This word, subversive, has come up frequently for me in recent conversations in class, in community organizing, and while reading books and articles. It’s eerie. Before a seminar discussion, a few weeks ago, about ecology as a subversive subject[1], I do not recall paying any attention to the word, let alone having a full grasp of what it meant. Now I am seeing and hearing it all over the place, and I cannot help but think about the connections between each situation when the word comes up.

To be subversive is to attempt or intend to undermine, disrupt, or overturn an established assumption, system, or paradigm. Aside from it being the perfect word that describes my reason for being in the Environmental Arts and Humanities Master’s program, subversive was not an adjective in my verbal repertoire, until now.

So how does this relate to climate change and sustaining a successful movement against the major ecological destruction we are heading toward?

On October 19th, I had the honor of speaking on a panel about civic action for an undergraduate class at OSU titled, “Climate Change and its Challenges: Responding with Resilience in Community”.

Professor Ken Winograd, from the College of Education, invited me to panel alongside Professor Linda Richards, from the School of History Philosophy and Religion, and David DeHart, a Senior in Environmental Science. I have organized demonstrations and workshops with Ken, Linda, and David before, and was happy to be in their company while talking to the group of eleven students about climate change activism.

Professor Winograd asked us panelists to respond to two prompts: What are the different types of action? What are the personal benefits for activists? The three of us had input that complimented what we each had to say. It was great to have different perspectives and experience levels while talking about these larger concepts. Linda spoke about making a promise to herself as a young girl to end war when she saw the photo of nine year old Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. She later realized she could actually keep that promise when she discovered nonviolence as both an ideology and a practice in organizing around nuclear disarmament. David spoke about finding a sense of community that can emotionally sustain folks while dealing with difficult issues in activist and organizing groups.

1972 Time Magazine photo of Vietnam War. Photo credit: Nick Ut

Ken wanted us panelists to show his students that there are many forms of action and many roles one can take to be involved in a particular protest or demonstration.For many who see the pictures in the news of the brave folks suspending themselves from bridges like during the Shell No campaign, or sitting in front of trains, such as the Vancouver 21, activism may seem too daunting, too dangerous, too arrest-able.

21 people were arrested after blocking an oil train in Vancouver Washington 6/18/16. Photo credit: Alex Milan Tracy
Shell No activists suspending from the St. John’s bridge in Portland. Photo credit: Steve Dipaola, Green Peace

I wanted to give the students a more holistic sense of what those types of demonstrations entail. I spoke about the many roles involved in planning and performing such an action. Roles can include legal observers, media and police liaisons, even those who are providing child care for organizers, and supplying food and water for people. All of these roles are integral to a successful action and are needed to sustain movements that are subversive to the systems at the root of climate change: capitalism, imperialism, and heteronormative, white supremacist patriarchy.

I mentioned that action can also be more on the creative side, such as the street theater that was performed on February 1, 2016 by community organizers that were contributing to the global Divest campaign. After months of the student and faculty led OSU Divest group trying to persuade the OSU Foundation to divest from fossil fuel company holdings, to no avail, community members decided to escalate tactics to really get the Foundation’s attention. We created a mock oil spill on the Memorial Union Quad, with a clean-up crew trying to keep passersby out of the danger area, while people acting as the CEO of Exxon Mobil and OSU President Ed Ray stood by shaking hands and doing “business as usual”. Members from OSU Divest, and Rising Tide Corvallis spoke to the crowd about the ethical implications of public entities, such as universities, profiting off of climate change. It was creative, fun, and lively, and it got attention.

Community members perform street theater of a mock oil spill at OSU. Photo credit: Andy Cripe, Gazette Times

After the panel discussion we split into groups with the students and discussed what their thoughts were and if any of them felt compelled to take part in any actions in the future. Most of the students had not heard of the support roles needed in safe and successful protests, and some of them mentioned their interest in becoming more involved in the community. One student seemed really interested, and to me, that is a win!

My impression, upon leaving that day, was that we had imbued the students in Ken’s class with the knowledge and confidence to become more active in the movement to mitigate climate change. The three of us, with various experiences and reasons for being involved ourselves, ignited sparks in some of the students that were not previously lit. Without our discussion, the students would not be moved to partake in any form of resistance. Or so I thought, until I attended an event the next evening, which was subversive to those assumptions.

Kevin Van Meter came to OSU and spoke about his recently published book, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make Revolution Possible, on October 20th.

Van Meter’s recently published book.

During the book review, Kevin explained that the premise of his claim is based on subverting an assumption held by organizers and activists on the left. That assumption is that laborers, students, the poor, “are unorganized, acquiescent to systems of domination, or simply uninterested in building a new world”.[2] Organizers, whether they are members of a union, or a group based on immigrant rights, often feel like they need to come into a space and teach the people how to be radical, how to organize and resist the systems of oppression in which they are immersed. But most people are already resisting in ways, that when looked at as a whole, are fairly subversive. This includes taking a longer break at work in order to make a doctor’s appointment because our lives cannot be neatly packaged outside of our nine to fives, or students spending time doing meaningful activities with friends and family that may cost them a lower GPA, or immigrants that learn and share techniques for a livelihood in a place that is constantly hostile to them.

These everyday forms of resistance are political and are often underestimated, or overlooked on the left. Kevin’s talk taught me an important lesson: While trying to inspire action in people, especially those that are most affected by issues such as climate change, organizers like myself need to meet people where they are at and try to understand the ways in which they are already resisting. This is an ecological view, to look at the connections and intersections of small acts of resistance that feed into the larger forms of action. It is key to understanding how to form alternatives to the systems we resist. And it is humbling for activists and organizers to acknowledge that everyone can and does resist on some level.

Guerrillas of Desire author Kevin Van Meter. Photo Credit: Mike Lee

So, while speaking on the panel for the eleven undergraduate students was subversive to climate change, it was so for different reasons than I originally thought.

Instead of the three of us acting as givers of knowledge and empowerment, we were starting a conversation that allowed for the self-actualization of power and resistance. We were building relationships that illuminate the common ground we share. And we were resisting climate change in that moment by having a discussion in a class about responding to climate change, in a classroom at Oregon State University.

When you consider what types of large-scale social and individual changes that are needed to actually mitigate the climate crisis, you can’t be much more subversive than creating community and better understanding our own every day forms of resistance.

Thanks to Ken, Linda, David, and Kevin. Also thanks to the Coalition of Graduate Employees, Students united for Palestinian Equal Rights, Anarres Project for Alternative Futures, Allied Students for Another Politics, and Corvallis-Albany I.W.W. for sponsoring the Kevin Van Meter event.
[1] Paul B. Sears, “Ecology: A Subversive Subject,” BioScience 14, no. 7 (1964): 11-13.
[2] Van Meter, Kevin. Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible. California: AK Press, 2017.
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