Rehearsing the Future of Climate Activism

Zoe Barnstone - Politics & Economics


University commencements are most often happy occasions. The graduation ceremony at my alma mater, a small, historically women’s liberal arts college in New England was no exception.  However, our ritual in which graduating seniors wear suffragist white while singing “Bread and Roses,” a song most commonly associated with labor strikes, is likely an uncommon tradition among U.S. universities. 

Amidst the celebrations - setting aside any worries about my employment prospects - I was confronted by a deeper sense of impending doom. It was daunting to consider leaving a progressive bubble dominated by honest efforts at intersectional politics and anti-capitalist rhetoric for a society (and job market) organized around capitalist logic that seemed to care little about post-adolescent idealism. Despite my alma mater's quirky rituals and genuine attempts at leftist politics, as a predominately white institution that perpetuates racial capitalism, it is not a utopia.

My university education instilled a belief in me that it was possible for people of diverse backgrounds to dismantle systems of oppression by actively imagining and pursuing ways to create a better world. But, after moving to New York City post-graduation, I found that the majority of people working at political organizations or nonprofits aiming to ‘make a difference’ were New York City prep school graduates. The people working for the Democratic Socialists of America were making $40k a year, but could nonetheless afford to live in luxury apartments in Manhattan thanks to their parents’ $3 million in assets. The irony appeared to be lost on them. 

Working at an NGO or political organization/campaign is obviously not the only way to enact change, and the power of grassroots movements and community organizing cannot be discounted. Although, it does beg the question: who has the access to participate in the policy/activist work of institutions and organizations that have the most structural power to influence the future? How have these organizations come to hold so much power in the first place?

Unpaid internships and grossly underpaid nonprofit positions are the norm in the U.S., so it’s unsurprising that the 87% of nonprofit directors and 92% of foundation directors are white. To clarify, I am not outside this privileged access to political and economic power. As a white woman, I’ve benefited heavily from a multitude of structural advantages under racial capitalism, and have been able to complete various unpaid internships and volunteer positions. Rather, this is an attempt to “call out” the obstacles to justice when only those who are privileged are able to access political education and participate in change-making at the highest levels of the public and private spheres. “Trickle-down” activism does little to dismantle the systems of oppression harming marginalized communities. When whiteness and elitism is centered in activist work, the experiences, agency, and leadership of those most impacted by systemic injustices are ignored when they should be prioritized. The people who should be leaders and organizers are cast as followers or passive subjects. 

During her address to the graduates, Barbara Smith, a co-founder of the radical Black feminist group, the Combahee River Collective, reminded us that our coursework, lectures and debates were all “rehearsals for the future.” Everyday of our lives should be lived with the same intention of “rehearsing the future” we want to see. I’ve returned to  Smith’s words to confront how I am complicit in these harmful dynamics and to consider how I can break down these dangerous power structures.


How can we ‘rehearse the future’ through the climate activism we engage in?

Perhaps the prep school graduates I encountered my first year in New York City were well-intentioned in their work at nonprofits, but climate activism via nonprofits may not be the most effective rehearsal for a climate-changed future. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, and yet these communities are not widely represented in the staff or leadership of environmental nonprofits. In a 2018 study by Dr. Dorceta Taylor, data showed that more than 80% of board members and 85% of staff members at environmental nonprofits are white. Men occupy 62% of board positions, but make up less than half of staff members. If the communities most impacted by climate change are not in positions of decision-making power at these institutions, then who will shape the present and future responses to the climate crisis?

This is not to suggest that by diversifying environmental NGOs it would necessarily lead to more impactful climate action. These institutions operate within the ‘non-profit industrial complex’ (NPIC), in which they are often tied to the existing power structures that produce the very injustices they are trying to ameliorate. Jennifer Ceema Samimi defines the NPIC as a system “built on a series of relationships between the State, owning classes, foundations, non-profit organizations, social services organizations and social justice organizations.” The nonprofit sector accounts for more than $1 trillion in annual economic activity, but unlike other economic sectors, nonprofit income comes from funding rather than earned profit, and their “product” is assumed to be contributions to the common good. If the government were to do its job, that is, to implement policy to protect the environment and institute the economic transformations necessary to curb the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, then there would be no need for environmental NGOs. 

Using the neoliberal logic of privatization and diminishment of the state’s role in protecting and funding the common good, nonprofits and private companies are seen as better equipped to provide social services and solve social issues, such as climate change, than the government. Within the analytical framework of the NPIC, nonprofits remove incentives for governments to act, or to support social movements. This dynamic gives states and foundations more power by forcing nonprofits to run like businesses and compete with each other for grants. They are able to exert control over the activism of these organizations by imposing contingencies on those funds, such as requiring advanced degrees for staff and leadership, as well as mandated state reporting. Even the ability to found and organize a nonprofit is contingent upon racist and classist access.  Jennifer Samimi illustrates this when she writes of the history of the NPIC, “Minority groups that sought to change the existing power structure and estab­lish social justice for their communities were often denied permission to form nonprofits by the government in an effort to maintain religious, racial, and gen­der norms.”

My intention in utilizing the critical framework of the NPIC is not to suggest we do away entirely with the work of nonprofits, but rather to acknowledge that nonprofits are forced to operate in a system that reproduces the inequalities that are exacerbated by climate change. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation, founded by the Gilded Age billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, has a $4.1 billion endowment. The mission of the foundation is to “promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world,” but they pick and choose which organizations receive funding and attach contingencies to those funds. 

Why should institutions with immense wealth and power have a monopoly on deciding when and how the well-being of humanity is promoted?

Nonprofits can subvert the NPIC by focusing their fundraising on small, grassroots donations instead of relying on foundations and other wealthy donors. The Sunrise Movement, a coalition of young climate activists, states in their fundraising principles that they refuse to participate in a system of philanthropy that allows the wealthy to funnel money into tax-exempt charities. They are committed to “digital grassroots fundraising” and do not accept contributions with strings attached. This kind of climate activism views fundraising as a kind of organizing: “We are creative in experimenting with methods of financing our hubs and moving resources to our base, in order to overcome the legal barriers put up by the establishment to disempower young people, communities of color and the working class.” The Sunrise Movement is legally incorporated as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit or “social welfare organization,” but they have deliberately chosen to resist the NPIC. 

Climate action must be oriented around the collective good and the dismantlement of the extractive racial capitalist structure driving climate change. The climate activism of reusable grocery bags, metal straws and sustainable fashion does more to perpetuate consumerism and improve our personal image than it actually helps to improve the material conditions for the people most impacted by climate change. Being an “ethical consumer” is somewhat futile when 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the same 100 companies. In order for climate activism to have any meaningful impact, people must be engaged in collective political action around climate change as a systemic issue that is intrinsically tied to existing forms of structural violence and capitalistic organization. Those with structural power and privilege must work to resist the continuation of the systems that brought us here, and support those most impacted in tearing them down and building something better. The Green New Deal, for instance, proposes grand economic transformation to combat climate change and racial and wealth inequality simultaneously. Climate activism ought to be oriented around justice and the dismantlement of harmful structures; rehearsing the future through climate activism begins with the belief that a better world (for everyone) is possible. 


Zoe Barnstone is an editor at The Climatized.

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