Notice and Name: Practices from a Teacher-Activist

To follow is a guest post by Mr. Ryan Pleune, inspired by my recent post, “A generation ready to rise, risk, and win.”


Ryan Pleune, SLC Activist and Teacher

I love the idea of generational development, where we are moving toward new agendas of which parents and grandparents couldn’t conceive (some people call it “evolution” but I am a biologist so I can’t use that word metaphorically).

However, I don’t believe that history is repeating itself in trends.  That is an unaffirming and disempowering belief, and I believe we need to source our history in deep time.  I have spent the last 3 days with bell hooks and am inspired by her answer about cycles of history repeating themselves.  She simply states that oppressive systems just really haven’t ever changed in our era of written history.  Oppression flairs up when times are tough. When we are in times of material wealth we perceive our struggles to have changed and pat ourselves on the back for success, even though the damaging system remains intact.  The Civil Rights Movement created a few beautiful laws that felt good in the 70s, and people left their communities of resistance to join the status quo. Today, white supremacist thinking still pervades in the same form it has for at least several hundred years.  I think the glee of the 1920s follows that same false revolutionary trend.  Patriarchy is still the dominant world view today, despite the temporary success of the suffragettes who achieved the right to vote through our 19th amendment in 1920. When they let go of their resistance tactics during parties with The Great Gatsby in the 1920’s, “zealous, short-sighted pursuit of profit” reared its capitalistic and paternalistic head because it had really never gone away.

We continue living in a system with three interlocking paradigms.  bell hooks speaks out to raise awareness of ways we can decolonize our minds and free them from white supremacist thinking, patriarchy and capitalism.  I agree with her that in our written history we have not had any revolutions that have changed any of those three interlocking subsystems at their source.  In our democracy, we still have the right, according to our Declaration of Independence, to alter or abolish our ruling systems.  We can only do so when we act collectively to exert that right.

Reflecting on the agenda of the climate movement and the upcoming events of Power Shift, there are lessons to be learned this month, as we honor sacrifices in the Civil Rights Movement (Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968).  Flora Bernard nailed it.  There are large systemic shifts that must come from “new agendas” in the climate justice movement.  As we make those plans by reconsidering our strategies and tactics to achieve them, I want us to employ a best teaching practice of “notice and name”.  I want to notice the subsystems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism that form an interlocking paradigm that has prevented authentic revolution for thousands of years.  I want to name them as the target for our movement.

I believe these subsystems are our road block to tackling the climate crisis as much as they are the barriers for justice around immigrant rights, workers rights, same sex marriage and all other human rights.  My own paradigm and bias are hung on the umbrella that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified in 1948, is 100% achievable, and is mandatory for human existence on this planet.  If we continue to live as if these rights are only possible in a utopia, or if we continue to choose enforcing and prosecuting only a few of the 30 distinct human rights, I believe our species will cease to exist.  In many ways we already have ceased to exist, by remaining silent, helpless and unconscious to crises we see every day.

Some people (both allies and critics) challenge my inclusive thinking, and label me as a biased environmentalist for volunteering with Peaceful Uprising, as a naïve immigrant rights activist volunteering with United for Social Justice or as a lazy union picketer for joining the We Are One Solidarity Rallies.

I say no. I’m just someone with a lot of free time.  I am an unemployed teacher fired for challenging social norms in education.  I am just like all the other bus drivers, and just like any human on this planet, who has a lot to offer to my community when I open up to it.  I am a teacher that practices loving kindness through critical pedagogy.  I do this wherever I go, walking through the wilderness, volunteering as a community rights organizer, riding my bike to a rally, teaching science, and yes, even while driving a bus.

When challenged from both sides by deconstructivist intellectuals, or criticized by conservative talk radio for how I walk my walk, I am reminded of a bell hooks quote: “I’m very much in favor of the kind of education for critical consciousness that says: ‘Let’s not look at these things separately. Let’s look at how they converge, so that when we begin to take a stand against them, we can take that kind of strategic stance that allows us to be self-determining as a people, struggling in a revolutionary way on all fronts.’”

Patriarchy may have had its talons clenching our heart as a species for the last several thousand years, but our evolution started at least 13.7 billion years ago, and I find the Achilles heal of that foot with the universe story.  By my judgment, 7000 years is still a small blip in the history of the universe. While it may take many lifetimes to create a real revolution, I am willing to dedicate my life to that struggle of resistance – my soul’s integrity would not have me live any other way.

I do not believe we have to throw ourselves into the line of fire or commit to a life of civil disobedience.  Many do, and face the consequences of reckless adolescence.  I do believe that we are all activists, whether we are silent in the face of injustice or rise up singing to meet that challenge.  I simply ask that each one of us consider from a very deep place, “What is it that our soul is longing to do?” Bill Plotkin asks us to break free from our adolescent stage of development, and marry our ego to our soul’s work.  This is not a question that will be answered over three cups of coffee on a Saturday morning.  It is a process that has taken me at least the last three years, and maybe even all 13.7 billion years, to answer for myself: what is my soul’s work?  As part of my daily practice I recite the 3rd Step prayer and the Anusara Invocation, reminding me that I am part of something much bigger than myself.  Three years ago I turned my life and my will over to that “agenda,” and now I continue through ritual pilgrimage to bring my personal commitment into my public actions as a teacher-activist.

One concrete step on this pilgrimage for decolonizing our minds is to unplug from mainstream media. Yes, this might even include Facebook, Twitter and other social media that can still slip into the very paradigms we are resisting (At the very least I hope you get rid of your TV today!).  Thanks, Flora, for encouraging us to get out of Facebook, to rise, risk and win, and challenging us to get out of chat rooms and into the cloak room of the US Congress. As Thomas Friedman often says: “Exxon Mobile, they’re not on Facebook; they’re out in your face. Peabody coal, they’re not in a chat room; they’re in the cloak room of the US Congress, handing out bags of money.” The moral to his story is that social media is a powerful tool, that at best can gather us together out in the streets singing our harmony loud enough so that we will be impossible to ignore.

I will miss all of you at Peaceful Uprising while you are doing great work at Power Shift in DC.  While you’re gone, I’ll be gearing up with the iMatterMarch youth here in Salt Lake City, for our people powered parade. When you return, we’ll be ready for you to walk side by side with us down State Street on May 7th.  Ready and willing for you to teach us the new agendas you discover out in the Mid-Atlantic during Power Shift.

Safe travels.

Ryan Pleune