Decolonizing Permaculture: Bridging the gap between privilege and oppression

by Heather Jo Flores

A low-income community in Indiana, coming together to build a shared garden in somebody’s front yard. Photo by AB Brand

As Published in issue #98 of Permaculture Design Magazine, November 2015

First of all, I want to say that I do not represent anyone but myself, and though I have vetted this article with several peers and mentors, I do not presume to know the needs and desires of anyone else. However, it seems to me that there are ripples of injustice coursing through the permaculture community, manifesting as a pattern of landowners and/or self-proclaimed leaders doing things that hurt, offend, oppress, and devalue others. These behaviors discredit the permaculture movement at large, and unless we can overcome them, our ultimate goal of sharing a true and authentic sustainability will remain far out of reach.

We can whisper the names of the beasts: racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, misogyny, hate, fear, anger… we all experience these things from time to time, and we see the resulting backlash and judgmental attitudes. Perhaps it is the willingness to play the superior that is the root of the problem? Self-righteousness is certainly not a principle of permaculture, and yet we divide ourselves so easily, bickering over the details and competing for resources.

I recognize that these issues need to be studied and dealt with through an intersectional lens. Nothing is separate from the other. But for me, the central problem that divides the permaculture community is class. It seems to me that the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity, while often connected to the other -isms, is at the core of many of the bad (poorly designed) dynamics in our community. Not to say that racism, sexism, ageism and other -isms don’t cause problems, but ultimately it is the control and ownership of money and property that allows people to abuse their other privileges.

My own history is of extreme poverty, marginalization, and struggle. I grew up with my sister and our single mom. My mom, of Cree/Scottish heritage, who was beaten as a child and had me when she was 19, worked full-time-plus, at minimum wage, in a wide range of jobs. But we never had enough money for rent. As such, I spent much of my childhood either homeless, living in a van, or being dropped off at a relative’s house for a few months, to lighten the burden on my mom. My dad, a working-class electrician whose parents emigrated from Mexico before he was born, wasn’t around until I was a teenager, and wasn’t able to help much through the haze of violence and alcoholism that dominated his life at that point. By the time I dropped out in 10th grade at the age of 15, I had attended 19 different schools and lived in at least 30 different houses. I have been on my own since then, and have been generally self-reliant, unless you count student loans, which I accepted in order to access an education that was unavailable without them. That was my “choice” and I don’t regret it, but the burden of those loans is crippling.

However, because I grew up with such an unusual set of resources, I learned to be extraordinarily resourceful, and that is precisely what makes me such a good designer, teacher, and community organizer. I’m not tooting my own horn here, only illuminating my own body of work as an example of how effective a person can be, even if they didn’t start out with much. Now imagine what I could have done had I been connected to the right opportunities at a younger age. And imagine what I could do now if I had a piece of my own land instead of 80 grand in student debt.

All of these years — organizing Food Not Lawns, writing the book, growing and sharing seeds, traveling and collecting species and stories — all of that has been funded by me doing a lot of crazy shit for money. You name it: housecleaning, selling jewelry, and, of course, growing and trimming marijuana (which is what probably eighty percent of West Coast activists and artists have done to sustain themselves for decades.)

Judge me if you must, but I did what I had to do to survive. Why didn’t I just market my seeds, produce, and skills as a professional, and make ends meet that way? Because (and this is especially true when dealing with the permaculture community) I have consistently locked horns with the beasts enumerated above.

People with more privilege than me have blown me off, forgotten to pay me, plagiarized my work, used my name to sell a PDC without hiring me to teach it, and even, as in the case with RealFarmacy and their smarmy “Grow Food, Not Lawns” Facebook page, tried to steal my trademark through the US Patent & Trademark Office. If I hadn’t been able to hustle up several thousand dollars trimming weed in California last winter (to hire an attorney) I would have lost the Food Not Lawns trademark forever.

I don’t tell you all of this to make you feel bad or to pity me. I tell you to make the point that not everybody has access to the jobs, schools, homes, families, land, and respect that is a given in many of your lives. And we don’t want you to feel bad about it. We just want you to do something to change it.

I do believe that most people wake up in the morning wanting to be good people and to do good work in the world, regardless of their race, class, gender, age, or what they eat for breakfast. And when I see nasty, divisive behaviors like interrupting, shaming, slandering, disregarding, plagiarizing, avoiding, condescending, taking advantage of, jacking up the rent and calling oneself King, Duke, or Benevolent Dictator, they are coupled with rationalizations about how doing “the work” is more important than how others feel about the way that work gets done.

“I don’t have time to deal with people criticizing me. The Earth is dying. I have work to do,” wrote one permaculture teacher who is known to be especially abusive. My response to that? This is the work. The Earth is not actually dying. Yes, Earth Care is important, and many species are going extinct, but we will climb right to the top of that list if we don’t get the People Care and Fair Share ethics worked out. Maybe human extinction is what’s best for the Earth, maybe not. I’d like to think we can err on the side of survival, however temporary it may be in the big picture.

Decolonization and Sovereignty

I most often hear the term “decolonization” used in discussions about race, class, and privilege. Recently, a friend and colleague pointed out that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” That stunned me. I googled it and found a powerful, provocative body of work centered around a 2012 essay by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. They identify any person who owns land in a place to which they are not native as a “settler” (a.k.a. colonizer). By this definition, just about every landowner in the permaculture community is a settler/colonizer.

Tuck and Yang:

“The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym.”

I have had a handful of discussions about decolonization in terms of giving land back to indigenous populations. I am Cree Indian on my mother’s side and Chihuahua on my father’s. And so when somebody with money, land, and privilege seems eager to “help” the oppressed, I will bring it up. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Settler/landowner: “What can I do to help the poor?”

Me: “Gift me a piece of land, and I will turn it into a seed sanctuary, food forest, and permaculture paradise that will feed and benefit the community for generations.”

Settler/landowner: “Not gonna happen.”

Me: “Ok.”

Alas, it doesn’t seem as if people who own land will start signing deeds over to sovereign nations anytime soon, and in my most candid moments, I would probably say that there’s not much point in continuing a discussion about equality until people are willing to do way more than just talk about it. The only way to truly balance the scales is by actually, physically redistributing wealth. Call me a socialist, but isn’t socialism at its heart just a community coming together? Fair Shares, anyone?

Decolonization is also about sovereignty.

People with more privilege have more control over their own lives and, as such, have better opportunities to manifest what they see as their true purpose, without the burdens (and time consumption) associated with struggling to survive on a daily basis. Sovereignty means being free to pursue your dreams, to follow your chosen path, to share, speak, and teach your truths without fear of poverty and persecution. Nobody should feel like a slave. Unfortunately, it is all too common for landowners in the permaculture world to treat their tenants, interns, and volunteers like peasant-slaves, and again, to justify it with excuses about how “the work” is so important for the world.

I wrote about sovereignty in my work on the Heroine’s Journey, in relation to the age-old question, “what do women want?” I discussed the possibility that a woman’s heroic journey might have less to do with slaying the proverbial beast, and more to do with understanding, befriending, and co-existing with it. And this is a metaphor for what we, the permaculture community, are attempting to do with nature. We seek to learn from it, adapt with it, and collaborate, rather than to control, manipulate, and abuse it.

But we still need to learn how to adopt those ideals in our human relationships.

Is it this archetypal need to be the Hero that drives oppressive, patriarchal behaviors?

To me, it boils down to two things: A view of oneself as somehow superior in knowledge and ability to others, and a lack of the sincere trust that one needs in order to build authentic relationships.

And again, if somebody has enough money, they can play the buffoon and get away with it. And so the Hero comes blasting into a project, sure that others will fail without his almighty guidance, and proceeds to insult, alienate, and/or disregard the people who are doing most of the work. We don’t need a Hero. We need small, steady change built upon strong, healthy connections.

So what can we do?

True and Committed Friendships

Friendships are the building blocks of community. Think about what it means to be a true friend to somebody. Friendships ask for justice, equality, non-violence, respect, and communication. Friends are loyal, honest, and sincere. Friendships require vulnerability, compassion, patience, and most of all, effort. A friendship asks you to go out of your way to see someone, to help them, and to support their work and their emotions. And a true friend gives all of this back to you, and so much more.

Aren’t these all of the same qualities we want for our permaculture community at large? Is it possible that we can subvert patterns of abuse and oppression by forming honest, lifelong friendships across the divides? The list below offers tangible suggestions for how to cultivate real friendships and alliances.

Disclaimer: The problem with this type of list is that it asks the privileged reader to discover a sense of empathy based on altruistic inclination: I am asking you to forego the privilege that seems to benefit you, and to give up some of your power and position, in order to build a more just society for everyone else. Perhaps this article already has you feeling triggered, frustrated, defensive?

And I am asking you to check that luggage at the door, to open your heart and mind to the possibility that these actions will benefit not just you as an individual, but also the global community, in ways that avoiding change and hoarding your privilege won’t.

It’s a tall order, but I hope that you will embrace the challenge. Think about the friends you currently cherish. Wouldn’t you do just about anything for them? Imagine that there are so many new and true connections out there, just waiting for you to step forward.

15 Ways to Share Your Privilege

  1. Socialize.
    It seems trite, but as I said, real friendships are at the core of this. Invite people with less privilege to your parties and attend ours. Dance with us, eat with us, live with us, and date us. In short, socialize with us the same way you do with your friends.
  2. Listen. Stop talking. Don’t argue. Just listen. If somebody says something that triggers you, be with the discomfort and just keep listening. Sometimes friends need to rant and vent with each other. You’ll get your turn.
  3. Value.
    Value and use creative input. My experience of the world could be vastly different than yours, and these differing perspectives could be a powerful addition to your project.
  4. Support. 
    Offer to help with food, rides, housing, childcare, and logistical support. Don’t just waltz in and be the Leader while everyone else does the menial stuff. But don’t just do these things because you’ve got something to prove — do them because that’s the kind of stuff that friends do for each other.
  5. Make Time.
    Make time for conversations about difficult topics. Don’t act as if they’re not important, just because they may not be visible to you. Respond, rather than react, to critique. Let those conversations be a safe, sacred space for you to learn together with somebody about how to build true peace in the world.
  6. Don’t Flake.
    Show up when you say you will. Don’t try to talk people down, undercut their rates, or flake on contractual agreements. Don’t make idle promises. Be real.
  7. Educate Yourself.
    Educate yourself about race, class, gender, and intersectionality, rather than expecting others to educate you. Read books, search the Web, go to workshops. But then, once you learn some stuff, keep learning. Don’t decide that you are now an authority on privilege and oppression, just because you read some stuff about it.
  8. Be a Student.
    Enroll in courses and workshops taught by people outside of your own demographic. Be a student as often as you ask people to be yours. You think you already know about permaculture? Come to my class, and I guarantee you will learn things you never even thought about.
  9. Acknowledge.
    Give credit where credit is due. This connects back to the part about accepting creative input. It’s not enough to just value somebody’s ideas. You have to give credit for them too. Consistently. This takes time and effort. Thank you.
  10. Promote.
    Write about and promote the work of others. Scroll through your Facebook feed and look through your bookshelf. How many of those links you shared and books you read were created by women, people of color, queer people, or poor people? Realize that, unless you go out of your way to find and promote that work, it might not come across your feed. Find it. And share.
  11. Hire.
    Hire women, people of color, etc., to do work on your site and to teach in your courses. Offer meaningful work at a wage comparable to your own. If you haven’t heard about one teacher as much as another, ask yourself why. Could it be because of privilege? Don’t assume that a more famous teacher is more qualified to teach. Often, it’s just the opposite. And then, remember to give them credit for the work you hired them to do.
  12. Network.
    Use your connections to build capacity for others. You probably already do this for your friends and colleagues. Scan your memory for the connections you’ve helped to create and ask yourself if your network includes a good balance of people across races, genders, and classes. Adjust the ratio accordingly.
  13. Organize.
    Organize events that create opportunities for others. This task in particular falls all too often to the women in a community. I have seen it a million times: the women organize, promote, and hold space for a workshop, and then the men come and teach, orate, and leave a mess at the end. Switch it up!
  14. Donate. 
    Decolonize, un-mataphorically. Give money and property to people who did not start out with the resources you started out with. I know, you worked hard to get where you are. But consider that somebody else probably worked even harder, and were rewarded with less, just because of the circumstances they happened to have been born into. So give up some money. Give up some land. Just do it. Give away a car, a tractor, some tools, and some seeds. But again, don’t give because you feel guilty or because you want to be a hero. Do it because you know that sharing resources truly and effectively contributes to lasting, sustainable community.
  15. Trust. 
    This is the fundamental building block of any friendship, relationship, or community. Trust each other. Trust yourself. Don’t get defensive. If you do feel defensive, take a walk, write a poem, or go yell at a tree for a few minutes.

Then come back and try again. Remember the permaculture principles: Respond to feedback; Designer limits the yield; Problems are solutions; Mistakes are tools for learning. Don’t use the ethics and principles for excuses to avoid difficult conversations — use them as tools for navigation.

Good luck! I welcome your feedback and look forward to the conversations that will come of this article and others in this pivotal issue.

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