Building bridges with Dr. Barbara Love

Dr. Barbara Love

Building bridges with Dr. Barbara Love

By Flannery Winchester

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

Dr. Barbara Love is the Professor Emeritus of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and is recognized globally for her work on organizational and societal transformation and on issues of diversity, inclusion, and liberation. She joined CCL’s October call to discuss strategies and tips for building relationships across race and cultural boundaries.

That’s an important topic because Black and brown communities in America are just as vulnerable to the effects of climate change and environmental degradation as anyone. Dr. Love said, “When the temperature gets too hot on earth, it’s not going to get too hot just for white people. Maintaining this planet with an inhabitable climate is going to be for everybody. When the air becomes unbreathable, it’s going to cross zip codes, and it’s going to cross neighborhoods.” The issues of energy, pollution, economy, and climate change affect everyone, so it’s valuable to build bridges across communities and work toward solutions together.

It’s valuable, but it can be difficult sometimes. It might feel awkward to talk bluntly about “white people.” It may feel odd to hear new terms like “people of the global majority,” a phrase Dr. Love used to refer to people of African heritage, Asian heritage, Native American heritage, and so on, who make up over 90% of the world’s population. Very simply, this might be a topic you don’t feel comfortable or confident talking about yet. But in CCL, we don’t shy away from difficult or awkward conversations. We pride ourselves on our ability to listen and to find common ground on the common issue of a livable world. So, here we go:

“How do you make relationships and sustain relationships with people from a variety of races, cultures, and backgrounds?” Dr. Love asked to open her talk. She offered a few strategies that can be helpful:

Seek out people from different backgrounds. “You’re going to have to abandon just meeting with people with whom you are familiar or with whom you are comfortable,” Dr. Love said. She encouraged white people to reach out to build friendships with people of the global majority (PGM). She also encouraged PGM to remember they are allowed to accept or reject those friendships. “You get to say yes, and you get to say no,” she pointed out. She also encouraged PGM to remember that environmental protection and stabilizing the climate is in their best interest too.

To build these relationships, Dr. Love said it ultimately comes down to one-on-one, person-to-person interactions. Connecting with organizations can provide access and opportunities to white people that they might not otherwise have, but it’s going to come down to individual effort. Mark underlined this point by mentioning an article he read about Cesar Chavez and the key to his organizing success. Chavez was quoted as saying “I talk to one person, and when I’m done talking to that person, I talk to the next person.”

Aim for long term relationships. “Be prepared to stay in the face of discomfort,” Dr. Love advised white people. She encouraged PGM to bring their real selves to the relationship, rather than assimilating or changing just for the relationship. “Part of the point in having relationships across difference is to bring those points of difference into the relationship,” Dr. Love explained. Those differences are valuable, so neither group should shy away from noticing and celebrating them. For both groups, Dr. Love suggested finding shared interests and making real commitments to one another.

Mind your manners. (This one may seem like a basic one, but unfortunately, these faux pas happen often enough that they’re worth pointing out.) When meeting someone, make sure you get their name right, even if it’s unfamiliar—don’t shorten it or give them a nickname. Another thing to avoid is bringing up your other friends who may be a part of that group. “Don’t tell one person of the global majority about your nanny who raised you, or your long-lost friend you had when you were in second grade. Put your focus on present time, on the person you are working on building a relationship with right now,” Dr. Love said. Her advice to PGM was to interrupt and, if they’re willing, educate their new white friends if they make these slip ups.

Be prepared to make mistakes. “If you’re worried about making mistakes, then you’re going to hold back, and you’re not going to engage,” Dr. Love said, so it’s better to lean in and be prepared for those occasional mistakes, such as those mentioned above. When white people do make mistakes, they should simply acknowledge it, and ask their PGM friend what they can do to clean it up.

Mark pointed out, “So much of this is what we try to train ourselves on, but it’s mostly been the tension between Republicans and Democrats.” And just like with those cross-party relationships, Mark said, “If we’re not willing to make mistakes, we’re not going to get anywhere with people.” Using Dr. Love’s advice, hopefully we can all work to build these bridges.

For more from Dr. Barbara Love, including her full Q&A with volunteers, listen to the October 2017 podcast or watch the call on YouTube. Follow Dr. Love on Twitter at @bjlove4.

Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.