The Visibility Cloak: Creating Collective Attention

“Social change happens when the marginalized and oppressed tap into their immeasurable strength as a collective.” — Sarah Super

At an April 19 “Sustainable We” forum, the topic was how we make the invisible visible. Discussion leaders included Sarah Super of Break the Silence, who gives voice to rape survivors partly by telling her own story… Kathleen Schuler of Healthy Legacy, who works to reduce dangerous toxins in the home… and Shalini Gupta of Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, who reminds us that our country tends to foist pollution on marginalized communities.

You can find audio clips of the conversation here.

On Not Being Afraid to Speak Out

4885aSarah Super points out that 1 in 5 women is the victim of sexual assault. [See a story I wrote for Minnesota Women’s Press about its prevalence on college campuses.] Women tend to not share stories publicly, especially about the two-thirds of women who survive assault by someone they know. “We prefer to believe as a society that men we know, love, and trust would never do such a thing. But given the pervasive nature of sexual violence, this is simply not true.”

In Super’s case, she was afforded the ‘privilege’ of speaking out because there was no doubt that the white, educated ex-boyfriend from a visible Edina family planned an attack that included breaking into her apartment, hiding in her closet, and raping her at knifepoint after she returned home. There was evidence that implied that he intended to dispose of her, to hide what he had done — as happens to so many other sexual assault victims. After she escaped to a neighbor’s apartment, he led the police on a high-speed chase before he was caught, convicted and jailed.

Without the shadow of doubt and victim-blaming in her case, Super realized that she had the ability to come out publicly with her story, without needing to defend herself in the process and become a victim all over again. By sharing her story, she says, it has enabled others to ‘come out.’ Hundreds of women in the past year have shared their story with Super, at her “Break the Silence” events or in private, including a close friend who had never told anyone about a group assault in a school bathroom. She has raised funds for a city memorial to rape victims and is raising awareness conversation-by-conversation.

Super’s lesson: Telling our collective stories — not being shamed or blamed or disbelieved — brings issues into the light that are far more prevalent than we’d like to believe. Only then can we begin to address what the prevalence of the issue tells us.

On Being Bullied Into Non-Action

KathleenSchulerLegislatively, we have tended to have a weak system of enforcing public health, implied Kathleen Schuler of Healthy Legacy. With the American Chemistry Council wanting to protect the image and the profitability of chemicals overall, and the Chamber of Commerce wanting to protect the profitability of large businesses, policymakers and advocates generally face long battles in regulating toxic chemicals in our products. [Read more here on pesticides, and here on the Toxic Substances Act of 1976 that is still the ineffectual law of the land.] For example, even after 10 years of rule-making, the EPA was not able to regulate asbestos, despite knowing its public health impact, because rules favored minimizing economic impact on businesses, Schuler says.

In spite of federal inaction, states like Minnesota have enacted laws restricting mercury, flame retardants, certain plastic toxins and other hazardous chemicals in consumer products. There are still many children’s products in Minnesota that contain chemicals linked to adverse health effects. Recently Minnesota parents have raised concerns about the use of waste-tire mulch on playgrounds and athletic fields, that off-gases harmful chemicals into the air, impacting anyone from playground toddlers to soccer goalies. Healthy Legacy is also working on legislation to require companies to disclose cosmetic fragrance ingredients. In addition to policy work, Healthy Legacy is part of a national Mind the Store campaign that encourages retailers to phase our hazardous chemicals in their products.

Schuler’s lesson: Collective action by consumers does make a difference. Manufacturers change production processes, and create safer products, the more we demand it, by our shopping habits and by giving customer feedback. Regulation also plays a key role in the movement towards safer products. Informed community action is a path to change, even in the face of opposing lobbyists. We need to continue to become a more informed and involved community.

On Marginalizing Fellow Residents

4777aShalini Gupta says CEED data shows the “hot spots” in North Minneapolis and Phillips neighborhoods in particular where industrial and vehicular pollution are impacting city residents. Our right to clean air and water shouldn’t also be a matter of “who can afford it,” she says. We need to start thinking like a community that wants all of its citizens to have common access to health. She noted the work of Indiana University’s Elinor Ostrom — the first female Nobel Prize winner in economics — who proved the importance of ‘the commons’ of cooperating communities around the world, in contrast to private ownership of limited resources.

Local residents are vocal about their right to cleaner air and water, that other city residents can take for granted, Gupta points out. Industrial polluters and county incinerators are not placed into certain neighborhoods, for example. The difficult part is getting enough people to sit together to find solutions now that the data is telling the story — as it has in Flint, Michigan. CEED has been participating in the Green Zones initiative of Minneapolis, which is bringing diverse interests to the table to invest in healthier communities.

Editor’s Note: In my experience thus far, this is a weak spot of communication between organizing groups, city policymakers and residents. Smart communication is important.

Gupta’s lesson: Collectively we need to become more attuned to how much value we place on products instead of people. And… how the voices of certain people are valued more than others. For Minneapolis to become truly sustainable as a city — beyond simply having a reputation as a progressive community — we need to own up to how we are all segregated in our approaches to the issues that plague us.

What Is Holding Us Back?

One “Sustainable We” forum participant asked why rape of air, land, water, and women are such entrenched factors of American society. “Objectification,” said Super. “Domination,” said Schuler. “Commodification,” said Gupta.

Hear their responses here.

The theme of this “Sustainable We” evening — which deserves to have repeated conversations in our community (and please share this op-ed and the audio clips from the conversation) — is that until we move more men, in particular, to understand that the planet’s resources, women, and children are not simply here for taking, dominating, and selling, we won’t have a sustainable community.

We collectively bear responsibility, I believe, for raising up the ignorant and unaware. On this website you’ll find some of the community members who are telling stronger stories, in addition to the women featured in his overview, such as:

Moving Forward: Collective Energy

CEF meetingThe night after this “Sustainable We” forum, I attended the annual meeting of Cooperative Energy Futures, which is truly a collective group working with both North Minneapolis and Edina — and more Twin Cities sites to come — to build shared equity in a community solar energy force that includes low-income communities and job-training. [I’ve written about CEF’s vision here, as well as its values as a collective in Energy E-Guide #1.]

CEF intends to have more than 12 sites serving at least 1,000 community subscribers in the next few years. Its first installation at Shiloh Temple should begin this summer. Subscription recruitment for Edina is underway. All projects are undergoing Xcel Energy review.

As a growing community of members and community solar subscribers — owned not by passive consumers but by active participants in collective energy — CEF is part of a long legacy in Minnesota of helping ourselves help each other, said former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

Himself a long-time participant in the food cooperative movement that has been a stronghold in our area, and a history buff, who is working toward a 2023 World’s Fair in Minnesota around well-being, Ritchie was invited to speak about our uniquely collaborative history as a state. “It’s how we do things,” he said. “Our collaborative nature is far beyond anything you might see in many other places.”

Whether it is food, health care, energy, or storm damage, our roots as a farming community that has “only ourselves to rely on” means collective energy is woven into the fabric of our society. We care about the trees we plant for future generations, because we know what others have planted and built for us, he said.

The question is — the point of the “Sustainable We” conversations in the past and future — how collective can we be in inviting generally invisible yet entrenched issues to the forefront, so that marginalized voices — silenced by fear, bullying or a history of disenfranchisement — can be equal partners in creating real solutions? Can we design a Visibility Cloak that fits for all?

— Mikki Morrissette