This episode’s guest is Ricardo Levins Morales, Twin Cities based Artist and Organizer. In this episode, Ricardo shares stories around hope based on his many years of being immersed in organizing work. He shares many practical lessons for how the practice of hope can help build and sustain justice movements.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode Recorded on February 15th, 2023
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:01] You're listening to the podcast of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. We seek to open a space for critical theological conversations about pressing social issues we face in our world today. Thanks for listening.
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:26] It's my honor to introduce our speaker this evening, the celebrated and beloved artist Ricardo Levins Morales, whose art has for so many of us been an inspiration in struggles for justice, in very challenging times like the one we're currently living in.
Ricardo is an artist and an organizer based right here in Minneapolis. He uses his art as a form of political medicine to support individual and collective healing from the injuries and ongoing reality of oppression. Political medicine. His art heals. Ricardo was born into the anticolonial movement in his native Puerto Rico and was drawn into activism in Chicago when his family moved there in 1967. Ricardo left high school early and worked in various industries and over time began to use his art as part of his movement work. This activism has included supporting work for the Black Panthers and Young Lords, and participating in or acting in solidarity with farmers, environmental, labor, racial justice, antiwar and other struggles for people's empowerment. He was a founding member of the Northland Poster Collective. And he also leads workshops on creative organizing, social justice strategy and sustainable activism, and mentors and supports organizers. The worker members of RLM Art Studio are represented by the Newspaper and Communications Guild CWA.
You all know Ricardo's work, which is why you're here tonight. And I'm so grateful to you, Ricardo, for speaking with us tonight on a very important theme, the praxis of hope. Let's welcome Ricardo.
Ricardo Levins Morales [00:02:40] Thank you, Ry. And thank you to the Center for Leadership for Social Justice. See, I'll be able to find the podcast. But I'll get there. You know, Google is my friend. United Theological for hosting this event. And to all of you all for coming, those in the room and those in the Zoom. And speaking of those in the room, y'all really going to do this to me? All these empty seats here, all in the back. Oh, man. I mean, look at these people who are on the zoom. They're all sitting up close to their computers, Right? You know, they can be our model. So I'm not going to bully you, not going to shame you, but I'm just putting it out there. It'd be awfully sweet to be hanging out together here.
And speaking of the topic tonight, I'm sure there are people both here and online who are hoping for spring. So we're getting our practice right, getting those neural connections flexible and in tune. So I'll say a little bit more about myself in a bit, in truth, a little bit more. But I just want to open up with the topic, which is really I just want to share some of the things I think I've learned, maybe. Which is the best we can do. Hope is not something that you can measure, has a list of ingredients you can weigh and sort of tested velocity, right? It's really something we engage with. And so the best we can do is share how we engage with that and hope that it'll be useful. And in the course of that, I'll be making some assertions. I'll be saying some shit, right. And some of that I'll be telling stories to back up others. I'm just going to throw it out there. You know, we have a limited evening, but when we have discussion and Q&A and that kind of thing later, that means whatever interests you, you can push back on or ask about. And my hope is to reframe some of the ways in which we normally think about hope.
So for years, I find myself kind of baffled by that question that interviewers often ask at the end of a conversation, especially when it has to do with social justice. They say, What gives you hope? And I was able to bluff my way through the answer. But it took me a long time to finally figure out that somehow the problem was the question didn't really make sense to me. That I don't think of hope as a thing that one needs to acquire, but it's a basic, fundamental reality of life. Any chipmunk heading out in the forest and rustling through the leaves, looking for seeds for the day or nesting materials to stuff into their burrow is being driven by hope or drawn by hope, more likely. That any tree roots that are winding their way toward moisture or nutrients in the soil; that's hope, that's action to improve things, action to achieve a world that's a little bit different than the one that we're in and that we need to move toward. So I think it's really the renewable energy source of life. It's really hope.
Y'all came here or tuned into Zoom based on hope. Hope for something. Hoping to get something out of this. Right? So I think the question really that we need to address is not how do we find sources of hope, but what can cause damage on such a massive scale that it can disable the core battery pack of our beings? So much to the point that it keeps us from taking the actions that we need to take in order to achieve hopefulness. It's self-sabotage, you know, self fulfilling. Well, that's a good one and self-sustaining. And we know some of the answers.
I mean, there's a lot of stuff going on, but also oppression, toxicity, chemicals, abuse are accumulative. And not only in our own lifetimes, but after generation after generation. We're seeing the effects of an accumulation of several hundred years of the toxicities of colonialism and abuse and poison in our foods and our bodies in the land and so forth. And it's really important for us to think about this in very concrete and practical terms at a time when this essential fuel is missing from the lives of many young people to the point that suicide is kept in the drawer as a possible exit strategy. That ain't right. So what any of us need, what any of you all need, is very specific. But hopefully the observations that I'm going to share will help to shift some misconceptions.
And I'm coming to you as a person who does not experience despair. I am fully human, right? And I experience the full gamut of emotions and fear and love and whatever we can think of that are actually emotions. But to my understanding, despair is not an emotion. We take in information, as Ry was referring , we take in information through our senses about our world around us. And our emotions are one of the ways in which we, the first line of filtering those senses to tell us how to respond. Should we be fearful or should we be relaxed and calm and welcoming, or should we be curious? We interpret those through our emotions and that provides us with information to act on. Despair is not an emotion because it does not provide us with information to act on. It's a signal that says in a repeating loop: it's not even worth looking at because there is no action, there is no possibility; it's not worth the effort. So it's a malfunction of our emotional immune system. So it pays to become intimate with what it is that triggers our feelings of despair. But not to give it a free ride. Despair isn't our friend, and it's not a good adviser. It's not what happens when there aren't possibilities. It's what prevents us from seeing them.
And in our culture, it's really amplified by pathological levels of individualism, which afflicts a number of different cultures here, probably more than anywhere. In fact, I read in a textbook on public health, on global public health in one paper, they believed that suicide in countries of high individualism is associated with that ideology, because it tells us that it's all about me, that all of my successes in life are about me. All of my failures are about me. They're my fault. There's no room in that for looking at the environment that provides options or denies us options. So it's always my fault and it also isolates us from other people. It's all about me and that's also what the impact of trauma is. Trauma isolates us from each other. We're really social primates as a species. But trauma is the ultimate disconnection, and it keeps us isolated. Even though healing is always about reconnection and healing, our planet is about reconnecting not only with those of our own species, but with those of every other species. And I say reconnecting and I'm grounding that specifically in the experience of people living in cultures like ours, because it's not true that all of humanity has been disconnected, but certainly those who have been most impacted by colonialism and patriarchy and capitalism have been. Because disconnection is the modus operandi. That's my fancy Latin for the night.
Ry mentioned that I think of my art as being medicinal, and that means I try to address the toxins, the obstacles, the internal and external things that keep people from feeling powerful and from acting on that power. In public health, we deal with a lot of different conditions that make us feel bad and that harm our bodies from colds and flus to cancer to diabetes to dementia, all kinds of different dysfunctions and overloads. And those are routed through the public, in the public health lens, in an underlying condition, which is systemic inflammation. And that's when we think our bodies are under so much assault that we're on high alert all the time. And in fact, we don't even know what's friend and what's foe. It's what autoimmune conditions come out of. And we have social autoimmune conditions, too, that we feel so scared and so isolated that we interpret everybody as being an enemy or we can be manipulated into thinking so.
As an organizer who's worked in the field of culture for most of my life. I believe that hopelessness is the underlying systemic inflammation of our culture. So that means that as a practitioner, when I create art that is dealing with some form of abuse or under-resourcing or thievery or employers not recognizing, not wanting to recognize their union or police violence. I'm addressing the acute condition, but also in a way that will hopefully address the underlying condition of hopelessness. I don't have one issue that is my issue. My issue is human resilience in the face of oppression and abuse. And that's what I want the accumulated effect of my art to be able to impact.
So I'm going to share some images with you now, not very many, but I selected them because they address different aspects of the topic at hand. And some of them, I'll explain as I go. Others we can come back to later because there'll be time for further discussion and exploration. And I got some more stuff to tell you. So let us do the magic of screen share. Check it out.
So this is me. My introduction. Ricardo Levins Morales from Barrio Indiera Baja..in the western mountains of Puerto Rico, which remains my North star and my Magnetic Compass North. The house inside that image is the one that my family lived in when I was born. That is a rare photo of me working on the farm when I was a kid. The environment I grew up in was very forested. The farm patch is within woods and there was nothing in my life really that had an on button or an off button or a blinking light or a beep or a fast forward or a pause, which meant that I lived in a world where things took their time, where there were cycles and rhythms within rhythms. There were rainy seasons and dry seasons. There were reproductive cycles of blizzards. There was depletion and replenishment of water tables. And that really has given me a kind of, what I believe, is a clarity that has helped me with issues of hope, despair and political strategy to know where we are in a cycle, to know that we are in a cycle.
For example, right now we're living in the aftermath of the insurrection that followed George Floyd's murder that brought with it what's called a racial reckoning, an explosion of everybody's down with racial justice now and philanthropy and corporations. Wells Fargo, on the one hand, is redlining communities and charging black families more than white ones. And on the other hand, now they're all about racial justice, right? Knowing how these cycles work over the next year or so, as that dissipates and as these liberal politicians start backtracking and running in the other direction and we find out that the police system is actually increasing in size and sophistication, that's not going to shock me and devastate me because I know that that is the part of the cycle that we're in. For people new to this struggle, it's like, wow, finally the world is going to change. I hate to burst people's bubbles, but it's useful to know an accurate diagnosis, even if it's not the one that we wish we had because that gives us courses of action.
There's also a lot of conflict in nature, something that I was able to translate into the activist world that I landed in in Chicago as a teenager, but that in that conflict between scorpions and lizards, predators and prey, creatures defending their turf against each other, there are no good guys and bad guys. What you have are individuals pursuing the efforts to meet their own needs, their hope, in the best way they know how with the advantages and disadvantages at hand. An observation that served me well when we landed in the States.
That's more kids in the hood bringing water up to the top of the mountain from the spring north.
No Se Vende! I made this after Hurricane Maria, as corporations and Bitcoin billionaires and hedge funds swooped in on Puerto Rico to buy land from desperate farmers. Like I say, we landed in Chicago in the late sixties and that was a time when I was hitting adolescence. It was 1967. So, you know, there was a lot going on. Immigration kind of hit my family hard. And we sort of went our different ways. I moved out of home when I was 15. I dropped out of high school. And what I found was an environment of social movements and organizing that was explicitly about restoring power to people whose power had been taken away. That's your elevator definition of trauma healing. And I don't want to generalize this because any mass of experience can have opposite and contradictory impacts on people. But for me, it was a message to my nervous system that restoration of power, when it's been taken away, is possible. And that is the healing potential of social organizing.
When I see so many cases of people having to go recharge their batteries, do what they call self-care so that they can return to a depleting model of organizing. It breaks my heart because it should not be that way. Healing should be about healing in the experience as well as the goal. So that's kind of been my obsession in life, mission ever since.
This was a wood cut I made in the summer of 1970 for an activist who was on the run from the FBI at the time. Angela Davis.
And this cartoon I made the next year in 71 during my brief stay in high school. And it also brings up another aspect of what I think is very essential in healing, and that is truth telling. One of the things, witnessing, is one of the important stages of healing from trauma and healing from oppression and overcoming it. It's not enough. If all we do is witness over and over, it becomes rehearsing our trauma. But it is an important and necessary state nonetheless. In this case, all of us kids knew that the Blackstone Rangers, The Disciples, The Latin Kings, all of these gangs were being played against each other by the city government. Recently, the files have been released that showed that the gang intelligence unit, they called it, were in fact causing friction, sending messages to try to get conflicts between the street gangs because they did not want them to follow the example of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers and become activists. So truth telling is an important part. And we knew to share these stories even if the evidence would take decades to follow.
Fred Hampton was one of the leaders in that time whose methodology really has become embedded in my DNA. He was chairman, Fred, of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, the first group I ever made a poster for, in fact, for a fundraiser. And what was significant to me, what remains really important, not the only thing, but the one that I want to highlight was the coalition that he helped to organize among Puerto Ricans, whites and black folks initially called the Rainbow Coalition. They came up with that term. Others later appropriated it. But one of the things that they did was approach the young patriots who were a white street gang who used the symbols of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan in their garments and their symbology, and was able to build an alliance with them. And what happened?
I won't go into the whole backstory, but there was an incident where some of the Panthers were able to see these young white kids being treated really contemptuously by the white liberal establishment. And they asked, why are these white kids hurting so bad in a society that's all about whiteness? And they came up with a really brilliant strategy to find out. They asked them, you know, just so crazy. It just might work. And they found out it was as one of the Panthers later confided in, you know, Rainbow Coalition. That's just a code word for class struggle. But when the Panthers went out to the neighborhood, the young Patriots neighborhood in Uptown, they found rat infested apartments, under-resourced schools, boarded up stores. They said it was the worst housing conditions they'd ever seen. And so they built an ongoing alliance that dealt with housing issues, police brutality and the rest for a period of years.
And I bring that up because it's another of the underlying principles that is very much related to hope and the ability to move forward. And that is the principle that they embodied. It was not how do we mess up these guys,these racist A-holes. It was, let's make them a better offer. Making a better offer. People, chipmunks, hawks and butterflies will always migrate toward the best offer. Not the best offer there is, the best offer that they can find on the menu and the best offer they can find on the menu that feels viable. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But people are always moving toward what seems to make sense. And that's crucial to understand. Because even if there's some wacko running down the street waving a gun at me, out of the belief that I'm an alien martian coming to suck his brains out, he's actually acting rationally within the context of his beliefs because that's not an unreasonable thing to do if that's how he understands reality. So in cultural work, we call that preparing the soil. How do we affect the environment of beliefs and values and collective memories so that it makes sense to act in ways that are kind? We'll get to this, pretty basic, begin with research.
This is, of course, Trayvon Martin. I made this poster not because he was murdered by a vigilante in Florida, but because when I looked at the art that was being created, it was all rehearsing hopelessness. It was all, Emmett Till was murdered in 19, what was it, 64, 52, somewhere in there. You know, Trayvon is murdered now. Nothing ever changes. There's a kernel of truth in that, but it's not medicine. So I found this quote from Ella Baker that looks toward a future when this won't be happening while acknowledging that it was still happening. It's got to be medicinal. Another kind of truth telling.
Put down the piece, Take up the peace, put together the pieces. Again addressing people as people which means that they migrate toward the best thing that they find for protection, for family, for whatever it is. And creating a context, I'll give you an anecdote. The sort of poster child of bad choices are teenage girls in high school getting pregnant, having kids. There was a study that was done working with black teenage girls, black teenage moms and their communities and doing comparative stuff. And what they found was that these young girls who got pregnant and had babies in their teens, both they and their children, had better health outcomes than those who waited until their twenties. Think about it. Why might that be? Well, for one thing, if they're kids, they're probably still living at home. They have the grandparents, or at least the grandmas to help raise the child, watch the baby while they go to school, and they can finish high school. They're not out there working an underpaid job, paying half their income for childcare, being treated to what they call the weathering, which is the emotional and psychic erosion of self that comes with the microaggressions and the macro aggressions of racism, sexism and all the rest. And it's not like they're doing a cost benefit analysis, but they know which kids, which girl, friends of theirs are still coming to school, which ones are still able to go to parties and all the rest.
So there's all these ways in which we have to think complexly about why people do the things we do. That's the research part. If we want to change things, we've got a lot of learning to do. To not just react, but to understand what's underlying.
Descended from dinosaurs. I think I just threw this in because that Chickadee is so damn cute, but also actually speaks to something. It speaks to humor, which is a fundamental element of hope. Humor tells us that something might be going on that isn't what we think is going on. I heard a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps once saying that humor is the only thing that kept us alive. And if you think about it, a joke is just a story and you understand the story as it's being told until you get to the punchline and then you realize that everything you thought was happening isn't. And it's really a different outcome. And all those data points mean something else. Bing! Things might be different than what I think. That's important If you're in a Nazi concentration camp and all the evidence tells you that the end of hope is here. And I think this is where I will pause the imagery and stop the screen share. Stop the share and look at the gallery. Take a look at all y'all who are out there. Hello, good people.
So now I'm going to go through a little bit of preaching about hope and what it is and what it isn't. I want to address hope and then action, a discipline and a relationship. And that's something I want to emphasize, especially in this narcissistic individualist society that hope is an action, not a feeling. Feeling hopeful is not hope any more than feeling powerful is power, right? We find ways to feel powerful. Even when we are kiddin ourselves, you know, we find ways to feel hopeful we can self-medicate with chemicals or with distraction, with binging on pasta, or creating idealized versions of ourselves for Instagram. But the feeling isn't the real thing, right? And feeling hopeful, feeling hope, feeling powerful are important.
If we have time in the Q&A, we can talk about some of the strategies that I use. But in themselves, they actually do not do what they need to do, which is move us toward those seeds, that moisture and nutrition, that better world that we want. The feelings are important only if they're part of something bigger, of a larger process. Whether we can achieve a better future and that's what we're talking about, that's what hopefulness is about. This is about that. What the chipmunk cares about is determined by what we do, not by how we feel. Just ask evolution. All the species that still exist are not still alive on the earth because of how they felt, but because of what they did, the actions they took in relation to what was around them. And so, like a chipmunk for hope to be meaningful, we need to be moving toward it; through stretching our roots toward that water. If we step into the practice of hope, the feeling will follow. But if we just immerse ourself in hope feelings, it does not necessarily follow, that actual change will come. And in fact, without intentional action, the things that we do to feel good, centered, at peace and grounded can actually contribute to the problem.
Heinrich Himmler, who was the head of the Nazi SS, which included the Gestapo and the concentration camp guards, promoted a program of yoga practice for all of his agents in all those different agencies, because being racist, brutal fascists is stressful, and this was a way to help his agents cope with the stresses of doing what they did so that they could continue and not be quite so stressed out by it. And that's something to think about. You know, there's a lot of mythology that if we can only get the CEOs of Exxon and, you know, McDonald, Grumman or whatever they are to do yoga and be mindful, they'll understand that they're part of the universe and they'll care about it, which in theory should work. But we live in a system that fractionalizes everything and separates everything out and allows us to compartmentalize.
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading practitioner of trauma healing, one of the researchers in that field, talks about an incident where a bunch of grade school kids, think it was about a dozen kids, got kidnapped and they were being locked in a basement. And one of them figured out how to jimmy open a window and help all the other ones get out. And when they examined the kids later, all of them had symptoms of PTSD except for that one. That sense of agency restoring agency. Agency is a preventative of trauma and not only a curative.
Similarly, I remember back when I was involved in the 1980s in the movement to prevent the spread of nuclear power. And that was a big deal in those days. And a lot of people were very afraid of what was happening with nuclear waste, with reactors and all the rest. And again, in doing interviews with children about their attitudes and their perspectives in different sectors, they found that it was the children of anti-nuclear activists who were the least fearful. Mommy's doing something about it. There's action. Action is an element of genuine hope as it is an element of healing. It's an action. It's also a discipline. And a discipline in that it's not only about taking intentional action, it's about taking strategic, intentional action. Because you can do stuff that doesn't necessarily make a difference. It can affect the way you feel.
I remember standing at a bus stop in Knoxville, I think. And the bus was like 20 minutes late. I was trying to get to a conference where I was selling art and I was frustrated and I was pacing back and forth and that just shows how essential it is to take action, right? My body needed to do something to feel that I had agency in a situation where I didn't feel that I had power. So there's a positive feedback loop between hope and effective action that we see over and over again. And it's hope that's rooted in reality, not in pretense. You know that telling myself everything is going to be okay, that might get me through for a little while. But in the long run, I know in my heart that that's not really grounded unless I've done my homework. And I think nobody can say everything's going to be okay because nothing is ever okay, right? I mean, everything always has elements of okay and elements of not okay. That's the balance, that's the reality of our daily lives.
When we think about what are the things that trigger senses of despair, what is it that we're scared of? Why is everybody tuning in? Why is everybody else tuning out? What is causing all of this emotional paralysis in a moment where it's very widespread. I mean you can diagnose the heck out of the United States, but various stages of high stress and anxiety are more the norm than the exception. And then you're throwing into that the pandemic and millions of guns and what could possibly go wrong. There's an exercise that I do, though, in situations like one of the big things that you hear from young people particularly, but hopefully from everybody is what's happening with the climate. You know, there's something going on there, right? And we know it. We're seeing the evidence of it. And yet. What's being done? And there's an exercise that I do that's going to sound ridiculous at first, but I'm going to say it anyway. And that I ask myself, in any given situation, what's the worst that can happen? What's the worst that could happen? It's worth naming it. Everything on Earth could die. Okay, I said it. Humans could die and other things could keep living. There can be famines. There can be fires. Right? A lot of things are already happening. And incidentally, people die all the time. That most of the people who have ever lived have already done that.
So it's really a question of balance about how do we prevent as much suffering? How do we prevent as much disaster as possible? And that requires a number of practices. One is to understand that to simply decide that all is lost means to lose it. All is lost. That's despair. But in order to be able to save what isn't lost, we need to grieve what is lost. We need to be able to say goodbye and not only goodbye, because it's not necessarily true that all the polar bears are going to go extinct. Some are adapting, but we can mourn the ones that are and in fact, we can mourn all of the inevitabilities of loss that happen in our life because in our culture, loss is shoved under the carpet and we don't deal with it. And that leaves us very ill prepared to face risk and to face danger and to face an uncertain future. And hate to break it to you, but all futures are uncertain. So what I've learned to do is to walk toward what scares me.
When I was in my teens what scared a lot of people was the CIA and especially the CIA, this mysterious thing that always seemed to be able to magically, behind the scenes, overthrow governments and fascinate people and all that. So I studied them to find out who they were. What kind of people worked there, what their self-image was. Where did they go to school? One thing I learned is that for something like every 200 missions that they launched, one would succeed. It was like throwing spaghetti at the wall. So that demystifies a little bit. One thing I've been doing now is studying mass extinctions. We're in one. Okay, If that's the case, let's figure out what does that mean to be in one? This is probably the sixth one. What is it? And they all play out differently, although they all have a lot to do with carbon. So I've been looking at extinctions. I've been looking at resilience. Why is it that even during a mass extinction some species thrive and spread and others decline? How do they adapt? What are the natural forms of mitigation? What is it that has allowed coral reefs in the Dominican Republic, Mangrove forests in Indonesia, depleted farmland in North Dakota, or apparently dead salmon streams in Canada to bounce back and revive? Well, what I found in each of those cases, they were protected and sheltered for a period of time from the abuses of capitalism. Which is all about accelerated extraction, right? So that really a salmon run or a coral reef does not have to be told how to heal. But they have to be protected from harm. And just as in human healing, sometimes the damage itself, it helps to have a healer. Some interventions are necessary, but primarily the soil knows how to heal itself. The body knows how to heal itself. The community knows how to heal itself. You know, nature knows how to heal itself. So we need to stop the damage.
Now we know how to heal ourselves, but we can get confused. Anybody here ever get confused? Anyone online, y'all get confused? So we grow up thinking that Fritos are healthy and carrots are toxic. That's what our body tells us. Next month, well actually in April, it'll be 18 years since I stopped eating sugar and all other sweeteners. And it took me a while for my body to remember. To remember the yumminess that's in other things- to be able to make that shift. We have the capacity to remember. The work I do in organizing is trying to find ways to remind people of what they already know, because we do know it, even if we've never been taught it. At least we know it deep down and organically. And by the way, if anyones curious, I still love sweets, but my definition has shifted, right? You know something that wouldn't have even tasted sweet to me before, it does now. And it's like, Oh, my dessert. It's a treat. We need to not be confused. We need to figure out, we need diagnosis. We need accurate diagnoses.
In World War One, a lot of soldiers were experiencing PTSD, right? They called it shellshock. But the military doctors were forbidden to write that down as a diagnosis because that would mean that the army would be on the hook for the expenses of treatment. So what they had to write down was nervous, unknown. And false diagnoses lead to false solutions. And that's really one of the things that makes us hopeless, is that we're in a world where there are all these problems and public policy, and it's talked about in the media, all of these false diagnoses put out there. And then, of course, people have solutions for them, right? Anybody believe that if only we trained police more, everything would be okay? See what I mean? And having a sense of cycles, having a sense of the context within which these things are happening, knowing that the trajectory of the police department for decades has been in a particular direction and we have thrown some wrenches in those works. But that doesn't mean that the direction has changed, not yet. The same empire is still in place. Yes, the same thing happened to Emmett Till as happened to Fred Hampton. It happened to Sandra Bland that happened to Tortuguita and Tyre Nichols. But they happened at different historical moments in the cycle of empire. You know, Emmett Till was killed a full decade before the US empire reached the peak of its power. And Tyre Nichols was murdered during its long extended multi-decade decline. And that means different things strategically and different things in terms of the resilience of the system that we're dealing with. So the abusers claim to be the healers. We're seeing that post George Floyd. And funders provide grants to address small problems, but not big ones. So this inevitably brings us into conversations about political strategy. And how do we sort things out? How do we do our homework?
In the Black Lives Matter movement, a verse of poetry by Assata Shakur, now in Exile in Cuba out of the Black Power movement, was used as a chant at the beginning of meetings a lot. It says, "Because it is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains". And one thing I realized in the course of the movement is that people were down with fighting. They were down with loving and protecting each other. They didn't want the chains. But nobody really thought about winning. We can fight and fight and fight. But winning means we have to take ourselves to school, as it were. We need to learn what causes people to behave in the ways they behave. What is attractive? Why is the best offer on the table joining a paramilitary fascist movement for some people? Why is it checking out and just getting high or binge watching Netflix? No offense to anybody. The best option is alternative to actually trying to take forward looking steps. And if we look at it in that large context, there are a lot of lessons to learn. If we think about the cycles, fascism is actually a sign of weakness of a system. It's not the preferred method. So where's the weak? What are the vulnerabilities? Well, they're telling us some of the vulnerabilities. Have you noticed how much resource is being poured in to try to squash the telling of true history in schools? Critical race theory, advanced AP black history in Florida and so forth. And that's telling us the vulnerability of the system. And that's something that can bring us forward.
So I want to leave time for the Q&A. I want to wrap up with a few points and a few more pictures. First is that for me, the lessons that I've learned from immersing myself willy nilly, I had no choice in nature are the gift that continues to give. You know, for example, I learned that the songbirds that harbor in our backyards and parks and boulevards here in the Twin Cities in the summertime, if you observe them, they're territorial. They're territorial, they're competitive, they have a nest and young to feed. And it takes a lot of grubs to fill a hungry nest full of birds. But when they migrate to New Mexico or Costa Rica, or Cuba or Colombia, there's an abundance of food. They don't have babies and they don't care whose feathers they're rubbing up against. They all eat together on the ground when there's a windfall. And they're not territorial and they're not competitive. So the things that we're taught of that are inherent nature. What do they come from? The perception of scarcity. And capitalism has been so brilliant at generating unimaginable abundance while maintaining the deeply held perceptions of scarcity. We're scared of each other, of being harmed, and we're scared of scarcity. And they're the same thing.
Some of you have heard me talk about hope as a relationship. Hope is a committed relationship. And it's a committed relationship with our futures. With our future selves and those who will be the selves that come after that. So I've talked sometimes about my circle by the river. This is my relationship with the future. It's a circle of people standing by a river somewhere. I can't see them clearly. I always get teary when I talk about them, but they're in the future. Sometime, I don't know how far. I know that it's far enough and I'm never going to meet them. But I have to be there because they're holding a ceremony to summon the ancestors. And I'm one of the ancestors. We are the ancestors. And the ceremony is one of Thanksgiving. They're thanking us for what we did, are doing and will do in this time of major change and shift. It's absolutely the end of a large historical arc of history. And things that will come later will depend a lot on what we do. And they are coming together to appreciate us as their ancestors. And it really made me realize that as much as we like to invoke our ancestors, we might need our descendants even more. We need to know who we are making things for, who we're leaving messages for. So those are my people. Those are the people who I work toward and while some people are debating and arguing about whether there's a future and whether there's hope, I actually am not listening because I'm walking toward that river. That's what we do. That's what we do when a loved one is injured. We don't do a cost benefit analysis about whether it's worth helping them because what are their chances, right? We do everything we can, right? That's what we do.
And in fact, that helps to determine the outcome. The outcome isn't given. I mean, the modeling about ecology and climate change has been overturned so many times because we don't have the database, the data points to understand the levels of resilience embedded in a global system. Only in more localized systems, except for in these cases of mass extinction where the microbes all survived, where anything they could reproduce quickly survives. There's all these different ways and with anything that's already pre adapted to the conditions that are going to come. We have one pre adaptation and that's our ability to think. So I'm walking toward them.
There's one thing I would like to also commend, and that is my little friend, the sweat wasp. Okay. Can everybody say that? Sweat wasp. Say it again. Sweat wasp. Yeah. Nice, huh? Hard to say with a mask on, but otherwise you can do it. But I'm mentioning the sweat wasp because it's a tiny insect that lives in little holes, in twigs on the forest floor. On the jungle floor. The ones that I've read about are in South America. And that's an environment that changes from day to day. And so the little sweat wasp leaves its den and flies around from different angles and looks at its home and is looking from here, there and everywhere else, memorizing what it looks like on that particular day. So it goes off and it navigates by magnetic fields and sunlight and who knows what. But when it's close to home, it's using visuals. And that way it can find its way home. That's what Black Lives Matter was doing when they started every meeting with that chant. How do we remind ourselves of our home, of our grounding, of our commitments to that relationship that we were just talking about? What do we do? And I'm asking that as an open question for this is a theological seminary. There are things that are done with prayer, with invocations, with song. The same is true in social movements. It's often true in families. And I think it's an important thing to do in our individual practice, because the small picture can bump us around and bruise our spirit and make us feel hopeless and damaged. But if we keep ourselves grounded in this larger world, we find the sources of resilience. At least that's been my experience, so let's all be like the sweat wasp and start every day by re-grounding ourselves in these truths.
So I want to close my gabbing at you part of the program, that is, with some more pictures. There's our friend the chickadee that is going to show up.
We pivot here to Ella Baker, a leader and really a mentor and trainer in the civil rights movement and various decades of movements before and since. I found out only recently that she was very active in the movement in support of Puerto Rican independence after the civil rights era and many other struggles. But, she says, in order to see where we're going, we must not only remember where we've been, but we must understand where we've been. Thank you, Ella.
This I'm sharing, this is a chart I made during the insurrection. It's called The Emotional Chemistry of Rebellions, and it's based on those pandemic infection rate charts. I won't go into the details and all the text, but the red line at the beginning is outrage. In response to an atrocity like the murder of George Floyd, you get this burst of outrage. But like nutrients and chemicals in the soil, they decompose and dissipate at different rates, different emotions. And outrage peaks high, burns hot, but dissipates fairly quickly, whereas fear just starts growing. And isn't really at its peak until much later. That's why you get these big outbursts of movement and protest, followed by silence. This happened in 2006 with massive protests around immigrant rights, the largest the country had ever seen. And then afterwards, people returned to the shadows because there were no containers to carry it forward. For hope to go forward, you have to feel that there's a practicality to it. So you need organizations. You need publications. You need schools. You need training to support it. And so the second chart shows the line of hope that with organization and preparation starts growing, also during the outrage fear phase. And it can outpace and pass through the fear phase. So again, it's important even in our own lives, to emotionally understand where we are in our own arcs in relation to what's happening around us.
Seeds of Resistance. It's just simply an illustration of the lesson of interconnectivity. It says, “will grow under any conditions. Best planted, best when planted together”. Showing the signs of different movements. And the movement for healing is not without conflict. But in order for a new ecosystem to take hold, the invasive species have to be pushed back. In whatever way that it requires and hopefully with as much kindness and gentleness as possible. But it has to happen. And then in the final frames. It is a picture of a wetland. It says "a wetland receives the water that flows into it and it slows it down, allowing sediments to drop to the bottom. It absorbs the excess nutrients while plant roots and microbes break down harmful chemicals. It then passes the water on cleaner and safer to those downstream. Be a wetland". That's intergenerational. That's interpersonal. We're not doomed to carry the traumas and the abuses and the toxicities that we've inherited. Like wetlands, we have a model for cleansing those before we pass on. Whatever we're passing on to other people. Because in the end, all we have to offer is ourselves. And that's not only a slogan, but a lesson, because nobody knows, especially in times of uncertainty, specifically what it will take to make a better world. But we can focus on the kind of people we need to be in order to figure that out, in order to take care of each other and in order to also challenge each other in the ways that we need to so that we can all eventually get there together.
Audience Member [00:58:12] Can you tell us anything about Puerto Rico today?
Ricardo Levins Morales [00:58:16] I could. I don't think I want to take our time today to do that. I mean, there's certainly a whole rhythm of disasters that have struck the island that include neoliberalism and hurricanes. One of the most positive things is a very strong agroecology movement. It's also about food sovereignty that is being organized. And that, I think, is the real source of resilience.
Audience Member [00:58:40] Is it possible to travel there? Do people from here go there?
Ricardo Levins Morales [00:58:44] People do, yes. Olivia and I were there quite recently. My daughter.
Audience Member [00:58:51] Ricardo, thank you so much for being with us. I can't say enough about how the cosmic ecology of your perspective is so refreshing and so needed right now to understand how these things are interconnected and how they play into existence with each other. One of the things that you said that especially resonated deeply was how people act within the frame of their rationality. And another point you made connected to that was a mention of how humor actually frustrates that rationality. And so I'm curious if you could speak to what connections you see both between comedy and the accurate diagnosis that you name that we need, and also comedy and perhaps the restoration of hope in the midst of despair.
Ricardo Levins Morales [00:59:45] Yeah, well, I think I mean, like everything, comedy can carry various phases. I mean, to me, humor is the revelation that what we think is happening might not be. And that's also an evolutionary advantage because I can be walking through the forest thinking I'm by myself. But if I've learned that things may not be as they seem, I'll be aware that there might be a bear, you know, around the next bend. But of course, comedy can also be used as a weapon of destruction. Like anything, you know. I don't myself consider it humorous, but it often can include a high degree of cleverness, you know, to put people down and to put up a false truth. What was the last part of your question?
Audience Member [01:00:40] It was really just about any connections you saw between the possibility of comedy and truth telling or an accurate diagnosis. But then also if it has any connection to the restoration of hope.
Ricardo Levins Morales [01:00:53] Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think despair and hopelessness come from believing that what is is and won't change. If I'm deep in my trauma, part of it is the true belief that there is nothing else. So anything that can break me out of that in even the most minute ways is definitely a step toward healing and toward truth telling. Because the truth is that things are always changing. The Pinochet regime in Chile outlawed the teaching of evolution because it taught that things change and a dictatorship wants you to accept things as they are because they're always unchanging. Yeah, I kind of feel like the question could lead me down a rabbit hole because it's like it's so deeply integrated. And truth telling, obviously, I love doing cartoons because cartoons are a very useful tool for revealing hypocrisy and showing the truth behind the lie. And I've been able to use cartoons in situations that have turned the course, helped to turn the course in a labor conflict because it told the truth when truth had not yet been told and workers were bringing it printed onto their t shirts, come into work, start laughing, having a good time, and then management would back down. Because that kind of environment means that they're only going to become more and more powerful. And I have stories, but I'm afraid that once I get into telling stories, we're not going to get out of here for a long time. Yeah, some other thoughts or questions.
Audience Member [01:02:43] Hi. I'm really interested in your conversation about, like, elders and young people and about our ancestors and our descendants. And I'm just wondering if you could speak a little bit more about, like, I think a lot about how young people and elders are extremely disconnected in our society from each other and from everyone that's in the middle. And how we see them often as like disabled bodies and people without agency. And so I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the importance of connecting elders and young people in movements of hope and having discipline in our hope?
Ricardo Levins Morales [01:03:17] Yeah, I mean, it's a big question and I can only answer, I think, the way I approach it. First of all, I'll only be involved in organizing that I can define as hope based organizing. And that means in part that it's reaching for a goal that feels out of reach. And yet can still be. And sometimes it feels way out of reach. But we can make the case that it isn't. That there's a way to get there from here. My father used to say that it's actually often easier to solve big problems than little ones, and it's easier to fight for big things than little things. No one ever put their life on the line to integrate a lunch counter. In the civil rights movement, they put their lives on the line for a vision of equality and justice that involved integrating lunch counters as a tactical moment in that process. So thinking big to frame the story, what we're talking about in large terms rather than the very limited terms that I have to say the nonprofit system encourages. And a lot of it has to do with modeling. That if we want to be able to share hope, we have to experience it. We have to do the work of expunging from ourselves what keeps us from seeing all the possibilities that are out there. Because they are out there.
In other practical terms, I think that one of the things that I've really tried to encourage and participate in is intergenerational mentorship, because I find that in movement, in the movement for justice, a lot of times the young people are looking for mentors and all they're finding are veterans. People who want to tell about their glory days, which is not really what the kids need, and so they become discouraged from that. So training elders to be involved in the process where they can have these fruitful, intergenerational narratives. Just before the pandemic, I had an exhibit at CTUL, a worker center in Minneapolis that was based on 50 years of movement history as seen through my art. And it was framed that way because I wanted to depersonalize it. This is about movement history. We had different walls for different decades and brought people in to have dialogues and speakers who became activists in different decades and to try to create this conversation to make the past real. Because I think if we get a sense of the past and how real it is, the future becomes a real place as well. And that's part of despair. This generation of young people is not unique in thinking that the world is going to end before they reach their twenties. And that's important to know and that's important to be in conversation.
I don't want activists, even those who are savvy and understand movement politics, to simply invoke Ella Baker as an elder ancestor. I want them to have a conversation with her and find out what kept her up at night for all the wrong turns she thought she made and some of the ones she actually did make. Because she's just us in a different time. So finding opportunities and I think we need to amplify that. We need newspapers. We need events. I used to call them teach-ins. And we need ways of engaging, you know, using activist hip hop and other cultural venues. And of course, there's always some of that happening. But I think amplifying that because the lack of a pathway that feels hopeful feels to me like abandonment of the young. Telling kids they know that, oh, no, this is great. We're going to run somebody really smart on the Democratic ticket for the state legislature. Come on out, we're about to be saved doesn't cut it. People really need to be able to have truths that resonate, that they really can feel are deeply true. And that includes a vision of change that is actually going to stop us from running the ship into the iceberg. You know, and we're talking about the Titanic here and that's one iceberg that won't melt fast enough for us to get through. And a lot of the way social change is framed is about helping people improve conditions on the Titanic without addressing the issues. Because to address those issues, you have to deal with the fact, the uncomfortable fact that a cabal of powerful, ultra rich corporations run the world. And all the solutions that really matter would get in the way of profits. I mean, hello. The Emperor has no clothes and that is refreshing. You know, young people and also truth telling has a lot of dimensions. In the struggle to try to get kids to not smoke cigarettes, which is a complex and multicultural struggle. But what they found was that telling kids, don't do that you're going to die wasn't very effective. Telling kids these assholes are manipulating you made a difference. Nobody likes to be taken for a ride. A sense of one's own identity is often the most powerful organizing tool, especially among the young. Any online?
Audience Member [01:09:11] Yeah, we have a couple online questions.
Ricardo Levins Morales [01:09:14] Why don't you read everything you've got.
Audience Member [01:09:16] Yeah, sounds good. Denise said, Ricardo, I appreciate the way you approach challenging events. When something horrific happens, how do you personally respond first when something horrific happens?
Ricardo Levins Morales [01:09:34] Okay. And what else is on there?
Audience Member [01:09:38] Could you share some more about what the difference is between movements and organizing that heals versus the kind of organizing work that depletes? What can we do to make our movements places of healing and not depletion?
Ricardo Levins Morales [01:09:55] How do I respond to it? It really does depend on the event. I mean, I usually am not shocked. I don't think much shocks me anymore. You know, it feels like a body blow. And some of these things happen. I mean, my gosh, you know what's happening right now in Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, Memphis, Atlanta, you name it. Right. All that's going on. I think that part of any of our strategies has to do with finding a balance between patience and urgency, which is a real movement dilemma that's never resolved, but always managed between letting in the pain of the world and functioning. We need to have filters. We can't vicariously experience all of the pain that other people feel. If we cut ourselves off from it entirely, we become isolated and atomized and are no longer part of humanity. If we let it all in, we fry our circuits and are no help to anybody. So finding these ways to filter, I think, has been very important for me.
And sometimes, and this is not a direct answer to Denise's question, but there's also different ways of filtering, understanding what we are and are not responsible for. We're not responsible for understanding the details of every atrocity that's ever happened. As my sister points out, that is mind numbingly monotonous. Whereas the way when you find out about places where people have won against the power, there's always something new. Because when we're up against big odds, there always has to be a trickster in the mix to win, and there's a lot we can learn from that. One of my practices is I simply delete all messages that come into my inbox with the word urgent in the subject line. It's like my nervous system doesn't need that. I'm sure it's urgent. So many things are urgent and I will open your email when you figure out how to approach me in a way that's not meant to trigger my traumatic reactions. You know, it's like I'm in this for the long haul, right? And the urgency will pass, But it's the patience that will carry us through. The changes that we're fighting for, in my mind, are slow, deep and irreversible. Even though it requires a lot of, you know, we do have to respond on an emergency basis to things, but we need to embed that in that longer vision.
As far as the movements that heal versus deplete. I think a very important part of that, there's a number of different elements of it. One is that we have to be reaching for something that matters. Those of us who started MPD 150, a group that wrote a people's performance review of the Minneapolis police and showed how the brutality and the racism was actually built into their DNA from the beginning. And it's not reformable. That came out of seeing how the Black Lives struggle at that time was doing that piece of repeating traumatic narratives and demanding useless things that nobody really believed in, like more civilian review boards and more training and hiring more black cops. Right? So to have a hope based idea that feels out of reach, but then you can explain how it's practical is one important thing. The vision has to be meaningful. I call it Abriendo Camino ,the person out there with a machete opening a path, even if other people aren't really ready to go down it. That's what the right wing did, right? They were putting out messages about repealing Roe for decades when they knew that all of their initiative would lose, but they were preparing the soil for a better future. We can't be afraid to say what we believe, even if it feels out of sync.
Another equally important aspect, and one which I'm really happy with the way we practiced it in that group, is that we need to treat each other as though we were the people who could create the future we want to live in. The people who are prepared to live in it. People who treat each other with kindness. People who do not tolerate the oppression that we carry into the room and into our relationships with each other. Be it racism or ableism or classism or misogyny, etc.. And notice I didn't say zero tolerance. Zero tolerance is a misunderstanding because in fact, patriarchy is in the room, racism is in the room. You know, we cannot wave a magic wand and make them disappear. But we need to navigate them together in a way that makes us stronger and clearly eliminate or expel abuse when it reaches a certain level. But know that on the micro level we need to be countering micro harm with micro healing and creating an environment that feels like a home where we can commit ourselves to each other for a lifetime, not an organization, but as part of that current of humanity that's bringing us to a better future.
Audience Member [01:15:32] We are so grateful that you're here with us tonight, sir. I was just interested in the way in which you depict yourself as a trickster and in what way that contributes to being a hopeful person.
Ricardo Levins Morales [01:15:49] Well, trickster in the sense that we all know what we need to know. If I say something that resonated with you, if you think of the word resonate, it means you already had strings tuned to that chord. And they hummed when I spoke. So that we all know this and yet we are trapped in various different ways, whether it's through conditioning or through the circumstances of our lives or through fear of disapproval or actual threat of danger into living in a way as though we didn't know these things and maybe even forgetting them. So to be a trickster means to remind ourselves of what we know and to make that seem yummier than complacency. You know, so I don't know how to describe it better than that, but it really does involve humor. It involves using beauty, it involves culture, because that is what gets us past the censors and the roadblocks of the mind. Of the prefrontal cortex that's just trying to protect us. But it's just too hyper vigilant. And too heavily armed. We need to be able to speak directly to the heart. And while we're at it, the liver and the pancreas. We need to be able to, in a way, trick ourselves into remembering hopefulness, into remembering connection, even into remembering trust. One of our fundamental survival strategies, especially in an economic system that is founded on the idea of people ripping each other off at every level and lying to each other in terms of doing it, trust becomes very difficult. And so as somebody who's lived and breathed and swum in movements for social justice for most of my life, I know the importance of mistrust. There are often people in our movements who are there and are paid to be there to harm or confuse or to spy. But how can we understand that, deal with that and try to prevent that harm without becoming the shut off, mistrustful people? That would actually be a victory for them. So, yeah, I mean, in a way we have to trick ourselves into being the humans that we need to be. And that comes largely through storytelling and the various things, whether they're recognized as ritual or not, they really are in terms of our lives, you know?
I don't know if I can give a satisfactory answer, but that's what comes to mind. And in union in the workplace situations that usually involve humor. You know, for example, there was one when I worked in a hospital as a janitor, my first union drive experience. There were posters up in some of the workspaces. You know, I've seen these in factories too. Like health and safety posters. On a loading dock will be one that says, Don't back your forklift. You know, don't back it up without looking because you'll squish somebody. And that's really a bad thing to do right? In a hospital, it would be something like showing a picture and this would be in the utility closet or in the nurse's station. Not on the Hollywood show. A nurse's aide stepping backwards and knocking over an I.V. unit that's attached to a patient. And the caption would say, Carelessness causes tragedy. And I used to look at posters like that and think, what if we just left that picture just the way it is? And most of the words just change one word to say understaffing causes tragedy. You've not only changed the message, you've profoundly changed the message of that poster from there's problems in this hospital because you, the workers, are careless or stupid or uncaring. And you've changed it into management is greedy. That's employing that sort of the trickster mentality in a way to exercise truth telling. Through humor. And I think we're at time, you know, all processes end and things come and go, and that includes us. And spring is one several hours closer than it was when y'all arrived. So we can celebrate that. So thank you all. Thank you very much.
Ry Siggelkow [01:20:38] Ricardo, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. You have so much wisdom from these decades of your involvement in organizing, from a reflection from your work in community. And you have so much to teach us. And I'll be chewing on what you have been sharing with us for a long time. And I appreciate your sharing of yourself. That image of we have only ourselves to share with others. And I think that's a good reminder to connect with oneself, to connect, to reconnect with the earth, to remember the truth of our existence in relation to others. So thank you so much.
Stella Pearce [01:21:30] Thank you for listening to the Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast. To learn more about the center and its programs, visit unitedseminary.edu/lcsj. Or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at United_LCSJ.