by Emily Brewer, Executive Director of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the godparent organization of Fossil Free PCUSA
A year ago, I was part of a group of 11 people from New York, Chicago, Virginia, Oregon, and New Jersey that was making final preparations to drive across the country to North Dakota. We were going to join our bodies and hearts with thousands of others at Standing Rock resisting the greed and destruction of the fossil fuel industry. Since the summer months, we had watched video footage of Water Protectors being attacked by police with dogs and pepper spray. We had seen and read and heard about the courageous nonviolent resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline that was being put through Lakota land, threatening the water supply and violating the Treaty of 1851. And so when the leadership of the camp issued a call for people to come, we went.
All people who showed up to the camp were directed to attend an orientation, which was held daily. This orientation was about where to put trash, where to build fires, and other things you might expect at an orientation, but the majority of the time was spent orienting us to a way of thinking and being that centered Native people, experiences, and voices. “You will not get this perfect,” they told us, “but while you’re here, you’re a visitor, and you are accountable to the Earth and the native people who call this land home.” That meant taking direction from native leaders, it meant taking turns speaking and not talking over one another, it meant practicing nonviolence in our actions and language.
We traveled to Standing Rock as an act of accountability to the Native people who were being most negatively impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline. We felt called to go to Standing Rock, because the Lakota leadership had requested people to come and stand alongside them, and we knew that in some small way it was an act of repentance for being part of a society and as individuals ignore the voices of indigenous people in this country. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we were not all guilty, but we were all responsible. Once we got there, we were accountable to the Native leaders—to listen and believe them when they described their experiences and follow them when they proposed solutions.
As we left the camp, and for the year since we left, accountability has meant staying involved in the movement—paying attention to the way that the #NoDAPL is portrayed in mainstream media and saying “that’s not quite it. Let me tell you what I experienced and what the nonviolent water protectors are doing” when the Water Protectors are depicted as violent or anything other than courageously defending the Earth for all of us. It has meant protesting at and divesting from banks that the Water Protectors have deemed the most egregious supporters of the Dakota Access and other pipelines. It has meant remembering the Water Protectors and what we learned there when we do work in our own contexts, even when there are no Native people directly involved. It means asking ourselves why there are no native people involved in our movements or events or leadership if there aren’t.
In the case of advocating for divestment from fossil fuels as part of the creation justice movement, accountability doesn’t mean that we leave the work to Native people and other people and communities most affected by climate change. What it does mean is that those of us who are non-Native and white and relatively protected from environmental devastation (at least thus far) cannot do this work without being tied to larger movements that are led by most directly-affected communities – Indigenous and native peoples like the people we met at Standing Rock, people like Puerto Ricans who have already suffered from natural disasters made worse by climate change and whose recover process is even more daunting because of the debt crisis (that is a result of being a territory of the United States), people who live near oil refineries in Texas who are suffering health problems after Harvey, people whose land-productivity has been diminished by fossil fuel extraction like the communities we met in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016. Accountability means coming alongside movements led by directly-affected people to take direction and then doing work in our own communities. It means that an essential question we have to ask over and over again in our work is, “Who are the people most directly affected by this? Does our work help or hurt them?” If we don’t know the answers to those questions, we must slow down and find answers before proceeding. It’s not the white, US, fast-paced way of doing things, but it is the Christian way of doing things.