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By Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

As a DC EcoWoman, I am a member of a community of women that inspire and encourage each other to do the work necessary to create a healthy and equitable society. Like many of you, I wear several hats inside and outside of the DC EcoWomen community – analyst, policy wonk, jargon translator, and general problem solver. Each of us brings our experience, understanding, and perspective into the spaces we inhabit, the spheres we influence, and which actions we elect not to take.

This blog post concerns a grey area; between our thoughts and actions, where the frameworks, lenses or viewpoints we apply to difficult questions determine the trajectory of our involvement in creating solutions. This precious mental space is where the greatest challenges to any community lay.

I consider how these structures interact, and discuss their impact on the ways we show up as members of coalitions involved in environmental work.

What is intersectionality?

Intersectionality1The concept of intersectionality was introduced to the collective consciousness some thirty years ago in a thunderous paper by Kimberlé Crenshaw. She advanced a cohesive theory that articulated the energy and effect of legal and political invisibility for women of color. She gave a name to the angst of not being seen and made it a cognizable body of work on identity and its connection to power structures.

Of Crenshaw’s articulations, the two definitions I find most helpful for understanding intersectionality are:

  1. it is a process of recognizing what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual as social and systemic, and
  2. it is a way to register the fact that there are multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.

Crenshaw looks at intersectionality as it applies to systems that interact with women’s bodies, define their political rights and cultural roles. I warn you, Crenshaw’s paper is heavy stuff, and it hurts to read because it breaks down some of the most personal parts of public life and the ways we are socialized to avoid complication for the sake of expediency.

As a shorthand, I like to think of intersectionality as an act of intention, a purposeful application of the whole self to dynamic problems. If we endeavor to employ it, we have the chance to dismantle silos of class, race, education, belief, sex, gender, culture, and age in favor of a more realistic accounting of our investment in resolving harms and identifying problems.

Why apply an intersectional lens?

To avoid silos.

As EcoWomen we combine our talents, interests and perspectives to address large scale problems that include climate change, environmental justice and equity, conservation of natural resources, oceans, sustainable agriculture, ecology and the built environment, among others. We do this in our personal and professional lives, and in order to be successful we should avoid intellectual and emotional silos that limit our ability to use the power of combination to develop multifaceted approaches.

As proponents of change, we work against staid systems in order to develop sustainable answers to the questions of our time. We do this in a context of social transformation, and increasing knowledge of our destructive and redemptive power and ability.

An intersectional lens welcomes the breadth of our present working identities as women, and more, and avoids direct or indirect exclusion. It is an aide to conscious development of considerate problem analysis and solutions that increase our capacity as a body, enhancing our total range, representation and reflective power, which in turn enhances the quality of actions that result.

What does intersectionality look like?

Intersectionality2Intersectionality looks like full expression, critical thinking applied to challenges. It looks like the recognition that systems of benefits, resources, privilege, and oppression overlap and that multiple public identities yield to situational arrangement. It looks like dynamic feminism followed up by consistent action towards those ends.

In green spaces, intersectionality looks like environmental campaigns, policy, and programs rooted in inclusion rather than marginalization. It looks like associations based on the premises that the standard is an enhanced alliance of individuals, groups, and cohorts working within intercultural and intracultural spaces as peers and partners. It avoids the implication that there is an inherent value or supremacy in the knowledge, assets or position of one group over another.

Intersectional frameworks aim to develop the capacity of all voices to address real time issues of resource allocation, the distribution of burdens, benefits and responsibilities for externalities. We all have a stake in the outcome and as such we must all have a voice.

Practically speaking, intersectionality looks like women who are free to show up as their full selves (as a member of a particular culture, gender, race, class or ethnicity etc.) without fear of owning up to the overlapping nature of their identity. It looks like a coalition of women who function as members of several systems operating simultaneously.

For me, intersectionality means showing up as a New Yorker, an African American, a woman with a specific legal, environmental and political education, of a certain age, and urban sensibility with the understanding that it’s all good because it’s all here, present and accounted for.

What actions should we take to avoid silos?

  • Develop policies that reflect our intention to fully function even when that means we come to it from differing places and perspectives with opposing means and ends.
  • Intentionally seek out alignment across program areas and silos into shared power structures for richer political engagement.
  • View our feminism as a multi-dimensional practice and ask questions as often as we seek to provide answers with a mindfulness of our multiple identities.

Why should you care about intersectionality?

Intersectionality3Because we are a community of EcoWomen who come from other communities. And as such we are in the business of fashioning sustainable solutions to big problems.

Greater intersectionality makes sense for our work since it precedes more responsive policies, timely organizational priorities, and more effective strategies; because it presents problems to be solved with more accuracy, sets the stage for access to more view points, and widens the scope of the challenge.

If we are going to try and change the world, we should do it as ourselves. We should stop playing nice, greens and start getting real.

For more resources on this topic check out this backgrounder as a primer.

Tamara is an environmental advocate focused on civil society and justice issues. She holds degrees from The City College, City University of New York and two advanced degrees from Vermont Law School. Her hobbies include reading boring books about politics and neuroscience, writing diatribes about what she reads, travelling, and yoga. 

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4 comments

  1. Marion Rice
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