Judi Lynn Brown
My Entry into Activism was through Art
I was born in southern California, in Riverside. I come from a fairly working class family, neither of my parents went to college, my dad was a small business owner, and he worked in construction. In the mid-90s there was a lot of growth in Southern Nevada, i.e. sprawl, so my family moved to Las Vegas and I ended up staying through undergrad. I went to UNLV for political science and gender studies. What was happening was a lot of anti-immigrant legislation in the house so we helped organize the first May Day on the strip. The activist community was so small and strong that I had the opportunity to work on a lot of things, so [I] was involved with immigrant rights, sex worker rights, sexual violence, etc. My entry into activism was sort of through art. Ended up playing music in these overtly political activist, feminist, queer bands for quite some time. Then I think I could see the impact happening, [but] I was still in Southern Nevada and I wanted to take it to a different level. An entry point was to pursue letters after my name because I wanted to have increased credibility for these quote unquote radical views I had that we can create a world that works for 100% of humanity without ecological harm, which is Buckminster Fuller by the way.
I was adjacent to the queer movement because I didn’t come out until I was 26, right before I moved to the Bay Area. I was raised Catholic so that was part of it too I’m sure. I decided that, after a few years in a nonprofit that I saw as actually quite resource extractive of a community, I would go to grad school. So I came to San Francisco a little over 7 years ago to do a master’s in public administration in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School. I was interested in the intersection of social justice and environmental sustainability.
I’ve never really done environmental activism. I think of my transition from undergrad to grad school as going from activist to analyst, like bridging these worlds, and seeing where the being on the streets activism was falling short. But my environmental activism has always been personal. For example, I haven’t eaten meat in 17 years. So it was a gradual process for me. During the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010 I went vegan as a way for me to deal with the fact that I was complicit in this environmental disaster that was happening. I respect the Greenpeace direct action but I’ve never actually done that.
Planting the Seeds against Alienation
“Queer activism is absolutely a model for sustainability.”
[At Presidio Graduate School], what I saw was a lot of my classmates were mostly white, mostly straight, mostly affluent, mostly from the Bay Area, mostly didn’t have to take out an exorbitant amount of loans like I did. Just the feeling of alienation.
So QSustainability was… I didn’t start [the group], there were a couple other people [who did]. Us queer people were few and far between. Some of the cohort is about 30, so it’s not a huge school. It was that feeling of seeing the intersections of social justice and sustainability and maybe by virtue of being a queer person because you have a different lens and feeling alienated that my queerness was not acknowledged or considered by my colleagues. The amount of change that has happened [because of the gay rights movements] in a relatively short amount of time due to queer activism is absolutely a model for sustainability. So QSustainability was about having a forum for other queer people in the sustainability school. One, to create a safe space and two, to educate our fellow quote unquote “do gooders” about things like gender and sexuality and how these show up like in the workplace, in the classroom, in the movement.
I feel like queer history tends to be erased in a lot of ways but it’s there. If you’re looking you can find it. Especially queer people in environmental justice movements. We would talk about queer history and how revolt forms around that. This was probably six years ago where I brought in a friend who was non-binary and their experience being non-binary and gender non-conforming and how to use pronouns. Now that I own a company we absolutely have our pronouns in our email signatures and we work with government agencies that also do that. Probably six years ago that wouldn’t have been as prominent. It wouldn’t always be the intersection but it would be sustainability is supposed to be people and resources and the planet and I always felt the people one was given the most lip service and least amount of action.
Finding Your People
“This bridge between me feeling like the queer alien in sustainability and in a lot of queer spaces being the sustainability alien.”
I was part of this community of sustainability professionals in the Bay Area called Greenermind Summit. Every mid-June they do a convening in the Mendocino Woodlands. It’s an unconference so it’s all participant generated content. I met someone named Brendan Cook who was on the board of a group called Out 4 Sustainability. I think I had actually found them because if you google queer and sustainability they show up. So I was like, “What is this about? Love the mission,” and ended up applying to be on the board because again it was like this bridge between me feeling like the queer alien in sustainability and in lot of queer spaces being the sustainability alien. It was like I found my people in a way.
We did a Green Pride event. The dream was that we would consult with different Pride events around the country and potentially around the world on making pride greener. Pride is not great for the environment. Glitter for example is terrible. We did our conference here a couple years ago called Fab Planet and we did it in the Women’s building. That was basically people coming together and having these conversations. We did events we called Earth Gay, which is not the most inclusive term but from a marketing perspective it works. Basically visibly queer people out in the community doing environmental projects.
Cute Queers Coming Together Planting Trees
If you’re talking about doing systemic change it’s going to look a lot different than a bunch of cute queers coming together planting trees. To be quite honest it feels good and it’s nice to be in community and it’s nice to create visibility. I definitely think that I saw impact happening in terms of people from small towns in Virginia finding Out 4 Sustainability and being like, “Oh there’s people like me,” and reaching out to us [to ask] how they could start their own Earth Gay. I think there’s a need for that. If I think about the Out 4 Sustainability mission, it’s mobilizing the LGBTQ community toward social and environmental action and maybe that may sound hyperbole in a way because really it’s just creating a forum for queer identified people to participate [in environmentalism].
Out 4 Sustainability was admittedly very white and very cis. And that’s certainly been acknowledged with the organizers but I don’t think the organization ever really professed to be doing environmental justice. I think that again it was more a platform or forum to bring people together who identified as both queer and environmentalist. There are definitely times when the organization was trying to do more targeted outreach [towards] more groups where we could find more people of color who would want to participate. [But] I don’t think I could walk into an HBCU and talk about Out 4 Sustainability… you know, that would feel inauthentic. I wouldn’t be the right person to be doing that.
Welcome and Unwelcome
As a queer person I certainly feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome in the Castro for example. Seeking out queer spaces is different than a blanket bringing out queer people into the environmental movement. There are different socioeconomic considerations, like cis privilege, like there’s so many layers.
I have a five person company that’s about 3 and a half years old and we’re all white and I know that puts us at a disadvantage because we’re not getting different perspectives into building my practice. These are things I’m conscious of and I don’t have immediate answers to. There are some things we do or I try to do… like putting out a newsletter going out to 3500 subscribers and I’m always trying to highlight work of women or queer people of color. If we’re invited to speak on a panel or we’re organizing an event we always want to be highlighting work of people who have historically not had access. That’s the empathy piece. It’s empathy not sympathy. Sympathy is what motivates people to feel like they need to be saviors, empathy is what connects you to other humans and helps you find commonalities.
Nature as the Ultimate Empathetic Organizational Model
Every human is born with empathy and the capacity to emphasize but unfortunately we have organized our social systems in such a way that have stifled that. We’re continuously operating with a less than ideal system whether it’s the heteronormative, white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system that we all live in and trying to make sense of.
If we look at nature as the ultimate organizational model, the most resilient ecosystems have the greatest diversity but we look at how we have organized ourselves as humans and we don’t do that.
We may be getting to the point where those connections are being made.
I do all these workshops and trainings around this and we do an exercise on identity circles where we ask people to spell out their identities and how the world sees them and have a conversation with someone sitting next to them [on] how those identities may have advantaged or disadvantaged them. These are public sector people, sometimes a 30 year bureaucrat doing the same job, and we’re getting them to have real conversations about privilege and they’re learning how to better serve their communities. So that’s the empathy piece, and that’s the idea anyway.
Judi Lynn Brown
“Queer activism is absolutely a model for sustainability.”