Climate activists from around the world converged on New York City during the United Nations Climate Summit in September, 2019, and I was lucky enough to be invited to contribute to this historic moment. There were scientists, lawyers, architects and diplomats—and of course Greta Thunberg (the Swedish teen who chastised the UN for its feeble track record on addressing the climate crisis)—but there were also artists, musicians and counselors in attendance. Yes, that’s right: counselors. Because if humans are going to survive the disruptions of the climate crisis, we are going to need to radically rethink how we relate to our planet and each other.
My role at the Climate Summit was to join with others to lead workshop events, participate in facilitating discussion and listening forums, and provide supportive counseling venues for those feeling overwhelmed by the tasks and risks ahead. A head-on confrontation with the specter of climate crisis isn’t for the fainthearted. Our group was asked to share skills and techniques that can help individuals heal from stress and avoid burnout in their struggle to address this emergency. We also led workshops to train people how to be more effective and supportive allies in this struggle, especially when working across cultural lines, such as those that divide indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the Americas and other world regions.
This opportunity came about through my participation in two national co-counseling groups: Sustaining All Life (SAL) and United to End Racism (UER). Co-counseling is a peer-based counseling process originally developed by a labor activist in the 1950s. That origin may be what differentiates co-counseling from other kinds of counseling; co-counseling doesn’t just look at the need to address trauma at an individual level, but recognizes that trauma and stress also result from societal patterns such as racism, sexism, and environmental degradation. SAL and UER aim not only to heal from past traumas, but to eliminate the underlying causes of trauma by challenging people to reinvent human relations. Reinvention requires new ways of thinking, which we can only accomplish by recognizing and freeing ourselves from unhealthy patterns and scars from the past.
My personal history might make this a little less abstract. As a woman of mixed heritage, (Lakota family but raised white), I found co-counseling techniques to be useful in exploring racial, cultural and family dynamics that at times not only felt overwhelming, but actually were overwhelming, because they were part of a political structure larger than my own life. Co-counseling is designed to be empowering to individuals by giving them the skills to understand these stressors and address them. Over the past two decades I have moved from using these techniques to heal my own past to sharing them with others as a way to help heal our society. For example, over the past four years I have been leading co-counseling workshops for native women raised off reservations.
At the Climate Summit I drew on that experience as I led a workshop on being allies with indigenous activists. The first thing we did was recognize our preconceptions. For example, the dominant US image of an effective organizer is that of a TED-like speaker with forceful gestures and a commanding voice. Yet these preconceptions only contribute to perpetuating the racism, sexism and even disability repression which is part of the problem we are seeking to resolve! But if we pause and question our ideas of what leadership looks like, we might notice other kinds of leadership. For many indigenous people, remaining invisible was both a survival technique and a consequence of oppression that physically and symbolically sought to eliminate their presence. We need to listen for the quiet people. To ignore them is to continue the genocidal elimination of other bodies and other voices from these discussions.
Our groups held about 40 workshops over the course of the week, including sessions on families and climate change, racism and climate change, etc. We also organized support groups and outreach activities, such as mini-sessions (teaching structured listening techniques that help communication by providing space for people to develop ideas) and informal sharing opportunities that allowed people to process their ideas and find a place for their emotions during these busy days. This was really necessary, because some of the presentations were disturbing, for example, one on the impact of rising water levels in the Philippines.
Climate Week events were spread out over several blocks in New York City, and there were monitors set up along the sidewalks to direct people to the different events, with people from around the world studying them and planning their schedules. The event was diverse in another way as well. Usually co-counselors are an informal group, but because we were in a neighborhood of fancy office building in mid-town Manhattan (so fancy we weren’t allowed to put our backpacks on the floor!), we attracted people wearing suits who came in to see what we were doing, and stayed to learn new skills to support each other.
I think one of the things we were all realizing was that it’s going to take a lot more than solar panels or windmills to get through this. We read a lot about rising temperatures and sea levels, but there really hasn’t been as much attention paid to how climate change is going to challenge us emotionally. Human competition to survive is going to worsen and drive conflict and wars. And even if we live in an area that doesn’t immediately feel the crisis, how are we going to deal with our guilt as climate change devastates other lives? How will climate activists preserve themselves from exhaustion?
We will need to fundamentally shift how we think about our relations with other humans and the environment if we are going to survive this. We are going to need to rethink and make room in our brains for a new cultural value system that doesn’t prioritize profit over lives. We will need to question the patterns we carry from the past and recognize the way oppression of humans and disregard for the environment are linked. In short, we are going to need every tool in the emotional toolbox to get through this. I came back from the Climate Summit committed to continue sharing the skills I have gained through co counseling to help individuals and the larger community with the challenge of confronting the climate crisis. What are you going to do?
Kate Insolia is the owner and Artistic Director of Urbana Dance, a studio that seeks to share the power of dance as a vital means for political action and social and individual transformation. Kate’s Lakota heritage informs her work in the community and with communities across the U.S.