On June 1st, SustainUS released a video on social media called #FloodsandFires as a rapid response project to the Trump Administration’s announcement to exit the Paris Climate Agreement. The video was sponsored by Sunrise Movement, Earth Guardians, and SustainUS. SustainUs would like to apologize for any harm caused by the video, and explain why we decided to take it down.  

The #FloodsAndFires video featured young people from the United States and allies around the world who filmed themselves responding to Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. SustainUS is a youth-led organization that has empowered young people to bring their voices to the United Nations Climate Conference for the past decade, and was highly involved in the youth movement that pushed for many important components of the Paris Climate Agreement. The #FloodsAndFires video was intended to express our sadness and anger as young people who have inherited a global crisis that threatens our future, and serve as a renewal of our commitment to climate justice. Those featured in the video took part in a ritual involving water and fire.

After the video was released, it was brought to the attention of the organization that while the video was not created to copy an indigenous ceremony, it contained elements that evoked a range of responses from indigenous community members. This sparked active dialogue. For the last three months, SustainUS has initiated conversations for those involved and impacted to share their feelings about the video. In these conversations, we talked about what fire and water mean to our communities and how the symbology of these elements are not uniformly understood. We reflected on ways the environmental movement has romanticized indigenous communities and acknowledged how much work still needs to be done to work as allies. And we discussed differences between culture, tradition, and ritual, noting how indigenous communities have been harmed for centuries by genocide, cultural appropriation, and whitewashing of ceremony — topics that SustainUS leader Kayla DeVault has written about previously in greater depth. As a result of this feedback, we decided to take the video down.

While not everyone reacted the same way to the video, we heard the pain it caused members of our community. We are taking our learnings with us and are choosing to share them publicly. We believe these lessons are important not only for SustainUS, but also for our social movements at large.

Through this process, we learned:

  1. Speaking as the “youth of the United States” or “youth of the world” does not respect our immense differences and histories. Using this language fails to acknowledge that the decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement falls differently on different people. Specifically, “U.S. youth” must include dual citizens also represented by leadership of sovereign indigenous nations, as well as young people without formal citizenship on this continent. We believe in order to achieve a world free from systemic injustice, we need to acknowledge our differences as well as commonalities.
  2. Creating or participating in “ritual” of this kind is neither necessary nor appealing for many people who are already connected to a set of powerful ritual practices inherited from their ancestors. To many, traditions are long-held, and ritual cannot be created at whim. We are committed to finding more constructive ways to collaborate across the diversity of young people, traditions, and cultures in our shared movements.
  3. The video could be read as appropriative, especially at a moment where indigenous culture has become prominent in mainstream media as a result of indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. We recognize that the birth of the so-called environmental movement in the US coincided with an era of “plastic shamanism” that opened the floodgates for the appropriation of indigenous cultures. This appropriation blossomed in an era when Native Americans were still prohibited by federal law to partake in their own ceremonies and religious freedom. With the recent global attention to #NoDAPL and Standing Rock, there has been a heightened need for indigenous and non-indigenous groups to find ways to authentically advocate for climate justice without minimizing the significance of tradition, culture, and treaty rights.
  4. The process of creating #FloodsAndFires was too fast. SustainUS members identifying as indigenous, as well as other allies, should have been consulted, in consent with, and in meaningful leadership developing the video, and they were not. Actively seeking broader alignment within our organizations and movements could have led to a stronger response and caught these concerns before the video went live.

SustainUS is committed to applying the lessons we learned from this process in our work.  SustainUS leadership is in the process of developing and refining our public-facing principles and values. Learning from the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing and other defining examples from social movements past and present, we affirm our ongoing commitment to self-transformation. We honor leadership from communities on the frontlines of injustice, and seek to confront oppression and advance justice through all of our work. We are committed to seeking cultural understanding, and will hold ourselves accountable to continuing to learn how to embody these principles across our delegations, trainings, and all future programs.

To conclude, we apologize for the ways that this video caused harm and discomfort. We want to express our gratitude to community members who stepped forward, offered their candid feedback and reactions, and worked with us to learn from this process. We invite young organizers beyond SustainUS to join us in committing to principles and practices that help us to self-reflect, transform, educate, and lead in supporting shared movements to deepen alignment and build collective power.

Published with the Support of Earth Guardians.

Christine Wood

About Christine Wood

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