judgments.
  • Recognize personal and professional relationships.

Section 3:

  • Prioritize the issues of the community.
  • Have realistic expectations.
  • When in Rome…
  • Take some personal risks.
  • Give gifts carefully.
  • Be an ally & an advocate.
  • Leave decision-making to the community.
  • Train leaders from within the community.
  • Channel the fire of the youth.
  • Small victories are big victories.
  • Know when to fold ’em.
  • Phase yourself out.
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