Social Justice & Climate Action: A Conversation With Ashley Engle On Why You Cannot Separate The Two and How You Can Help Combat Them Both

"My advice to anyone wanting to stand up for Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and our future generations: Start where you are because the frontlines are truly everywhere!"
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photo courtesy of Ashley Engle

photo courtesy of Ashley Engle

Activist leader Ashley (McCray) Engle is a Green New Deal Organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and her work is centered around organizing, educating, and activating - especially now, with Congress currently on recess until April 11. Pivotal is an effort called Recovery Recess, which calls for a recovery package focused on jobs that are built on the understanding of how climate change and social justice are inextricably linked. 

"During this break, we have a once-in-a-generation chance for Congress to pass a package of transformational economic recovery, rebuilding, and infrastructure legislation. Congress has the ability to put millions of people to work in good, family sustaining climate jobs and care jobs, delivering real climate solutions, and advancing racial, Indigenous, gender, and economic justice." (via Recovery Recess)

We asked Ashley to break down the nuances of the connections between social justice and climate change, to share why her she became involved in this work, and her thoughts on the THRIVE agenda, which "will be an absolute game-changer for Indigenous peoples and Tribal nations". 

Read on for her energizing and inspiring words on how to enact change and the power of collective and individual activism. 

Knowing this is complex issue, can you please explain the connection between social justice and climate change? Also, how are the two are interdependent?

For Indigenous, Black, Brown, poor, and other marginalized communities, the connection between social justice and climate change is inextricable because our communities are on the frontlines of climate change and fossil fuel extraction. Whether it is the development of Sacred Sites into tourist operations, pipelines thrashing through our backyards, man-made disasters ravaging our communities, or fracking operations popping up over our fences, we continue to bear the brunt of capitalism and mass exploitation, while greedy corporations reap all the benefits. 

As an Indigenous femme, it’s important for me to draw the connection between violence against the lands and violence against our people. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Relatives is a widespread and grave problem our Indigenous communities continue to face all across Turtle Island. Because our tribal nations are often situated in rural or remote areas, and because extractive companies do not engage the Free, Prior, Informed Consent process with Tribes (nonetheless engage us in “meaningful consultation”), projects are often situated on or near our lands without consent from the Tribal government or community. We also know that pipelines and other projects bring about man camps, which in turn cause an uptick in the assaults, murders, and disappearances of Indigenous femmes and other relatives from within our tribal communities and nations. 

The climate crisis is a social justice issue for Indigenous communities because we recognize that we are the land and that anything bad for the land is not good for us. Bottom line: Centering, supporting, and listening to those most impacted will ensure we reach the solutions necessary to save us all.

What are the greatest misunderstandings you have heard people repeat about THRIVE and Green New Deal-level legislation? What are the plan's greatest strengths that they are missing?

As an Oklahoman living in a deep, red state that depends on fossil fuels, extraction, and exploitation for much of our economy, many of the false tropes circulated here in response to Biden’s Climate plan are emblematic of the larger misunderstandings of the THRIVE and other Green New Deal-esque legislation. 

The fear of transitioning completely away from a carbon-based, fossil-fuel economy is scary for folks in my state - many Oklahomans rely on jobs in the fossil-fuel industry, including people in my own family. This is the unfortunate reality for many of us here. Folks are afraid we are going to lose jobs, but the numbers don’t lie. By transitioning into a renewable, sustainable, regenerative economy, we will not only bring in at least 15 million good, sustainable, and long-lasting jobs nationally, we will also ensure we have healthy water, land, and air for future generations to come. 

Many tribal communities all across Turtle Island rely on extractive jobs to take care of their families—in fact, oftentimes our communities are preyed upon by the fossil fuel industry, whether through advertisements in tribal newsletters and throughout the community, or even through direct recruitment. By creating millions of good, safe union jobs, THRIVE ensures our communities maintain choice and autonomy and secures our collective futures with long-term, dependable, sustainable jobs, instead of being forced into occupations that cause harm to our people and land. 

Finally, by seeking jobs in renewable sectors, our communities can THRIVE both in this colonial framework while also ensuring we are living up to and maintaining our Indigenous lifeways. And by helping our people transition into safe, clean, good-paying, and long-lasting jobs, THRIVE will create the conditions that empower us to care for the land, water, and each other without sacrificing our Indigenous values and principles.

What is currently at the top of your list to accomplish in 2021? How are you working to make it happen?

The Indigenous Environmental Network believes the THRIVE agenda provides a vehicle for us and our people to advocate for Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC), which will be an absolute game-changer for Indigenous peoples and Tribal nations once it is enshrined into federal law. While we know the Biden Administration released an executive memo asking each of the federal agencies to determine what it looks like to have “meaningful consultation” with Tribal nations, we also know this is not enough. 

We cannot leave federal agencies to decide what this means on a singular basis, without any consistency or ability to truly enforce a minimum standard for “meaningful consultation.” Our communities have long witnessed what happens when the US Federal Government or corporate interests “consult” with our nations. These agencies and companies will call a meeting, leave out a sign-in sheet, and call it “consultation.” And far too often, “consultation” is used as a substitute for consent.

FPIC is a basic underpinning of Indigenous Peoples’ inherent right of self-determination. It includes the provision of timely, adequate, and accessible information prior to any planning or implementation of a proposed action or project. Indigenous Peoples’s right to consent (or, importantly, not to consent) must be based upon the Indigenous Peoples’ own decision-making processes, customary laws, and practices, free of coercion or manipulation. This includes participation and consent in setting the terms and conditions of any proposal, addressing the economic, societal, cultural, spiritual, and environmental aspects of the Indigenous peoples concerned, and if appropriate, any climate impacts. 

In fact, FPIC is an international concept—it just so happens that the United States is FAR behind the curve. Free, Prior, Informed Consent is the pathway toward restoring Indigenous autonomy, righting colonial wrongs, and ensuring we all have healthy land, air, and water for many future generations to come. At IEN, we launched our #THRIVE4NDNCountry campaign as a way to continue to orient our people to federal policies like THRIVE. We are inviting feedback and input on THRIVE on our site. We will continue pushing FPIC in all the policy and administrative spaces we are privileged to be in, as well as continuing to partner with other Native organizations to advance this priority. Finally, by advancing THRIVE, we advance FPIC, and we normalize consent.

For those who want to get involved in supporting your 2021 climate justice agenda (and beyond) where should they start? What can they do? And, how can we all start to nurture and empower the next generation of climate and social justice activists?

My advice to anyone wanting to stand up for Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and our future generations: Start where you are because the frontlines are truly everywhere! Whether it be a pipeline or a fracking project or even a housing development project—find out what is happening on the local, municipal (city government) level. Get a small group of like-minded folks together and set up listening sessions to hear what issues are important to your community. 

Organize townhall meetings where folks from your community can come together to identify the problems and create solutions that can be implemented into direct actions. Attend City Council meetings together and speak on the issues that are important to your collective or group. Recognize that many of the fights you hear about through media have been many years in the making—so don’t feel defeated or discouraged along the way. Connect with other youths from other frontlines to learn and share and collaborate. Know that your ancestors and future generations are proud of you. And importantly, create a self-care routine because this work can be taxing and difficult. We need your help—but more importantly, we need YOU!

For those who would like to support our work at Indigenous Environmental Network, I recommend checking out our website and our social media [Indigenous Environmental Network] and [IndigenousRising] [IndigenousRisingMedia], where we uplift our grassroots and frontline work, as well as our policy priorities. At IEN, we recognize the youth are our future—in fact, we are currently in DC where frontline youths fighting Dakota Access Pipeline, KXL, Line 3, Line 5, and Mountain Valley pipeline delivered petitions to the Army Corps of Engineers to #StopLine3 and #ShutDownDAPL through our #BuildBackFossilFree campaign. 

In addition to being a member of the Green New Deal Network, IEN is also a member of the United Frontline Table  and It Takes Roots. And finally, I personally invite folks to reach out to me about issues related to the Green New Deal and Indian Country. We need everyone in this fight because it’s all about people power! 

photo courtesy of Ashley Engle

photo courtesy of Ashley Engle

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