By Marisa Keller, a member of 350Brattleboro and 350VT’s new Writing for Climate Justice group

“How do we connect racial justice into our climate justice actions in a white state like Vermont?” someone asked at the “How Are Racial Justice and Climate Justice Connected?” workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago in Brattleboro.

“How about trying to change our attitude that Vermont is a ‘white state’?” someone else responded.

The workshop was offered by 350Vermont, and many of us there were involved in climate activism and looking to inform our approach. Most of the 25 of us were white, and we spent much of the workshop unpacking racism.

We examined the four frames of racism (internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic) and watched a video of people of color talking about their experiences. Then we discussed the values and beliefs underpinning the racism we’d heard about in the video.

Our resulting list looked something like this:

  • White supremacy (some people have more value than others, based on skin color)
  • Colonialism (some cultures have more value than others)
  • Meritocracy (some people have more value than others, based on success)
  • Entitlement/privilege (we deserve…)
  • Ownership (right to possess, right to control)
  • Hierarchy (“sacred order”; somebody always has to be at the bottom)
  • Capitalist economics (focus on profit, competition)

There was a moment of depressed silence as we looked at what we had come up with. And then came what was for me the pivotal moment of the workshop. One of the facilitators drew a line above our list and added a title. But it was not “The Beliefs and Values Behind Racism.” Instead, the title read, “The Roots of Climate Change.”

I blinked and looked at the list again. I had come to the meeting expecting to learn how the effects of climate change disproportionately impact people of color. And they do — from hurricane damage to health issues caused by air pollution or contaminated water, communities of color are often hardest hit and least able to protect themselves. But what I was looking at was a deeper, systemic truth: climate change and racism have grown from the same roots.

In the last segment of the workshop, we attempted to figure out how to apply our newfound insights. 350 Brattleboro is currently in the planning stages of a campaign to improve the transportation situation in Windham County, which like most of Vermont is largely rural and not rich in public transit options. But How do we incorporate racial justice into our transportation campaign? is a tricky question to answer in half an hour. We left still pondering, and with a list of additional resources that will keep us busy reading and learning for a while.

For me, the broader lesson was a perspective adjustment. Any goal that leads to a new system, outside of the hierarchies of privilege and power that currently drive our culture, is a goal that incorporates both racial justice and climate justice.

And, of course, the sooner we stop thinking of Vermont as a “white state,” the sooner we’ll be able to critically examine the systems we’ve inherited, come to understand how those systems favor white folks, and start building new systems that leave room at the table for people of color and make racial justice and climate justice possible.

350 Vermont will present another Racial Justice/Climate Justice workshop at the NOFA VT conference in Burlington on Monday, February 18. If you can’t make it to the workshop but want to explore the subject on your own, you can watch this video from the New York Times, read this article on environmental racism, or dig into Season 2 of the podcast Seeing White. If you have opinions about a racial-justice-informed transportation campaign in Windham County, we’d love to see you at a 350 Brattleboro meeting! (First and third Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m., Brattleboro Co-op community room.) Or email brattleboro@350vt.org.