Dear Energy Action Coalition,
“What are the implications for a social justice movement in which power and resources are being transferred based on one’s ability to develop a relationship with the right white people?”
-Tiffany Lethabo King & Eware Osayande
I write this letter out of compassion and frustration. This feedback is not directed at you as individuals, but rather the organizational culture that I experienced this summer at EAC, culminating this past weekend at Power Shift, where I resigned from EAC staff on Sunday.
First and foremost, I want to make clear that I am not trying to work toward resolution, nor do I feel it is my responsibility to offer tangible solutions and answers for the issues present within EAC’s culture. I have no investment in improving an organization I feel will ultimately be ineffective if it continues to operate in the way I experienced and observed. Instead, I will simply offer my experience publicly, as I believe there is much to be gained from having this dialogue out in the open where accountability cannot be lost, blame cannot be displaced, and those who have been systematically left out of conversations can have a seat at the table.
In my first few weeks at EAC, there were some isolated instances that left me feeling unsettled and uncomfortable, but that was what they were to me then: isolated instances. But over time as these instances became patterns, I realized that they were intentionally being framed as isolated instances rather than what they really were: systemic problems.
Inherent in the very structure of non-profit organizations “working toward social justice” like the EAC is a paradigm that renders work ineffective. The non-profit structure organizes mass dissent that could actually spur real revolution into a career-based organizing model, one in which dominating hierarchy is created and oppressive power-dynamics are replicated. Those with a relative amount of privilege rise to the top of that hierarchy, funding their organization through contributions from wealthy funders and donors (successful capitalists) who are then able to pride themselves on their philanthropy.
Non-profits do not threaten the suicidal status quo or disrupt and disturb the colonial-industrial-capitalist paradigm. If they did, you can bet the state would have already done away with them.
I came to EAC to work on Power Shift in June knowing I was entering an ecosystem with which I had much contention, but hopeful and optimistic that boundaries could be healthily pushed and the final Power Shift product would be something of which I could be proud. As the Power Shift Programs Coordinator, I worked very hard to make sure that there were sessions at the conference that would push the radical edges of the mainstream movement narrative and provide space for long overdue conversations. I was relatively successful at this, having designed the Saturday morning frontline panels and advocating for sessions to be included that were deemed “too radical” by some. Folks that would never have stepped foot into a Power Shift conference turned out this year in numbers because of this work and felt genuinely excited about some of it, something about which I feel happy and satisfied.
But during the planning process as I relentlessly advocated for space to be made for these real conversations, I was shut down at many points in the process. I was told I couldn’t use the phrase “smashing racism” in a panel title because “we aren’t prepared for people to realize they’re racist at Power Shift.” I was told to use the phrase “economic justice” instead of the word “classism.” This censorship of language created much frustration and anger. I want to talk about smashing racism. I want to name classism and call it out where I see it. It seemed to me that the EAC only wanted to do these things when it painted a pretty and inclusive political picture of the organization. This is not okay with me. As someone who benefits from white privilege, I cannot sit idly by and watch these conversations be watered down.
The EAC will brag about the intersectionality and focus on frontline communities at Power Shift, but they will not acknowledge the tokenization and appropriation present within the venue and that which they call “the movement.” The movement is not white, middle-class, college students; the movement is those who are not seen or heard, but are resisting with their bodies and lives in the belly of the beast, most often without a choice. The movement is those who are still alive despite hundreds of years of attempt at extermination by the dominant culture. The movement is those who have never had the privilege to ignore, those who have been fighting since before they were even born. The rest of us are, at best, simply operating in solidarity with these people. At worst, we’re co-opting and appropriating their experiences, overshadowing their struggles with privileged grievances, and redirecting the “movement narrative” in a harmful way.
EAC organized regional convergences about a month prior to Power Shift to train people on conventional organizing skills such as phone banking, recruitment, and fundraising. These convergences took place all over the country. One convergence, organized by Jenna, an Oglala Lakota from the occupied territory known as South Dakota, was also attended by an EAC staff member who traveled with Jenna for support. At this convergence, the EAC staff member promised the group that EAC would provide housing and transportation for a delegation of youth from Pine Ridge to attend Power Shift. Jenna spent countless hours getting this arranged, and two weeks prior to the conference was told there would be no money available for this delegation because it was “too last minute.” Meanwhile, I observed many other scholarships be awarded during the same time period. This seemed to me to be an intentional exclusion of a group of people rather than a logistical issue.
The colonial behavior demonstrated by EAC and this staff member is repulsive and disgusting. It is fundamentally wrong to send representatives from a big green NGO comfortably situated far away from the frontlines into a community that has been subject to dehumanization, marginalization, and extermination for centuries to train people how to organize and make promises that they can’t keep. These communities have dealt with this kind of bullshit for centuries and those of us who aren’t from their communities need to do a little more shutting up and a little more listening.
Jenna and I are friends. We got to know each other this summer through our positions in EAC, where we shared desk space and spent many hours commiserating and conversing. Although we come from totally different backgrounds, our identities and experiences aside, we get each other on the most basic human level.
At Power Shift, Jenna had been assigned the task of staff room manager. This meant she was to sit in the staff room for the entire conference, ensuring the security of the space. This was a job I thought was both boring and unfair to Jenna, who had been used wrongly as a “bridge to indigenous communities,” and even in that messed up framework, was still not given the space to be this EAC-serving bridge at Power Shift. From what I could observe, Jenna spent the majority of the day dutifully “managing the staff room,” exiting the room every so often to help with other things. On Friday, Jenna and I spent many hours helping with conference registration. On Saturday, I observed Jenna assisting with little tasks around the convention center.
On Sunday morning of Power Shift after I had already watched Jenna be spoken to with forceful and dominating language by one of EAC’s senior staff, Jenna came to me visibly upset, saying she had been told without warning that she could “continue enjoying the conference” and would not be paid for the day. I asked her what reason was given for this withholding of pay, to which she did not have an answer.
Seeing my friend so hurt upset me. It seemed to me there was no legitimate reason to withhold Jenna’s pay. This was just another example of bullying, disseminated through hierarchy onto that hierarchy’s easiest target. Both Jenna and I had experienced and observed this sort of emotional and verbal abuse throughout the summer by EAC’s staff, so this incident unfortunately didn’t surprise me.
Shortly after I had spoken with Jenna, I was told in a vague manner that I needed to give staff my schedule for the day because any time I spent “not doing staff work” would be unpaid time. This included prepping for sessions in which I was participating. As always, this message was communicated to me from those who hold the most power within the organization through an intermediary, leaving plenty of room for confusion and removing accountability from those at the top. The intermediary was unable to provide clarification on the reason for this decision to cut pay.
While I was upset that the EAC would try to withhold minimal amounts of money from me for reasons that seemed to simply be further control-seeking and bullying, it was not my pay with which I was most concerned, it was Jenna’s. I know that I was and had been benefitting from a white supremacist paradigm within EAC, and that’s a paradigm that extends beyond the color of my skin. It is the favoring of those with conventional organizing skills: those who can more easily assimilate into the NGO culture. It is the advantages inherently given to those who have been raised and conditioned within the dominant culture. It is the expectation of college education and tendency to run on deadline-focused timelines. It is the capability to be paid for my “organizing.” It is the ability, even as an employee at the bottom of EAC’s hierarchy, to be able to leverage my power through self-advocating and have that be enough to make EAC’s upper management listen. Not necessarily comprehend or internalize, but listen, even if for a moment.
I turned in my vest, headset, and temporary position within EAC on Sunday because we went into Power Shift with a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech and behavior. Although it may not have been expected that those of us deemed “lower level staff” such as myself would hold upper management accountable to this policy, I will and am. While the EAC’s withholding of pay from Jenna was the original catalyst for my resignation, my choice was about much more than that.
There is a pattern of abuse within the EAC that I have witnessed and experienced play out over and over and over in my four short months in the office.
This abuse has ranged from overt comments to the use of relative position of power within EAC to manipulate, control, and silence. There were times where folks were removed from places of safety for conversations so accountability could be lost. There was aggressive body language. There were many times that credit and praise was taken by those with power rather than those who did the work. Communication was messy, and dialogue and concerns were always met with management rhetoric. Statements like, “we didn’t know her management style,” were used as excuses for poor communication.
EAC will have reasons to justify all of these things and will reference anti-oppression trainings that took place in the office as intentional spaces to let out these concerns. They will ask why I didn’t speak up during these trainings and why I am instead doing so now. They will ask me to take dialogue offline. They will and already have begun to slander individuals causing disruption to their flow of operation. I would expect nothing less, as these justifications and excuses are simply last-ditch efforts to ensure EAC’s censored survival.
But I believe the state and system has to fall in order to create a world grounded in politics of consent, respect, and community, so I believe this kind of frantic scrambling and turmoil is healthy. A movement that operates in solidarity with frontline communities does more than tweet about it. A movement that supports those who are seen as nothing but collateral damage to the system does more than network with them. We’re going to have to get out of our chairs and off our computers. We’re going to have to get real.
Energy Action Coalition, this is your long overdue opportunity to get real. Will you continue to push privileged, system-centric rhetoric and campaigns or will you step back, calm the survival instinct that is driving your defensiveness, and listen?
I hope you will listen.
With fierce love and determination,